Kat Cunning is a wearer of many hats; aside from Broadway performances and a recurring role on an HBO series (which cannot be revealed at this juncture, but STAY TUNED!), she’s been making a strong name for herself in music, too. Since she’s got a show at Mercury Lounge tomorrow night (6.12), I got caught up over the phone with the queer artist to talk about how she manages to balance all her different projects, what her creative process is like when it comes to songwriting, and (of course) queer stuff! As an added bonus, she gave us a Spotify playlist with all her favorite Pride jams to get you pumped up for the rest of this month’s festivities. Give that a listen below, and internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation RIGHT NOW:
So how are you getting prepared for this gig on Tuesday, and are you going to be playing anything brand new?
Yeah, I’m super excited. We have two really long rehearsals over the weekend, and the stuff we’ve been playing is our opening set list from our shows with LP. We’re developing a couple of new songs to add to the set, which I’m really excited about. One of them is a little funnier than the rest of the material; the concept of the song is that feeling when you see somebody on the subway, and for a second your future flashes before your eyes with them, how you could get married and it’d be so perfect. That one is called “So Nice”. The other one is a more upbeat, dancier song about empowerment and letting go of your baggage and your shame, just feeling there in the moment with somebody who’s encouraging you to be yourself.
What generally goes into songwriting for you? Are there any patterns you find yourself going back to?
I generally approach it over a chunk of time. I’ll usually spend the time that I’m not writing observing my experiences, which sounds a little douchey and arty, but I try to notice which themes I’m going through and which experiences are inspiring me, particularly focusing on words that jump out and feel delicious to me, and I’ll take notes on all of that. But I never really write lyrics beforehand, because as a dancer (which is what I spent most of my life doing) and as a spoken word poet, the rhythm and the cadence of the music has so much to do with which words are suited to the song. I have to wait until I get in the room with someone who plays the instruments (because I don’t play anything) to hear what will work. So I sort of take stock of what I’m feeling, and I’ll take that into the room with me. Sometimes there isn’t really a moral to the story, it’s just a portrait of a moment, like feeling infatuated. But sometimes there’s something that I really want to say; for example, I recently wanted to write a song for trans people, and I write from a very personal space (I’m not a politician by any means, so I write about what’s close to me), and so I wrote this song called “Beautiful Boy” for somebody I love who’s trans. I try to know what I want to say, and the words are the fun part for me. I’ll usually write the lyrics in a day. And I love to work with people who have a great sense for what a great hook is, because if it were up to me and I was writing alone, it would all be run-on sentences and spoken word poems. I’m forever in awe of and chasing what a good pop song is. Just the simplicity of two lines that you can’t get out of your head…I have so much respect for that.
Yeah, I’ve read a few of your other interviews with music publications, and a few of them have alluded to the idea that pop music is taken less seriously a lot of the time. And I can sort of understand that stigma, but by the same token, pop music is sort of this amazing Trojan horse for being able to get messages out to the masses. So in that way, I feel like it’s such a powerful form of music.
Yeah! That’s a good way to put it.
In another of those interviews that I was reading, you were talking about how you grew up fairly religious and kind of quiet, a little prudish, out in Oregon. How did you make the transition from that sort of upbringing to where you are now, aka a sex-positive, outspoken queer artist?
Well, I think the quiet and religious part was sort of an effort to have control in my life. Growing up as an adolescent is hard enough, but when I was young my mom had cancer, my parents were divorcing, and obviously I wouldn’t rewrite any of my history (my mom is a cancer survivor, and my parents are both happier not together), but when you’re a kid you’re like, “But we had a white picket fence and everything was perfect! What the fuck, you guys?!” And on top of that, my mom has a big personality like me, so I think in the house with the two of us while I was growing up, there just wasn’t room for both of our personalities. So I receded, but now we’re great friends and get along so well. I did all sorts of things to keep a sense of control in all of the change; I would slick my hair back really tight like a ballerina (most of it had to do with going into dance, which was the only thing I really focused on or cared about), and I also found solace in a little plastic record player, which I’d use to play show-tunes that my grandma gave me. So I lived in the past and in my head and in the bible, and all these little beacons of guidance and structure. I think it was a means to making it out of adolescence, and my true personality was always there somewhere inside. I still have that sense of being a control freak; I have super curly hair, so when I perform I usually slick it back like crazy. And I have all these little things that I do to feel grounded, although my personality and the things I believe in and create are sort of crazy and free and colorful. I think all my ideals have stayed the same. Even when I was super religious or whatever, I was never a bigot. And so it’s just sort of evolved, you know? Like Dorothy or any of your young characters, I just had sort of a sexual and world and human awakening when I was set free into adulthood, and I’d never go back.
