Inspiration is an unpredictable thing. Sometimes it can come to us over and over again in just a short period of times. Sometimes it can vanish for months, or even years. Inspiration can drive us to dig even deeper into our chosen artistic medium, or it can cause us to pick up a different craft entirely. It can come as just a vague notion, or as a crystal clear idea. After over a decade in music, KT Tunstall knows a thing or two about inspiration. Tunstall has gone through highs and lows, creative droughts and boons, and has emerged with one of her strongest ideas ever. Her album WAX serves as the middle chapter to a musical trilogy that began with 2016’s KIN, an idea that has reinvigorated Tunstall. Inspiration has lit a fire inside KT Tunstall, and she’s as fulfilled and musically prolific as she’s ever been because of it.
It’s mid-September when I speak to Tunstall, and from the moment she begins talking there’s a joy and excitement that completely envelops her. Tunstall spent the last few months touring with The Pretenders Simple Minds, and she describes her experience as living on “cloud 9.” She says “Life is kind of extraordinary. The one thing I love about doing what I do is I just never really know what to expect, and regardless of what kind of plan I put in place it usually takes me someplace else, which I love.” She describes hearing The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde telling crowds she’s an inspiration and can barely contain her glee at the memory.
That glee is even more inspiring because there was a time where Tunstall was not feeling it at all. In fact, we came close to living in a universe where she no longer makes albums. In 2010, Tunstall was feeling low. She had just released her fourth album, Tiger Suit, but everything else was going wrong. Her father passed away, and shortly after all of that she and husband at the time Luke Bullen separated and eventually divorced. “It was an amazing time, but I didn’t even want to make records anymore. I was done. I just wanted to live in Venice Beach and write music for film scores,” she reveals. Thankfully for all of us, inspiration returned to her to give us KIN, WAX, and the untitled third entry.
While she is back to writing albums, the idea of writing film scores is something that never left Tunstall and has proven valuable to her growth as an artist. In 2014, she participated in the Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound program, which joins musicians and filmmakers to collaborate. Tunstall worked with Dan Kwan, who at the time was working on the surreal (and fantastic) film Swiss Army Man. As she tells it, it was a wild time. “I was working on the really early musical ideas. Dan and I were running around outside recording fucking pipes and trees, it was ridiculous. But it was an amazing time and I think all in all it’s really fed into my relationship with instrumentation and non-lyrical melody in music,” she says. She further says she still finds interest in that musical endeavor even while working on WAX, saying the two categories of music making are like “flexing different muscles.”
Writing a trilogy in music is much different from writing a trilogy in other mediums like novels or movies. A movie is designed to be watched in one go, and novels contain a clear narrative in their text. With music, it takes a little more work and a little more diving into the subtext to get the idea of a trilogy to work. This is where Tunstall says her time working with Kwan has proven the most beneficial. “It’s been very interesting learning about presenting subtext with music so that you’re not actually hearing what you’re seeing. You’re hearing another idea of what you’re looking at, a different agenda or a secondary interpretation of what’s actually in your face,” she says. As she explains it, she wants each of the songs on this trio of albums to work on their own on a surface level, existing as a track you can dance or party or cry along with as it plays. At the same time, she’s building something bigger for listeners who want to dive in deeper. She explains “it’s a choice of how deep you want to go, and I love the intelligence in that and I love the kind of interaction in that of someone who is experiencing what you’re making.” It’s an elaborate plan and an intense form of songwriting, but Tunstall has the chops to pull it off.
