Wednesday, January 27, 2021

All of a sudden, I got obsessed with this song

I had landed on a decent radio station in the rental car I was driving around Detroit in December 2006 when I heard a KT Tunstall song for the first time. About the third time I heard "Suddenly I See," I realized that this little gem with the shuffling Bo Diddley beat was yelling at me to learn more.

I thought it probably was some local rock band with this ballsy female singer emerging from the still-vibrant Detroit scene. I was surprised when I found out it was the solo work of this Scottish woman whose debut album had been around for quite awhile. 

I became obsessed with "Suddenly I See" fairly quickly, hearing it a half-dozen times anyway during my week in Detroit. Soon as I got back home to South Florida, I got my hands on the album Eye to the Telescope. I can't say I became enamored with it when I first started listening, but I did find a lot to like on my first few listens. And the more I listened and got in tune with what this was all about, the more my admiration grew. I do now like this album a lot every time I listen to it.

Tunstall spent time in the Northeastern United States and in London studying drama and music before becoming a lead singer with a succession of touring British indie bands. While she was honing her talents as a formidable rock vocalist, she also focused on sharpening her songwriting skills. She decided to go out on her own to pursue a solo career when a couple of record labels came calling in the early '00s.

Eye to the Telescope, released in Great Britain in December 2004, was drawing attention by the time it landed in the States in February 2006. Tunstall worked the album hard, landing a couple of high-profile appearances on British TV and spending several months promoting it on a tour of Canada and the US. The album produced four hit singles in the UK -- including "Suddenly I See" -- before a US distributor finally picked up on it.

The singer-songwriter label definitely applies to Tunstall. She's got a strong voice that can deliver a quiet heartbreaker ("Heal Over") and also push the limits on the explosive power ballads ("Universe & U" is a stone-cold killer). And she delivers some consistently solid material with a little help from a couple former bandmates. (I suspect a few of these co-written songs came out of her time fronting those bands.) 

This is some good stuff in a slow-burning, emotionally charged kind of way. There is not a weak track on this album, there are some real highlights, and Tunstall has those solid indie-rock chops in spades.

Tunstall has released about a half-dozen albums since Eye to the Telescope. I haven't spent much time with any of the subsequent ones though I have given a couple of listens to one or two of them. All of them are well-reviewed, so I have them on my list. I'll get back to you hopefully soon with a report.

Suddenly a different context: Tunstall told an interviewer that "Suddenly I See" was inspired by the Robert Mapplethorpe's stark black-and-white photo of Patti Smith on the cover of her album Horses. Tunstall said the photo gave her an epiphany about what she wanted to do with her life. The song became an ode to female empowerment, she said, when it was used in the Meryl Streep movie The Devil Wears Prada, released in summer 2006. 

Wee Bastard: Tunstall has performed throughout her career with a backing band. But she also does gigs strictly solo, a one-woman band with only her guitar and a pedal device she calls her Wee Bastard. Wee Bastard processes audio loops that she records on the fly for use as background accompaniment. She has used it most famously to perform "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," the first single off Eye to the Telescope and the song that got her initial attention through TV appearances. It's cool to see her use this thing in performance. Do a search on YouTube for that song -- there are several videos of it. Here's one of her showing it off to some of her bandmates: 

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