KT Tunstall

Scotland’s KT Tunstall couldn’t believe her eyes. On her first visit to San Francisco as an emerging U.K. star, she opened a benefit concert sponsored by a local radio station and found herself in front of a sold-out Masonic Auditorium that was going nuts for her.

“Everybody was just going wild, and people were actually standing up and dancing,” Tunstall told Pollstar. “At the end, I got a standing ovation from 2,000 people.

“Usually, I’ll go offstage and back to the dressing room. But I was peeking through this curtain at this auditorium full of people, in this place I’d never played before in my life, having no idea how much KFOG had plugged me. I thought, ‘What on earth is going on?’ I was totally confused and amazed and delighted. It happened in a truly organic way with radio.”

That was December 3rd, more than three months before her eponymous debut album was even released in America. But in San Francisco, the Scots-Chinese singer/songwriter already had a fan base, thanks to the niece of a program director at KFOG-FM who had returned from a visit to Europe with Tunstall’s record in hand and raves for the music.

With that pitch, the first single from the album, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” went into regular rotation and word spread to stations in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego and Boulder, Colo. According to Tunstall, when one program director called Virgin Records’ New York headquarters to congratulate them on signing her, the label had to check with the London office to find out who she was.

That’s all changed. When Pollstar spoke to Tunstall from her flat in London, she was preparing for a virtually sold-out return to the States. She’d also just learned her album was certified gold, though it was already platinum five times over in the U.K. where it was released in 2004.

Though Tunstall might seem an overnight sensation in the U.S., it’s been a long time coming for the 30-year-old, who still bristles at the resistance she got from record companies early on as she made the rounds in London for, as one reviewer put it, being on the “wrong side of 25.”

“It was basically the attitude I encountered, which I just found incredible. It wasn’t like I was begging, ‘Oh please sign me, please change your mind.’ To me, if you think like that, I do not want to be on your label,” Tunstall said.

“They’ve got a great blueprint with Sheryl Crow, one of the biggest selling artists on the planet. She did her first album at 34. Or Patti Smith. Horses came out when she was 27. Why not cash in on an already proven plan? And now I’m laughing at them, with a bottle in one hand and my album in the other.”

She laughs a lot these days. In addition to her American success, she won the Brit award earlier this year for best female artist and is now up for an Ivor Novello award for songwriting.

“The Ivor Novello nomination is an exciting and really important one for me,” Tunstall said. “It’s the proper ‘Do It Yourself’ award for songwriting. It means you’re actually an artist. So it makes me very proud to be recognized as a writer as well as a performer.”

KT Tunstall

Her London-based manager, Simon Banks of SB Management, was also named manager of the year at last month’s Music Managers Forum, sharing the Roll of Honour Awards stage with such legends as U2’s Paul McGuinness.

“It’s so nice the same year I get my Brit, he gets his manager of the year award – which is voted on by managers so it’s a real great award for him,” Tunstall said of Banks, who’s been guiding her career for seven years since bringing her to London from Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Both of us approach what we do with a very similar attitude and it’s one of making good music and doing it in a way that you can respect yourself for,” she said. “We’ve never fucked anyone over to get somewhere. We haven’t done anything we aren’t proud of, even in a business that can be pretty cutthroat.”

Tunstall is just as effusive of her agents, Mike Greek of Helter Skelter in London and Marty Diamond of Little Big Man Booking in the U.S.

“Very early on, when I was playing for 100 to 150 people in the U.K., I started working with Mike Greek, who was so convinced by the show he said, ‘I don’t ever want you to support anyone. I want you to headline.’ Within a year we were playing to 2,500 to 3,000 people and every last gig sold out from the beginning.”

Greek introduced Tunstall to Diamond, who took the same approach – albeit in a creative fashion when it came to introducing KT to her first American audiences.

“He started me off doing a couple of total guerilla gigs at South by Southwest last year, and I wasn’t even on the bill,” she said, laughing. “He was just kind of sneaking me in to bizarre little venues, where I’d play in a restaurant and then Bloc Party would play outside.

“I think a few people he wanted to have see me did see me and it kind of got the ball rolling. And he said if you don’t need to be supporting anybody, don’t. And he’s right. We’re back and playing for 1,500 people per gig, now.”

She’ll be playing for more than that, as she hits a few festivals this summer – before returning Stateside for another tour in the fall – including another show for KFOG, in what she now calls her “second home” of San Francisco.