On her new album, Drastic Fantastic, Scottish lass KT Tunstall, 33, has a song called “Hopeless,” about the decade she spent as a struggling musician. “I didn’t have any money or prospects, so I was called ‘hopeless’ a lot,” she explains. After Tunstall finally released her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, in 2004, Katharine McPhee performed a cover of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on American Idol, “Suddenly I See” was in the opening credits of The Devil Wears Prada and Telescope sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S. Drastic Fantastic is another collection of sweet, concise pop nuggets, and Tunstall’s single “Hold On” —— which features the Afro-Caribbean rhythmic punch she hears on the streets near her northwest London home —— is another radio smash.
Did you like McPhee’s version of “Black Horse”?
I was nervous about it. I knew she was going to do it, and I justified it to myself that it wasn’t a totally evil thing to say yes to. After it happened, someone told me that she sang it on her knees. It would have been brilliant if she’d put a pair of shoes under her knees, but I thought it was quite good.
You were in a band called THC. Good name!
My first band ever. When I was seventeen, I left Scotland to go to Kent, a well-to-do boarding school in Connecticut, where there was a contingent of really naughty kids. During that time, I went to the Ben & Jerry’s festival in Vermont and saw the Grateful Dead and Phish. So, with THC — well, the Happy Campers —— I was writing pop songs, with six-minute prog instrumentals between verses.
I heard you met your hero, Jack White, recently.
He’s like Led Zeppelin in one man. It was a magical moment. At the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, the Raconteurs’ dressing room was opposite ours, so I got a bit of paper and wrote, “Did I ever tell you you’re my hero? I’m totally in love with you.” I went to put it in his room, but it was full of the trendiest people who looked like they hadn’t eaten since they were children. I thought, “I can’t put the note in there, they’ll ridicule me.” Then I turned around and there was this giant belt buckle in my face and there was Jack. I said, “I wrote you a note!” He gave me a big hug and made my year.
You play many instruments. How are you on drums?
I can play piano, classical flute, guitar, bass and I’m OK on drums. At the end of the day, I’d like to just sit at a drum kit and go Levon Helm on your ass.
Your parents are academics. How have they viewed your ascent?
At the end of university, I told them, “I’m going to be a performing artist,” and they said, “No! How could this happen?” My mum would say, “Your friends are starting families, and I don’t want you to be thirty-five, living up a hill with a smelly musician.” When things kicked off for me, they were happy to celebrate being wrong. Now they’re at the backstage parties, and my mum has made friends with Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs. It’s hilarious.
Did you ever have a day job?
I had a job for a year, working in a high-quality whiskey-and-wine shop. I actually managed to blind-spot a ’94 claret. It’s nice now, because I can afford a sweet bottle of whiskey.
And which one would that be?
Talisker. If they don’t have that, Macallan. No ice, thank you.