I am delighted to welcome singer/songwriter KT Tunstall to Catching the Comet’s Tail. KT’s new album, Invisible Empire// Crescent Moon, is as haunting and plaintive a record as you’ll ever hear, capturing a unique time in the singer’s life. Recorded over twenty days in the middle of the Arizona desert, Invisible Empire is musically stripped down, as emotionally raw and vast as the landscape which spawned it. Yep, it’s a good one, perhaps even her best yet.
KT on creativity…
“I’ve mostly felt like a conduit for songs, although that has shifted on Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon. It has presented a new process of deeper personal expression which feels much more internal this time.
I’ve always called myself a ‘lightning bolt’ writer. The idea comes very quickly and strongly. I can’t schedule when to write, it pretty much comes when it chooses. I do have muses, often they inspire more than one song.
If I had to choose a physical place where my creativity resides, I’ve always had a sensation that it is about 4 feet above my head, moving past at great speed, like a wispy river.”
Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early creative influences?
“I had pretty free reign as a child to try whatever I wanted, as long as I promised to put some effort in. No-one else in my family was inclined towards playing instruments or performing, so I was the black sheep. I asked for a piano at age 4, and took up stage acting at 8. I was a tap-dancer, played classical flute also, and always loved art. Music and creative writing always felt like a world I belonged to from when I was very small. Music in particular felt like a language I understood.
I wanted to be an actress from the age of 8, but as soon as I taught myself guitar and started song-writing at 15, I became much more interested in writing my own material and being in charge of my own path.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t dreaming of living a life based around creating and performing. I wasn’t into listening to music until into my mid teens, but when I was small I loved the Sesame Street and Muppet Show music which I still think is exceptional. I was also a big fan of Roald Dhal and Dr Seuss, and still am.”
How long have you been working on your current album and can you recall the first spark of inspiration and is the finished work what you first envisioned? If the original concept has changed, in what ways? How do you know when a record is finished?
“My new album took 20 days to record in 2012; 10 days in April, and 10 days in November/December. It was all recorded in live takes to old reel-to-reel tape in Tucson, Arizona. It was heavily inspired by meeting and working with Howe Gelb, frontman of the band Giant Sand, who produced the album with me. His invitation to go out to the desert started the creative process. Being there shaped it greatly also. He has a great maverick attitude to life in general which permeated the music. There was no great album vision, just a desire to make simple, rich recordings of live performances, drawing out as much emotion as possible.
I was also inspired by King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’ gorgeous album Diamond Mine. It’s a stunning record, and renewed my love of, and faith in, beauty and simplicity.
I am fascinated by the notion of ‘finishing’ creative work. The only way I can describe it is that you just somehow know in your belly. I always feel a bump of excitement when I feel the realisation that something is finished. I asked a German artist friend of mine, Jonas Burgert, the same thing as he makes huge, very intricate work. He said the same; ‘you just know’.”
Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what and what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?
“Landscape and travel have always been a great creative catalysts for me.
As for killing it, being around people and cities all the time. I need space and time to myself to write. And someone attempting to tell me what to do is never helpful.”
Do you ever feel that creating new things is a chore? What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?
“Creating is always pretty thrilling for me, but I only ever attempt it when I’m feeling inspired. I think if I had to write to timetable, I’d go off it pretty quickly. Making something where there was nothing feels like a wonderful, alchemical process for me. If it felt like a chore, I’d have to assume that whatever I was making wasn’t worth it. I do believe that the nature of the spirit and energy used to make something remains part of it.
I’ve never felt ‘blocked’ as such, I have just had to wait longer at times for new material to arrive. If nothing is coming, I leave it until it does. The longest I go without writing is when I’m I tour, so it can be months at a time. But often that long break leads to a concentrated output of work; I wrote the first half of the new album, probably 8 or 9 songs in total, in two months after a long period of not writing.”
Is there a collaborative element to your work? Please say something about how you involve others in your creative process or do you prefer to work alone?
“If I had to choose, I would write alone. I don’t feel as able to replicate the deeper relationship I have with work that is 100% my own when it comes to collaborative work. I didn’t write with anyone else for 10 years, and when I first moved to London my publisher asked me to try out co-writing. A lot of it was soulless and depressing, but I did develop two or three really cherished partnerships with writers that I love and trust, so anything I do with them I know will be great quality in my mind. I find collaborating useful if I am in a lazy phase, it often kick-starts my creative brain again.”
Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to create.
“Most importantly, I like to be alone. I usually write at home. I need it to be quiet, so seclusion is definitely key.
My favourite writing situation would be a great view of the sea, or empty landscape, or being able to see the stars at night. I imagine a little house perched on top of an inaccessible cliff…bliss.
There is a particular table at The Wolseley, a posh restaurant in London, which I love sitting at on my own and writing in my journal. I feel like I’m watching a Peter Greenaway film and can sit there for hours.”
Do you have a daily routine when you are creating a project?
“I’m not a fan of routine. It’s taken me a long time to respect my process, and realise when it is happening that it is important and deserves space and time, rather than feeling like I’m just dicking about and could be doing something more useful. These days, I allow myself time, and a lot of tea! I relax into it, let myself drift, and don’t get worried if things don’t get finished in one go.
I used to mostly write late at night as there’s no disturbance, but I am much more of a daytime writer now. I still occasionally have to get out of bed in the dark if I have a really good melody and lyric idea as I never remember music the next morning.”
Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it.
“Every time I release an album, I have a main pair of shoes that I will wear to play that music in. I find that it makes a real difference to how I feel when I play, what I wear on my feet. I stamp a lot, and use my feet with my equipment. I remember once needing to change my shoes on stage about 4 songs into my gig because I was so aware that I wasn’t wearing the right ones.
This is the first album where I’ve engaged fully with using image to express myself. It’s been an important step forward for me, feeling that the imagery is meaningful to the same degree as the music. In the past it has always been secondary. These are the boots that will see me through this new album.”
Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master or have you mastered another that we don’t know about yet?
“I am writing a film script at the moment which I’m enjoying as much as song-writing. I’ve always enjoyed visual lyrics, so script writing takes me right into the heart of that.”
Please say as much or as little as you’d like about your next project and the stage you are at with it.
“It’s an animated film script which myself and my friend and collaborator Jim Abbiss have concocted. It started as a music project, which then became a soundtrack. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years now and have just finished the first draft, so we’re excited to move on to the next stage of seeing it become a reality.
Although we’re having so much fun writing it, we don’t actually want to finish it…”