Ten years ago, KT Tunstall had just solidified herself as one of mainstream music’s most promising new stars, thanks to her ubiquitous breakout acoustic-pop hits “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See.”
With the success of her debut Eye to the Telescope, the Scottish singer-songwriter became an international star, touring the world and releasing three more albums by 2013.
Over the years, though, Tunstall struggled with her newfound fame and endured the loss of her father, which led to her decision to divorce Luke Bullen, her husband of four years, then retreat from the spotlight for a spell and eventually restart her life in Southern California.
Today, Tunstall, 41, is back with KIN – her best album in years, which she wrote herself and features the sunny singles “Maybe It’s a Good Thing” and “Hard Girls,” as well as the James Bay duet “Two Way.” And per Tunstall, the LP was informed by the drastic life changes she recently underwent.
“I’m so grateful for all the s— that happened,” the “Maybe It’s a Good Thing” singer says in the new issue of PEOPLE,” because it shocked me into changing my life.”
Tunstall’s breakthrough in her native U.K. began in 2004, when she performed on an episode of Later… with Jools Holland, playing “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on the same episode where greats like Anita Baker and The Cure also took the stage.
“I’d been playing that f—ing song in coffee shops for like six months so had practiced a lot,” she remembers of the set, for which she stepped in last-minute in place of the rapper Nas. “The reaction was just so crazy. All these musicians were coming up to me afterwards. It made me realize that people had really responded to that performance in a pretty special way.”
Within two years, Tunstall’s debut album dropped in the U.S., and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” became a Top 20 hit. Then, follow-up single “Suddenly I See” peaked at No. 21. The track, memorably, was featured prominently, opening the modern classic The Devil Wears Prada.
“I didn’t realize they were gonna use the whole song, unadulterated, with no dialogue over the top – that’s basically defining the whole opening of the movie,” Tunstall says. “And it just changed my life. It catapulted me into a whole new echelon of success. I remember meeting this girl at a party in New York, and it was some swanky rooftop party, and she was like, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ I said I’m a singer-songwriter, and she’s like, ‘Oh, would I know your stuff?’ I said, ‘Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada? That’s my song at the beginning.’ She says, ‘Oh my god, you’re on my f—ing iPod!’
“It became this whole new level of: Your song has become bigger than you are; it’s become this ubiquitous thing where people don’t even know who sings it, and they just buy it,” she adds.
Even so, her newfound fame left Tunstall bereft.
“I definitely kept my head down and pretended it wasn’t happening,” she recalls. “Even though I was loving what was going on, in terms of the actual reality of becoming very well known? It was freaking me out.
Suddenly I See: How Her Father’s Death Gave Her a New Lease on Life
After years in the industry, Tunstall found herself unhappy in both her professional and personal lives. Then, in 2012, her father died, which led to a new lease on life.
“My father passing really, in many ways, was a gift: It made me look at my own happiness and sense of self and realize that I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I had checked all these boxes and achieved all this stuff that I thought made you happy. And I was miserable.”
Taking stock of her life “led me to getting divorced, and it left me in a place where I really could either fumble along and try and keep life as similar as possible – or I could stop everything and really take a look at myself and ask myself who I was and what I wanted and work out why I had ended up in the place of unhappiness, where I thought I was chasing a dream.”
In addition to the personal shakeup, Tunstall looked at her career through a new lens, too.
“I felt very burnt-out from touring and making records; I felt trapped by it – I felt like I had to do it,” she says. “That was what I did: I’d spent 20, 25 years of my life becoming such an expert of being a musician and felt very defined by it. So I needed to do that in my personal life, too – I needed to know who I am outside my job.”
So, after channeling her grief over the “huge tectonic shifts in my life” into her last album, the moody Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon, Tunstall retreated to do some serious soul-searching.
Hoping to find her sense of self, Tunstall turned to friends, books and more to find the work-life balance she was missing.
“I used to be like, ‘I’m KT Tunstall.’ Now, I’m going, ‘I’m Kate, and I play music’: It’s separate from my identity now,” she says. “I think cutting that umbilical cord and making the decision that I didn’t have to do it and I wasn’t gonna do it – that’s what made me come back to do it.”
In addition to her recently reclaimed identity, another major life change jump-started Tunstall’s career.
“I sold everything I owned, left London and moved to Venice Beach,” Tunstall says. “And it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever done.”
The songwriter moved intending to write music for movies. But she says the “emancipation” and “peace” she felt in her sunny new Southern California “sanctuary” reinvigorated her folk-pop sensibilities.
For more on KT Tunstall and her new album, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
“I found myself driving through Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon and Mulholland Drive and listening to Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in the car – all while seeing these amazing vistas of the PCH and all these sunsets,” Tunstall says. “It just completely got into my bloodstream, and I understood immediately why this music came from this place. And I just started writing these huge, expansive choruses.”
In addition to her fresh independent perspective and newfound home, Tunstall found love again – all of which informed her anthemic new album.
“It was the most unexpected thing in my whole life. I didn’t see it coming, and as private as I like to be, it would be disrespectful to not talk about finding love because it’s a really important part of the record. It’s also something that I think is so important to respect that if you find the right person in your life, it can be very transformative,” Tunstall says of her new beau. “It’s just teaching me stuff every day, about being a team – which I really don’t think I’ve done very well before.”
How she met the man she calls “the love of my life” was just as surprising.
“I had met [him] dancing in a club many years ago, and nothing happened, and we never met again … and then we suddenly met again six years later; I as like, ‘Oh, it’s you!'” Tunstall says with a laugh. “The rest is history forming, as we speak.”
That bond, and close ones like it with friends, is what influence her new album, KIN.
“The trick is finding how to be strong whilst being vulnerable. And that’s really what this record is about: finding the people who inspire you to be that by being that yourself. That’s who your kin are: the people who lift you up and allow you to be yourself and all of those good things,” Tunstall says.
“The people for me who are kin are the people who can accept that s— is gonna happen and not just pretend it isn’t and not pretend that they’re okay. [They] come through that and share that and manage to use those experiences as tools in an emotional toolbox to become evermore human.”
Happier and healthier than ever before, Tunstall continues to look forward the future with hope.
“It feels like a new life – like something got burned in the fire, and this is the phoenix that came out of it,” she says.
Tunstall is on tour through Nov. 10. For a full list of dates, click here.