Singer/songwriter KT Tunstall has a unique background, but she's not willing to play up her past just to get a leg up on the competition.
"Basically, I was adopted when I was a baby. My maternal grandmother was Cantonese, so I'm a quarter Chinese and half Irish and a quarter Scottish and raised by English parents living in Scotland," she said. "But I'm not going to sit here and say that it all affects me and my music, because it doesn't. The only thing I know about being Asian is that my hair is black and my eyelashes are straight and I have strange eyebrows."
It's an answer that only hints at Tunstall's straight-shooting approach to music and life. She's candid about her childhood (dad is a physicist and mom a teacher, and "they weren't into music at all") and her formative years spent idolizing David Bowie and Patti Smith. And she doesn't try to romanticize her time spent at London's Royal Holloway College and the years spent kicking around the Scottish music scene, all of which led to her first album, Eye to the Telescope, released in the U.K. last year.
"It was my first record, and I didn't really know what I was doing," she said. "Basically, I was just drawing on my past, on my parents encouraging me to take lessons in any instrument I wanted to learn, and the fact that even though I had a lot of friends at school whose parents were doctors and their brothers were doctors, somehow I didn't end up as a doctor."
Whatever the case, Telescope was a success, scoring a trio of hit singles and earning Tunstall a Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist. And it's slowly earning her a fanbase on this side of the Atlantic too (Telescope has sold more than 134,000 copies since it was released here in February), which is a bit difficult for Tunstall to wrap her head around.
"We've been spending the majority of the time in the States playing gigs. I did a solo tour before Christmas, and now we're doing full-band shows," she said. "And it's been amazing. And a bit weird. We'll find ourselves in someplace like Annapolis, Maryland, and the gig is packed, and we just sit there going, 'How did all you people know?' "
A lot of the success is probably due to the video for her debut single, "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree," which is getting airplay on mtvU. And much like everything Tunstall has done, the story behind the song is about as humble and straightforward as she is.
"The song wasn't originally on the album, but I got a spot on [British TV show 'Later With Jools Holland']. Nas was supposed to be on it, and his father — who was playing trumpet on the song — was ill, so Nas dropped out and gave 24 hours' notice," she said. "So I got a phone call asking if I wanted to come fill the spot. I was on tour playing distorted clarinet and tin box in my friend's punk-folk band, so I had to fly back to London. And my label asked me what I wanted to play, and I thought, 'Well, your newest song is always your best song,' and I had just written 'Black Horse,' so I just decided to play that.
"I had been playing it to audiences in coffee shops for about three months, and people had liked it, but I never got any standing ovations from the latte drinkers. But I went on the show, and I totally nailed it," she said. "And I was on the show with the Cure, Jackson Browne, Anita Baker, the Futureheads and Embrace, and the next day I win, like, 50 percent of the Internet viewers' poll, and I was like, 'Was the Cure button broken?' "
Plans for a second Stateside single are in the works, and while "Suddenly I See" has emerged as a front-runner, things are less clear when it comes to the matter of shooting a video.
"For all my videos, my record company will go, 'So do you have any ideas for your videos?' and I would say, 'Yeah, we should do this and that,' and it's this great story, and they'll go, 'Well, that's great. But what we're going to do is hire this director who's got this great idea!' " she said.
"I've got this idea for a video that would star [Flaming Lips frontman] Wayne Coyne and Tom Waits and Beck, and they would all be on a ship, and there would be a secret room in the bowels of this ship. All of them would go down there and they'd say they found something, but you'd never know what it was, but it'd be something very important down there. Now I've just got to convince all of them to be in the stupid thing."