The singer on partnering with brands, her new album and the importance of syncs
Two years ago, after releasing four hit albums, winning a BRIT, an Ivor Novello and nominations for the Mercury Music Prize and Grammy awards, KT Tunstall thought she was done with music: “As an artist I feel like I died,” she says. “I stopped. I gave up. I didn’t want to do it anymore.” She put her stuff in storage, bought a little house in Venice Beach, California and enrolled in the Sundance Institute’s elite Film Composers Lab. It was a turning point in her life.
In September 2016, KT’s fifth album KIN, hailed as the natural successor to her multi-platinum debut Eye To The Telescope, sees her back in the UK Charts.
Following her recent performance at Unilever’s ‘Crafting Brands For Life’ Awards she shares her thoughts on sync, brand collaborations and writing for movies with Big Sync Music’s Dominic Caisley.
DC: Congratulations on KIN which entered the charts at 7! How are you feeling?
KT: It's such a buzz - this record is a really important one for me, and whilst I didn't have any need for it to 'score' well on its first week, it's a beautiful thing to see such a phenomenal reaction from fans to the music.
DC: Before recording KIN, you took a break from releasing albums for a while to concentrate on film music - how did you adapt to that?
KT: A couple of years ago, I moved to Venice Beach in California, which I love. It's a very laid back, bohemian community and lifestyle. I wanted to be in LA to deepen my relationships with the film industry, and being in Venice really helped with the shift. Learning scoring requires a lot of focus, and I found myself completely immersed in it very quickly. I was accepted on to the Sundance Film Institute's Composers Lab which enrols 6 fellows per year, and we worked up at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch for a very intensive couple of weeks. It was one of my favourite learning experiences I've ever had.
DC: How does the process of writing for someone else's project differ from writing for yourself?
KT: I have done a few writing sessions for other artists, and I try to get a grasp of their sound, their character, and their voice. I try to imagine them performing the finished song, and ask myself 'does the song feel right for this artist?'
Writing for film is entirely different; you are 100% working for someone else, and helping them realise their vision, trying to create the perfect music to go with their story, as they imagine it.
DC: How important has sync been to your career?
KT: Syncs have without doubt been the making of me as a commercial artist. The first record was so ubiquitous, and is still regularly picked up for syncs now. So many fans tell me that they discovered my music through film and TV.
DC: You must get a lot of offers to use your music - how do you choose the ones you accept?
KT: If it's a product, I make sure it feels like a match for me. But honestly, I mostly just use my gut. If it feels good, I go for it.
DC: When you have an offer, how important are a brand’s values and what they stand for to your decision?
KT: I take those things into consideration. While we don't have to agree on approach to everything, I feel that magic can happen when you really click.
DC: Do you have a favourite use of your music in an advert or movie?
KT: It would have to be 'The Devil Wears Prada'. Suddenly I See, the entire song, un-edited, with no dialogue over the top, as the classic opening sequence to a Meryl Streep movie! Doesn't get better than that.
DC: Your voice is such a big part of your sound and songs - how does it feel if someone else is performing something you've written?
KT: I like hearing other people's interpretations of my songs. I have this weird thing that happens though, that if I hear someone else singing my song, I start singing it like them! It's very odd.
DC: Do you have a favourite TV ad or commercial?
KT: I think my favourite ad of all time would have to be the Levi's Mermaids advert. It was just so beautiful with a great song, and was also I'm sure my first introduction to Michel Gondry, who went on to become one of my favourite directors.
DC: How important is a good song or sound track in advertising?
KT: I think it can absolutely make or break an ad. If it's the right song and gets everyone singing in the shower or whistling the tune, they’re going to have the ad playing in their head at the same time, right? The right choice of music can make visuals pierce through the barrier of observation and become something really emotive.
DC: How do you feel about artists working directly with brands, beyond a straightforward licensing of their track to an ad? Are there any examples you think have worked particularly well?
