‘It made me a pop star – and I’m crap at being a pop star’: KT Tunstall on Suddenly I See

‘I looked at Patti Smith on the cover of her album Horses. There’s no makeup, no glam, no plastic surgery – she’s not a famous pop star with lots of money. And I thought, “That’s what I want to be”’

KT Tunstall, singer, songwriter, guitarist

I’d been living in Edinburgh, on the dole, trying to make it as a musician. I was once so skint that I stole broccoli from a field. I moved down to London in 2000, having signed a record deal, but I was in that awful situation where the label was saying: “We need singles.”

So I was sat in my poky, overpriced basement flat in Gospel Oak at 2am, looking at CDs, when I picked up Horses by Patti Smith. On the album cover, she’s wearing this white shirt, black braces, jacket over her shoulder. She looks so cool because she’s not trying. You can see she’s lived life: there’s no makeup, no glam, no plastic surgery. And that fed into the first line of Suddenly I See: “Her face is a map of the world.” I knew she’d travelled and I desperately wanted to be a touring musician too, my guitar slung on my back.

The chorus was me thinking, “Fucking hell, that’s what I want to be.” Not a famous pop star with lots of money, but like this woman who’s living her life as an artist. I’d been trying for more than 10 years to be a professional musician. I was just exhausted from trying to persuade other people I was good enough.

The whole song was done and dusted in literally half an hour. But there was a pivotal moment as we were recording it when producer Steve Osborne told the drummer, Luke Bullen, “Follow her right hand.” Playing straight rhythm guitar is one thing, but Suddenly I See is syncopated, polyrhythmic and it had swing. When I watch cover bands play the song they rarely nail it because they’re not using the Bo Diddley rhythm. And when I hear it come on in shops, it still sounds really different from anything else.

KT Tunstall Suddenly I See

One of my formative records was Bone Machine by Tom Waits, and I always equated that unprocessed sound with truth and authenticity. Y’know, feet in the room stamping, people breathing – I never want to take that stuff out. That’s why Suddenly I See is so lean-sounding. The air and space is just as important as anything we put in. On my vocal, there’s no reverb, no Auto-Tune and no vibrato. I’ve never been interested in vocal gymnastics. What impresses me is when someone makes me feel. My voice has definitely weathered over the years, though. I sound angelic on Suddenly I See!

That song has taken me on extraordinary adventures and I never tire of playing it. The way people respond when I play those opening chords – that’s the greatest wish of a musician’s ego. But it does mean I’ve got one foot into a world I feel less like I belong in because it made me into a pop star – and I’m really crap at being a pop star. I’m much better at being an indie musician.

My label boss says that he always knew Suddenly I See would be a smash. And I’m like: “No, you totally didn’t.” We all just thought it was a catchy tune.

Steve Osborne, producer

It was KT’s voice that made me want to work with her. She’d spent years busking, going around record labels, not getting a deal. But I was invited to watch her play in a little club in Soho, and her singing and the rhythmic quality of her guitar playing was really something. Those qualities just weren’t there at all on the demo she made of Suddenly I See, though. It had a computer vibe and a light hip-hop drum loop. For me, the whole idea of the studio version was to put KT front-and-centre and have an earthier feel.

One of the first things she said to me was that her boyfriend was a drummer and she wanted to use him on the sessions. That’s usually a producer’s worst nightmare, like, “Is he going to be any good?” But KT’s rhythm guitar and his drums became the backbone of the song. There’s also a cajon driving the whole thing. So it’s three different rhythms in one song.

The kiss of death when you go into an album is someone saying, “That’s the single”, but Suddenly I See wasn’t on anyone’s radar, so we just followed what the song wanted. It’s all kicking off in the intro. The bass is so distorted, then you’ve got that chiming note, played on a guitar and a Wurlitzer piano. Because it’s a pop song, you don’t notice how dirty it sounds. If the label had told me it was going to be a single, I might not have gone that extreme.

The label came down to hear what we had and there was literally silence afterwards. I got a phone call next morning saying: “We need to talk.” I told them: “Look, we need to push this song as far left sonically as possible, because it’s easier to make something dirty then pull it back to pop.” And I have to give them credit because these days I think I’d have got sacked.

KT was feisty and full of life, and we would have arguments in the studio about the direction. Back then she wasn’t really a studio person, so could find it more stale than a live situation, where she really thrives. Sometimes, I had to catch her off-guard and record her when she didn’t realise I was doing it.

Anyway, we played this CD of old blues in the car every morning as we drove to the studio. Stuff like Lead Belly, Robert Johnson and, in particular, Bo Diddley, which is where the Suddenly I See rhythm comes from. That blues vibe was something we wanted to come across. KT has definitely got that quality of voice where she can go from really quiet to raucous and bluesy.

Walking into a shop and hearing Suddenly I See felt like validation. But seeing The Devil Wears Prada was awesome. I’d heard the song was on the soundtrack, but then I went to see the film and it was like: “Jesus, it’s playing over the whole intro!

  • KT Tunstall’s new album Nut is out now. She tours the UK in February and March


Interviews by Henry Yates

The GuardianTramp

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