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. “[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][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.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

INTERVIEW: The Hum Ends 2018 Series with Breanna Barbara, Katie Von Schleicher, Mickey Vershbow & More

The final show of the 2018 The Hum series will be this Wednesday at Bushwick’s House of Yes, and curator Rachael Pazdan is closing the series out with a bang. Known for its continuously potent female lineup, the closeout not only showcases some of the most promising women in Brooklyn’s music scene, but also includes indie favorites Thao Nguyen of Get Down Stay Down fame and Mirah as the headlining act. Together, they’ll perform songs from their solo catalogs, as well as their beautifully constructed collaborative album from 2001, Thao & Mirah.

As The Hum series comes to a close for the year, AudioFemme took this time to talk to musicians about where they saw the future of female representation in music. Throughout this past month The Hum artists have often mentioned the double-edged sword of highlighting women with a showcase like this. On the one hand, heightened visibility for women in music is still necessary; on the other, a series like The Hum shouldn’t be treated as a novelty, since an all male lineup would never be promoted as such. While The Hum brings a much needed platform for representation, there is a hope among many of the women we’ve talked to that the need for these showcases will be less dire as the music industry becomes more balanced and open in terms of gender, that perhaps finding this balance will usher in a new era of artists presenting something beyond the current binary.

AudioFemme spoke this week with singer/songwriters Breanna Barbara and Katie Von Schleicher, and drummer Mickey Vershbow, about what The Hum brings to the Brooklyn music community, and their dreams for the future of women in music.

Breanna Barbara

AudioFemme: How did you first find out about The Hum, and how did you get involved?

Breanna Barbara: Rachel and I have been in touch for some years now. I used to work at Le Poisson Rouge as a server and I think she started booking there shortly after I left. But it felt like a full circle when she reached out about the Hum.
AF: What musical projects are you currently working on?
BB: Right now I am taking my time, soaking up some life and working on new material for my next record, possibly to record this fall/winter.
AF: Who will you be collaborating with for your performance at The Hum?
BB: We’ve got Alix Brown on the bass, Dida Pelled on lead guitar, Lyla Vander on drums and Lida Fox on the keys. They are all badasses.
AF: What has the collaboration process been like?
BB: It’s been really good so far – every one has their own style and it’s been fun playing each other’s songs.
AF: How does a showcase like The Hum affect your musical process?
BB: It’s definitely been expanding the way I write. I think playing with new people and their music makes you a better musician all around.
AF: How do you see the musical community of Brooklyn affected by The Hum?
BB: There is such a strong community of musicians here in Brooklyn and The Hum really shows that. All of the women I am playing with are bosses, front women, hustlers; it’s really inspiring to be in the same room with them and just hang out. And the Hum has brought us together. That’s really cool to think about.
AF: In the future how do you hope to see women in music represented differently? 

BB: All I can hope for – and not just in music but in general – is for any/all shame or insecurities that society/patriarchy has ingrained in any of us will continue to disintegrate. Because to me there is nothing more powerful than a woman being vulnerable and speaking their truth. And I think what the planet needs more than anything right now is more femininity.

Katie Von Schleicher

AudioFemme: How did you first find out about The Hum, and how did you get involved?

Katie Von Schleicher: I knew Rachael from playing at Manhattan Inn quite a bit while I was just starting out. I was asked to do the Hum a couple of years ago, then, and have followed it since because it was a really incredible experience, doing a one-off set with new collaborators who have since become my good friends.

AF: What musical projects are you currently working on?

KVS: I have my project, Katie Von Schleicher, which takes up most of my time at the moment. I’m in a band called Wilder Maker who have an album out this July. I play in a band called Coffee and just played a few dates in the UK in Sam Evian’s band. I’m also working on producing some things for friends of mine.

AF: Who will you be collaborating with for your performance at The Hum?

KVS: I’ll be playing with Julie Byrne, whose music is so beautiful that I feel a bit intimidated. 

AF: How does a showcase like The Hum affect your musical process?

KVS: I don’t feel immediately comfortable doing something off-the-cuff because I don’t have a history of improvisation, so the Hum takes me out of my shell a bit. It’s a gamble and you don’t know what will happen exactly, and that’s a good thing. It’s one night and a 25 minute set, but it informs so much of my thinking afterward. I’ve also played in mostly male-centric bands. In my experience with The Hum, I’ve found we have to get deeper with one another really fast, trying to get on the level of musical and interpersonal understanding without having years of previous chemistry built in. But my collaborators have been such excellent communicators that I’ve found a real bond with them, and realized how important it is to develop a rapport, even if there isn’t much time. When you do something so brief you rely on instinct, and this process has honed my instincts more, made me feel more confident about intuition, which is invaluable.

AF: How do you see the musical community of Brooklyn affected by The Hum?

KVS: Rachael developed this series at a pretty crucial time, and in the past few years I’ve seen the community here become so much more egalitarian in terms of representation. The Hum has been woven into that, and has probably bolstered it a lot. 

AF: In the future how do you hope to see women in music represented differently? 

KVS: I feel confident that everyone should and will be represented more. It’s already happening but we have much further to go, of course. In, say, rock music, men have a lineage intact, and they grow up knowing they can become a part of that, almost as a rite of passage. I want to see anyone who’s underrepresented grow up feeling that sense of belonging and then taking their place in it, too. It’ll take a generation to set that precedent.

