Through the Fire
- 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.
- Pam Tanowitz is among the finest choreographers in modern dance. But she refuses to put her feet up.
- Natasha Trethewey coped with the tragedies of her young life by turning them into exceptional poetry. But those wounds will never fully heal.
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.”
Natasha Trethewey is a distinguished poet whose work explores the racial legacy of the United States. She served two years as U.S. Poet Laureate and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007.
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, MS, in 1966. Her father was a Canadian poet and college professor and her mother was an African American social worker; their marriage was illegal at the time under Mississippi law. She studied at the University of Georgia and Hollins University, and earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her debut collection Domestic Work (2000) examines black Southern experience. Her Pulitzer-winning collection Native Guard (2006) delves into her mother’s 1985 murder.
Trethewey has released six books of poetry, a work of creative nonfiction on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and a memoir. She served as Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 2012 to 2016 and U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014. She is a professor of English at Northwestern University.
Pam Tanowitz is a successful choreographer and the founder of Pam Tanowitz Dance. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Doris Duke Artist Award.
Born in New York in 1969, Tanowitz studied dance at Ohio State University and Sarah Lawrence College. She began to choreograph in 1992, while living in New York and working full time, and founded Pam Tanowitz Dance in 2002. Admired for its blend of traditional ballet and contemporary movement, the company received commissions from Chicago Dancing Festival, the Guggenheim Museum, the Joyce Theater, and New York Live Arts, among other places. Tanowitz’s work has also been performed by such prominent dance companies as Martha Graham Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the New York City Ballet.
Her 2018 piece Four Quartets, inspired by the T.S. Eliot poems, was called “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century” by The New York Times. Other celebrated works include New Work for Goldberg Variations (2017) and Blueprint (2018), featuring music by Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw.
Welcome to Articulate, insights into the human condition from great creative thinkers. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, Through the Fire. The scholar singer-songwriter KT Tunstall realized she was becoming a pop music cliche, on top, but unhappy. As Tori Marchiony reports, that was when she decided it was time to change.
KT Tunstall: There I was, with all the things that I’d hoped to have, you know, money in the bank, and I was totally miserable.
Pam Tanowitz is among the finest choreographers in modern dance, but she refuses to put her feet up.
Pam Tanowitz: You stay grounded, and you just keep trying to make the work.
And Natasha Tretheway coped with the tragedies of her young life by turning them into exceptional poetry, but those wounds, she says, will never heal.
Natasha Trethewey: There’s no me now, as I know me, without those things.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
(KT Tunstall singing “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”)
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
Pam Tanowitz found success as a choreographer in her 40s, but though late bloomers embody the power of obsessive dedication and hard work, she isn’t ready to rest on her laurels just yet. For many creators, an opening night is a joyous occasion. Months of hard work finally become tangible. Fans and friends gather to celebrate, and the visionary at last gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy what they’ve made, but not for Tanowitz.
Pam Tanowitz: I won’t watch my dances in an audience. That does not happen. I’m in the back, in the wings, throwing up emotionally in the corner. I can’t bear to watch it. It takes me a long time—
Performance is actually her least favorite part of the entire process.
Tanowitz: It’s like I spend all this time working, and all I care about is the dance and making the best dance that I can make at that time, at that moment in time, but it’s hard for me to receive it. All I see are failures. All I see is what went wrong.
But plenty of people who know about these things are finding very little wrong with Tanowitz’s work. Despite the deluge of praise of these last few years, most of Pam Tanowitz’s development took place in quiet obscurity. She earned a BFA in dance from Ohio State University, then an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College where she was mentored by the famously determined and genre-defying choreographer, Viola Farber-Slayton. After graduation, Tanowitz moved to New York where her journey to self-realization and then prominence, was gradual, yet deliberate.
Tanowitz: I was working every day, ten to six, rehearsing six to nine and on the weekends, and then trying to take care of a baby, and all kinds of stuff.
