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The Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall realized she was becoming a pop music cliché: on top, but unhappy. Tori Marchiony reports that it was then she decided it was time to change.

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KT Tunstall
KT Tunstall

Kate Victoria “KT” Tunstall is a world-famous singer and songwriter. She is best known for her hits “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” which earned a Grammy nomination in 2007 for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Born in 1975 in Edinburgh to a Hongkongese mother and Irish father, Tunstall was adopted by a family in St. Andrews, Scotland. She spent part of her late teens in the United States, before studying drama and music at Royal Holloway, University of London. She played in a series of small indie bands in her 20s and released her debut album, Eye to the Telescope (2004) at age 29. Though not an immediate success, the folksy pop album would eventually earn a host of awards and generate several international hits. Her next record, Drastic Fantastic (2007), made the top 10 of the UK and US album charts. Her fifth and sixth releases, KIN (2016) and WAX (2018) began a trilogy around the themes of “soul, body and mind.”

Full Episode

  • Music
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  • Literature
Through the Fire
Singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, choreographer Pam Tanowitz, and poet Natasha Trethewey
Season 5, Episode 16
Through the Fire


(KT Tunstall singing “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”)

Woo-hoo, woo-hoo

Woo-hoo, woo-hoo


Woo-hoo, woo-hoo, 

Woo-hoo, woo-hoo 

Well my heart knows me better than I know myself 

So I’m gonna let it do all the talking

The Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall has outlasted what many others have not, a couple of all-pervasive international hit songs.

(KT Tunstall singing “Suddenly I See”)

Suddenly I see, suddenly I see,

This is what I wanna be

Suddenly I see, suddenly I see

But by pop standards, Tunstall was a late bloomer. She signed her first record deal at 29, and success quickly followed. So fast, in fact, that there was little time to process that she was now both a product and a boss.

KT Tunstall: I hadn’t thought about that stuff, like just literally spent pretty much 15 years with my head down, just writing songs, and busking and playing, and hanging out with other musicians, so it was kind of weird to suddenly be the bride. I was like, whoa, hang on a minute.

Over the course of the next 15 years and five more albums, Tunstall has become much more comfortable holding the reigns using music to express her inner self, but it’s taken a long time to figure out who exactly that is. At less than three weeks old, she was adopted by the Tunstalls, an upper-middle class family who nurtured her natural gift for music, but didn’t share it.

Tunstall: There’s definitely no singing talent in my adopted family. This is the genetic product of my biological mother and father making a larynx together, and that’s made up of what they were made up of, and apparently my biological father had a fantastic singing voice. 

Her biological father died before they met, but she connected with her biological mother in 1998, and from moment one, it was obvious they were of a piece.

Tunstall: She’s super feisty, and I think we share being really feisty and cheeky, but also being super sensitive. I think we’re both similar in that way, and we have the same freckles and stuff. It’s funny. And we kind of, you can tell that we’re related, and that is nice. It’s nice to see your biology in someone else. 

KT Tunstall’s path to self-understanding has been long, arduous, and was jump-started in 2012 by a meltdown that ended her marriage and saw her move continents. Things fell apart when her adoptive father, David, died after a long illness. All at once, Tunstall was overcome with the profound realization that life is brief and that she was living in the wrong one. 

Tunstall: There I was with all the things that I’d hoped to have. Married, big houses everywhere, cars, you know, money in the bank, and I was totally miserable. I was depressed. I was like, wow, I’ve turned into a complete rock and roll cliché of being that person who’s ended up miserable with everything. But you know, the soul is dying. And so, my dad passing was a really amazing gift of being woken up to my own situation and really turning the torch on myself to see how I was. So, I got out of my marriage, sold everything I owned and moved to California.

Tunstall’s 2013 album, Invisible Empires/Crescent Moon, offers an intimate view of the songwriter’s tumultuous transition, and has been hailed as some of her finest work.

(KT Tunstall singing “Invisible Empire”) 

Oh, I want to burn this house

I know I wanna jump into the fire

Oh, I gotta tear them down 

The pinnacles of my invisible empire

On settling in Venice Beach, Tunstall began composing for film, even earning a coveted fellowship from the Sundance Film Institute’s composer’s lab at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in northern California. But she wasn’t just evolving artistically, she also changed profoundly as a person, and today, Tunstall has come to realize that fame is a poor substitute for love. 

Tunstall: I was looking for something in appreciation from strangers, and now I really understand that actually the healthy aspect of that relationship is connection, of just connecting with people, and sharing with people. And that’s really rewarding. I don’t look for love, personal fulfillment and love, in that space now, it’s really about giving rather than receiving.

Now 44, KT Tunstall is, for the first time, planning ahead. Next up, she’ll turn her hand to directing, acting, film scores, and musical theater projects. 

Tunstall: I always was really paranoid that I hate the idea of knowing what was coming next. And there’s always an aspect of that, with this, which I love, is the unknown, and the unexpected. But there’s a really great path ahead that, if that’s what happens, then that’s great.  

(KT Tunstall singing “Suddenly I See”)

 Suddenly I see, suddenly I see

This is what I wanna be

Suddenly I see, suddenly I see

Why the hell it means so much to see 

This is what I wanna be

Suddenly I see

Why the hell it means so much to me