The first time KT Tunstall played a support slot in Belfast wasn’t memorable for the experience alone but also for a rather more olfactory engagement with the main act’s lead singer.
“It was the first time I ever got to smell Sting!” she laughs of her encounter with The Police frontman during their 2008 gig at the grounds of Stormont.
“I was just about to go on and he came down to my dressing room to say hello. I said ‘You smell amazing!’ and he said ‘Thanks, I don’t know what it is that just oozes out of me!’
In a groupie or a starstruck wannabe such a story might be delivered in a girlish giggle or awed tones, but not with Tunstall.
The 36-year-old Scot projects something of an air of cool, but of the friendly laid back kind, rather than the consciously aloof posture of the rock singer.
Then again, she can afford to be her own woman, having clawed her way to the heights of both popularity and respectability in the UK music scene.
Less than a decade ago she was a hard-working but largely unknown artist, writing songs and trying to get her voice heard in an increasingly tough and oversubscribed singer-songwriter market.
It was a last minute booking on the Later With...Jools Holland show in 2004 to perform her single Black Horse and the Cherry Tree which shot her to almost overnight success.
Yet she never let fame go to her head, despite three studio albums, several hit singles, including Suddenly I See and Other Side of the World, and countless festival gigs across the land.
“I didn’t find fame particularly difficult, partly because I’m proud to be able to say I’m the most unrecognisable face in pop,” she laughs. “I seem to be able to get the bus from anywhere to anywhere.
“It was apparent quite quickly that I wasn’t into the private members’ club side of being famous. My friends were incredibly important to me and were not caught up in that at all.
“Also, I was being quite respectful of what I had achieved because I had spent my entire 20s trying to get somewhere, and didn’t want to f**k it up by getting distracted by things that didn’t matter.”
Other than The Police tour and a stint playing support for The Eagles, nor has she gone down the route of becoming a professional warm-up act, preferring instead to let her own music do the talking.
“My experience of playing for 10 years before getting anywhere was that it was much more effective playing to 50 people as the main show than it was playing to 500 people as support,” she says.
“Which is not to say support isn't a good idea, because if you get the right hook-up it can be fantastic. But it just felt to me like I was getting people to listen to what I was doing, which can be hard as a support act.”
Her forthcoming concert next Thursday at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s will see her return to those more pared-down roots, as she performs from her new seven track acoustic Scarlet Tulip EP, on the first date of her new solo UK tour.
“It’s mainly based around my album Tiger Suit,” she says. “It’s the first thing I recorded in my own studio, which is hugely liberating. It’s a pretty mellow folk-inspired EP.”
It also speaks of a more mellow phase in Tunstall's life right now, as she is no longer so doused in the limelight as she was at the beginning of her fame. Following a spat involving English songstress Dido in 2005 she also learned the hard way that an increased profile meant every word she uttered — especially about other artists — would be scrutinised more closely.
Her comment that Dido “can't f**king sing” saw her issue a swift and sincere retraction, as she did not wish to become embroiled in a public feud with someone she had never met.
“I really regretted being s**tty about someone,” she says. “I was massively inexperienced in doing interviews and I think journalists can be very talented at working out when someone is inexperienced and end up getting something out of them they would never usually say. That’s what happened, I was pushed into a corner and lashed out and said something really stupid.
“There’s no room in music for women to be s**tty about each other.
“There’s no problem having an opinion, but being senselessly s**tty about someone is not helpful to anyone apart from tabloid newspapers. So I learned a big lesson there.”
As if to emphasises the point she speaks of her “huge admiration” for the late Amy Winehouse and her sadness at her recent death.
“It seemed like she’d got to a place where she was stronger,” she says. “It was sad that it happened when she was making progress.”
While some might argue that rock and roll is still a man’s world, it is one the self-confessed tomboy Tunstall is more than comfortable in.
“It’s great being a female on the road, because it’s a totally male world and most of the time men are happy to see a woman wandering around,” she says.
“Then again I’ve heard some shocking stories where I’ve thought ‘That wouldn’t happen if there was a girl on the bus!’”
KT Tunstall, Ulster Hall, Thursday, October 27, 8pm. For tickets go to www.belfastfestival.com
Adoption, marriage and an ivor novello
- KT Tunstall was born Kate Victoria Tunstall in Edinburgh in 1975. She was adopted by an English family at just 18 days old.
- She chose the initials as a shortened form of Katie, as well as to avoid confusion with fellow musician Katie Melua
- In 2008 she married Luke Bullen, the drummer in her band, on the Isle Of Skye in Scotland.
- She won a prestigious Ivor Novello award in 2006 for her single Suddenly I See, which featured on the soundtrack to the film The Devil Wears Prada, which starred Meryl Streep.