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Chance meets tenacity to propel Tunstall

Partly thanks to ‘American Idol’ singer Katharine McPhee and the father of rapper Nas, KT Tunstall’s debut album, “Eye to the Telescope,” has sold 3.5 million copies worldwide and earned her a Grammy nod for best female pop vocal performance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If KT Tunstall wins a Grammy next month, she might consider thanking two of the most unlikely people in her acceptance speech.

One would be “American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee. The other: jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, father of the rapper Nas. Without them, Tunstall might still be strumming a guitar in London coffee shops.

“Me, McPhee and Nas’ father need to go to a wicked bar in Times Square and suck one down and talk about how great my career is,” the Scottish singer-songwriter says with a laugh.

Nas inadvertently handed Tunstall her first big break when he pulled out of an appearance on an influential BBC show in 2004 after his father fell ill, allowing Tunstall to fill in.

And it was McPhee who raised Tunstall’s American profile by belting out her infectious hit “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” — twice — during the last “Idol” run.

Partly thanks to them, Tunstall’s debut album, “Eye to the Telescope,” has sold 3.5 million copies worldwide and earned her a Grammy nod for best female pop vocal performance. Many of her songs have been featured on hit TV shows.

Along the way, Tunstall, 31, has remained fiercely grounded, even while rubbing shoulders with her musical peers when she was invited to the Grammy nomination announcements in Los Angeles in December.

“I was at a photo call with Justin Timberlake and Mary J. Blige just going, ‘Oh my God. I was unemployed like five years ago. This is not who I am!’ ” she says.

“A light bulb went off just five minutes after me getting stressed out about it, going, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Just carry on. It’s what got you here.’ ”

What got Tunstall here is her blend of alternative folk-blues and a soulful voice that has drawn comparisons to Bonnie Raitt, Dido, Bjork and — this one irks her most — Joni Mitchell.

“I’m nothing like Joni Mitchell. I’m flattered, but I don’t want to be Joni Mitchell,” she says, sipping a glass of red wine in a SoHo hotel. “There’s no point in trying to be Joni Mitchell. It’s a complete losing battle.”

Virgin Records, Tunstall’s label, is perfectly happy with that. “I’d love to clone her,” says Jason Flom, chairman and CEO of the label’s U.S. branch. “She is the kind of artist that you look for and you dream about when you’re in this business.”

One of the odder quirks in Tunstall’s career has been that her songs have been embraced by U.S. TV producers even though she dislikes television, especially reality music ones.

“My status as a musician in America is pretty much cemented by Katharine McPhee, which is really interesting and funny for me because I’ve never been polite about how I feel about shows like that,” she says.

Even so, Tunstall authorized McPhee to use her foot-stomping, woo-hoo-heavy “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” because she realized she’d be a fool to decline.

“When she sang that song, less than 1 percent of the population knew it. I was doing quite well, but it was a totally underground song at the time. Then she does it. And it worked. I have people at my gigs going, ‘I heard Katharine McPhee play your song, and I love your album, and your gig was amazing.’ That’s why you say yes.”

Soon, Tunstall’s music was all over TV, appearing in “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Will & Grace,” “Commander in Chief,” “The Loop,” “Pepper Dennis,” “Men in Trees” and “Brothers & Sisters.” Her “Suddenly I See” was used in the opening scene of the film “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“It’s the new MTV — it’s a platform for new artists,” she says.

Her second, as-yet-untitled album, is due by spring and, like her first, is being produced by U2 and New Order collaborator Steve Osborne. “I can’t wait,” she says. “It’s faster, it’s more mysterious, it’s more raucous. There’s a lot of the live energy in it.”

The half-Scottish, quarter-Irish and quarter-Chinese singer has had a weird, 10-year road to the big time, starting in the university town of St. Andrews in northern Scotland, where she was adopted as an infant.

Amazingly, she didn’t listen to pop music until she was 17. Her physicist father and schoolteacher mother had no stereo or TV at home because her younger brother is deaf and the noise interfered with his hearing aid.

Even so, Tunstall played instruments as if it were second nature. She started piano at age 6 and became accomplished on the flute and clarinet after only a week.

She formed her first band in America while attending Kent High School in Connecticut for a year, and studied drama and music at University of London’s Royal Holloway College. Returning home, she played cafes.

She fell in love with the music of The Flaming Lips, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey, even changing her first name from Kate to KT partly in homage to the latter singer. Yet try as she might, Tunstall’s own music had a more mainstream bent.

“I sort of had an epiphany four or five years ago. I went, ‘I write pop songs.’ There’s no point in trying to turn them into something else, because that’s not genuine. So if people say, ‘Oh, you’re writing to be popular,’ I say, ‘You couldn’t be more wrong,’ ” she says.

“I’m having to deal with what I write. It’s not like I’m ashamed of it, in any way. But as a rabid Beck-White Stripes-Arcade Fire fan, I know that I’m not in that bracket of music, really, so that’s been a hard thing to sort of deal with.”

If she does win a Grammy, don’t expect her to change. She refuses to put platinum records on the walls of the same London apartment she’s had since before she became famous. There’s also no TV.

She shares her home with Luke Bullen, her boyfriend and drummer, has the same friends she had before getting a Grammy nomination, and loves nothing better than to go to the pub, have a pint and chat.

“I think if I was 25, I’d be in rehab,” she confesses. “But I’m 31, and when you fight really, really hard to get somewhere — which I did — you get your priorities sorted out.”