Mickey Vershbow

 Audio Femme: How did you end up getting involved in The Hum?
Mickey Vershbow: I first played The Hum three years ago and I was at the time working for Tom Tom Magazine. Tom Tom got asked to play The Hum and do a percussion piece. So I was in a group of four people who put together a 20 minute percussion piece, that was really fun. Rachael Pazdan mentions this also, and I love it. But I actually ended up meeting my girlfriend Katrina at that show. So The Hum definitely occupies a special place for me. I’m really excited to play it again. Especially with Mirah, who has been one of my favorite singers since I was a teenager.
AF: Will you be playing any new songs with Mirah?
MV: Yeah! I know we are doing new stuff. I don’t know that she specifically wrote them for The Hum or not, but we have been working on new stuff that we want to play at The Hum. This is more just a group of people that don’t play together that much, coming together to play songs from Mirah and Thao’s catalog.
AF: What other projects are you working on right now?
MV: I just finished making a record with a band called Animal Planet. That record just came out on Ba Da Bing. My main full-time gig is with a band called Kat Cunning. That’s definitely my main gig right now, because I also tour manage for that band. I also play with this artist in New York named Miles Francis. There’s a parallel between both him and Kat, because they are real entertainers. They have a concept behind how they want to perform their music and for me as a drummer that’s really fun, because you kind of just sit back and know that everything up front is good.
AF: How does having access to an all-female based showcase like The Hum affect the Brooklyn, music community?
MV: I think it has a tremendously powerful impact on all of us who get to be a part of it. You just end up making connections that change your life. I mean obviously I can say that. But aside from whether it’s on the level of meeting your partner, and your future bandmate, or just meeting so many people that next time you need a guitarist you have a woman you can call. I feel like without people like Rachael, or Mindy at Tom Tom, who are out there creating this network for us to all find each other, it’s really hard, because you just randomly go to shows and you’re like oh cool the bass player is killing it and she’s a girl, and I would love to work with her, but that is so random and chance. Whereas to be able to network in an environment where you know you’re gonna meet women, there’s something empowering about just feeling like we all have this way that we can get connected with each other. So I’m really grateful to Rachael for continuing to do it. Also I’m getting to discover so many amazing musicians who I don’t think I would have discovered otherwise. Especially because women just don’t get the coverage in other outlets that men more easily do. I don’t necessarily want to make that statement, but I think it’s obviously kind of a thing that happens. So it feels like The Hum creates a platform for us to get more visibility to each other and to new audiences.
The Hum to me is really one of the best things happening in New York right now. It’s so community oriented. It has such a clear concept that benefits a community of musicians, that can do amazing things together. Especially as someone who very often forgets why I live in NY, when I get to play The Hum, I think, “Oh yeah, this happens here.”

VIDEO REVIEW: Kat Cunning “Wild Poppies”

“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…” These words bring us back to the childhood story we know so well – they conjure an image of Dorothy deciding to leave the magical place she’s just discovered, tapping her ruby red slippers in the hope of returning over the rainbow to rejoin the dull black and white society she came from.

Artist Kat Cunning has found her own version of the colorful and magical Oz in the queer community of New York. Her latest video and single “Wild Poppies” is a tribute to this playful world and what that journey has felt like. Known for her work in the visual arts, Cunning has also been a singer and dancer in shows like Sleep No More and Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour. She is one of those rare talents who has the ability to translate her vision into a variety of mediums, all while staying true to her authentic self. “Wild Poppies” is Cunning’s video debut; the single was initially released late last year. Premiering on January 30th, the visual clip unites her various passions of dance, theater and music, giving her admirers the chance to watch them all come together at once.

In a studio session with Paste Magazine Kat Cunning explained that “music… feels like the place where everything that I do actually can live together. I’m inspired to create the world where the beautiful things I see get to live.” The video brings this sentiment home, given that Cunning wrote the song, choreographed the dance, and helped with costume and makeup design. She truly is creating her own world in which all her friends can play.

Story is the uniting force in the “Wild Poppies” video, which depicts, through graceful movement, a person coming to find themselves and opening up to a new version of who they are. Her lyrics reference cyclones, ruby shoes, and emerald eyes as she dares listeners to chase her “over the ledge,” hinting that this is the only place to truly find yourself and your bliss.

The tonality of her vocals come from a place I can only perceive as the soul, as her deep, almost haunting voice adds weight to the familiar story. Early on, Cunning was inspired by jazz musicians in the scene where she first started dancing after moving to New York. Her music fuses this influence with a love of pop, and a Brooklynite’s healthy taste in indie music. She is both hypnotic and seductive, creating a painting with her vocals that dance across the spectrum of the musical scale.

In an interview with Refinery29, Cunning tied together how The Wizard of Oz impacted the creation of “Wild Poppies.” “[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Dorothy] has so many adventures,” says Cunning, “and for me that story is akin to finding your community of people and particularly a colorful queer world full of beautiful freaks.”

Diving head first into the colorful world she is creating, it doesn’t seem Cunning will be clicking her ruby red slippers any time soon.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]