And now that you’ve come into your own and seem very comfortable as an out queer person, do you have any feelings on the current state of the portrayal and/or perception of queer people in arts and media? I know it’s massively better in terms of queer representation now than it was when I was growing up, and I think more and more people are accepting, but there is still work to do.
When I’m making my music, I feel like I’m trying to show people that I’m here, and I’m trying to show that I’m this strange mix of all these different things. Just being yourself and being out is something you can do whatever your art form is, or whatever your ability to communicate is. But as an actor, I’m always telling people that I want to play the gay character, and I want to be in films that are representing that. I feel like I have a hard time (maybe this is just my own assumption) with the fact that I don’t see a lot of people casting the one lesbian as a femme, curvy girl. I see a lot of lesbians being cast as the Shane type, and I just think it would help to have a lot more queer characters that are all kinds of regular people – girly girls, mixed girls, black girls, Muslim people…queer people come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s true of all different kinds of people. So I want people in the media to be taking more risks in how they represent us, not just by putting a lesbian in their show, or putting a gay guy in their show. Make it the less obvious choice, so that more people feel seen. And so that other people in the world don’t make the automatic assumption that someone isn’t gay just based on the way they look. We need to get better at being open to all sorts of people. I guess it comes down to representation for me still, and encouraging young people to share their stories whether they’re dramatic or not. This is maybe a tangent, but when I was in spoken word as the first use of my voice, I sort of got discouraged by the community. I participated in it for a long time, and I’m very grateful for it and want it to thrive, but I felt a little like when it came to the competitions, sometimes the more painful stories would win. And I want to say that even if your story isn’t highly dramatic, it’s important to tell what you experience, what you do find beautiful, what you do find problematic, what your pain is. There’s no hierarchy of oppression, as a friend, Justin Sayre said in his show “gAy-B-C’s”. Whatever your pain is, whatever your joy is, it’s valid. Share it and be true to who you are.
I completely agree. Well, and now that we’ve kind of touched on all these different ways that you express yourself and tell other people’s stories (with acting), how are you able to balance it all? Does that ever get difficult?
It does. Like yesterday, I shot two episodes, and when I’m acting I like to keep my whole brain in that space. I think it’s more frustrating for other people who are asking me for information that they need regarding the music. [Laughs] But I do love it, and so far I haven’t been so crazy busy that it feels unmanageable. I don’t think I’ll ever let it become a problem, because I love this work, and I see a lot of other artists making it happen. And it’s all from the same part of my brain, same part of my heart, so it’s not like I really have to compartmentalize the work; they go together for me in my mind, and even singing has an element of becoming a character. So I do hope that I’m so successful that it one day does become a problem, but in that case, it’ll be my booking agent’s problem. [Laughs]
I mean, it’s obvious you really love everything you’re doing, but what does an ideal day look like for you that doesn’t revolve around working or creating?
