Last week, Scottish pop singer-songwriter KT Tunstall released her sixth solo album, KIN, just two years after she seriously contemplated taking a substantial decade-long break from her solo career to concentrate on penning music for movies in Los Angeles.
“I can’t say that I genuinely felt like I was going to give up completely, but I certainly felt like I was going to take a really substantial hiatus of around five to 10 years before I would think about making another record,” explains KT.
“And, of course, making that decision is a huge decision because - particularly in this day and age - you’re actually seen as making a comeback if you haven’t put any music out in six months!
1. Various Artists - Boots Rock Collection Volume 5 (1990)
“My first very important record was the Boots Rock Collection Volume 5, which is absolutely hilarious, but was also a really fucking cool introduction to music that I’d never heard before.
“Basically, my mum and dad bought me a CD player for my 14th birthday. They didn’t really listen to music at all, but my dad had a couple of tapes that he’d listen to, like Tom Lehrer. My dad was a physicist and Tom Lehrer was like this really weird Harvard class professor, who was really cool because he was also a satirist and pianist.
“My dad would also listen to a bit of Bach, and he then had the Chariots of Fire soundtrack… the B-side to that’s really good, actually, and I used to listen to that all the time!
2. Cocteau Twins - Heaven Or Las Vegas (1990)
“The second major record I got was Heaven Or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins. I’d won an English creative writing competition at school. They always gave you bookshop vouchers and you’d go and buy a book and then they’d present it to you at the prize-giving. I don’t think they realised that the bookshop had started selling albums, but everyone was just going and getting their favourite album instead of a book. It was so cool that I went up to get my English creative writing prize and I was given the Cocteau Twins wrapped in some nice wrapping paper!
“I think I was 15, actually, because I’d done this acting course over in Glasgow for the summer. It was the first time I’d spent six weeks away from home and it was the first time I met people who were really obsessed with music, and my really cool goth friend in Glasgow just told me to buy this album. And it just blew me away!
“It was just one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. I couldn’t believe there was this angelic singer singing in this weird made-up language. It was the first time I kind of heard melody where I didn’t understand what she was saying, but it was just as powerful as if I did… and then there were the shimmering guitars and the amazing production, and it was experimental. From what I’d been subjected to thus far, it was definitely a very new world for me.”
3. Tom Waits - Bone Machine (1992)
“I was in my first year of university by this point, and my housemate was a huge Tom Waits fan and we went to the big CD fair that was held in the Students Union, where there were all these bucket bins, and she was like, ‘Just get something by Tom Waits. It doesn’t matter what it is - get it!’
“So I went over to the W section and I bought a Muddy Waters CD, but then I picked up Bone Machine. It was just so weird with this screaming face and this blue cover. I was completely delighted and terrified when I played this record. It was just so dark and twisted-up, but at the same time incredibly human and real.
“And, you know, the guy’s got this song called Murder In The Red Barn, and it sounds like he used the whole fucking barn for the sound of the song. It was so theatrical, and he had this crazy way of singing.
4. Muddy Waters - Best Of
“I picked up a Muddy Waters album at the same CD fair. It was just a Best Of record, but it was a really important album. I wore out both that and Bone Machine at the same time.
“I think I was just starting to really latch on to the blues voice and also recognising that there was an element of that in the way that I wanted to sing. I was naturally gravitating towards that.
“And I liked his guitar playing. I was just graduating from a kind of more picking, nylon-string style to going full-blown steel-string rhythm guitar, so it was really cool hearing some electric, you know, and just getting a bit more into electric guitar.
“But it was really about rhythm and that was the case with the Bone Machine record as well. It was really about keeping those grooves and hearing the beat. There’s something quite primal about the rhythm of that music.”
5. Leftfield - Leftism (1995)
“Talking of primal and rhythmic, I’m going to go on to Leftism by Leftfield. I had a very illustrious clubbing career when I was younger, which might surprise some people, but I love dance music.
“I’m a huge fan of The Chemical Brothers and the Ninja Tune label and a lot of the stuff that they put out like DJ Shadow but I think, out of all of them, Leftism really just excited my musical brain in terms of the way that they mixed real instruments with dance tracks.”
