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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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