Whisky & Culture

Suited & booted

Singer songwriter KT Tunstall is a passionate Scot who enjoys a whisky. Joel Harrison caught up with her
By Joel Harrison
If there is one thing you can’t accuse KT Tunstall of, it’s a lack of passion. Whether it be discussing her third album, Tiger Suit, which came out in September to critical acclaim, her trips to the Arctic to highlight environmental issues or a love of whisky, one thing is clear; this feisty Scot will give 100 per cent.

It’s a passion which shines through in Tiger Suit, where Tunstall takes a new musical direction, fusing her traditional acoustic sound with samples and loops.

“I’ve always loved electronica and this was about rediscovering a passion for dance music. I just wanted to make a record that really excited me.”

And excited is exactly how she sounds as KT sites references such as Cocteau Twins, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow, Paul Simon and Leftfield as big influences when recording her new album with Jim Abbiss, the eclectic producer behind records from The Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Bjork and Massive Attack.

Electronica and Blues shine through in tracks such as Push That Knot, which combine the sort of riffs you would usually expect from Kasabian, but iced with Tunstall’s sweet yet ripping vocal. The album takes a more ethereal feel, with glimpses of Kid A era Radiohead on tracks such as the lead single (Still A) Weirdo and, more obviously on Difficulty. But it works well, giving Tunstall not only another string to her bow, but an entirely new bow altogether.

Despite working hard to create a record that has departed from Tunstall’s usual direction, in the same Berlin studio which gave birth to U2’s Achtung Baby and David Bowie’s Heroes, the songs still stand up on their own when played live.

“I’ve been doing some solo shows of the new stuff and almost every song is on acoustic guitar which is surprising to me. I didn’t even realise that when we recording.”

This versatility was recently shown on a tour of small Scottish Islands, playing places such as Mull, Skye and Orkney.
“It was totally amazing! We just went island to island and it was completely nuts. You had to go back to the mainland to get to the next island, so it was all driving and ferries. Nothing parallels the highlands and islands of Scotland; just stunning. It’s a completely unique and magical place.”

KT’s journey into the world of whisky started through a part time job at a wine merchants, Luvians in St Andrews where Tunstall grew up. “I worked in their ice cream shop from the age of 15 and then at 23 got a job working in their wine and whisky shop. We had to sell the stuff so we got sent tasting stock and we’d always have a few bottles open under the counter. It was a process of working and needing to know the information and then becoming captivated by it.”
There is a genuine passion in way KT talks when it comes to nature, conservation and the environment.

“Whisky for me is linked to the landscape and I find there is a bit of escapism in whisky when I know where it’s made and I’ve been to some of the places where it’s made and I’ve learnt about how it’s made.

“I really, really respect and appreciate the process and the unique aspects to different whiskies. And I know how much passion goes in to it. A lot of the time it’s a natural process. Seeing these distilleries and these fantastic locations, there is something exceptionally romantic about it. It is the work of artisans.”

A passion for the environment is something that has imbibed Tunstall’s life and she took a year out in 2008 to get married and take her honeymoon on a trip to the aptly named Disko Bay in the Arctic with an expedition called Cape Farewell, to highlight the affects of climate change. But whisky and music still featured heavily on this trip.

“I have a guitar made out of a Talisker whisky barrel. I took it on my trip when I went up to the Arctic and I was on this boat with a bunch of other musicians so it’s been played by Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, Feist, Robin Hitchcock... all these people have played it, so that’s really cool.”

So what about her own taste in whisky?

“The stuff that I like is like liquid fire. It tastes like you’re around a campfire, wherever you are, whatever bar in New York you are in, you get a mouthful of campfire and I love that! I need to have my head blown off by whisky. I want that sweet burn.” she explains.

Whisky also remains a reference point to home for Tunstall when out touring.

“I have whisky on my rider, a festival necessity. It’s my only diva moment that if I get a blended whisky it gets sent back with a kick up the arse. It’s got to be a single malt!”

However, would she consider following in the footsteps of Status Quo’s Francis Rossi and having her own brand of whisky?

“I feel a little bit young to be doing that!” she chuckles. “Maybe once I pass my 50th birthday. Having said that it’s quite rock and roll! If it was done really well, in a natural and organic way, then it’s definitely something I would consider. It’s a passion. I wouldn’t call it KT Tunstall though. Tunstall is an English name, so that certainly wouldn’t work!”

As we come to the end of our interview, KT enthusiastically pipes up.

“Have you heard, by the way, about this company in America that is distilling whiskey from diabetic urine? Because diabetics’ urine is really rich in sugar, so they’re distilling it to make whisky! I mean, who? How?!” she screams in utter disgust.

It’s this passion that frames everything Tunstall talks about, from music, to environmental issues, to whisky. And it’s the ethics, the honesty and the passion behind whisky that seems to have given her a framework for life.

“Well, you’re the sum of your parts, for sure.” She says and with her zest for life who could disagree?