I always find this question so hard, because I tend to run myself into the ground and then spend the day watching Jane the Virgin. [Laughs] But if I’m taking a day off to really replenish, I love the ocean. There’s nothing I love more than being in the water, and that’s the hardest thing about living in the city for me; I even live by the water, and I love looking at it, but I can’t go in it, which makes me so angry! I hope that I get rich enough to have a boat, because I just want to go out into the middle of the ocean or a river or whatever, and just be able to swim there. When I was young, my family didn’t have a ton of money, so we’d go every year to this desert in Oregon called Prineville. It’s just a campsite, one of those ones where it’s really just a parking spot that you can put a tent on, and there’s a man-made reservoir a walk away. My grandpa had a boat, so I spent all of my most imaginative summers in this desert in Oregon, and I do hope that I can make time to do stuff like that in the near future. It really does fill you up and make you feel connected to the earth, and even to your past. When I’m in nature, I’ll get flashes of a time when I was little that I picked up a fern leaf. Oregon is gorgeous, but don’t move there. Too many people are doing that. [Laughs] But yeah, I think one of the special things for me about being in nature is feeling alone in the vastness of the world, connected only to your story and your thoughts and whatever it brings up for you. So that’s something I like to do on days off, but really (and it sounds lame) my whole life is about art and stories and stuff. But I mean, other than that, I also love to see movies somewhere where they serve you good popcorn with truffles on it.
Yum! Seen any good ones lately?
I just saw RBG. Cried A LOT. I always cry at the movies. I got that from my dad.
I’m also a movie crier. It’s embarrassing.
Always! Oh, and I also saw The Bridges of Madison County! I watched that on a plane, where it’s most appropriate to cry. But what a beautiful, strange portrayal of that feeling! It was so good. I loved it.
So what (besides getting caught up on movies) is coming up for you in the near future that you’re excited about and can disclose?
Well, I can’t tell you which HBO show, but I’m on an HBO show and have never been more stoked! I have a recurring role, and it’s a really fun one! I’m getting to show so many colors, and I’m realizing that I’m kind of funny, which is great; I’m enjoying expressing that. I feel like so often in my acting and singing career in other people’s work I’ve been a seductress and sultry, so it’s fun to be this bubbly character. I’m also excited to do the rest of these shows; I’ve got one at Firefly, which will be my first outdoor festival, and I’m really fucking excited to be there so I can see Kendrick Lamar and SZA. That’s going to be amazing. Other than that, we’re just waiting to see what else happens! So far my character in the TV show has not been killed off, so that will be going on for a while. And I don’t have a date yet, but there’s another single that’s coming out soon – “Stay on the Line”, which is a song about phone sex, will be coming out soon.
Catch the Mercury Lounge gig tomorrow night, and in the meantime, enjoy this v. good Pride playlist ft. commentary below!
cus we must;
-call your gf-robyn
used to blast these 2 songs from my car and freak out at the concerts. Lil wayne is kinda my butch alter ego. So nasty and silly and joyful.:
-i wish i could fuck every girl in the world lil wayne and drake
one of the first times i had great gay sex was to this song. so explicitly sexual i really admire neyo as a writer for going all the way and somehow being charming:
“let me put on a show for you daddy” stripped and sang this song 1k times:
yayo-lana del rey
Love a strickly hetero song in gay life. Suggesting husband and wife roles in a relatioship between two girls or guys is really fun. I imagine I am the husband when I hear this song.:
be my husband- valerie june
had to have this badass on here:
sunshine lollipops and rainbows- lesley gore
cus what’s gayer than a ribbon in the sky?:
ribbon in the sky for our love- stevie wonder
cus “summer thighs”:
ani difranco- rush hour
come to my window- melissa ethridge
promising you a cover of this one… give thanks to cher:
cher- gypsies tramps and theives
within SECONDS of hearing this song, i start to bawl. Not only is it one of the most beautiful vocals, or one of the most beautifully shot scenes EVER, but it also gave lesbians for the next couple of decades, Leonardo Dicaprio as a spirit and style guide, myself included.
des’ree kissing u:
we all need it:
india arie- strength courage and wisdom
cus my girlfriend is a literal hanson brother and that was intentional:
would belt to this in my car in high school back when i didnt think I had feelings for the girls i was dry humping:
freedom- george michael
cus I got a crush on you:
ooouuu young ma
I got to open for LP and I freaked out to this song every night back stage. Best post chorus EVER:
FEELIN IT! Although… does she know what a fetish is?
fetish- selena gomez
I hear there’s a shortage of tops in the queer community and I’m here to say…
get on your knees- nicki minaj
Everybody needs a little:
tom waits- chocolate jesus
And I love it when a girl calls me:
daddy the andrews sisters