AJC: Were you doing it because you had to do it, or were you doing it because there was, you know, a plan?
Tanowitz: I had no plan. All I wanted to do was make dances. And I also knew that I needed money, and I needed health insurance. And I also wanted to make what I wanted to make. So, I didn’t want to not have a job and then have to go run around teaching and scrambling for things that I didn’t want to do. I felt like this was actually a better plan, to have a day job, and then just make the dance I wanted to make, and I just kept doing it, you know? And I did it for a really long time, so.
AJC: And then when it happened, when it started to look like people were getting you?
Tanowitz: Well, I started using up all my vacation days for going to make dances and all this stuff and I would leave early, and do all different, it was hard to keep the job, and that’s when my boss and my dear friend said, “We gotta talk. You don’t need to be here anymore. You’re hiding. You need to do this thing.”
Much of Pam Tanowitz’s choreography is informed by ballet, but because her dancers don’t wear point shoes, the work remains firmly modern.
Tanowitz: I like to take the air out of certain ballet steps and get them more grounded. Actually, one of the most important things about my work is those traditional steps but done with the tension of the bare foot. Doing a pas de chat in bare feet, and landing and the accent is on the down, not the up, and you can feel it, so it looks familiar, but it’s a little off. You know, it’s just a different accent.
Tanowitz is not using choreography to process her deepest emotions, yet each piece does inevitably still end up feeling intensely personal.
Tanowitz: My work is much more objective, so there is a separation. But I also think just making work is personal, so even if it’s not an obvious, everything’s exposing, really. I mean, to make stuff and put it on stage is humiliating. I mean, it really can be, and I have humiliated myself, and the thing that’s horrible about it is that you don’t even know ‘til it’s the show, or the dress rehearsal. You could think you’re doing this whole thing, and it’s like working, and it’s happening, and then you put it on the stage, and you’re like, “Wow, okay.”
In 2012, Tanowitz’s Blue Ballet garnered a great deal of attention, but for all the wrong reasons.
Tanowitz: That’s the piece I realized it’s not enough to have a good idea to make a dance in your head, it’s not enough. You need both. You need your heart and your head, and it has to come together.
Happily, the experience didn’t teach Tanowitz to fear risk, and she’s made some of her finest pieces since that 2012 flop. Among her most celebrated, a collaboration with Simone Dinnerstein, on the pianist’s breakthrough piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Tanowitz followed up the Goldberg Variations with two more rousing successes, Blueprint, featuring music by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw, and Four Quartets, an interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, with music by the world-renowned Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. But despite the acclaim, today Pam Tanowitz is doing as the poet Rudyard Kipling described in If, meeting with triumph and disaster, and treating those two imposters just the same.
Tanowitz: That’s exactly what I try to do, is I try to keep them even so you stay grounded and you just keep trying to make the work.
But for Tanowitz, the work isn’t like the old day job. It is vocational, all-consuming, a way to create meaning through motion.
Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate. She believes that poetry is the most powerful literary form, calling it an elegant envelope for language.
Natasha Trethewey: It is a smaller space, a smaller space to move around in, which presents a kind of vice grip, a kind of pressure that I think when you put that kind of pressure on the language to do more, and to say more with less space, the result can be quite memorable.
And she’s been making memorable poetry for better than three decades. Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her newlywed parents, Gwendolyn and Eric, lived illegally as husband and wife until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down all laws banning interracial marriage, but not long after this ruling, they separated. Early on, the young Natasha had to figure out how to navigate the world as a child of divorce at a time when it wasn’t yet so common, and growing up biracial in a very racially divided place, yet Trethewey doesn’t hold her childhood against the South.
Trethewey: I am of that place, that soil, that climate, that history. To not love the native land is to not have a part of self-love, I think, because it is the place that made me. I’m not sure who I would be without my mother’s death and without having been born in the deep South. There’s no me now as I know me without those things.
