Scottish-born and London-based, KT Tunstall has achieved a swell of success across the pond with emotional folk rock songwriting and a strong, sonorous delivery that rocketed her to the top of the charts. While this may the point where a lesser talent hits cruise control, Tunstall two years ago did the opposite, putting her musical pedal to the metal and roaring headlong out of the dreary, cloudy skies of England straight for the hot, dry deserts of Arizona.
The result of her sojourn was the critically-lauded album Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon. Tunstall is a gem of a songwriter, lyrically raw while poetically sublime. Her deft guitar melodies and her ethereal voice, with just a slight Scottish brogue popping up every so often, is one of the sweetest in this or any hemisphere.
Tonight and tomorrow, Tuntall brings her globe-trotting style to Napa for two nights of dusty, shimmering indie folk rock before she joins pianist and bandleader Jools Holland back in the United Kingdom. Check out the music video for her single “Feel It All” below and pop on over to City Winery to catch Tunstall before she skips town.
Are you just as surprised as most people that you turned out to be a winemaker?
It doesn’t surprise me too much, ‘cause anything can happen. I went from being a cross-country runner, to being recruited to West Point, and then all of a sudden being in art school, and all of a sudden being in an international touring rock band, and then a second one, and now a third one. I tend to just kind of latch onto something and go for it.
Tool came along and really revolutionized popular rock music in a lot of ways. In what ways, if any, do you hope to revolutionize winemaking?
Ooh, gee. I don’t know about ‘revolutionizing.’ I think if I can apply what I’ve applied to everything else I’ve dove into, I think it’d be more about being true and honest with my perceptions and what I’m experiencing. Much the same way a good grape-grower or winemaker pays attention to the terroir, rather than trying to make wines that are for mass consumption. Kind of what we did with the music, where we remained true to what was happening in the room when we write. There’s only two things that myself and a musician, and my partners, there’s only two things we really have to do. All we have to do is remain true to what’s happening in that room between the four people. How we record it, what format it comes out on, what we wear, who sells it—that has no bearing as long as we remain true in that room, and focus on what’s happening in that space. And the second thing we have to do is make sure that when we go to present it live, it’s the same thing. I think with winemaking it’s a similar approach. We have to remain true to what’s happening in the vineyard, and what’s happening in the winery once we start to process those grapes. If I can have a hand in helping someone else come along with 20 times the talent that I’ll ever have in winemaking, if something that I did inspired somebody to pay attention, great. I’d love to have a hand in that.
Recording music these days can be very malleable – you have a chance to manipulate the finished product afterwards through digital software. With wine, you get what goes in the bottle, and you can’t tinker with it when it’s done. Do you appreciate that immediate, must-get-it-right-the-first-time process with wine?
Yeah, absolutely. For sure. But I also appreciate the getting it wrong the first, the second and third time. You learn along the way. But I definitely do like that, that you have to get it right.
How’s your learning curve been in Arizona? What’s your major obstacle to vineyards in Arizona?
Cold weather. We’re up in the high desert, so we planted on a lot of developed, agriculturally-zoned areas that we thought would be okay, thinking that we would have more problem with heat than cold. As it turns out, we’re a similar terrain and climate as Paso Robles, but cooler. So we had a lot of winter kills. We pretty much learned the hard way the first few years, not even realizing that we had winter kills the first year. It was like, why aren’t these things budding?
Is there a water usage issue in Arizona?
Absolutely, you have to have land that has prior ditch rights, and grandfathered-in irrigation, or a well that predates any of the salt river project claims, or any of that stuff. It really is a mess, like anywhere else. The good news is that the more the United States develops its understanding of vineyards and winemaking, I think the more they’re going to come around to encouraging people to put in vineyards rather than tract homes.
Tell me a little about Eric Glomski, and the yin he brings to your yang.
He has a memory. I’m pretty bad when it comes to hearing something and having it stay with me—my short term memory’s not so good. He’s that guy who can hear something once and remember it, so he’s able to really build upon his experiences over the years making wine. He’s a great chemist, he understands geography, geology, and his senses are all firing at the same time. His perception of what’s happening in the moment is accurate. And he can remember those exact experiences, or altered experiences over the years. He’s great in that way; he’s definitely a great guide. What I bring to him is that shotgun, bull-in-a-china-shop approach, that he wouldn’t have normally tried. I come up with crazy combinations and silly ideas that actually tend to work, because I don’t know the rules.
What are some of those crazy ideas? Obviously you’re limited by your musical projects, but how involved are you in the actual growing-to-picking-to-fermentation-to-bottling process?
Pretty involved; I spend most of my time out there. I try to work touring schedules around getting home at the end of August, so I can be there for crush. We have a little bit of downtime when it comes to late December, January, February, everything’s kind of put to bed and we’re starting to prune at that point. So I can sneak off and do musical stuff, or we can do promotions, or I can run around like I’ve been doing with these Whole Foods events. I’m pretty involved. I have a wine under my Caduceus label called Premier Paso, which is predominantly Shiraz, but it has 6 or 7 percent Malvasia in it, somewhat like a Côte-Rôtie. Eric probably wouldn’t have tried that. I was the one going, ‘Hey! I wonder what this would taste like in here!’ He was like, ‘You can’t. . . well, fuck it, let’s try it.’ And it’s great! It’s fantastic! It definitely has that Côte-Rôtie style, but I think it has more floral character on the bouquet, so it draws you in. That wine was my idea to get some of the non-wine drinkers, the more music fans, to get them in the door, because it’s such an enticing smell coming out of the glass. It’s not intimidating, and they can have it with almost anything.
