interview by Michael McCarthy
Kat Cunning (aka Katrina Cunningham) is a singer/songwriter who mixes pop, soul and Baroque influences with excellent results. So far, however, she’s been known for her work as a Broadway actress and dancer, having performed in Dangerous Liaisons, Cirque Du Soleil’s Paramore and NYC’s Sleep No More. She’s also performed as the sole live element to Refinery 29’s ’29Rooms’ Fashion Week exhibit in conjunction with artist Juno Calypso’s dreamlike, David Lynch-inspired room, bringing it to life with real-time interpretations of audience member’s dreams via song in addition to singing some of her own songs, among them her debut track “Baby.” Currently, her second single, “Wild Poppies” is making waves and it’s no wonder, the song an exquisite gem with an impressive video that deserves to go viral. Check it out below and help spread the word: Kat Cunning is fabulous.
MM: Where am I talking to you from today, Kat?
KC: I am in New York. Long Island City. Where are you?
MM: I’m in Massachusetts. About 45 minutes from Boston.
MM: So, I understand that you started singing after you fibbed at an audition and said you were also a singer. Can you tell us about that?
KC: Yeah, of course. My first job out of college was two years after college – at least in New York – and it was with this dance company that I still work with sometimes. They’re called Company XIV. It was like a burlesque take on an opera that I first got the job in called Judge Me Paris, based on The Judgment of Paris. And then we were looking at the next show that was coming up and I knew that I wasn’t as strong of a dancer as everyone else in the room and lots of people had to go. So, I told the director that I could sing in an effort to keep my job and be asked into the next show. It was like, oh yeah? Send me a video. I sent in a video of myself in my Brooklyn apartment singing by the window, singing “Willow Weep for Me” acapella and he gave me a lead part in a show. In the next show that was about to come out. That was the beginning of learning on the job.
MM: Cool. What was that show called?
KC: It’s funny you ask – nobody ever does – but it was a show that did not air. It was called La Fête, as in “the parties,” and it was a really great show. We had a space in Brooklyn and then Sandy hit and flooded our space the day before we were supposed to open. So, that one didn’t happen. And then a couple months after that [I did] Nutcracker Rouge, which is a show that the company puts on every year. It’s a burlesque take on The Nutcracker and I got to sing “Yayo,” which is a Lana Del Rey song, and I added a little intro from “We Pop Champagne.” Do you know that song? [sings:] “How we ball in the club I know you hate it / Mami dancing on the floor all like she naked.” [Ed: According to Google, the song was written by Jim Jones and Ron Browz.] I added like a creepy intro like that, that went into “Yayo.”
MM: Yeah, I heard you doing “Yayo” on Youtube, which was really good.
KC: Oh, yeah? [Laughs] Thank you.
MM: So, what are you looking to do at this point? More musicals or plays or just focus on your singing career or…?
KC: I’m really focused on my music career, yeah. I’m really excited to say that I’ll be joining LP – the artist LP – on 12 dates of her North American tour. And that’s the closest to my dream, in my mind, that I’ve ever been. I’m really, really looking forward to it. I want to have both. Some people are like you’ve gotta choose one, but so far I’ve been able not to. I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve been on TV and I am able to say that I’m going on tour. I pursue music because I feel like it’s the way I get to be the most creative. Like I really get to be myself. I look up to people like Childish Gambino, who also has his own TV show now and tours as his other persona. That’s the dream for me. Being able to do a movie half a year and then be on tour with my music, releasing videos and stuff.
MM: You recently released the single and video for “Wild Poppies,” which I understand is from an upcoming EP. When will the EP be released and does it have a title yet?
KC: It only has a working title. I’m not sure about it. It’s not titled yet. We’re looking at late 2018. I forget the month. The date isn’t exactly committed to yet. I have a couple releases planned coming up, though.
MM: Who produced the EP?
KC: I have a couple of different producers on the EP. One is a wonderful guy from Germany called Nikolai Tothoff . He’s done the two songs that are out already and one of the ones coming out as well. And then I’m very exited to say the next one coming out, which is called “Make You Say My Name Again,” is produced by Martin Trese, who is London based. I just talked to him yesterday. He’s a really great guy and a really amazing producer.
MM: What formats will you release the EP on? Will it be released on vinyl?
KC: Here’s hoping. No plans for that yet. I think so far we’re just talking about the online releases. As the money comes in, we’ll put it out all the fancy ways.
MM: I understand you choreographed the “Wild Poppies” video. Was that your first time choreographing?
