INTERVIEW: Kat Cunning on Carving a Niche For All The Weirdos
If ever there was a case for blazing your own trail to success, Kat Cunning’s rising stardom is certainly one of them. Back with a new single called “Stay On The Line,” Cunning is a study in fluid adaptability; time and time again, she’s made opportunities for herself in all the spaces where she once found walls – by tearing them down completely. “I think a lot of the stuff I do has been bred out of survival,” says Cunning. “Its been bred out of a lack of opportunity for me.”
Cunning understands first hand what it feels like to lose something you love because you don’t adhere to a stereotype. She’d dedicated her early life to studying dance, only to feel shame around her body after she hit puberty and suddenly didn’t fit the body type of the typical dancer. Moving to New York City after graduating from the Purchase Dance Conservatory – one of the best dance schools in the country – Cunning struggled to find work as a ballerina with a body type that didn’t fit the mold. Frustrated, she decided to break the mold entirely, eventually performing off Broadway with burlesque theatre troupe Company XIV and Cirque de Solei’s Paramour.
In New York’s burlesque community, Cunning was finally celebrated for her body, rather than shamed for it. “I shouldn’t have to hide my body because it is a dangerous form of arousal for people who can’t control themselves,” Cunning says. “I’ve spent my entire childhood in leotards, and tights, and less than that, and I grew up to be an adult in the burlesque community where I’ve felt more safe and celebrated than anywhere I’ve ever worn clothes.”
Cunning’s singing roles with Company XIV (in Nutcracker Rouge and Rococo Rouge, particularly) earned her major accolades when the New York Times gushed that her voice brought “an exquisite, indie-siren quality to a series of covers.” It was one of those fateful moments where it felt a new path had suddenly opened up, and Cunning could see a smidgen of hope in a forest of doubt. Even her family, who had originally told her not to quit her day job, realized her potential then, and Cunning forged forward, beginning to write and sing her own songs as well. She quickly found freedom in making her own music; it allowed her to create the kinds of worlds she wanted to exist in, as opposed to the structured, more patriarchal industry of classic ballet.
“Nina Simone wanted to be a classical pianist, and I feel like her relationship to piano is similar to my relationship to ballet,” Cunning says. “
[There’s] this thing you want the most, that you will always strive for, that is already the most perfect fine art, and then you just don’t make it [because] nobody lets you. So you fucking figure out how to sing a song and [as it] turns out, that resonates with people. [Nina] moved me so much, because she’s a human voice who loves another art form. She’s not trying to be the best [vocalist], but it works because she’s a human speaking from her heart.”
Musically, you can hear Simone’s influence in the classic jazz aesthetic that informs Cunning’s singing style. She combines those undertones with elements of pop and electronica, her vocals strong and sultry. And burlesque has played a huge role in her lyrical approach; so many of Cunning’s songs – including “Stay On The Line” and the recently-released “Make U Say” – are about owning her sexuality. She narrates sensual scenarios with an ease and confidence that has seduced fans and critics alike, and the theatricality of her stage show only adds to her allure. Cunning just finished a North American tour run with LP (Laura Pergolizzi); she’ll also appear as a recurring character on Season Two of HBO’s The Deuce and plans to release more new music in the coming months.
Cunning says that where she’s at now is just the tip of the iceberg, and if this is just the tip, the iceberg must be giant. She says her dream is to create a multi-layered live performance where many different kinds of art forms and artists can stand out for their unique aesthetics. Already combining fantastical costumery, visuals, and choreography into her live shows, Cunning’s aim is to create an emboldened performance that allows people to find solace in their own truest expression – not just for herself, but for the friends she’s made along the way, who, like her, don’t always play by the rules.
Too often, she says, other creatives in the burlesque community are overlooked. “I’ve been to so many auditions where, for whatever reason, we are too weird, or our bodies are too different, or the way we are expressing ourselves is too unique to fit in. And I don’t want that,” explains Cunning. “I want to create a career as an artist where I can keep producing shows and tours where I feature people who are weird like me. So that the people in the audience who are weird know that there can be a place for them, even if the only lesson they take away is that they have to make it [for themselves].”
It is Cunning’s hope to highlight those who’ve had similar career blocks in finding success through their art, even as she makes something more for herself than the world was willing to hand over. “I want to inspire people to be whatever mixture of things they are and to know that they belong too,” she says. “I want to transport people to a place where they feel free to feel something personal.” As Cunning’s courageous efforts continue to pay off, those self-proclaimed “weirdos” are guaranteed a voice and a platform for expression.
Desdemona Dallas is a writer and photographer currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Through her work Dallas aims to highlight artists and activists engaged in changing social dialogue and igniting culture conversation. Currently looking for beauty in the belly of the beast.
Follow her on Instgram @dily.daly and twitter @storiesbydallas