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KT Tunstall almost ripped the head off her Brit award for Kate Bush

In her Letter To My Younger Self, KT Tunstall opens up about finding her feet, meeting her biological family, and which night she would like to re-live
Image credit: Piper Ferguson

KT Tunstall has a list of awards and nominations runs as long as her discography. The Scottish singer-songwriter was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2005, BRIT Award in 2006 and received a Grammy nod in 2007.

Ahead of the release of award-winning second album Drastic Fantastic, Tunstall sat down with The Big Issue’s Jane Graham to pen her Letter to My Younger Self and give the 16-year-old KT some advice. 

Based in LA now, she opened up about starting out as a teenager, meeting her biological mother and wishing she shared her BRIT award with Kate Bush. 

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Sixteen was a really pivotal moment for me. From the age of eight I’d been in love with theatre and at 16 I was in a little theatre group in St Andrews’ Byre Theatre and I’d been accepted into the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow.

But suddenly I had this epiphany that I didn’t want someone else to be writing the words or a director telling me what to do. I wanted to create my own stuff and be my own boss.

I was a bit defiant, a bit weird, as a kid, a bit of a dreamer. So when we had a party at the end of a production and everyone was asked to do a little skit, I played a song instead. It was the first time I’ve ever played a song for people after I taught myself guitar. And it was like, whoa, that went down well! So that was a really pivotal moment of realising, actually, I’m not going to go into theatre, I want to be a musician.

When I was 16, I played my first gig in the Civ pub in St Andrews.  It was at six o’clock before the punters came in – I was underage but they let me play a little gig in the back room. And King Creosote, Kenny Anderson, came. He has kept a journal of every day of his life and I recently had the pleasure of sitting with him and going through it, and he showed me the diary entry he wrote in 1992 after seeing me play.

It said, ‘I’ve just seen this girl called Kate at The Vic. She’s so talented. I think she’s got something amazing. And I’m going to ask her to join the band’.

So I immediately joined the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and started going around Scotland in a freezing transit van with them. Much to my parents’ frightened faces. They were like a bunch of Fife anarchists. They were living in weird little unheated cottages on the edge of town, just surviving, being musicians and nothing else. They didn’t really believe in record deals and they didn’t trust the music industry. So I kind of moved in and grew up with that mentality as well.

I have realised now in middle life how significant a role being adopted has played in the rest of my life. Jackie Kay, the poet [who is adopted], says there’s ‘windy place’ inside. And that is just the truth of it. I had kind of breezed over it for years, until my forties. Then I did that amazing programme, Long Lost Family, and found sisters.

And they’re just gorgeous, beautiful, fierce women. And we really do still just stare at each other going, oh my god, we look the same. We’re very close in age and we grew up 15 miles apart. They were in Dunfermline and I was in St Andrews. They remember going to St Andrews at weekends, when I was working in an ice cream shop. And I was like, Oh, my god, I probably served you a cone!

It was funny because I met my biological mother, thinking I’d look just like her and she’d be an amazing singer or something. But no, neither. But the first thing she said to me was, you couldn’t pass your father on the street. He was Irish, and apparently a fantastic singer. So it seems like that’s where it’s come from. But it’s a strange feeling because at the end of the day, these aren’t people I know.

The way that I describe it, which feels most helpful to me, is that it has enriched my life because it’s really good for the soul to be able to put faces and characters and meaning into those two blank corners. But you run a risk. These are human beings. And once you go down that road you can’t really go back. It’s not been a bed of roses the whole time of course. But I’m glad I know.

I think the thing that would surprise the teenage me the most is that I would say, you’re going to have the best time when you get into your forties. It’s not gonna happen in your twenties. It’s not gonna happen in your thirties, even though that’s when, quote-unquote, all your dreams come true. But actually, it’s the inner peace I’ve got to in my forties that’s allowed me to enjoy everything in a way that I couldn’t through my twenties and thirties. I was a sensitive little soul, and I still am.

So I would say to my younger self, it’s alright to be a fuck up, it’s alright to be a mess. Just don’t pretend to be anything that you’re not. That’s why I loved that Dolly Parton interview [in The Big Issue last November] because being a rock star, everybody wants a certain version of you, you know? And it’s just great now at this point in life to realise, as she said, that actually, the most purposeful thing to be doing is absolutely being yourself. Being the same as anyone else is just a waste of time. If you’re trying to be Chrissie Hynde, don’t bother. She’s done it much better than anyone else is gonna do it.

“That’s why I loved that Dolly Parton interview because being a rock star, everybody wants a certain version of you, you know?”

I would tell that young girl, the young me, stick to your guns, use your gut and don’t hold it all in when you’re feeling upset. I think there was an element of self-sabotage in the way I handled things because I didn’t really like being famous. It really was a case of overnight success – after I did Jools Holland in 2004 everything changed. It went crazy. I was never a magazine cover artist, and I didn’t really want to be and that’s not very helpful if you want to be a rock star. So I didn’t really use the power I had.

I remember telling myself, nothing will really change. But of course it did. Everybody hanging on tenterhooks waiting to see where the next album is going to chart. Being told I couldn’t delay my second record because it was going to make somebody’s share prices drop. That’s not what I wanted.

If I could have one last conversation with anybody, I wouldn’t mind a half-hour sit down with a guy who completely broke my heart at 18. Again, I didn’t realise until I was older how much it messed me up. Actually it was during lockdown – I did a writing session with Richie Sambora which was absolutely incredible. And I wrote a song about it, called Breaking in a Brand New Broken Heart. Because I had this habit growing up of wearing totally rose-tinted glasses, and never looking at the difficult part of things.

I didn’t want to handle it. Now I’d love to get that boy’s side of it, and try to understand the complexity of that situation. It felt like a simple 18-year-old heartbreak to me. But actually, it was major. You’re so tender at that age, you’re on the cusp of creating yourself as an adult. It might be why I decided I didn’t want to have a family.

If I could go back and re-live any moment in my life, I would go back to the Brits in 2006. It had been such a long road, and really tough with my family, too. They’d been very worried about me. We were at odds for a long time because I was pursuing this career they just didn’t think was going to work.

But they were at the Brits with me, I have this amazing photo of my dad – he’s passed away now – but in this photo he has this really smug smile on his face, holding my Brit above his head. Prince was playing, and my mum turned to me, and she goes, he’s good, isn’t he? I met all these incredible artists that I loved. And I won the category I was in alongside Kate Bush and PJ Harvey [British Female Solo Artist]! I said I was gonna break the head off and give it to Kate Bush. And I met Jimmy Page and he said he loved my boots. What an amazing, amazing night and I had such a good time. I’d love to do it all again.

KT Tunstall is reissuing her second album, 2007’s Drastic Fantastic, in three different formats on January 15