KT Tunstall has never been one for creative stasis. The Grammy® nominated Scottish Musician burst onto the music scene with her 2004 multi-platinum debut, Eye to the Telescope, which spawned the global hits “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See.” These songs, paired with her pioneering looping skills, established Tunstall as a captivating and dynamic mustsee performer, as well as a Songwriter with a singular knack for balancing introspective folk and propulsive rock.
“I feel there are two immediate, recognizable pillars of my style,” she says. “I have this troubadour, acoustic guitar-driven, emotional side. Then there’s definitely a rocker side of me with much sharper teeth.”
In the last few years, Tunstall has expanded on these musical selves by focusing on a trilogy of records, where each album zeroes in on a single concept: soul, body and mind. The first, 2016’s KIN, was the soul record; 2018’s WAX was the body record, and the new NUT is the mind record. “NUT is the culmination of a seven-year project,” Tunstall says. “It’s the final part of a trilogy of records that has spanned probably the most extreme and profound period of change in my life. The personal arc of these three records has been pretty extraordinary for me.”
KT describes the album name; “Growing up in Scotland, if someone was losing their temper you would say, ‘Dinny lose yer Nut!’ I love that the word also means a seed. The album artwork is all about the brain being a garden; you reap what you sow, you need to keep the weeds at bay, and there is an almost supernatural beauty to when things blossom. But it all needs constant tending; it’s always changing and able to change.”
Tunstall started working on NUT at home during the pandemic lockdown, at the same time she was writing a musical. “I was writing songs for a full cast following a storyline, which I’d never done before,” she explains. “It’s exciting. You’re writing songs for all these different characters, it’s totally collaborative, prescriptive and structured writing.” But while words for this project came easily, lyrics for NUT were much more of a challenge.
“I found it so impossible to connect with the place in my subconscious, or creative consciousness, that produces my personal lyrics,” Tunstall says. “I just didn’t feel I had anything to say.” In hindsight, she chalked up this lack of lyrical conviction partly to not having a deadline (“I’m great under pressure; I’m very easily distracted if there isn’t an end point in sight”) but mostly due to the stress and tension unfolding in the world at large due to the pandemic.
“I’m a dreamer, and I’ve always been a dreamer,” she explains. “And to write lyrics, I have to allow myself to unhook from the day to day and go into this other realm. And I found that all through the pandemic, the present moment was holding on to the back of my shirt every minute and just would not let me go.”
She found her writing groove thanks to “Canyons,” a song propelled by a grimy, heavy rock riff. In keeping with NUT’s theme, the song’s lyrics are about the canyon-like physiology of the brain, and explore the parallels between humans developing unique identities and the way nature evolves and is shaped over time. Elsewhere, NUT’s lyrics and sound delve into KT’s own personal evolution, and the way our selves evolve through the repetition of behaviors and our responses to life experiences.
“Private Eyes” grew out of Tunstall’s brush with the vampiric downside of fame, while “Three,” summarizes the arc of the trilogy, inspired by a journal practice where she would write multiple entries on one topic from the different perspectives of mind, body and soul.
“I loved this ring-fencing of theme — I found it comforting and freeing at the same time,” she says. “I’d always visualized that when you come to make an album where you can write about anything, it can actually be more interesting if you’re limited; you have to dig down, dig deeper. I gave myself very clear parameters of what I was writing about.”
Tunstall also gave stylistic boundaries to NUT’s music. She envisioned the songs based on patterns, and the idea of pattern learning and repetition. “I wanted to try and emulate the way that our brain works with what you are hearing. I knew from the outset that the album would center around rhythm.” Drawing on her love of West African grooves—she particularly admires the music of Guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Fela Kuti, Mali band Tinarawen, and Musical Director and Drummer Tony Allen—Tunstall focused on music with straightforward riffs and grooves. The bustling, beatheavy “Synapse” and the urgency, synth-driven “I Am the Pilot” in particular burst with explosive rhythms.