KC: Not at all. I actually have been a dancer since I was three years old. The first time I choreographed was when I was 12. I choreographed to Dave Matthews’ “Crash Into Me.” But I went to school for dancing and choreography was part of that, As part of my senior project I choreographed a piece called “Burden,” which is based on Harrison Bergeron, which is a short story in Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and this piece is actually an adapted version of that piece. The “Wild Poppies” piece is.
MM: Who directed the “Wild Poppies” video?
KC: D.K.Dennison, no spaces. She’s a female cinematographer as well that I met on a gig, actually. I was performing at this really cool Halloween party and she was taking photos and she sent them to me. She said, I thought you might want to see these. I was like, these are so cinematic. I really love your perspective and she was like, I’m a cinematographer. I was like, can you make a video in two weeks? We pulled it together and made my dream video.
MM: I imagine you must have had to work very closely together because the way things were choreographed you’d have to film some things from a certain angle. That she wouldn’t have had as much freedom as you would making a video that wasn’t choreographed.
KC: Yeah, definitely. It was definitely a negotiation all the way through. They had big art dreams and I was like I wanted an escape. I want it in a sterile, big space. You just have to trust me. Of course, without the budget to rehearse all the camera angles a million times. It was definitely a working together situation. But I pride myself on being really, really collaborative. I really know what I want visually and I kind of like to touch every piece of the work that I make and she was really good to work with in terms of having respect for that.
MM: Where does the songwriting process usually begin with you? Does it start with a title or a melody – how does the magic happen?
KC: I’m usually collaborating with a producer or songwriter and often times it just starts in a room with an instrument. Part of getting to know people as musicians for me is improvising. A lot of times you’ll meet people who want to talk to you about your life or get a sense of what to go for by hanging out. My brain almost explodes with people who like to do it that way. I’m surprisingly shy when it comes to content and I sort of feel like it kills the spirit to talk too much. So, I like to start with improvising with somebody playing an instrument and I try to pick out the little nuggets. I try to save all my brain before I get to a session and then we’ll improv for a second and we’ll both hear something good and we’ll save it. I almost always, to date, write all the lyrics in the session. Usually, there’s something to edit but I don’t ever come in with lyrics because I just feel like it’s like smashing pieces together if you do that. I’m down to start with a title, but usually, that doesn’t inspire me. I like to sort of improvise the lyrics as well. I have a little bit of experience with spoken word poetry and a little bit of slam poetry as well. When you’re improvising the lyric. I think something really special happens when you improvise. You kind of get out of your own way of what you think you should say. Stuff just kind of falls out. And I really like to observe that part of the process. Yeah, I think you find interesting stuff and you get to know each other a lot quicker than you would with small talk.
MM: Does it ever get uncomfortable if you’re working with someone and something really personal pops into your head? Does it ever cause you to self-censor at all?
KC: Yeah, for sure. There’s definitely a little bit of an element like dating. I wouldn’t say that I’m ever too shy to say something, but I would say that sometimes if you’re not feeling someone’s energy as a collaborator you’re just not as open. And, also, music is a business and I think some people bring that into the room. Sometimes people are more like, this song isn’t gonna get on the radio. Let’s try to make that a little more radio friendly. I feel like in creating dance, in creating anything that I’m gonna want to perform on a stage, is also about creating a sacred space where you can explore a little bit. Follow the muse. There are definitely times where you feel that it’s not a match. I’m trying to find something new and genuine for my brain and not like copy the latest hit song.
MM: I know “Wild Poppies” has a connection to The Wizard of Oz. Can you tell us about that?
KC: Yeah, of course. I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz when I was little. I had my mother print out the script last revised in 1939 and I had a Barbie of every character in The Wizard of Oz so I got to play with every character in my house. I’m not sure what it really was about the story but I have a feeling it had something to do with a woman going off on her own to find a strange family that provided her with all the things she needed as a human and a fantastical, colorful element to that. Also, at the time, it was the first film to involve color. And what a beautiful occasion to do that on, that she literally walks into a life filled with color. And I love the closing monologue where she’s like I’m home now and I’ll never leave again. I loved Oz and I wrote this song while I was leaning over a hotel balcony and saw this space below me and had this romantic feeling about what it would be like to jump and fall. Obviously, I’m not suicidal. But that freedom reminded me of that trippy scene in The Wizard of Oz where she is laying in a poppy field and the witch is putting a spell on her to keep her from Emerald City, which is literally just within reach and you come to find that Emerald City is just like a hack. It’s a guy with a microphone. He’s the worst part of Oz. So, to me, that song is about that poppy trip and the influence of the witch. And sort of everything she’s learned up to there, which in my song is more interpreted as a sexual awakening than a general coming of age story. And the chorus is like “I’ve got emerald eyes,” sort of like I have Emerald City in my dreams within my reach. I have this place in my spirit now.