In 1985 at age 40, Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, was murdered by her second ex-husband, Joel Grimmette. This was not his first act of violence against her. He’d just been released from prison where he’d spent 12 months for a previous attempt on her life. The tragedy left Trethewey with what she calls a wound that with never heal.
(Natasha Trethewey reading “Imperatives For Carrying On in the Aftermath”)
Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says, My mother would never put up with that.
Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered. The hundredth time
your father says, But she hated violence,
why would she marry a guy like that?—
don’t waste your breath explaining, again,
how abusers wait, are patient, that they
don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes
not even the first few years of a marriage.
Keep an impassive face whenever you hear
Stand By Your Man, and let go your rage
when you recall those words were advice
given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge
was only attempted murder; don’t belabor
the thinking or the sentence that allowed
her ex-husband’s release a year later, or
the juror who said, It’s a domestic issue—
they should work it out themselves. Just
breathe when, after you read your poems
about grief, a woman asks, Do you think
your mother was weak for men? Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down. Remember you were told,
by your famous professor, that you should
write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.
Ask yourself what’s in your heart, that
reliquary—blood locket and seedbed—and
contend with what it means, the folk saying
you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul:
that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you —
you carry her corpse on your back.
AJC: How good are you at silence? How good are you at allowing silence to communicate?
Trethewey: I hope I’m really good at it, because poems are made of silence as much as they’re made of words.
AJC: But this idea that you articulate in this poem that you’re just not gonna comment when spoken to by the ignorant, that’s really hard.
Trethewey: Mm-hmm, it is really hard. And I suppose I have stayed silent for a very long time, and this poem is breaking that silence. I mean, the poem very much came for me as a way to respond to all of those people all of those years. So, I guess I’ve kept it so when I finally break my silence even to the world, it has to be in the tight and dense, compressed, elegant language of a poem, with all of its built-in silences.
Natasha Trethewey is now older than her mother was when she died, and her former stepfather will soon be released from prison, yet somehow she still hasn’t given up on the idea of justice being about more than revenge.
Trethewey: I believe in restorative justice. And what that means is, as much as the man who’s being released from prison very soon did something unthinkable, I remind myself that there was a time that he was an innocent, that he was a child, that he came into this world and something so terrible happened to him something so disfiguring of his own soul that it made him capable of doing a monstrous thing. There’s no justice for him either, I suppose.
(Natasha Trethewey reading from “Letter to Inmate #271847”)
Letter to Inmate #271847, Convicted of Murder, 1985.
When I heard you might get out, I was driving through the Delta, rain pounding my windshield, the sun angled and bright beneath dark clouds, familiar weather, what I’d learned long ago to call the devil beating his wife. I was listening to two things at once, an old song on the radio, and on the phone a woman from Victim’s Services— her voice solicitous, slow, as if she were speaking to a child. I was back in the state I still call home, headed south on Highway 49, trying to resurrect my mother in the landscape of childhood, as The Temptations were singing her song—the one she’d played over, and over, our last year in Mississippi, 1971, that summer before we moved to the city that would lead us soon to you. It was Just My Imagination and I could see her again, her back to me, swaying over the ironing board, the iron’s steel plate catching the sun and holding it there. For a moment, I was who I’d been before, the joyful daughter of my young mother— until the woman on the phone said your name, telling me I must write the parole board a letter. I was again stepdaughter, daughter of sorrow, daughter of the murdered woman. This is how the past interrupts our lives, all of it entering the same doorway— like the hole in the trunk of my neighbor’s tree, at once a natural shelter, a haven for small creatures, but also evidence of injury and entrance for decay. When I saw it, I thought of how, as a child, I’d have chosen it for play— A place to crawl inside and hide, and when I thought of hiding I could not help but think of you. What does it mean to be safe in the world? Everywhere I go she is with me— my long-dead mother. Is there nowhere I might go and not find you there too?