The Scottish-born singer-songwriter reached an impasse with her music career after releasing the mournful-but-gorgeous Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon in 2013. Recorded with Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb at Wavelab Studios in Tucson and released on Blue Note, Tunstall had strayed mighty far from the thoughtful pop that characterized her 2004 multi-platinum selling debut, Eye to the Telescope. It’s biggest single “Black Horse and Cherry Tree” is permanently etched on mass consciousness thanks to a ton of radio airplay, and its other big single, “Suddenly I See,” got memorable placement in the film, The Devil Wears Prada.
Now, five years since her desert foray and two albums into a trilogy that — thus far, anyway — mixes that gift for thoughtful pop with a toothy, guitar-driven edge, Tunstall is a woman forever changed. Her latest, Wax, which was released on Universal’s Rostrum imprint in early October of last year, brings her to Buffalo Iron Works on Sunday, May 12, in a fem-duo format featuring drummer, Cat Myers.
So, why the change of heart?
“When I look back at Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon, it was quite literally the soundtrack to a funeral,” she said over the phone from her tour bus a while back. Tunstall had to reschedule some shows after a hearing issue caused some scary balance problems (now remedied) on stage, but when we spoke that hadn’t happened yet and her bus was parked across the street from the Kansas City barroom she’d play in a few hours time.
“It was such a strange experience, making that record in two halves. There’s a tectonic shift between them. I didn’t know my dad was going to die, but he was sick and I was sort of saying goodbye, but I was also realizing I was in denial about things in my marriage and telling myself all sorts of stuff to make that okay. I wasn’t happy. My dad died, I ended the marriage, I sold everything I owned and, in the process, realized that I’d let myself become completely defined by being a musician. I needed to cut that umbilical cord.”
After her massive purge, Tunstall, now 43, relocated to Venice Beach and looked for ways to stay involved in music without letting it eclipse her identity. She took steps to get involved in scoring films and didn’t have any plans to put another singer/songwriter record out. But cruising Mulholland listening to Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac eventually jumpstarted the pop-music-mechanics in her brain — that gift for writing catchy pop songs wasn’t as easy to shut off as she’d imagined.
“I wouldn’t have recorded anything, really, but the world was becoming so divided,” she recalled. “I felt like it was worth it to put out a really positive feeling record. It’s a bit like getting pregnant when the songs start coming, there’s little you can do about it… you’ve got limited options.”
The resulting record, 2016’s KIN, is a strident collection of big, radio-ready hooks that maintains an admirable level of integrity. Tunstall proved once again that she’s able to write rib-sticking riffs that avoid the unabashedly fake, digitally manipulated pitfalls of someone like, say, Katy Perry. The new Wax takes a similar tack, but with additional bite. If KIN was a meditation on frames of mind, WAX is about the body, and the album is unmistakably guitar-driven. The next project will relate to spirit, thus completing the triad.
“For me, the electric guitar is the most physical instrument. It feels like the most powerful, the most visceral… the percussive up and down stroke of playing it, it’s a full-body experience,” she explained, noting that the way the instrument explodes in “Creep,” the Radiohead’s classic, “…can make you want to trash a room. The power an electric guitar can make you feel is unparalleled. It’s truth speaking, and it pins you to the moment you’re in and clears the decks. But there’s also a sense that it’s not forever. There’s a tangible desperation in it, but it’s finite.”
Tunstall says that WAX ended up much better than she’d imagined at the project’s inception, which was basically a series of 3-piece demos recorded in a garage. Her label’s A&R team deemed it too raw, but with some production help from Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand and the duo MyRiot, plus some co-writes with longtime collaborator Martin Terefe, among others, she was able to expand on her original ideas without losing the raw spirit at their core.
Having spent last summer touring in a package with Pretenders and Simple Minds, Tunstall is certainly able to hold her own in front of large audiences. But her own headlining tours remain club-level affairs, and she’s content with that. Still, as an artist that had her biggest break, to date, right out of the gate, there’s a hint of regret about past choices.
“Finding a balance wherein you’re not just making blind decisions about things can be challenging in the wake of success,” she admitted. “When we were putting out my second record, I had a chance to do an arena tour, and I turned it down. Now I wonder if that might’ve cemented a bigger foundation, but at the time I said no, and I regret it. It was a mistake – I should have at least tried it. You have to look at things from a business standpoint as well as a creative one… what does it look like in 15 years when you still want to play shows? When you have an extremely successful first record, it’s such a great experience, but it also makes everything seem very easy. Five million people buy your record – awesome. But complacency can set in and you have this feeling like you’re going to be able to do this forever, that it will always be this way. The fact is that there’s a very real, much more practical side to the whole thing. Nowadays, I’m not going home with that kind of money and I can’t afford a full band. But I still want to play. You definitely can’t let yourself give a shit what other people think.”