Over a scampering, Latin-flavored beat, KT Tunstall’s infectious new single, “Hold On,” enjoins one and all to “Hold on to what you’ve been given lately/ Hold on to what you know you’ve got.” Coming from a singer-songwriter-guitarist who made her bones busking in the streets of her native Scotland, and who, by her late ’20s, was written off by every record label as “too old to make it,” this comes as sage advice, indeed.

That Tunstall (whose first name is Kate, although she prefers the “rock sound” of KT) made a cannonball-sized splash with her zippy, glossy pop-folk debut album, 2004’s Eye to the Telescope (released in the U.S. in 2006), is reason enough to be amazed. Ever since Britney Spears begged to be hit one more time in the late ’90s, female singers past puberty have pretty much been given the heave-ho. But years of playing in Edinburgh bands (along with all that busking) sharpened Tunstall’s songwriting chops to the point of urgency. Smash hits such as “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” (the latter of which showcased KT’s biting guitar skills) have shown her to be an artist with the kind of goods that last.

Drastic Fantastic, Tunstall’s new album, proves this in spades. A nearly flawless piece of popular art that takes not an ounce of effort to enjoy, it finds the Gibson Dove enthusiast briskly strumming her way through a collection of spotlessly produced songs that are equal parts enchanting, love-struck come-ons and righteous, poisonous kiss-offs. During a recent interview with Gibson, KT admitted that the worldwide acclaim, the mega-sales, and the awards are all sweet relief (and revenge) after years of hardship and doubt.

First off, what’s the deal with the Gibson Firebird on your album cover? It looks huge.

That's because it’s not a real guitar; it’s a prop. In my video for “Hold On,” you can see me with an actual Firebird that's covered with mirrors; it supposed to have sort of a mirror ball vibe. When we did the album cover, a couple of props guys made me a mock version of a Firebird covered with mirrors. They got the dimensions kind of wrong and it came out much bigger than the real thing. I thought it looked great, though, a little surreal, like an optical illusion. All the tuning pegs are actually whiskey decanter tops, and the strings are necklaces and all sorts of stuff, so it was a really amazing piece of work. It looks great.

Besides the Firebird, you also love Gibson Dove acoustics.

I really, really love my Dove. It's got a fantastic breadth of sound to it. I'm a pretty aggressive rhythm player, and I'm very reliant on my bottom E string, so I need an acoustic guitar that's got a very, very rich bottom end, as well as having the nice brightness at the top. The Dove is really fantastic for that. And then my back-up at the moment is a Hummingbird, which is a little bit more honky and a bit more breezy, so you get a different sound out of it. But I'm very excited because Gibson has actually made me a Custom Dove, which is an Elvis Dove. It's black with a white scratch plate and it has stars all the way up the fretboard. It looks absolutely beautiful.

Talk about your playing style. On “White Bird,” from the new album, you’re doing some marvelous fingerpicking.

I actually started off as a fingerpicker. I didn’t use a pick to strum for a long time. I would strum with my bare fingers because I found it really difficult to use a pick at first. There were two albums that had a big impact on me at the same time: Blue by Joni Mitchell and Bone Machine by Tom Waits. Both had this mixture of surreal, beautiful, and inimitable fingerpicking and this very kind of percussive rootsy sound. Lately, I’ve gotten into strumming with a pick-I just like as much noise as possible-but I'll never stop fingerpicking.

What kind of pressure did you experience recording a follow-up to a multi-million-selling debut?
The greatest pressure was simply feeling totally knackered from touring and promoting the first album. It was three pretty relentless years. Sure, I was doing something I’ve always wanted to do quite passionately, which was get on a bus with a band and take my music to the world, but it left me in a situation where I didn’t want to take any time off; I wanted to get another record out quickly. In terms of sales, the first one did so well, I feel as though I’ve taken my share from the sell-lots-of-records box already. So all I wanted to do, cliché as it sounds, was to make something that I really loved and could be happy about. Trying to do that when you’re completely worn out was very difficult. 

How do you feel about being called a pop star? 

For a long time, I just really couldn't accept that. It was a very bizarre concept, and I kind of had my fingers in my ears and just really didn’t want to think about that side of things. But then I got to the point where I was like, “All right now, come on, let's see what this ‘pop star’ stuff is all about,” and I just wanted to, you know, grab it by the balls.

But pop stars don’t continue to busk. Word is, you were in Glasgow the other day busking.

Yes, I was. It was fantastic! It was so nice go to back and do that. Obviously, I don’t really need the cash anymore, but it was great to just go out and play, which is what I’d be doing anyway no matter what was happening with me. It a tremendous feeling to know that I can always just get out with my guitar and rip it up.

What can you tell us about the single “Hold On”? How did it come about?

“Hold On” was spawned from where I live in London-I live in Northwest London-which is steeped in dance hall. Even in the streets, it's just dance hall all day and night, just these huge beats pumping out of cars and windows. That’s how the beat came about. I wrote it with a friend of mine who's a garage producer. He comes from that part of London, and he's done the garage remixes to some of the Gorillaz stuff. We just wrote this thing together, and it turned into this great hybrid of London dance culture, with my own kind of melody and chord sensibility. The lyrics are important to me. They say, “Judge not before you judge yourself. Judge not before you're ready for judgment.”

Had success happened to you 10 years ago, would you have handled it as well as you seem to be?

It's difficult to say. I do wonder about that because I definitely feel a sense of relief that I'm a bit older. Hitting 30 for me was absolutely brilliant. I just realized many things. I realized I knew nothing! But I realized I was happier than I had ever been. I also kind of figured out that there’s lot of stuff I want to do before I die, which might happen at any time, so I want to get on with it. You only have one life, so you may as well try to have a good life with people you love in it.