There's a gaggle of them out there right now, the flavor of the week, chicks strumming $8,000 Taylor guitars, draped in gauzy boho-chic attire, and trying to grab hold of the brass ring the way Sheryl Crow did back in the '90s. The industry buzz might help them get a short-lived radio hit and a spot on a WB network teenage drama, but this buzz, time and again, turns out to be the kiss of death.
But an interesting candidate has made her way up the musical ranks. Her name is KT Tunstall, and she just might have broken the cycle of buzz and bust. Sure, her latest release, Eye to the Telescope, has all the trappings of adult contemporary-friendly pop poised to be played en route to many a youth soccer practice but its thoughtfulness and proud nods to those who came before for instance, Brian Eno and Carole King make it wholly deserving of its fast-growing popularity.
The 30-year-old singer-songwriter, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a card. On her Web site, Tunstall says of her self-penned tunes, "My songs examine and explore little specific emotions or situations or stories. They're kitchen table songs, like a conversation between me and one other person. I like the idea of focusing in on things we deem small and magnifying them to life-changing proportions."
She's half Scot, a quarter Irish and a quarter Cantonese, and a classicist in many ways. Her finger-picking guitar style is a wink to jazz and blues, and her imagination as a songwriter is active. She says that a fascination with "possibility" was fueled by her father, a physicist. "My dad used to take my brothers and me into his lab when we were little. We played games with liquid nitrogen and Van de Graaff generators. He used to take us to the observatory at St. Andrew's University and he'd get us up in the middle of the night to show us Halley's Comet or Saturn. That's partly why the album is called Eye to the Telescope."
Tunstall first enjoyed major market success at home: She was nominated for three Brit Awards (British Female Solo Artists, British Breakthrough Artist and British Live Act), enjoyed double-platinum record sales and snagged a coveted Mercury Prize nomination. But it wasn't until she filled in at the last minute for rapper Nas on the BBC hit music show Late Night With Jules Holland that people really began to take notice. In fact, the newbie upstaged acts such as the Cure, Embrace, and the Futureheads, and shot to the top of the post-show viewers' poll on the Late Night Web site for that episode.
After the success of the TV appearance, it was all touring all the time. Which is great Tunstall's stage show is an important part of who she is. On stage, she uses a special effects pedal to give her guitar a distinctive sound. (It's an Akai E2 Headrush loop pedal, for you gearheads out there.) The effect was originally added to simply "make some more noise," but eventually, it became an important part of her musical signature. And though her skills and moxie have earned her the street cred of such contemporaries as Neko Case and Beth Orton, unlike the two niche artists, Tunstall has serious Top 40 potential.
The February U.S. release of Eye to the Telescope is already enjoying stateside success, and, thanks to regular rotation on VH1 and the "40 is the new 30" contingent, ears are perked.
Remarkably, this was all done with the release of a first single that's one of the least interesting songs on the album. "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" is overly produced and mawkishly reminiscent of a Nelly Furtado or Joss Stone tune. It's an odd representation of Tunstall's repertoire. It's with writerly songs like the ethereal "Under the Weather" and the atonal "Silent Sea" that Tunstall flourishes, putting the lie to the pervasive notion that women songwriters are a novelty. It's with these songs that she recites a manifesto: I am not afraid to stand outside of the comfort zone.
In a time when sexed-up former Disney Channel actresses rule the airwaves, Tunstall is helping make female-driven pop music something to be proud of again. That's something no amount of trite hype can ever curse.
Read Fred Mills' review of Eye to the Telescope here.
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