KT Tunstall stands with her back to the camera on the cover of her new album. With a jacket thrown over her shoulder, her hair cascading out of a bolero and down her back, she’s staring at wide open space, a desert terrain dotted with shrubs and cacti against a big blue sky.
“Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon” is the aural equivalent of that landscape, a luminous distillation of Tunstall’s roots rock that is unlike anything else the Scottish singer-songwriter has ever created. Her fourth studio record, it’s the kind of work that hits reset on an artist’s career, a reinvention bound to alienate some fans while picking up a slew of listeners who never thought they especially cared for Tunstall’s previous music (this critic included).
“I wasn’t even planning to make a record, so the whole thing was a huge surprise,” Tunstall says from the road; she arrives at the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday. “It’s also the easiest record I’ve ever made by an incredibly long shot, weirdly.”
Recorded in two 10-day sessions last year — hence those slashes in the title — the album makes you sit up and take notice, mostly by hanging back. A sense of noir, inspired by the desert that surrounded her as she recorded, hangs over the proceedings. It’s a folk album with a jazz sophistication that offers an intimacy often absent on Tunstall’s breakout hits such as “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” both from her 2005 debut, “Eye to the Telescope.”
Tunstall, who’s 38, co-produced and wrote and played the songs with Howe Gelb, a luminary of American roots music whose credits range from Neko Case and M. Ward to his own band, Giant Sand. He lives and records in Tucson, and his touch is light on “Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon,” like a tumbleweed blowing through a ghost town.
Theirs was an unlikely pairing: the sage shaman of rustic Americana and a London-based songwriter known for her jangly pop songs. They befriended each other after touring together with Robyn Hitchcock last year; Gelb says he wasn’t especially familiar with Tunstall’s music before meeting her.
“I only knew of her from one song I saw her do live on the ‘Today’ show from six years ago or so,” Gelb writes in an e-mail. “She packed an entire choir of herself into that three minutes along with a thunderous acoustic guitar rhythm.”
Tunstall has always been a feisty live performer, unafraid to use her muscular voice in sassy kiss-offs. But often the blood and guts of her songs were buried in the clutter of slick arrangements and studio sorcery.
“She’s been shoved into a corner of production on the recordings I’ve heard from some years back,” Gelb says. “She’s got elbow room now here in the great wide open. I wanted to see how big of a horizon that voice could fill up.”
A pretty big one, it turned out. Tunstall illuminates the songs with elegance and mystique. Her voice sounds like it even belongs to a different artist, more attuned to shading and subtlety.
“I’ve never recorded my voice like this,” Tunstall concedes. “It was a very deliberate decision to make an album about my voice. I was tired of being a rhythm package, and I really wanted to sing. I wanted to make an emotional record.”
The new songs fell out of her, to the point that she started so many and suddenly worried she wouldn’t be able to finish them. She finally did, almost all at once, and began recording them in April with Gelb. Emboldened by the creative latitude, she relaxed and turned in performances that aren’t always perfect from a technical standpoint, but are natural and nuanced.
“It was a revelation to record to tape,” Tunstall says. “I never want to go near a [expletive] computer again. They can be so good for certain things and types of music, but you start to make music with your eyes when you use a computer. That’s so dangerous, because it should never be done like that. You should be listening. As soon as you go over to reel-to-reel, you’re looking at the whole song as a performance, what the feel and vibe are, instead of chunks of sound. You end up with more human music.”
She took the new songs to her A&R guy back in London, nervous with the realization that she had just spent 10 days “in the middle of the desert with this punk freak recording folk songs.” He loved it, and she forged ahead.
Soon, though, she would be engulfed in personal turmoil that would inform the second half of the record. Her father passed away in August of last year, and her divorce from Luke Bullen, the drummer in her band, commenced in September.
“It’s interesting because you listen to the first half of the record and then read my Wikipedia page about what happened to me that summer, and you think all these songs are about that. But they’re not,” she says. “They’re about other things. They just became crazy, voodoo fortune-tellers that, three months after I wrote them, they were so pertinent to what was actually going on in my life. Howe and I talked about this: It’s like the subconscious mind knows what’s coming.”
By the second recording session, she was dealing directly with her troubles. In November, when things had sort of settled down, she was happy to get back to the desert to record the second batch of songs, which would become the “Crescent Moon” portion of the album, her first for the Blue Note label. Again, the songs poured out of her “in a beautiful, cinematic, widescreen blooming of hope,” she says.
“To be honest, with my whole career up until this record I’ve felt that I haven’t quite hit the bottom with the shovel,” Tunstall says. “There were moments of that, but it wasn’t consistent. I’m proud of what I’ve done and I listen back and I can enjoy what I’ve done, but I always just felt I wasn’t cracking open the rib cage and getting everything out. I feel like I’m finally myself.”