KT Tunstall follows loss with new music
KT Tunstall appears to be coming full circle on her latest release, "Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon," eschewing backing band and studio candy for nuanced storytelling, which is what she does best.
And storytelling was the focus as Tunstall previewed much of the album at a private showcase hosted by Southern California NPR powerhouse KCRW this week.
The backstory of the album is a confluence of internal creative tensions and external life changes. As Tunstall explains, she came off her last tour cycle supporting the "Tiger Suit" release a bit frustrated in retrospect that the dense arrangements of the songs (propelled by electronic elements in parts) made it hard to perform them well -- if at all -- without a full band.
Her hunger to simplify things drew her to recall her appreciation for Howe Gelb and his Giant Sand work. The two had become friendly after performing together in the UK, and she tapped him to produce the album in his Arizona studio.
After tracking about half of the album's songs, Tunstall took a few months off, and in that time window, her decade-long marriage ended and her father, already as she describes, "declining," with Parkinson's, died unexpectedly in an accident. She returned to Arizona with a new batch of material.
Against that backdrop, the new material tugs restlessly, homing in on a new North and contemplating mortality while nested in Tunstall's never-failing Irish-Scottish tunefulness.
The set, like the album, opened with "Invisible Empire," written from the lens of someone who's pulled through a bad time and needs to clear a new path.
"Carried" approaches the subject of processing death's final moments, but with very hummable results.
"Old Man Song" is her take on what it's like watching her "elders" Howe Gelb and Robyn Hitchcock morph into playful young souls on stage.
Your journey on is my delight
I sense a feeling so strange as I'm watching you change
From a man into a boy tonight"
"Yellow Flower" is a bit of a departure for Tunstall, an elegant piano song with a cadence similar to "Across the Universe" that forms a glimpse into bargaining with pain and loss.
"Feel It All," the lead-off single from the collection, is a "brand new day" lyric layered over a Delta-blues riff.
Tunstall also worked up an impressive take on Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" and capped the evening with the song that put her on the map for most Americans, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree."
The event was part of the station's Apogee Studio Sessions series, held at legendary producer/mixer Bob Clearmountain's studio. The intimate space feels a bit more like the den of a vacation cabin than a tracking room that hosts music superstars, save for the vintage Neve desk behind portrait windows on one side.