When one thinks of rock ‘n’ roll guys making wine, one thinks more of the baby-boomer generation—guys from the Doobie Brothers or Journey that are starting to make wine. Do you think it’s important for more daring, risk-taking bands to start making wine?
Just in general, I think it’s a shame, our whole marketing concept of a band. There’s this artist that’s expressed themselves in some way, and because it’s so much easier for magazines, and press, and record companies and PR firms, for them to present this artist—this is what his head looks like, this is how he walks, here’s what he wears, and he only sings these songs in this way. It’s undermined the ability to move around. Peter Gabriel and David Bowie have somehow been able to say, ‘Nah, nah, I’m gonna be a painter now. I’m gonna do some acting.’ You would think that as an artist, and as a person who understands how to express, and understands their role in their environment, you’d think people would want to see them express themselves more in those areas. It’s not necessarily that musicians can’t go off into vines, or become painters. I think it’s that they don’t know they’re allowed to.
Do you appreciate the anonymity you have when talking with other winemakers, people from the wine world who may not know who you are?
It’s perfect, it’s great. I’m just some snot-nosed kid, asking questions.
What’s your reaction to wine snobs who may look down on Arizona as an inferior winemaking region?
I mean, that’s a natural reaction. If you don’t understand the area, of course you’re going to say that. The first thing people think of is cactuses and scorpions. So of course they’re going to pooh-pooh it, but they haven’t been presented with the correct information. Can’t really fault ‘em.
Is there an extra challenge with being organic and environmentally-friendly in Arizona?
No, not necessarily. We get to go ahead and break new ground where there hasn’t been stuff, and we get to start from scratch. Our southern Arizona vineyard has been farmed chemically from day one, back in the early ’80s, so it’s going to be a chore for us to slowly wean that off the chemicals and into a more organic approach. But it’s possible. I don’t think there’s anybody looking at it to trip us up on technicalities or anything. We’re doing it the best way we can.
At these Whole Foods appearances you’ve been doing, you must understand that a lot of people are there because of your musical projects. But are Tool fans receptive to wine at these things?
There’s a couple places we’ve gone back to a second time, and it’s actually been pretty encouraging. The first time around, of course, the kid with the star tattoo on his neck is freaking out a little bit, and trying the wine. But then the next time around, people actually have tried it, and they actually have genuine questions about pairings; they’re curious about how long they should lay this one or that one down. So they’ve actually come back, and you can tell when they’re speaking that they have in fact tried the wine, and they have in fact had an experience. So that’s good, We’ve basically just cultivated a whole ‘nother set of wine drinkers. We’re just expanding their perceptions of the world in general.
You’re a big wine collector. Is there a particular bottle that you’re most proud of in your cellar?
I have a 1934 Romaneé-Conti from the Doris Duke collection. That’s the only thing I have that’s of any note, other than I collect all the Grange through the years.
And since you’ve been making wine, has your collecting mentality fallen off at all?
Yeah, actually. I haven’t been first in line going to get some of the first growths pre-ordered. I haven’t done any of that. I’ve been spending so much time making my own wine. It’s put a skip in my step for collecting. It’s so expensive to get this industry off the ground in an uncharted area. You don’t have the barrel shop down the street, or the guy who understands how to fix a German grape press in the area. It really is expensive, and you have to have guys around who know what they’re doing. Everything you do ends up coming n a truck from another state. I kind of stopped collecting, focusing all my energy into making sure the nuts and bolts are in place.
I’m here in Santa Rosa, California, where there’s sort of a friendly debate between Sonoma County and Napa County over who makes better wine. Do you care to weigh in on it?
I honestly couldn’t tell you. I like a lot of stuff coming out of all over California. If you’re looking for a consistency and something that’s the same every time you drink it, there’s a bunch of wineries that do that. I prefer wines that reflect whatever year that was, and that specific region. So in that, I think there’s great wines that come from both of those places. As long as the winemaker and the farmer express that region naturally, then I can’t really separate them.
Okay, a couple non-wine questions. Being a big wine collector, you must understand the mentality of the record collector as well, and all my friends down at the local record store want to know: Will we ever see the day that Ænima is repressed on vinyl?
Yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those who-knows stories.
The record company probably owns the rights to it. . .
What record company? It’s the Titanic going down heavy. They pretty much blew it. That’s what I’m trying to do with Puscifer, is trying to figure out what the next step is, where’s the outlet, where’s the audience, where are people looking, and of course just having fun making music without somebody breathing down your neck wondering about the numbers.
Do you ever wish that people didn’t have to pay $250 for your records on eBay?
Well, they don’t really have to pay for them. That’s a shame, but yeah, it’s just a matter of repressing them, I guess, and we haven’t gotten around to it.
One last question, since it’s just days before the inauguration. What are your feelings here on the cusp of Barack Obama being put in the White House?
I think things are a mess. I think that he’s got a lot on his plate, and you can see it in his eyes. He knows that there’s so much to do. I don’t envy his position. He’s definitely got a big problem on his hands, and everyone who would not want him in that office is going to milk every, every, every, every drop of juice out of any shortcomings that he has. And of course, he’s gonna have ‘em, because there’s no way in four years that he can fix this. We just have to set aside whatever we want out of it and hope that somehow he can put out the fires.