“Afro-Left has got this amazing single-string weird instrument in it, and I always go back to that song because, when it kicks in, it’s so powerful. I just felt it was a really deeply musical record as well as being an amazing dance record.
“It’s just one of those albums that still sounds really good today, which is really hard with dance music, I think, because you were using the technology of the time. This still really holds up.”
6. Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)
“This was another university favourite. I would just listen to it on repeat for hours and hours in my room.
“I think it’s one of those records that you put on when you’re in a certain mood and it’s like a companion, almost. It’s with you whenever you need it.
“Every time I listened to it, I would catch a different lyric or see a different theme in one of her songs. Also, I think it was through Blue that I heard the word ‘wanderlust’ for the first time, and I really, really felt that from her songs. She was this travelling troubadour with a somewhat hedonistic life, peppered with kind of heartache and loneliness.
“That nomadic artistic lifestyle just so appealed to me, but it was so far removed from the family I’d grown up in and anyone I knew. I had made friends with the Fence Collective guys back in Fife and they certainly did kind of live that reality - travelling and playing in Europe and living in little cottages outside of town and playing gigs and all of that. So Blue really was kind of a soundtrack to the life that I wanted.”
7. Beck - Odelay (1996)
“This album was a real game-changer for me because I’ve never been madly into hip-hop. I certainly liked some of the older stuff like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and stuff like that and I really like Mos Def, but that was the first time I really got deeply into that kind of music.
“Also, on top of that, he’s just got these incredibly hooky pop songs, but then he’ll just go off on these mad tangents in the middle of a song, and there are just no rules with him.
“It was such a joyful, bonkers party record. I remember listening to it and thinking, ‘My God - I cannot imagine how fun it must be to play that album onstage and be that artist!’
“The lack of boundaries in his approach to making music and the writing of his songs and the song structures were very inspiring and really appealed to me.”
8. David Bowie - Hunky Dory (1971)
“I didn’t hear this until I was in my 20s. I remember just basically having my face in the stereo and playing it fully three times back-to-back, and I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Every single song completely floored me - where he could take you in such a short amount of time and how passionate his delivery was and how unique and original his ideas were and how great the playing was on all of the songs. It was just a completely new world hearing that.
“It’s the kind of record you listen to and you go, ‘Shit - I have to really work hard at being better!’ I actually can’t remember how I came to listen to it at that point, but I think I probably had just heard people talking about it.
“Obviously, I knew Bowie’s hits, but I’m not really too much of an archaeologist when it comes to music. I don’t really go and listen to an album and then go and listen to every record that that artist has made or listen to every influence that helped make it what it is. I hadn’t really delved deeply into Bowie yet… but it was an incredible experience.”
9. Bob Dylan - Blood On The Tracks (1975)
“I love that record so much because it’s Bob Dylan being really vulnerable. He’s really wearing his heart on his sleeve rather than his heart being hidden or where he’s just writing things in a book.
“The stories he’s telling feel very heartfelt and personal, but it’s a masterclass in poetry... just incredibly solid, timeless songwriting. I think it’s a bit like Lord Of The Rings or something, you know? You’re just listening to Dylan’s stories and he’s creating worlds that are probably partly true but partly not. He’s really bringing you into places that you’ve never been before and you can disappear into them.
“It’s just so visual, and the lyrics just stick with you forever. There’s such amazing standout things on there. Tangled Up In Blue is my favourite song on the record.”
10. Carole King - Tapestry (1971)
“I always go back to Tapestry, and I often don’t even need to listen to it. I just think about it.
“That album’s sort of a bit of a songwriting bible for me where it’s such a masterclass in how to write from the heart directly without any fluff and without any need to hide behind stories or poetry or any of that stuff.
“It’s just completely on a plate - ‘this is how Carole King feels’ - and then she puts it into the most glorious melodies and chord structures, and her tempos are amazing. Getting the right tempo for a song is maybe slightly overlooked.
“She is just a genius. She has such a natural ear for composing a perfect pop song.”