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Dreaming of Wild Poppies With Dancer-Turned-Singer Kat Cunning

There’s something about Kat Cunning, from her music and the way she performs and even to how she speaks, that rings of unabashed authenticity. For Cunning, a New York-based dancer-turned-performance-artist-turned-musician, there is no other way to exist than to exist as she is, in this moment. Having started out as a classically trained ballerina, Cunning found herself at an existential crossroad when her professors at the conservatory told her she would never become a ballerina due to her body type. Instead of quitting, however, Kat threw herself into other forms of dance and artistic mediums and soon worked her way onto Broadway, where her artistic trajectory took a turn and Cunning began to seriously think about a musical career. Thus, what began with a crushing rejection of her dreams of performing ballet eventually transformed into something bigger and even more freeing: singing.  

Writing from the heart, Cunning’s music takes you on an intimate, emotional journey with her own personal narrative of love and heartbreak, self-exploration, and emotional vulnerability leading the charge. Cunning’s story is a tale of overcoming adversity, of being told “no” and deciding to prove the world wrong, and giving the world a big fuck-you by loudly and boldly loving herself.

After a sold out a show at Mercury Lounge, Kat caught up with Milk for a few minutes to talk about her music, self-love, and the Wizard of Oz.

I know that you have your hands in every art format. You’re a dancer, you’re a performer, etcetera. But what made you get into music?

That’s a funny story. Growing up, I didn’t think I could sing. I would sing all the time in the car and my family told me to keep my day job. I was also really obsessed with dance, mostly, and on the side, I wrote some poetry. Those are two things people accepted I was good at. Then, I went to school for dance. I was really obsessed with ballet and I was really good at it, but then my body grew in and I grew hips and boobs and big ol’ thighs. My dream of dance and my relationship with ballet didn’t really ring to be true as the industry actually exists. So I slowly learned that the things I love about dance needed to translate into another medium. I still dance, actually, I just closed a show on Broadway. So it’s definitely something I still do, but I realized I couldn’t fulfill everything that I love while I was in college. They wouldn’t have me as I was.

How did you deal with that? That must’ve been a hard pill to swallow.

It was never news. Even growing up, many young dancers go through this. I was anorexic for a while and it was apparent to me that I had a slightly different body type. It was slightly more unique than the other dancers and I wasn’t going to fit in as well. So it wasn’t news when I got to school and my grades are lower than the skinnier ballerinas. I was like, “What is going on? I’m working my ass off in these classes,” and they were like, “Well you and I both know you’re not going to be a ballerina.” So I was like, okay there’s modern and contemporary and so I threw my time into other dance forms. When I graduated, I went to a dance company that was a very theatrical mix of ballet, baroque, burlesque, and theater. I got to do my first short contract with them, and I just realized I wasn’t the best dancer in the room still but I trusted the company so I told them I wanted to sing or that I could sing and I sent them a video of me singing from my house. I had no training or anything, but they gave me a song in the show and eventually my first performance with them. The New York Times had reviewed it and they were like “When is this girl going to come out with an EP?” That really helped bring collaborators to me, which I couldn’t do without collaborators because I don’t play an instrument.

As soon as I performed live and it was well received and realizing how much I liked it and how much the things I loved about dance went into writing a song and thinking of how to perform it, it sort of clicked. It was like, “Yeah, this is where I can be sort of more helpful.”

I watched your “Wild Poppies” music video. It’s stunning, and the imagery is very 1800s Moulin Rouge. What was the inspiration?

Every single thing I release lyrically or visually is thoroughly conceptual. I care so much about words and stories so I can talk for days about how “Wild Poppies” is my version of the Wizard of Oz. It’s the version where Dorothy doesn’t go home. I just can’t really imagine why you would go from a sepia-toned world to the most colorful place with the strangest, most beautiful characters where you are free in expressing yourself and then have to go back. The song for me is my homage to the story with me as Dorothy, as well as a metaphor for sexual, cultural, educational awakening. I wanted to translate how this strange, apocalyptic place with these beautiful, diverse characters and the spell Dorothy is put under helps her emerge into the woman that she is. It’s sort of a coming of age story, I suppose. Even down to the makeup, I’m in collaboration with everyone who does art on my work. The lipstick was designed to be black in the middle and bleeding messily out into the lips like a wild poppy. The red skirts are poppy flowers and the snow represents the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch makes it snow on Dorothy and the poppy field. So everything is really intentional.

What about your musical style? It’s super sultry and dreamy! 

I’m definitely influenced by older soul-jazz stuff. But my style is super eclectic. I’m also really into rock, super ambient stuff that makes me wanna dance, like James Blake. I’ve also really excited about the stuff I have coming out too. Every time I perform I’m reminded that I’m not this delicate, sultry, vulnerable creature because even though I write a lot of songs from that place, I’m also bellow-y. There’s a lot of strength to some of the poppier songs I have that’s coming out as well. I’ve been inspired lately by not being cool. Like, sometimes when I’m in the studio trying to be cool, I find myself falling into a habit of apathy or holding back and being small. I’m really inspired by huge voices that totally contradict that approach and huge hearts. I’m inspired by what a huge pop song and a person who unabashedly is at the forefront of that song is just giving you what their voice sounds like.

How would you describe the feeling of performing live?

For me, the songs are places I go. They’re all very visual for me when I write them and I just go there very physically in my body. But my live show also has this tinge of high art grandeur in the songs. I always find moments to bring it back to feeling intimate with the audience and recognizing where we really are. My goal is to be able to treat a show like a camera lens, where you can zoom out and see a gigantic landscape with the big ol’ grand sun and the ocean and then also zoom in to see the quirky girl standing in front of you and acknowledge that we’re all standing in a busy New York club. It’s important for me to stay in the room with people, but bring them all with me when I go somewhere else.

Being a queer artist, how have you come to terms with coming to terms with your identity and your art? What does the LGBTQ+ community mean to you?

I really believe in the personal as political. For me, sometimes I think about what message I want this song to be and I try to write what the world needs, but usually, I just tell my stories truthfully. I’m just upfront about it. I don’t think about hiding any part of my stories because what I do relies 100 percent on me being available to people. So honestly, I came to terms with that by deciding I want to be an artist forever and I want to be really fucking successful and I don’t want to hide any part of myself and having to maintain that secret. I don’t want to have to come out as gay, I don’t ever want to have to come out as straight, I don’t ever want to have to make some kind of announcement later on in life. So I’m just gonna make truthful songs and tell stories about the beautiful people in my life. Some of those are trans people that are fighting for space and some of those are my ex-girlfriends and some of those are my current girlfriends and some of those is that hot girl in the audience. The message I’m trying to promote is: who you are…is fucking gorgeous. Express yourself so there is space for people like you. Put a little light on so people like you see you, so they don’t have to hide.

Featured image courtesy of Kat Cunning

Stay tuned to Milk for more music stuff. 

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