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Charting her own course
KT Tunstall finds Top 40 success her way
'I've never been excited by the idea of making exclusive music.'
'I've never been excited by the idea of making exclusive music.'

A few years back, the musical domain of Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall was a grassroots experimental folk outfit called the Fence Collective. This year, she's been a fixture on the Billboard pop chart alongside tabloid names like Justin Timberlake. Her smash single, 'Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,' has spent the past 27 weeks on the Hot 100.

Through it all, Tunstall has remained indifferent to being identified with either the mainstream or alternative sides of music culture. Seeing the drawbacks of both pop and indie has made her restless to transcend them with her own unique style.

'The stuff I listen to wouldn't necessarily be the stuff that's on the shelf next to my record,' she told me in a recent phone interview, discussing her appearance at the Barrymore Theatre on Monday, Sept. 25.

'I like the Flaming Lips, Beck and Wilco,' she added, admitting that her Top 40 success often feels like an odd fit.

At the same time, Tunstall embraces her mass-market appeal as a kind of musical liberation. During her years with the Fence Collective, she says she never warmed to the idea of being categorized as experimental.

'I've never been excited by the idea of making exclusive music. I always thought that was a dangerous path to take. I don't want to make music that is absolutely ruled by the effort to be cool. I haven't got time for that. I've just got to do what I think is good.'

Tunstall's background reveals why neatly defined categories have never been her thing. Her ethnicity is Chinese and Irish. She was raised by adoptive parents; her father is a physicist, and her mother is a schoolteacher. Tunstall says the name of her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, is partially inspired by childhood memories of watching the mystery of the sky with her father at the university lab where he worked.

Some of Tunstall's earliest musical memories came by way of her brother's interest in goth. She says she stood outside his bedroom door with a tape recorder to capture the sound of what he played.

Throughout her teens and 20s, Tunstall's work as a musician solidly cast her as an independent folk-rock songwriter. She attended a private prep school in Connecticut and moved into a commune with her boyfriend. Her first gigs involved busking on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont.

But Tunstall says she was always driven by a goal of transforming her act into something greater than the stereotypical 'girl with guitar.'

'What always moved me is a voice and a great song, but also a really good rhythm,' she said.

Arguably, if KT Tunstall had accepted conventional wisdom about pop-music segmentation, she might not have still been trying to get signed by a major label as she approached 30. Her age, gender and musical style weren't a recipe for chart success, but Tunstall didn't give up.

Instead, she wrote songs like 'Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.' It was restless and edgy in a way female singer-songwriters often are not. She brought a straightforward honesty and raw energy to her live performances.

Her big break came as a last-minute substitute musical guest on the British TV show 'Later with Jools Holland' in 2004. Virgin Records released Eye to the Telescope in the United States during February 2006. The album has sold more than 600,000 copies in the U.S. and more than 2.6 million copies worldwide. The follow-up single, 'Suddenly I See,' has begun its ascent on the Billboard Hot 100.

Now 31, KT Tunstall seems too down-to-earth to be a full-fledged pop star. That's evidenced in small ways, like her willingness to be interviewed for this story when the scope of her press coverage has reached the level of 'Regis and Kelly.'

Tunstall takes her mass-market success in stride. She says she appreciates the opportunity it's provided to connect musically with a wide variety of listeners.

'The crossover success has been one of the most exciting parts of my music. It's being played on [the British alt-radio network] XFM. But I'll also hear it played on some cheesy ballad station.'

If there's a tension in that, it's a tension Tunstall says she experiences 'in a really great way.' Purists might not like the kitsch of mainstream pop, but Tunstall is ready to embrace it with her own kind of maturity:

'Maybe I'll put a pair of underpants over my black tights when I sing from now on.'

KT Tunstall performs at the Barrymore Theatre on Monday, Sept. 25, at 7:30 p.m.

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