KT Tunstall has had a recurring dream since she was a child. She sees a tiger in her garden and goes outside to stroke it. She returns indoors and is seized by the fear that she could have been killed. Over the years, it has occurred to her that the reason the tiger responds so passively is that she herself is disguised as a tiger. That she is wearing a tiger suit.
The Brit Award-winning singer has tapped into that childlike boldness in the making of her third album. Tiger Suit heralds the start of a new musical adventure for KT, where organic instrumentation blends with dance friendly textures, the results of which KT has dubbed as 'Nature Techno'.
Elements of all the influences that make up 'Tiger Suit' come together in the stunning first single (Still A) Weirdo, one of the last songs to be written for the album. A beautiful acoustic guitar line floats through organic and electronic rhythm sounds, while the lyrics are some of KT's most personal and affecting. Of the song that is sure to strike a chord with many, KT says: "I had this idea when I was younger that you automatically became more intelligent as you got older. Indeed I am slightly cleverer, as I now know it was stupid to think that!"
And looking back on the making of the album as a whole, she continues: "I really went out of my comfort zone and wandered off further than expected," she says, "and it made me realise I can do anything. There are no rules, there are no constraints, it's just about what you've got the balls to do." But before all the boldness and ballsiness, there was self-doubt. Since scoring a worldwide hit with her debut album Eye To The Telescope, through its platinum selling follow up Drastic Fantastic, Tunstall hadn't stepped off the merry-go-round for a second. She eventually faltered on an illuminating trip to Greenland. Tunstall was part of the Cape Farewell project, living on a boat with a group of artists, writers and musicians who were invited to create their own response to the harsh landscape and the spectre of climate change.
"After six years of touring and being babied, it was really humbling, going somewhere where life is hard," she says. "We went to the town of Uummannaq and I experienced one of my worse gigs ever. My confidence was so low, I felt like a jingle writer. I didn't want to be on stage and I've never felt like that. I just wished for a simpler life and not to be in this weird creative rat race. I wanted to get off the boat and live there." So she did get off the boat, metaphorically, taking time out to go travelling with her new husband (and drummer) Luke Bullen. Over the course of a transformative three months, KT went horse riding with gauchos in Chile, explored the wild nature of the Galapagos Islands, walked Peru's Inca Trail to the ruined city of Machu Picchu, visited the Barefoot College Of Tilonia in India, where women from villages as far afield as Africa are taught how to build solar equipment from scratch, jammed Suddenly I See with local musicians out in the Rajasthani desert and travelled up the length of New Zealand in a vintage VW camper van, landing in Auckland just in time to collaborate with the likes of Johnny Marr, Wilco and Ed and Phil from Radiohead in Neil Finn's 7 Worlds Collide jamboree.
"The whole trip was locking in to something more primal," says Tunstall. "What I realised was I'm still feral. I've always felt a bit feral. As a kid I was always wanting to be outside in the bushes or in a tent. I always wanted movement and adventure."
But before the adventure could continue, she was persuaded to take a year off to write and reflect. "It was really important to digest my own reaction to this massive shift in my life. Everyone says 'oh, you seem to handle success so well'. To be honest, I don't think I've even really processed it. I don't know if I will until I'm an old woman sitting looking back over it."
Suitably recharged, Tunstall started working on new material, demoing tracks in her newly-built home studio – solar-powered, of course – then headed over to the States to work with some of the country's most illustrious songwriters, including Linda Perry and Greg Kurstin, with whom she averaged a song a day. Returning home, she had ammassed a staggering 75 new songs to choose from and teamed up with Arctic Monkeys producer Jim Abbiss, who helped her unlock a new sound palette. Abbiss was also at the controls on recent albums by Kasabian, Editors and Adele.
The pair bonded over a shared love of The Cocteau Twins, Bow Wow Wow, Ali Farka Toure and classic club tracks such as French Kiss and Higher State of Consciousness. "I love the rawness of dance music," she says. "You've got the instruments right in your face, so you do feel like you are being played at. I wanted to feel that excited listening back to my own stuff, that feeling where you can lose yourself in the music." "I knew that I needed to inject some fresh energy into it and it was actually Linda Perry who kicked my arse on it. She said 'KT, your only problem is you give a fuck about what everybody else thinks'. She was completely right and it was a really sound piece of advice at the right time."
Tiger Suit was recorded in Berlin's legendary Hansa studios, treading in the hallowed footprints of David Bowie, U2 and Iggy Pop. KT and crew arrived to a bracing nuclear winter of opaque grey skies and ice where the pavement should be. Her love of the city was sealed with one night of abandoned clubbing. "There's a lovely self-sufficiency, where people are just doing whatever they want to. It really informed what we were making. There was an angular nature to what we were playing and a fierceness which I felt was really appropriate for what I'd written."
The Berlin odyssey set the scene for Tunstall's awakening to the wonderful world of synthesizers. "I was very scared of them because I felt that they would be an albatross around the music," she says. But that was before IAMX, aka former Sneaker Pimp Chris Corner, supplied her with a couple of "transporting" arrangements. "So then every synth came out of the box and I just entered into a world that I am completely smitten with now."
Pride of place in KT's armoury went to the Yamaha CS-80 – Vangelis's weapon of choice on the Blade Runner soundtrack – which she describes as "a huge beast – like playing a couch". Tunstall has coined the term "nature techno" to encapsulate the album's collision of raw, upfront rootsiness and sleek electronic textures -"think Eddie Cochrane meets Leftfield" she suggests. "The songs exist in other worlds for me," she says, "and I was trying to evoke place through how they sounded." And so, without sacrificing any of her personal storytelling touch, the sonic landscape shifts from the uninhibited tribal yelp of Uummannaq Song, inspired by her Greenland foray, to the analogue drone-meets-oriental chime and flutter of Lost, by way of Push That Knot Away – "a signature track of the album for me. I see it as taking place in a forest at night and it's about confronting fear rather than running away".
The journey continues through Golden Frames' extra-terrestrial blues (featuring the redoubtable Seasick Steve on vocals), and the glam strut of the anecdotal Madame Trudeaux, co-written with Linda Perry to the up tempo swagger and hum of Glamour Puss.
"Making the album felt a bit like an archaeological dig, digging deeper to uncover what most turns me on," says Tunstall. "The best way I can describe it is that I felt I discovered the indigenous part of myself by going back to campfire dance music just as much as club dance music. When I grind my boot heel into the floor it's connected to when I went clubbing in Berlin. Losing yourself in the middle of nowhere around a fire is no different to losing yourself surrounded by hundreds of people on a dancefloor."