KT Tunstall’s Pick

A tribute confessional from a part-time gigging musician

KT Tunstall’s guitar pick arced through the air as she flung it into the audience, glinting in the floodlights before I lost sight of it in the small standing-room venue where she played recently in Menlo Park, California. There was a sudden scramble around me. My friend Jen swooped to the ground and emerged triumphant with the pick grasped in her fingers. She gave it to me, and I was lost in a moment of wonderment.

You see, a couple of hours earlier, I had been telling the story of how I, someone who just doesn’t go to that many concerts, had been to another KT Tunstall concert eight years earlier at a small wine country venue in Sonoma. And then how she had flung her pick mid-show into the audience and how my friend Patty had gallantly cajoled it from the people at the next table and presented it to me.

Two KT Tunstall concerts, two gray Jim Dunlop 0.88 mm guitar picks.

A woman sings into a microphone
Scottish singer KT Tunstall performing live in 2014 (image credit: Wikipedia)
By Bruce – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49477503

Rekindling an interest in singing

I was 46 when I moved with my wife and kids to Bangalore, India in 2008 for what ended up being a seven-year, lovely interlude back in the place of my childhood. Around that time, my interest in playing the guitar and singing had been awakened after many years of being confined to playing “Hotel California” at late-night after-parties.

I decided to take my newly rekindled musical interest seriously and found a small, cozy cafe in Bangalore where musicians occasionally played. The owner let me come in and perform on Sunday evenings after cautioning me that no one shows up on a Sunday. It was perfect for me! Two tables of uninterested patrons sitting in the open courtyard, smoking and chatting with each other and quite oblivious to me singing my list of 20 or so covers on a borrowed mic and sound system.

I had never played and sung solo in this way. Every mistake hung in the air; my hands turned clammy, my fingers tensed up, I didn’t hit notes that I wanted to, and my voice, which sounded okay to me in private, sounded not that good at all when amplified into a public space that was awash with unseen criticism.

A man plays a guitar in front of a plant and a microphone
Chandran Sankaran lives in the Bay Area but often returns to play gigs in Bangalore (image courtesy: Chandran Sankaran)

After a few weeks of this and not being thrown out, I was emboldened. I decided to put myself further out there and approached Thierry, the owner of a French cafe that I used to frequent, Cafe Noir, in an upscale high-traffic shopping plaza in the heart of Bangalore. They didn’t have live music, and I suggested to Thierry that I play there. He was hesitant but gracious when I showed up one Saturday afternoon to play my now slightly longer playlist. It seemed to go quite well, and I could see Thierry watching passersby pause, listen, and then step in for an unplanned coffee.

Gigging at Cafe Noir

A couple of years later, Cafe Noir celebrated my 100th weekly show there with an enormous cake. By then, there was a regular following, with a steady stream of requests (and more) sent up to me written on paper napkins. Biddu, an icon of the global disco scene, dropped by, as did Virat Kohli, a cricket legend. A local magazine, bloggers, and many social media posts covered these gigs and captured the mood of the young, optimistic vibe all around me in this city.

I moved back to the US some years later and continued playing weekly gigs in cafes and bars around the San Francisco Bay Area with a much bigger catalog of cover songs. When I played my last weekly venue show earlier this year at Vino Locale in Palo Alto at the age of 61, I had played more than 750 gigs and learned so much.

Through my 15-year journey of growth as a part-time but committed gigging musician and performer, KT Tunstall has been my conscience.

Born in black and white

Around the time I did my first nervous cafe gig in Bangalore in 2008, I had just seen The Devil Wears Prada (the first of many times). I was entranced by the catchy song that accompanied the opening titles. “Her face is a map of the world…;” “She fills up every corner like she’s born in black and white…;” “Suddenly I see…”

Who on earth is that singer with that lovely, raspy rocker voice, I wondered. That night, seeking the answer to that question, I fell into a KT Tunstall YouTube tunnel from which I am yet to emerge.

KT, and the loop pedal she helped popularize, set the standard for what a solo guitar and voice performance could possibly be. She was ‘discovered’ at the ripe old age of 28, having spent a decade purveying and honing her extraordinary skills, underappreciated on street corners and in bars.

A man plays a guitar
Chandran Sankaran performing at a gig (image courtesy: Chandran Sankaran)

Listening differently

On nights when I played at a noisy bar and I couldn’t hear myself and nobody else could either, or days when I played in a tomb-like coffee shop where the only customers there had headphones on and were staring at their computer screens, I thought of KT and picked myself up.

The first Bob Dylan record that I listened to properly and learned to love was “Blood on the Tracks”. But I had never dared to cover a Dylan tune because I always felt I sounded like a low-budget knock-off. Then I heard KT do a stunning cover of “Tangled Up In Blue” as part of a tribute in 2012. Seeing how she made it so completely her own while preserving its essence unchained me and allowed me to listen differently to iconic musicians with distinctive voices, be bolder, and grow in my performances.

Suddenly I See

A guitar pick
KT-Tunstall’s actual pick from June 15, 2023, Menlo Park (image courtesy: Chandran Sankaran)

Perhaps the reason KT has been such an influence on me is that, beyond her musical talent and performance skills, she also seems so real and grounded. A normal, empathetic, and vulnerable human who somehow gives me permission to try and be that too – in my music, in my work, in my life. This Scottish woman who on the surface shares nothing with this sometimes Indian, sometimes American man, casts an enormous shadow that reaches me wherever I am.

So when she flings a guitar pick into the audience, it curves like it knows what it’s doing, and my friends bring it to its rightful home.

Suddenly I see why the hell it means so much to me.

Fun links to explore:

  1. Explocity, a local magazine, covers the author’s 100th gig at Cafe Noir, Bangalore
  2. Biddu, a hometown boy turned legend drops by Cafe Noir.
  3. A travel video blog from 2012 featuring the author at Cafe Noir
  4. The Devil Wears Prada opening credits
  5. KT and her loop pedal in a 2007 Rolling Stone performance
  6. KT 2012 cover of Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue
  7. KT being real and grounded, as always

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of India Currents. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything.

Chandran Sankaran is a tech and media entrepreneur who has lived and worked between the US and India. He is a part-time musician and performer.