KT Tunstall wants to go deeper than platinum. The 35-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter hit the jackpot when her debut disc, “Eye to the Telescope,” began spooling out hit singles shortly after its release in December 2004.
Tunstall earned the attention with a stunning solo performance (see it here) of “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” on the UK TV show “Later … with Jools Holland.” Using a foot pedal to loop some of her parts into backing rhythmic and vocal harmony, Tunstall’s tune was a cautionary romantic fable set to a “whoo ho” refraining, Bo Diddley groove. Next up was “Suddenly I See,” one of those undeniable singles that sandblasts your aural memory for days at a time, putting air under your heels amid the errands and banal traipses of your day. (Here is the video of the radio version.)
Already in her late 20s at the time, Tunstall was no ingenue. The ubiquitous impact of the multi-platinum “Eye to the Telescope” decisively demonstrated that she had a knack for writing simple but not mindless pop tunes, a voice could crouch suggestively low or climb up to ring the chiming choruses, with the texture of gleaming wax or fine sandpaper.
But it has become pretty obvious since then that Tunstall’s next monster hits will be as accidental as her first ones, the ones written when she was scuffling and obscure. It’s not that she’s opposed to success due to perverse principle, or the need for artier credibility. It’s just that she’s always been a genuine composite of styles, naturally brandishing the folk sensitivity of a Lilith Fair regular, the tomboyish spunk of a Nashville cowgirl, and the rock and soul chops of someone who could front an arena band.
“Drastic Fantastic,” the follow-up to “Telescope,” cut her sales by about 8 percent. The chug-a-lug single “Hold On” had tinges of “Black Horse,” but the masses who ponied up for the first album simply didn’t hear enough continuity for a repeat purchase.
“Tiger Suit,” released in September, proves that Tunstall isn’t interested in duplication. This third album is more dance-oriented in places, but that only increases its stylistic diversity. There are songs that sound like “hits,” especially the hooky “Fade Like A Shadow,” and the chunky groove of “Come On, Get In.” But “Difficulty” nods in the direction of Radiohead’s layered lope, “Golden Frames” is an arresting, foreboding, midtempo blues tune, and “Madame Trudeaux” is an arch goof with a deft kick.
Now KT (the letters are short for “Katie”) is on tour, on what industry pros might regard as a make-or-break chance to regenerate the widespread appeal she had with “Telescope.” But the dates are being billed as the “Tiger Suit Tour” and the set list on the tour stops thus far find her playing every one of that record’s 11 tracks. “Black Horse & The Cherry Tree” is smack dab in the middle, the eighth of sixteen songs, and “Suddenly I See” is held for the finale of a three-song encore that includes the ballad “Heal Over” (also from “Telescope”) and a cover of the Erasure’s minor hit from the late-80s, “A Little Respect.”
The first European single from “Tiger Suit” was a quirky folk-pop song entitled “(Still A) Weirdo,” which is probably Tunstall’s apology to the original masses who wanted more of what they got in the first place. The irony is that KT Tunstall isn’t a weirdo at all; she just chose to remain herself in the face of what was likely enormous pressure from the industry and her own self-regard to duplicate her initial success. That will diminish, if not short-circuit, her career. But for what its worth (and it ain’t much, of course), she’s got my admiration.
KT Tunstall at Epic, tonight at 9 p.m.; 110 5th St. N., Minneapolis; tickets $25.