Incredibly, this plan was not in Tunstall’s mind from the beginning. In fact, KIN was written and released before the trilogy idea came to her. To begin with, KIN was not formed like her previous records. She says “I wrote KIN, and KIN was this completely hermetically sealed environment where for the first time I just wrote the entire record by myself, I didn’t do any co-writing with anybody else.” While she explains on earlier records she did try to keep co-writers to one or two people and only on “40 to 50 percent” of a given record, it was still a big difference removing co-writers entirely. She travelled the country, visiting numerous national parks and “holing [herself] away” in order to get KIN finished. Then it came to her. There was such a certainty and clarity in her voice as she told the story of the conception of the trilogy that it is presented in the following paragraph, entirely in her own words:
“I took it on tour and I was sitting in Centennial Park in Nashville and I was attempting to keep meditating because it does me great good, but sometimes I find it hard to keep it up. I was sitting in the sunshine and I opened my eyes and it was just a fully formed, complete idea that KIN was the first in the trilogy, that it should be Spirit, Body, Mind in that order, that each of the three records should have a three-letter title, they should all have matching artwork and all be in capital letters, and I needed to get on with writing the second record, and it was going to be called WAX.”
There is no doubt this was a powerful experience for Tunstall. She speaks of the idea in a reverential tone, an idea delivered to her from the deepest corners of the universe and her own brain. There wasn’t much time to waste thinking about it, though. There was work to be done on this newly formed trilogy. First came recontextualizing KIN as the “spirit” record of this new Spirit, Body, Mind trilogy. “I felt KIN was the spirit record, it was the soul record, and it was so powerful about coming over the hill of really difficult things in my life and getting through them and triumphing and actually being better for the shit that you’ve gone through,” she explains. On a relisten of KIN, this becomes evident. It’s there in the warm embrace of “It Took Me So Long To Get Here, But Here I Am” and the loving strings of the title track. The rut Tunstall was in after Tiger Suit was gone.
Tunstall jokes that the moral of the story of the creation of this trilogy is “if you want to write loads of work, say you’re going to write loads of work.” In that vein, the creation of WAX has flown by for her. She also changed her tune on co-writing a bit, as a large chunk of WAX was co-written. One of the major contributors for WAX was Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy, whom Tunstall heaps effusive praise onto. “He just turned out to be an amazing creative partner who I will work with for the rest of my life,” she says. It didn’t take long for that connection to click, either. Three weeks after starting on the recording process of WAX, Tunstall had the entire album recorded. This quicker pace has been something she’s enjoyed a lot. “Part of the point of doing it was to put out more music more quickly because I was getting really fed up with these three-year hiatuses between making records,” she explains with palpable relief. That can already be seen, as WAX comes almost exactly two years after the release of KIN.
While the idea of translating the nebulous idea of “body” into a record might seem intimidating, Tunstall had an esteemed literary predecessor she drew inspiration from. She immediately identifies a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1987 novel Bluebeard which reads ““I can’t help it. My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.” It’s this contrast between body and soul that fascinates Tunstall, and she has funneled it into WAX. She further explains “You have this crazy body you have to deal with every day. And also it’s an amazing body you have that can do these incredible things and do stuff you’re not even controlling and do stuff you would never imagine you’re capable of. So [it’s] just a spectrum of the experience of having flesh and bones.” She also explains her father was a physicist, and while she didn’t inherit his scientific mind, she did inherit a sense of wonder and amazement in how these cells that make up our body and our mental experiences all work together.
Touring with these songs has also been an illuminating experience for Tunstall. She describes these tours as especially emotional due to the nature of the music, for both herself and the fans. She describes having people come up to her after shows to tell her they relate to the message of KIN, which delights her. She explains “I certainly felt it was a very euphoric, emotional ride. And it was for me too because it was really the soundtrack to coming out the other end of some really hard stuff and being stronger because of it.” While she has yet to play more than the singles off of WAX, audience reactions lead her to belief upcoming tours will have a similar vibe for everyone involved.
The inspiration that gripped KT Tunstall after writing KIN has yet to leave her. In every word she speaks and every song she performs, you can sense the inspiration coursing through her soul, her body, and her brain. The “Spirit, Body, Mind” trilogy that continues with the release of WAX is not yet done, but even when it is you get the sense it won’t be the last piece of inspiration Tunstall receives. There’s a whole universe of ideas out there to explore, and KT Tunstall is ready for the journey.