A few years ago, Best Buy introduced a weird retail idea into the Twin Cities marketplace: eq-Life. It was a single store that contained such consumer electronic gizmos as iPods and laptops, as well as a small pharmacy, shelves full of herbal supplements, and various health and “lifestyle” products. The staff was specially trained to make your journey of purchasing these products a streamlined, efficient, and informed one (i.e. they'd show you how to use that iPod so you didn't have to bother your thirteen-year-old son). I don’t know if any of those stores are left, but I get the feeling that the demographic eq-Life was trying to hit is the same educated-culturally-savvy-liberal-working-mother demographic KT Tunstall has successfully blown to folk-pop-loving smithereens.
The fetching Scotswoman played the State Theatre for the Minneapolis stop on her Drastic Fantastic tour, an all-acoustic affair that drew in a sisterhood of Tunstall fans—gangs of middle-school girls, lesbian couples, and droves of Desperate Housewives on a gals' night out. Yes, there were men—Tunstall is a certified hottie and genuinely talented, so her appeal is no mystery—but not many wandering around unescorted.
"I went to Mill Ruins park today—it's like the Rome of Minneapolis, isn't it?" Tunstall told the audience in her mild Scottish accent. She is the ultimate low-maintenance cool girl, effortlessly sexy in her blue jeans and loose sweatshirt-y top. Totally relaxed, she jokes around with the crowd. When synchronized young voices yell out "We love you!" she looks up from tuning her guitar to observe, "It's like a big love sandwich in here, isn't? A love sandwich…with concrete as the bread.”
Tunstall is the woman society hoped would be produced by equal funding for girls' athletics in public schools—strong, confident, healthy. Up on stage, she belts out her spirited tunes in a husky, blues-tinged voice that jackrabbits up for unexpected falsettos when she wants to add even more drama to her phrasing. Her back-story is folkie-authentic; Irish-Scottish heritage with a little bit of Chinese thrown in for exoticism, years in the trenches working in other bands, then finally out on her own and pulling off the incredible triumph of selling actual albums! (Is she the folk Norah Jones?) Drastic Fantastic is only her second studio album, and it debuted at number nine on the Billboard album charts.
Her breakout came with the strangely titled "Black Horse and Cherry Tree," a song I promise you’ve heard many, many times on Cities 97. It's the one where the chorus is just a woman singing emphatically: "No, no. No, no no no. No, no—you're not the one for me." Tunstall was an unknown in the U.S. until an American Idol contestant performed the single in '06 (it was Katharine McPhee, and she ended up losing to Taylor Hicks), but after that "Black Horse" went bananas on iTunes and KT Tunstall songs were fast-tracked into that whole who-needs-album-sales? economy of licensing songs for films and TV shows. When she played it at the State, some of her fans were so stimulated that they get up out of their seats and tried to dance. "No, no. No, no no no," says the security guard, who won't let these women, who have probably not broken so much as a recycling law in their lives, near the stage.
Safety is a problem with KT Tunstall—she's too safe. Folk, or folk-rock, should be at least a little bit rebellious. It’s one of the few careers available in which nonconformity is a virtue. But with Tunstall's songs infusing pep and energy into the opening of The Devil Wears Prada or the soundtracks to Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty, she's about as nonconformist as Whole Foods. Her persona is authentic, but she’s marketed a bit too well for my tastes. Then again, her fans couldn't care less.
Her big hit right now is "Suddenly I See," and she brought it out to close the show. (Yet to come was the three-song encore, including Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody.") Tunstall was inspired to write the track after seeing a picture of Patti Smith, but it's traveled far from its avant-garde inspiration: Hillary Clinton uses it at rallies, even though Tunstall has said that if she could vote in the U.S., she'd be an Obama woman. Again, the ladies boogied out of their seats and down to the stage. Tomorrow they will attend yoga classes and drink bottled water and eat yogurt that tastes like key lime pie and regulates their bowel movements, but tonight they are dancing. But this time, there were so many of them that the security guy didn’t even bother trying to hold them back.