As she came onstage at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center, KT Tunstall gestured toward her platinum jacket and trousers and laughingly termed herself “gift-wrapped.” She sparkled in the spotlight as she picked up her guitar and began “Invisible Empire,” one of the two eponymous tracks from her recent album, the double-named Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon. The song’s nothing-to-it, three chord introduction was buoyantly unpretentious, and by the first stanza it was clear what was to come: Tunstall fighting the good fight, voice and melody and introspection, seemingly effortless, as if she had one hand tied behind her back.
When “Feel it All,” the initial single from Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon, started to reach listeners in early summer, it was met with surprise. With its odd mix of twangy edge and great phrasing (“My heart is on a wire, sitting pretty like a bird”), the song introduced fans of the Scottish artist’s earlier work to a fresh incarnation of their major-label darling: alt-country KT as a confessional singer-songwriter. When the record was released and the other 16 songs heard, it was clear that Tunstall had taken a huge step. Forward? Lateral? Hard to say—but at any rate she had transformed.
The grace with which Tunstall articulates the new songs did not come easily. The album’s halves are comprised of material written before and after two painful events in her life. The “before” part had a distinct catalyst. Over a bottle of whisky one night in Glasgow in 2012, Tunstall listened to the enigmatic Howe Gelb of the band Giant Sand, a self-described hillbilly desert rocker as well as a skilled producer, talk about the weedy music scene in his hometown of Tucson. Tunstall, then 37, was curious enough to head to the desert with her guitar.
As she explained to me, “I wasn’t even planning on making a record at all, so it was Howe’s invitation to Tucson that sparked the idea to make some new music. I made a point of not having expectations. That was the incentive to work with Howe: To avoid labeling things before we even got started and allow the process to take us somewhere, rather than try and direct it too much.”
This looseness went along with the general Tucson vibe. Elsewhere Tunstall has acknowledged experiencing mild culture shock:
Firstly, it is so hot, you can’t do anything quickly. Secondly, they have their own time over there. In London, everyone is watching the clock, working out how long things are going to take and how much they’re going to get paid. In Tucson, we would say we were starting at 11 a.m., and by 12:30 no one would be at the studio. I’d say, ‘Are we starting today or what?’ and Howe would say, ‘Yeah, but it’s coffee time.’ It takes a while to adjust, but you can’t fight it. The funny thing is, you actually get more done—because you’re that much more relaxed, you nail every take when recording.
The recording itself was retrograde, done on tape, and Tunstall insisted that a vinyl version be produced for sale. Both choices were meant to push back against the cold, limited digital sound that many artists have begun to reject.
After two weeks, with a batch of songs in the can that pleased her, Tunstall returned to the U.K. A few weeks later she received a call telling her that her 73-year-old father had died. A month after that, she separated from her husband of four years, Luke Bullen, who was and still is the drummer in her band.
The profound losses of her father, her husband, and her home left Tunstall heavy-hearted, but travelling light, having shed a few skins. It was at this juncture that the songs emerged for Crescent Moon, the record’s second half. While the Invisible Empire songs recorded in Tucson eerily foreshadowed events to come, with lyrics that allude to death and wanting “to burn this house,” the Crescent Moon songs are wistful. Many have a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel feeling that suggests Tunstall has experienced a journey of healing.
Tunstall described her songwriting process to me as less analytical than “totally compulsive.” I take this to mean not O.C.D., but more like an inner drive that allows her to process her experiences organically as she generates songs. The results seem obliquely diaristic, like partial documents of her changing emotional state. “How You Kill Me,” for instance, is a slow, low-slung waltz that features Tunstall muttering thoughts under her breath; others have a softshoe Pagliacci quality.
The majority of the songs are guitar-driven, with lots of fingerpicking. The slight instrumentation that fleshes out her palette consists of mere filaments of sound. On “Crescent Moon,” Tunstall conjures drifting leaves on the piano. She sings the coda—“Waxing…Waning”—like a delicate sigh. The songs inhabit an emotional midrange, passing from melancholy to hopeful, the rollicking good-timey version of “On Hallowed Ground” being the one exception.
It’s all done with a very light, and I think womanly, touch, and the result sets off Tunstall’s voice in a way that sounds new. It is a very supple instrument, and Tunstall uses it expertly here. Discussing these choices, she says:
I always feel that there is progress and change in terms of where my interest lies as a musician. I hadn’t made an album that really focused on my voice, and it being the most emotional instrument, it made sense that I would use it to make this album. I was very inspired by Diamond Mine, the beautiful album by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, which gave me a renewed faith and excitement in stripped-back soulful singing.
This foray into the unknown—the paring down of non-essentials as a matter of expression—seems to have unburdened Tunstall. She gives credit to Tucson for the stripped-back approach. “The desert found a home in my music and vice versa,” she says. “The space between the sounds is just as important as the sounds themselves.”
The uncluttered result leaves little to hide behind. But this is probably okay with Tunstall. Rising from ashes is a transformative process. As she sings to someone in “Feel it All,” “Do you know what you’ve done for me? You’ve made my branches grow. Now they can play with the wind and they can carry the snow.”