INTERVIEW: KT Tunstall on reminding fans to ‘Wash Ya Hands,’ England’s slave trade protest

KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall performs at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2018. Joaquin Cabello/STAFF.

With COVID-19 cases surging across the United States and around the world, it seems people are already forgetting the lessons we learned back in March about how to slow the spread of the pandemic. Well, KT Tunstall is here to help.

Her new song, “Wash Ya Hands,” implores you, in musical terms and with a coincidental 20-second chorus, to take steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. If it seems upbeat for this particular moment in time, that’s not entirely unintentional.

“I just wanted to write something super fun for people to get a mantra in their head of how we need to change going forward,” she said over a video call last week. “It was so much fun making it. I just made the whole thing in my laptop.”

Part of the cheerfulness comes from the lockdown itself, which is affording her a rare opportunity to stay still.

“I’ve been quite surprised at how much I haven’t missed the outside world,” she said. “I spend the majority of my life on the road and I’m always saying to myself that I wish I had a little bit of time at home. Well, here it is.”

Just because she’s not on the road doesn’t mean she still doesn’t want to be playing and interacting with her fans, however. She just wanted to make sure she did it right.

“When this whole thing started, I was struggling. I wasn’t feeling very inspired,” she said. “I didn’t feel like writing that much, and I didn’t really feel like playing. I felt quite complex emotions about it. A lot of artists—myself included to a point, but I’m lucky because I’ve got a couple big hits that make me royalties—artists are in a position where their live income is taken away. It’s very difficult these days to make a living if they’re not playing live. I remember talking to my dear friend Maggie Rogers and she’s doing amazingly well, but she said there are so many artists who won’t be able to be artists after this. They just can’t afford it.”

With that in mind, she didn’t want to be part of a wave of musicians doing what they do for a living but for free. She made a point to connect with her fans, but recently she found a way to make music work without sacrificing her principles.

“I just recently did my first Zoom show,” she said. “It was a week’s worth of crazy setup. There was amazing audio, there was stereo through your computer. I could see everyone in front of me, I could shout people out. It was like everyone was in the front row. And that was a charged ticket, and that felt like it was worth it.”

All that said, don’t feel bad if you’re not using this time to be productive. All your friends may be learning new skills and baking sourdough, but Tunstall is right there with you if you can’t work up the energy.

“Just getting through the day is hard,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic! People are dying! We’re also going through an incredible moment for Black Lives Matter, for the Black and brown communities. There’s a lot of very distressing videos and information. It’s hard on the heart, the whole thing is tough.”

Despite that, Tunstall is working on a new record, finishing songs that have already been written. She’s having a studio built in her house and all the production is happening remotely with some friends in London and producer Martin Terefe, who co-wrote “The Other Side of the World” and “The River” with her. But she’s quick to point out that it shouldn’t be the expectation.

KT Tunstall, Wash Ya Hands

Courtesy KT Tunstall.

“I’ve definitely been keen to share that I have not been achieving during this time,” she said. “The wash-your-hands song feels like a great achievement! But over and above that, I just want to do my laundry. I want to tidy up that part of the garden. I haven’t even gotten around to reading the books I want to read yet.”

Going back to the Black Lives Matter protests, KT Tunstall points out she’s very passionate about the cause. While she didn’t grow up in the United States, she’s quick explain how her native Scotland isn’t immune from racism itself. In fact, racism was one of the the U.K.’s first exports. It was where the slave trade came from before spreading to North America. The problems facing the U.S. aren’t unique to the U.S., and neither are their causes.

One recent example of what she means was the June 7 protests in Bristol, England, where protestors tore down a statue of Edward Colston and dumped it into the harbor. Colston, a 17th century slave trader, still has a prominent presence in British society. His name appears on roads, schools, hospitals, and even churches in Bristol, especially, but as far away as London. The wealth he donated to build those buildings came in large part from the estimated 84,000 Africans he enslaved and transported to North America; roughly 18,000 of whom died on the journey and were thrown overboard.

“There’s a venue in Bristol called Colston Hall,” she said. “Yes, he built a lot of buildings in Bristol. He brought a lot of wealth to the city. But that wealth was built on the slave trade.”

“In that venue, which I’ve played several times, it’s really horrendous,” she continued. “Underneath the hall it looks like wine cellars, but it’s human cellars. That was where Colston would have all the slaves brought from the docks, through tunnels that went under the streets, and into the basement of this building [which was rebuilt after a fires in the last century] where they were kept in cages. Many musicians have been really upset about the fact that this place is called Colston Hall, and there has been conversation around that statue and around that venue for a long time. There’s never been agreement in how to change it. And I for one am really glad protestors dealt with it and forced that change, because people have tried to change that for a long time and nothing happened.”

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