KT Tunstall
Interview Words : Graeme Green | 16 August

KT Tunstall: My World - “A penguin hit me in the face.”

Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall on hiking in Skye, chewing coca in Peru, dancing with Jarvis Cocker in Greenland and animal attacks in Galapagos

I live in Venice Beach in Los Angeles. I spent a year in LA when I was about four years old, because my dad’s a physicist and got a sabbatical in UCLA. My earliest memories of life are from there: I remember orange trees and lemon trees, sunshine and swimming pools, and the landscape, so different from Scotland where I was born. Since then, there’s always been a familiarity with me with California.

I’d been going to LA for 10 years, but we’d always stay at some Rock’n’Roll hotel on the Sunset Strip, do a gig, get wasted, stay up until the morning and then leave. It never occurred to me to move there until I had some work down in Santa Monica and they took me down to the beach, and I’d walk out of my hotel and see dolphins jumping out of the water. I took one of the free bikes from my hotel and cycled down the beachfront down to Venice Beach, down the canals, and it was just gorgeous. 

There’s some amazing hiking around LA. It’s a pleasant surprise for me that nature is so close to the city. I can just drive for 20-30 minutes to Topanga Canyon. There’s a great hike to a place called Eagle Rock, with some caves and a huge rock that looks over the city. You hike for an hour and a half, and there’s no cars, you can’t see any houses, you can’t see any people. The city has just gone. As soon as you start this hike, you’re in the middle of wilderness, and there are lions and coyotes and raccoons. It feels very wild.

 

Isle of Skye, Scotland (Dreamstime)

Growing up in Scotland, in St Andrews, was very safe and idyllic. St Andrews is very rural. You’ve got five beaches, one of which is the one from the film Chariots Of Fire, called West Sands. It’s a very craggy, wind-beaten place. We’re right on the North Sea, so you get proper wind. I always laughed when people in London said it was windy; I’d just say “F*** off. The trees aren’t falling down, so it’s not windy.” 

My favourite place in Scotland is the Isle of Skye. If someone told me they were taking a trip to Scotland and could only visit one place, that’s where I’d tell them to go. It’s so impressive, so magical. The landscape completely silences you. My mum and dad were climbers when they were young. That’s how they met actually. They’d always take us hiking when we were kids, and I just hated it. I’d be saying, “What are we doing? Why are we going? There’s nothing there.” And now, of course, I just totally love it.

There’s a fantastic 15-mile hike I did with my parents, from Elgol, which is arguably my favourite spot on Skye. You take a little ferry from there across to Loch Coruisk, which is an elevated loch in this great horseshoe of jagged mountains. The loch is deeper than the sea and higher than the sea. It’s completely magical. The hike goes from Elgol right inland to an inn and at the end you have an amazing pub dinner and rest your weary feet. And they make Talisker on Skye, which is one of the best whiskies in the world.

 

I find hiking medicinal. It’s so restorative and repairs you’re soul if you’ve been working really hard and you’re worn out. I actually did the Inca Trail in Peru to Machu Picchu. It was incredible. I’m so glad I did it. It was four days of walking about 10 miles per day day, but going up to elevations of about 14,000 feet. It was tough, but our guide explained to me and my friend that coca leaves, if you chew on them, are very good for acclimatising to altitude. But obviously there’s connotations of them also perhaps altering your state of energy levels. I don’t know if it was the coca or not, but we were on fire. We got to Machu Picchu, and then once you get there, there’s an amazing big pointed rock called Huayna Picchu. We just ran up it, having hiked for 40 miles and been camping for four days. So, yes, the coca leaves are good. It’s all natural, man.

It was such an amazing, magical hike on the Inca Trail and then I got to the Sun Gate in the morning to see the sun hit it, and there was a guy from Hull there who asked me for a Selfie because he’d been to my gig. He was, like, “Alright, I’m Ian from Hull. Can I have a picture?” I was, like, “Wow, the Sun Gate, the Incas and Ian from Hull.”

