Recorded in the Arizona desert, Tunstall teamed up with local Tucson resident Howe Gelb, from the alt-rock band Giant Sand. The Scottish singer felt he could help her expand the pop sound that she had become known for, since her debut single “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” became a hit in 2006. “He’s this Maverick desert punk, non-conformist and I come from a very formulaic pop song background, and it was such an interesting meeting of minds,” she told Radio.com.
“The idea was to go over there and record straight over an old tape machine and just do live performances and see what happened,” Tunstall continued. Feeling inspired, what happened was that she knocked a number of songs in a short burst of time.
“Suddenly we had this half an album’s worth of material that I really felt confident about,” she said. “It wasn’t just material spilling out that was varied quality for me, it felt like it was strong material.”
That material, however, embodies two distinct feelings, like side A and side B of a record (hence the split title). The first half takes on the laid-back atmosphere and ambiance that Gelb created in his desert studio, while the second half was penned after a tumultuous summer in which Tunstall’s father passed away and her marriage of five years (to her drummer Luke Bullen) dissolved.
“Everything changed for me,” she said. “I was almost a different person by the time I went out to do the second half.”
Tunstall says she was much bolder and freer on the latter half of the record, while the first half was a bit more melancholy and took on a “really weird psychic quality.”
“You’re not quite sure what you’re writing, but your subconscious is projecting what’s coming before you’re aware of it,” she explained. “So the first half of the songs were very spookily brought into much sharper focus after I’d recorded them and I just thought, ‘How did I know?’ It was so relevant to what was happening.”
One example is the song “Carried,” which was written about the question of where you go when you die. “I had become interested in the fact that when you die, very few of us will remain where we fall. Who takes you there?” she questioned. “And then a few months later I was literally doing the carrying. I had my father’s ashes in a backpack and I was just thinking how bizarre that this song had become literal and I had never intended it to be so.”
The first half of the album, Tunstall says, is about creating a fabulous city in your mind. Though there are flaws, you decide to overlook them.
“Where Invisible Empire is a Wizard of Oz attempt to be in control and make things the way you want them, Crescent Moon is very much about nature taking over and a rebirth of things and letting go and letting things be as they should be,” she said. “And acceptance.”
Despite her personal hardships throughout the album’s making, Tunstall makes it clear that this isn’t sad balladry. Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon is not only “an emotional road trip” and a “very intense journey,” it’s record filled with traveling music that Tunstall says has set her on a new path musically.
“I warn people it’s not a morbid record. It’s not a breakup record,” she said. “The songs were rarely specifically about single things. It’s a broader spectrum.”