Is it a crowning moment – or maybe something less – for an artist to have her song sung by a finalist on "American Idol"? Scottish-born singer-songwriter KT Tunstall ponders that query as it relates to recent runner-up Katharine McPhee, who sang Tunstall's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" on TV's talent extravaganza.
To say that Tunstall, on the phone from London, is torn would be an understatement. "As a self-contained musician," she says, "it leaves quite a bad taste in your mouth. Because you spend 10 years honing your craft ... and then you realize you're competing with people who haven't done that."
On the other hand, Tunstall says that she downloaded McPhee's performance out of curiosity and admits that it was "actually pretty good" and effuses, "It was quite a compliment, and it's done me a lot of favors – and I'm grateful to her for choosing it."
The 20-something singer doesn't really need much help. Her first album, "Eye to the Telescope," made her a star in Britain, and she has already sold more than 500,000 albums in the US, helped in part by her relentless touring with a five-piece group. (Tunstall feels she's found her E Street Band.)
The thing that's odd – these days, at least – is that she seems rather old to be a newcomer in the girly-girl pop business. She'd spent many years playing with a bunch of eccentric folk musicians called Fence Collective, maintaining a suspicious distance from the record industry.
"For the first six or seven years of my 20s, it was a very deliberate decision to go and not get a big record deal," says Tunstall. "Possibly, partly, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to if I tried. And possibly it was a safety net to remain in Scotland. I was living in a cottage with no heating, in the country with a dog and a musician, very frugal. It was a very romantic time."
An acrimonious breakup with that musician helped give Tunstall the push out the door she needed. She also discovered the music she wrote on her own was less complicated. "I realized I wasn't writing eccentric folk music," she says. "I was writing something altogether a lot more accessible and a lot more contemporary, really."
Tunstall eventually realized that she'd have to embrace the record industry if she wanted to write music as a career. The alternative would be making music as a hobby, which, she declares, "would make me desperately unhappy."
Tunstall professes affection for edgy artists like Tom Waits, Can, the White Stripes, DJ Shadow, the Beta Band, and the Beastie Boys, while her music floats most comfortably in the mainstream.
"I had a very important development in my creative attitude a few years ago," she says. "I was finding myself getting very attached to much more experimental, left-of-center music than the music I was actually producing myself."
She figures that those influences will seep into her songwriting, lending a rawness or edge. Also, she admits a real fondness for Carole King's "Tapestry" and cites it as inspiration for "Eye to the Telescope." "I love the simplicity," says Tunstall. "I really respect the tradition of the singer-songwriter, which is to take the normal, mundane – albeit painful or joyous – stories and present them in their own way. You're rewriting clichés, really."
Tunstall identifies two key influences on her own writing. She's still attached to Scotland, where she grew up, and observes that its landscape plays a big part in her lyrics, along with plenty of references to the sea ("I find that a brilliant lyrical tool.") Tunstall also credits the fact that she was adopted as having a major impact on her music.
"Adoption is so subjective to each person," she says. "For me, personally, it's always been something very special, and that's how my parents have treated that. They always said, 'Everybody else gets what they're given, but we chose you.' As far as my music goes, the most important thing is [that] it's kind of given me a passport to follow my heart with what I want to do. I'm the only person in my family who plays any musical instruments or can write or sing; it's obviously something innate."
What's next? "Somebody asked me, 'What stage of life do you feel like you're in at the moment?' I said, 'Just out of the egg,'" she says. "On this next record, I can sense a different approach where I'm much freer in the concept of it. It's basically 'the treacherous path to paradise' – that's the working theme. I don't think you ever get there; paradise is actually the path."