MM: That’s cool. I like that.
KC: Yeah, the lyrics are like – I would love to talk about them all day. They really are an homage to the story and what it’s meant to me. I find that it’s like Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz are such an emblem for the queer community and all these things. And I know we haven’t talked about it yet, but I’m openly gay and to find that it meant so much to all these other people that I have found as an adult to be my community is a really special story to me.
MM: You’ve done quite a few covers on Youtube, but you always rearrange them and make them your own. What’s more challenging, writing a new song or rearranging somebody else’s?
KC: Writing a new song. I would love it if someone would commission me to do a new cover every day. It’s the most fun thing for me. There are so many great songs in the world already and literally every single one of them can live in different ways. When I write a song, I hope that I write good enough songs that they could also be re-imagined. And I re-imagine them myself. I played an acoustic set yesterday and the song is totally different. And what it brings out of me is totally different. I’m very excited by great pop songs and how they can do that. So, when I write I’m hoping that a great pop hook will drop out of the sky and it will deserve to be re-imagined a million different ways.
MM: To that end, are you going to have any remixes done?
KC: Yeah, there are definitely some remixes on the horizon. We haven’t chosen the song yet but it’s definitely gonna happen. I’m hoping I can grab The Knocks. I’ve been in conversation with them.
MM: Have you thought about doing a contest where you put out the stems to one song and people remix it and then you pick the winner and release the winner?
KC: I haven’t, but that’s a really cool idea. Good advice.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
KC: Oh my God, let me think about this. I don’t know; I hate to say. But I’ve definitely bought some vinyl recently. I think, as a child, and like a young adult, I had all my CDs bought for me. And then I was in the age of downloading, mixtapes and stuff like that. So, yeah, I would say recently I bought Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s new LP, but, yeah, sorry. I wish I could tell you when I was 12 I bought whatever. The first one I remember totally freaking out about was a Backstreet Boys CD on Christmas. My dad got it for me and he hid Backstreet Boys tickets inside of the CD case and I went to see them. And if it’s any help, my first concert was Shaggy.
MM: Can you name three artists from your parents’ record collection who you liked?
KC: Yeah, I can. I definitely can. Bonnie Raitt. Meshell Ndegeocello. And, c’mon, mom, what do you got? Toni Braxton.
MM: Are you currently binge-watching anything?
KC: Yeah, I totally am. What did I binge-watch recently? Oh, man, it was very difficult, but I made it through all of Black Mirror. It was beautiful. And very, very scary.
MM: I watched the first episode of season one and it really freaked me out and I haven’t watched any of it since.
KC: I know. Well, here’s the key, I started with San Junipero, which is the only positive interpretation of the future and it’s this lady’s queer love story and it was gorgeous. And I was like fuck, I have to watch the scary ones now because it’s good writing. I also want to put in there that I also watched Chewing Gum, which was really awesome. It’s a little bit kooky, but I’m so down with female writers starring in their stuff and that was a really good one.
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now?
KC: Oh, man. It sucks because I’ve been talking about my own songs. It would be “Wild Poppies.” What was in my head this morning? [Asks someone else:] Hey Nikki, do you know what was in my head this morning? What was I singing? Oh, “Hey Mami” by Sylvan Esso.
MM: One last question. Can you name all five Spice Girls without looking it up?
KC: Definitely not, but I’m gonna try. Baby, Scary, Ginger, Sporty. Do you need their real names?
MM: No, those are good enough. Your missing one, though.
KC: Baby, Scary, Ginger, Sporty – there’s five?
MM: Yeah, you’re just missing one. I’ll give you a hint – she’s usually wearing workout clothes.
KC: Sporty, that’s Sporty.
MM: Oh, that’s right. I’m giving you the wrong clue.
KC: Baby, Scary, Ginger, Sporty and there’s… Posh. Fucking Posh.
MM: Posh, yeah, that’s it. I was giving you the wrong clue. You’ve got them all.
KC: Scary Spice all the way.
Special thanks to Kat for taking the time to do this interview and to Renee Cotsis at Girlie Action for setting it up!