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Scottish roots helped shape KT Tunstall’s music

* EDITOR’S NOTE: KT Tunstall cancelled her “Hawaiian Heaven” tour at press time due to coronavirus concerns.

Playing Casanova on Saturday as part of her “Hawaiian Heaven” tour, critically acclaimed Scottish musician KT Tunstall recently recorded a cover of John Lennon’s classic protest song “Gimme Some Truth.”

With stellar backing by Procol Harum organist Josh Phillips, former Eric Clapton band bassist Dave Bronze, along with Paul McCartney and Average White Band guitarist Hamish Stuart, the new version was released on the 39th anniversary of Lennon’s murder in New York City, with proceeds benefiting the War Child charity.

Available on YouTube, this powerful indictment of governments and politicians still rings true today.

“A bunch of really fantastic musicians got together and wanted to say something meaningful in the face of us all feeling very let down by the lack of honesty and transparency across the board with those in power,” Tunstall said via phone from London. “It was quite cathartic for all of us. On one hand you’re extremely grateful that there are these songs that speak for you, but on the other hand it can leave you quite depressed that it’s still so apt many decades later. I also sing ‘I Won’t Back Down’ by Tom Petty in my show. That’s another medicinal song that helps you through difficult stuff.”

A Grammy-nominated musician, Tunstall recorded a great version (with a powerful video) of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist Mike McCready in 2018 to support people standing up for justice and equality.

Super excited about heading to the islands, which will include gigs at the Blue Note Hawaii, she said, “I can’t believe how excited I am heading to Hawaii for the first time ever. It’s an absolute dream. Every human being who has been to Maui has told me that I have to go.”

On Friday, she will release a new dance-orientated song “Starlight & Gold,” a collaboration with Italian DJ Maurizio Molella. “It’s just a one off-side project with Molella, who is a legendary DJ, “ she says. “I’ve always loved dance music and it was nice to do something fun that has no attachment to anything, just get in the studio and have a laugh.”

After her Hawaii dates, Tunstall has been booked to open for Hall and Oates on their summer arena tour. “We include her whenever we can because she needs to be exposed as much as possible, especially in America,” Daryl Hall told Rolling Stone. “I love her songs and I love singing with her.” In the past he’s also described her as, “a new version of Bonnie Raitt.”

Acclaimed ever since her 2005 debut album, “Eye to the Telescope,” Tunstall’s latest album, “WAX,” has been highly praised. The London Times lauded: “When she rocks out on electric guitar for ‘Little Red Thread,’ or summons the gilded spirit of Stevie Nicks on ‘Poison in Your Cup,’ she shines.”

Rolling Stone noted it was “full of feverish rock grit imbued with a fierce stomp from start to finish.” AllMusic said “Tunstall has rekindled the fire with one of her tightest and most inspirational records to date.”

The second installment in a trilogy of albums focusing on spirit, body and mind, she opens with the deliciously rocking “Little Red Thread” and keeps the volume turned up on the terrific, hook-laden synth-rock of “Human Being” and the punkish-pounding, Chrissie Hynde flavored “The Healer.” Playing guitar, keyboards, synthesizer and flute, Tunstall shifts close to Prince with the majestic lure of “The Mountain,” where she yearns for the succor of nature.

“It’s about becoming overwhelmed by modern urban life,” she says. “It was inspired by a visual of getting in car at night and driving out of the city off into the hills.”

Born Kate Victoria Tunstall in 1975 in Edinburgh, Scotland, she started playing piano at the age of 4. As to how her Scottish roots impacted her music she explains: “I remember playing with a great British musician called Robyn Hitchcock. He said, ‘KT, let me look at your boot heel.’ I kicked my heel up and he said, ‘see, you’ve got the Scottish heel.’ My left heel was half worn down. He said, ‘Every Scottish musician is constantly stamping to the beat. Growing up with Scottish music we’re very used to four to the floor dancing. A very rhythmic pulse permeates you with Celtic music.”

Plugging away for years on the Edinburgh and London pub circuits she finally signed a record deal at age 27 and hit big with the bluesy swagger of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” propelled by a foot-stomping Bo Diddley beat.

“I was listening to a lot of old blues music, Bo Diddley included, when I was making that first record,” she recalls. “I was very into syncopation and the realness of sound you got with those old blues recordings. I since learned he heard that beat at age 11. It’s originally called the hambone beat, because they would slap their legs and bodies. You hear it on ‘Desire’ by U2 and ‘Faith’ by George Michael. It’s an omnipresent beat.”

Often performing as a one-woman band who employs a loop pedal, she creates complex vocal, guitar and percussive loops to build songs. “I had made a band record and loved that full sound,” she explains. “I’d been playing in coffee shops solo for 10 years and I desperately wanted to bring in the rhythmic element. I was just bored senseless. I needed more. You would expect more people doing it, but it’s actually hard. You’ve got to have precisions timing.”

Her Maui shows she says will be solo with, “all my toys. Small woman onstage, loud sound coming out of the speakers.”

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As the list of show cancellations multiplies on Maui, Joan Osborne, who was headed for the Iao Theater on Friday announced that she’s “sad to say our shows through April are all cancelled.”

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With island musicians reeling from the impact of the virus, Eric Gilliom is hoping to play with Barry Flanagan at Nalu’s South Shore Grill on Saturday. The duo cancelled last Saturday’s gig, but Eric says, “we are going to try and keep something going at Nalu’s, to see if we can get 40 or 50 people there.”

“It’s having a profoundly devastating blow for lots of us. It’s how we make our living. Hotel occupancy is dropping and typically the first people they lay off are musicians. I’m holding on so far at the Four Seasons. I have another ‘White Hawaiian’ show planned at the MACC for April 19, but I don’t know if it’s a go. Everything is in limbo.”

The Nalu’s South Shore Grill dinner show with Gilliom and Flanagan starts at 6:30 p.m. Gilliom plays at the Four Seasons Resort on Mondays in the lobby from 8 to 11 p.m. and on Thursdays at Ferraro’s Italian restaurant from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

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