 

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru (Dreamstime)

Exploring South America was my greatest adventure so far. I’ve travelled so much and seen so many amazing things, but Machu Picchu in Peru and the Galapagos in Ecuador were incredible. There’s nothing like the Galapagos. It’s such a singular experience and you feel so honoured to see that, because not everyone is going to get the chance. It’s like going to Jurassic Park, except everything’s smaller. It feels like the place where the world began, with all these lava mountains. You see marine iguanas, like swimming dragons, climbing out of the water onto the black lava rock, enormous tortoises that weigh twice as much as me, and there are birds called Blue-footed Boobies, which have bright blue feet, and sharks in the ocean.

I didn’t go scuba diving there but I went snorkelling and a penguin hit me in the face. It’s always been a research area, with scientists in a protected reserve, so the animals just aren’t scared of you at all. I was snorkelling and the penguin was cleaning itself, and it didn’t move and I didn’t move, and it just hit me in the face.

 

Galapagos penguin (Dreamstime)

It’s a pretty incredible place. I was also on a beach there and I had a sealion running towards me. I didn’t know if it was dangerous or not – it felt great, but it could’ve been horrendously dangerous. I don’t know. It turned out fine; the sealion was very friendly.

I love spending time in South America. When I played gigs in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Ecuador, the people are just unbelievably friendly. After the shows there, I’d get a hug from every single person waiting there to say hello. I had people teaching me how to dance. They’re so tactile and emotionally open. It’s such a massive relief for a British person to meet emotionally open people. But I was terrible at the dancing. They were laughing at me. You have to learn that s*** from when you’re a baby. It’s hard to pick up Latin dancing. But at least I tried. I could always throw a bit of ceilidh at them – a bit of Strip The Willow and they’d be f***ed.

 

Electric City, Tokyo (Dreamstime)

Tokyo is my favourite city at the moment. I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan. I love his writing. He often mixes dreamworld with reality. I kind of feel I’m in a Murakami book when I’m in Tokyo. It’s completely mental, but beautiful, a mix of ancient with super modern, which makes you feel like you’re in Bladerunner. Culturally, it’s a fascinating place and I love Japanese food.

I like getting lost. I like the thrill and mild danger of not knowing where you are. Tokyo is a high rise city, the concrete jungle, and it’s hard to keep your bearings because you’re down in the alleyways between these massive buildings. You’ll go to a restaurant and it’s on the 13th floor of a building, but the lift will stop at the lingerie store, the toy store and the gym on the way up, weirdness on every floor.

 

Boat in Disco Bay, Greenland (Dreamstime)

Another of my favourite places would be Greenland. I went to the very northern Arctic, Uummannaq and Disco Bay on an environmental trip with Cape Farewell. A bunch of artists went up and spent 10 days on a boat going up the west coast of Greenland. It was extraordinary. Jarvis Cocker was on the trip and he was very excited because he wanted to DJ in Disco Bay, and he did. I didn’t DJ, but I danced to Jarvis while he DJed in Disco Bay.

The thing I liked most about Greenland was that we went to 77 degrees north, which is really really north, beyond habitation. It was amazing seeing how the Earth became completely hostile to human beings. I’ve never been anywhere quite like that, where you would die very quickly if you weren’t protected. There were all these fingers of ice, like huge claws coming over the edge of the mountains, and everything is screaming at you “Go away. You’re not meant to be here.” It’s very nourishing to know there are still places on the Earth where you just can’t be. We saw the Northern Lights and we saw bioluminescence in the water. We met Inuits and they sang for us. It was just out of this world. 

KT Tunstall's new album KIN is released on September 9 (Virgin EMI). Her new single Maybe It’s A Good Thing is out now (see video above).

KT’s currently touring the Scottish Highlands until August 28 and will be performing at the Gibraltar Music Festival, off the south coast of Spain, alongside Ne-Yo, Stereophonics, Bryan Ferry and Jess Glynne. The festival takes place on Sept 3 and 4. See gibraltarmusicfestival.com for details.