Friend of the earth
After her debut album produced a bumper cash crop, KT Tunstall decided to put back some of what she had taken . . . by planting trees – a lot of trees. The whisky-loving Scot tells Tony Clayton-Lea how the seeds of her career were sown
WHAT sensible adult male wouldn’t want to be in the same room as KT Tunstall? She’s over 30 years of age, has a good head on her shoulders, a pretty tomboy face, sprayed-on jeans, talks sense with a soft Scottish burr and likes an occasional dram of a decent malt whisky. What’s not to like?
Talking to The Ticket a few hours before her recent appearance at Damien Rice’s gig at Dublin’s Marlay Park, Tunstall comes across as someone on top of their game. Her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, was released at the butt end of 2004, a sleeper record that woke up 12 months later to sales of almost a million.
For the past three years, Tunstall has done little more than bask in the pleasure of knowing that the previous 10 years of her life, spent trying to make an honest buck through music, were worth it.
Her back story is fascinating. Part-Cantonese, part-Irish, her biological mother gave her up at birth for adoption in 1975. Her adoptive parents were academics from Fife who loved the open plains of Scotland and who indulged their daughter’s artistic temperament by enrolling her in dance, music and acting lessons, culminating in a performing-arts degree.
About eight years ago, Tunstall watched Mike Leigh’s movie Secrets & Lies, in which an adopted woman searches for her biological parents. A highly emotional reunion with her mother (who lives in Edinburgh) took place shortly afterwards, and they remain on friendly terms. Her biological father, an Irishman with a proclivity for bursting into traditional Irish song (and how many of those are there?) remains lost. She looked around for him, she says, but couldn’t find him.
“As an adopted person, I find there’s much more curiosity and pull to seek out the mother rather than the father. As far as I know, he might have been involved for all of 30 seconds.”
Is that where the whisky thing comes from? “Very possibly, and apparently he liked his booze as well . . .” Is it true that her on-tour rider contract has a clause requesting a bottle of the finest malt whisky to be present in her dressing room every night? “I don’t ask for the finest, but I always ask for a bottle of single malt. I once worked in an independent whisky and wine sellers in St Andrew’s. It was a really classy joint run by three Italian brothers. They hand-pick everything and they put their staff through quite a rigorous training. So I really got to know what I like, and leant about the history of various kinds of alcohol. My finest moment was picking out a 1994 claret from other bottles in a taste test. So yes, at each gig, we get a bottle, and the band and friends have a nip each. My favourite whisky is Tallisker, from the Isle of Skye; I recently headlined an eco-festival there and they presented me with a guitar made from Tallisker whisky barrels. It looks great and smells good!” The eco-festival Tunstall mentions, and the reasons for playing it, are close to her heart. She might be a whisky-swigging gal by night, but during the day, she’s a committed environmentalist. “The environment has always been a very important part of my life. My parents met as mountaineers, and I’m from St Andrew’s. We went camping every summer, skiing every winter, so we were always outside every weekend. You could see that things were changing, you couldn’t go skiing anymore. So I started dreading about what was going on.
“The turning point came when my partner, Luke, who plays drums in the band, took me down to where Joe Strummer lived to take part in a celebration of Joe’s life and times. One person who was there was Dan Morrell, who set up Global Cool (a campaign that creates environmental awareness through entertainment and educational events). Joe had planted huge amounts of trees on his land to offset the carbon emissions.
“Anyway, this was well before the first album came out, about four years ago, and Dan said to me that if I thought the album was going to be successful then I should call him and he’d make sure the album was carbon neutral. I had never hard of the phrase before, but I called him, told him the album was done and have been planting trees since then.
“I’ve got about 6,000 trees up in Scotland, which is great, but as anything connected with the environment is concerned, there is no easy answer. There is always an inherent problem, whatever you try. To be honest, tree planting isn’t the best, it’s basically storage because as soon as the tree is cut down or dies, the carbon is out again. But with Drastic Fantastic, I’m going to be investing in developing countries, using renewable energy sources.”
It’s a tricky, contradictory match – being a committed environmentalist in a business that involves many air miles being travelled in pursuit of either gigging or promoting. If she wasn’t so loyal to the cause (she is affiliated with Carbon Neutral Company, a consulting project that analyses and facilitates voluntary action on climate change for businesses, governments and individuals; she also travels on bio-diesel tour buses), you’d walk away thinking: decent music, confused person.
What is a more obviously good fit for Tunstall is success and how comfortable she is with it. “It’s only since making the new album that I’ve become much more comfortable with it. I just wasn’t sure about it before that; I love the touring, the gigs, getting awards, photos, and when the publicity is in context it’s fine. But I don’t like it when it impacts on my private life.
“My experience of the lifestyle so far, however, is good. Ultimately, you choose whether you want your photo taken. I heard recently that you cease to mentally progress from the age at which you become famous.
“There’s something in that, a fear that you won’t be celebrated if you change. I can’t go with that, it’s a dangerous path.”