KT: I think it can work brilliantly. I was much more hesitant when I started out in the early 00's, but I think the attitude towards music and brand partnerships has massively shifted. Mine certainly has. Brands have the ability to offer artists amazing opportunities that record labels are often unable to afford, and in our now completely multi-media world, the creative possibilities are endless. Dewars Whisky are very pro-active in creating meaningful musical relationships, and I know they partnered up with great artist King Creosote from Scotland to present multiple shows in India which sounded like an amazing venture.
DC: Would you consider partnering with a brand and if so what would be your check list?
KT: I would absolutely consider partnering with a brand. I particularly love the brands that have championed music; Levi's, Guinness, and also brands that are really creatively courageous with their ideas and directors. I love what Dove are doing - creating adverts that promote positive body confidence, and then continuing to do positive work with girls and women outside of the commercials themselves.
I also love good humour in adverts, intelligent or otherwise! I feel I could be surprised by what I might click with, so the most important thing is to keep an open mind.
DC: You're on tour in the US again - how does that differ from playing and promoting the album in the UK?
KT: Well, the UK being smaller than most of America's 50 states makes it most definitely a very different beast! Touring the UK is brilliant - often playing towns and cities where you started off in a tiny little club, and coming back to in much bigger venues. I have great memories of those early times. Touring America is also a huge joy for me. I love the different landscapes and characters of each place, trying all the different local food and getting some great bike rides in.
It's a huge job just to get America to know that you have a new record out, even just reaching all your existing fans, and honestly, it just takes time and a lot of hard work. So it's a good thing the work rarely feels like work!
Dominic concludes: “It's refreshing to hear an artist acknowledge the part that brands and advertising can play in establishing or supporting their careers. In a world of such media fragmentation and personal discovery, music cut-through has become as important as promotion and distribution. How does a label reach an established audience, let alone a new one? How can an artist grab the collars of the great unwashed and shout out 'listen to this'? Talent is not enough, the political muscle of a major label is not a guarantee, global distribution is a layer too thinly spread.
"Audiences are consuming content constantly to the point where one’s personal interests, social life, work life and family world are completely blurred and music is and always will be life’s soundtrack - twenty four hours a day, eight days a week. Brands are striving to make content that is unobtrusive and complimentary and therefore brand content, whether TV, digital or experiential, needs music to connect in the same way artists want to.
"Artist and brand partnerships are common and accepted by consumers and fans alike. Now the challenge is to make the marriage as real and fertile as possible. Cover versions can combine a track’s nostalgia or ‘sonic trigger’ with careful audience targeting and artist borrowed equity. I’m delighted KT embraces cover versions of her work, can you imagine Lennon & McCartney telling Joe Cocker to leave ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ alone?
"When we look at projects, we consider what the artist, the brand and its partner agencies, as well as the track can contribute to a great campaign on-screen and off. Those contributors will push and pull depending on the individual stake holders’ objectives but everyone standing at the altar needs to be 100% committed.
"At Big Sync we love bringing artists and brands together and to nurture that relationship well - beyond just a song license. We feel that established as well as emerging artists can see the value of brand and band partnerships and look forward to working with KT in the future."
KT Tunstall tours the UK in October and November:
Mon 24th BRISTOL, Colston Hall
Tue 25th SOUTHEND, Cliffs Pavilion
Thu 27th MANCHESTER, Albert Hall
Fri 28th DUNFERMLINE, Alhambra
Mon 31st DUBLIN, Olympia
Tue 1st LIVERPOOL, Academy
Wed 2nd GATESHEAD, Sage
Fri 4th BIRMINGHAM, Symphony Hall
Sat 5th YORK, Barbican
Sun 6th CAMBRIDGE, Corn Exchange
Tue 8th LEICESTER, De Montford Hall
Wed 9th LONDON, Shepherds Bush Empire
Thu 10th BRIGHTON, Dome