To Produce NUT, Tunstall enlisted Martin Terefe, one of her very close personal friends and longtime musical collaborators; in fact, he co-wrote her 2005 global hit “Other Side of the World” and has appeared on nearly every one of her studio albums. “We’re the perfect co-writing match,” she says. “We’ve always loved working together, but I’d never actually made a record with Martin Producing. On every other album I’ve made, I am in the room 16 hours a day, overseeing every single part, every sound. He’s probably the only person I know that I would be able to allow to work on one of my records without me being there!”
In the end, not only did Terefe Produce NUT, but he enlisted other Musicians, including Sneaker Pimps co-founder Liam Howe and Razorlight Drummer Andy Burrows, to replicate and build on Tunstall’s laptop demos. “Martin and I know each other so well and have such a great musical communication system, that he knows what I’m going to like—and he knows what I’m going to not like,” Tunstall says. “He would always give me a heads up on what he was doing, and tell me to have a listen and see what I thought if anything he was adding was a little bit more out there. So basically, he would allow me to brace myself if he’d done anything mad.”
Tunstall’s instinct to let him steer the project was entirely correct. NUT is an eclectic album that seamlessly weaves together disparate styles—the ’80s new wave throwback “Demigod” segues into the meditative Americana of “All The Time,” while the propulsive “Out of Touch” is brisk poprock with stacked vocal harmonies and perforated beats—and emphasizes Tunstall’s melodic and composition strengths.
“On my part, it required an enormous amount of letting go and relaxing my grip on my own music,” she says. “And I think the pandemic totally encouraged this shift, into me letting go of some of that control and allowing a much more collaborative experience to take place. Basically, when your world is turned upside down, you get perspective of what’s important and what’s not.”
In the last decade, Tunstall has become used to upheaval. In fact, when she started the trilogy, she was in a much different place—figuratively and literally. In 2015, Tunstall sold everything she owned and moved to California, a bold move that came at the end of a three-year period full of change and transitions. “I remembered feeling like I can either patch over the cracks, and try and make everything as similar and familiar as possible, or I could burn the shit to the ground and start again,” she says of that time. “And I went for the latter. It was a great decision.”
Among other things, she studied film composition with the Sundance Institute after needing a break from touring and recording. Making new albums was the furthest thing from her mind—a big change for someone who asked for a piano at the age of 4 and decided she wanted to be a SingerSongwriter by age 15. “I really had no idea what the future held at that point of personal change,” she says. “And it was certainly not a sure thing that I was going to keep making records. I’d ended up miserable after pursuing everything I’d wanted. I didn’t want to make music, I didn’t want to make records, I didn’t want to be in the public eye. It was the closest I’ve known to a personal breakdown, really.”
The trilogy that emerged in the wake of this period also came with challenges. “The first record, KIN, was absolutely a Phoenix out of the ashes,” Tunstall says. “It was the result of a profound personal shift, finding my feet again after some really hard shit.” Among other things, Tunstall’s father died—an event that made her realize she was unhappy in her marriage and led to divorce. More challenges awaited her upon the release of 2018’s WAX. “Halfway through the tour for WAX, I completely lost hearing in my left ear, which never returned,” she says. “I lost an extremely important physical part of my body during a record about the body.”
Tunstall was understandably wary about what might happen while making her ‘mind’ record, NUT. And of course, it came in the form of a global pandemic. However, now that the trilogy is complete, she has the perspective to appreciate the solace and healing she experienced as the songs unfolded. “I did not expect to be essentially documenting such an intense personal journey,” she says. “When I started, it was more observational fascination with the subject matter and a sense of personal interest. I did not predict how visceral an experience it would be making this music about myself. It became the audio accompaniment to a deeply transformative period of my life. It’s the soundtrack to me creating a new version of myself.”
In light of this personal evolution, it’s no wonder that NUT is such a step forward. However, it’s clear Tunstall relished leaving her comfort zone and trying something new. “I made NUT completely differently from any other record I have ever made,” Tunstall says. “But I wanted to do things differently. The reason I pursued music was because I had to avoid a repetitive job. I need to feel a constant sense of exploration in life. And I’ve realized you can absolutely fall into repetition even in this job. And so for NUT, I was like, ‘Come on, let’s do what we said we were going to do. Let’s push into something new.’ What’s most important is that I made an exciting, meaningful record that I love, and had fun while I was doing it.”