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KT broke into the public eye with a 2004 live solo performance of her song “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on Later… with Jools Holland. She has enjoyed commercial and critical success since, picking up three nominations before winning a BRIT Award, and a Grammy Award nomination. She is also the recipient of an Ivor Novello Award.
Throughout Tunstall’s 20s, she played in Indie music bands including Elia Drew and Tomoko. She focused on songwriting, as well as performing with members of the fledgling Fence Collective. KT Tunstall had lived with Gordon Anderson, (The Beta Band, and The Aliens), whom the song “Funnyman”, on the album Drastic Fantastic, is about. She toured with the Klezmer band Oi Va Voi, and stayed with them while they were making their album, Laughter Through Tears.
British label Relentless Records heard about Tunstall through their scouts and quickly put forward an independent offer.However, Tunstall had decided to sign with a US major, and initially passed up the offer. That deal did not work out and so she eventually decided to go with Relentless.
Although he recognized the potential in the quality of her voice and songs, Relentless co-founder Shabs Jobanputra’s assessment was that she “wasn’t ready yet” and so together with her manager, Jobanputra discussed “the process of how we saw her happening and how we would work, why we thought the songs were great, why we thought she was great, and why it could really work if we took enough time.” After the signing, a lot of time was spent developing certain songs and honing her live performance before she was ready for release.
Her début album, Eye to the Telescope, was released in late 2004. Tunstall’s style of music varies from folk to pop. In Edinburgh and St Andrews, she played in a band called Red Light Stylus, which was regarded as one of the better bands to emerge from the limited Fife scene.
Tunstall’s first appearance of note was a solo performance of her blues song “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on Later… with Jools Holland. The performance was notable as she had only 24 hours to prepare after scheduled performer Nas cancelled. Her performance caught the eye of many viewers, although she had previously performed it on French television only some weeks before, upstaging more established acts such as The Cure, Embrace, and The Futureheads; she then went on to top the post-show poll on the website for that episode.
Shortly after the Later appearance, Eye to the Telescope was re-released and shot up the British charts, eventually peaking at (on its first release it had entered at #73); it was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize. It was released in the U.S. on 7 February 2006.
“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” was one of the most successful singles and most radio-played songs of 2005 in the United Kingdom. On the UK Singles Charts, the single made number twenty-eight on the charts and on the US Billboard Hot 100, charted at number twenty. The next release from the album in the United Kingdom was “Other Side of the World” whilst “Suddenly I See” was released in the United States and used in the opening credits of the film The Devil Wears Prada. Further singles released from the album were “Under the Weather” and “Another Place to Fall” which were also successful.
Tunsall’s North American break came when American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee contacted her asking to use “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” as her choice for a Billboard-themed week. At the time, the song was #79 on the Billboard charts. Tunstall had not been shy with her opinions regarding shows like Idol saying “The major problem I have is that it’s completely controlled… they’re told what to say. They’re told how to sing.” She chose to license the song as she felt that “no one on that show told Katharine McPhee to sing my song because no one knew it”. Tunstall’s belief was correct—the song was suggested to McPhee by Billboard columnist and author Fred Bronson. The song immediately jumped to #23 on the Billboard charts the week following McPhee’s performance. She has later said “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.”