Cover photo © 2023 Marilyn Stringer
When you see Kat Riggins perform, you see a tiny, beautiful woman with a deep voice, and just the right amount of rasp to her singing. She is an extremely dynamic performer, and her connection with the crowd is powerful, as she somehow effortlessly portrays the impression that she sees and is singing directly to each member of the audience. But Kat’s musical path wasn’t always directed toward becoming a blues singer. When she was seven years of age, her grandmother decided to put her and her siblings and cousins in music classes, and because Kat had long fingers, her grandmother chose the piano to be Kat’s instrument.
“My piano teacher was not very nice. It was so discouraging to me that I only lasted two weeks. Then I didn’t formally study music again until I was at the university, with a major in musical theater. There I studied classical voice–opera. I chose that because I didn’t know much about it and just wanted to learn. When I love something, I just want to know more about it. But the music theory classes were all about math, and I’m not a numbers person, and I was not financially able to finish my degree.”
Kat ended up leaning toward the blues influenced by her mother’s vast record collection, and she noted that there was always music playing in her family’s house.
“My mother had a wide variety of music, but she used to especially like to play voices more on the rough and heavy side. The female singers that she would listen to were Denise LaSalle, Betty Lavette, Betty Wright, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. All of those were voices I could hear myself in. You know the popular music at that time was Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, whom I love and respect, but I didn’t hear any sort of motivation to believe in my own voice through their voices. But when I hear Betty Wright or Gladys Knight—now those are the voices that let me hear myself and let me believe in myself. I always struggled with that. When I was young, I didn’t believe in my own voice, and I used to be teased as a child for having a deep raspy voice. When I was 7 or 8 years of age, people told me I sounded like a man. And you know children’s hearts are fragile and tongues are sharp, so it cut deep. But then when I was 13, I was rehearsing for a pageant in school, and I had been assigned a Whitney Houston song. My dad heard me rehearsing and he said, ‘I’m only going to say this—Whitney Houston has Whitney covered. Your voice is special, so use your own voice.’ That spoke to me louder than all of those voices of the kids that used to tease me. What they said paled in comparison to what he said that day.”
Kat initially had to earn the respect of other musicians and also had to fight some stereotypes in order to be taken seriously as a band leader. Although luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, she did not face discrimination about or pressure to hide her sexual orientation
“When you are a black female lesbian in the United States you hear all the discouraging things people will try to project onto you. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had to rise above that. And then in the music business, being a small woman with zero degrees and not playing an instrument, I was initially assumed to be ‘just the girl singer’. My band quickly got over that, and then it was great, but still at the end of the night venue owners would walk right past me and head to my guitar player with the check. He would have to say to ‘put it in the boss lady’s hands’. That used to happen a lot. You have to not allow them to tell you who you are. My sexuality was never a problem in the music industry though. When I came into the business I was already out, so that was never a problem. It’s always been understood by my booking agency or managers that I will never hide this because I’m happily married, and this is a part of me that goes into my music.”
Kat’s touring within the United States is increasing, but she previously had frequent opportunities to tour internationally. Most recently her travels took her to a remote part of Africa.
“That African trip was to La Reunion Island. It’s a territory of France, technically on the continent of Africa, near Madagascar, and the inhabitants consider themselves African. It’s a beautiful mix of people from all over the continent who live there, and they were so warm and welcoming. It was my first time in Africa, and it was just as magical as everybody described. Some of the sunsets didn’t even look real, with the oranges and coral colors. It was a special place. My European audiences are also very gracious and loving and warm, so I get invited over there a lot, but I’ve also been working really hard to venture to all parts of the United States.”
Kat recently joined the impressive roster of artists on Gulf Coast Records, a record company co-owned by Mike Zito and Guy Hale. Her last two albums, Cry Out, and Progeny were both released on that label. She was asked how this collaboration occurred.
“My agent was kind of shopping me around to different labels right at the same time Albert Castiglia was talking to Gulf Coast about me, so I guess my name was in both ears. As I was wrapping up my tour in Europe, Guy Hale reached out to me, just for us to try to get to know each other and figure out if it was a good fit. It was! He is hilarious, just like Mike Zito, and long story short—we officially signed on the dotted line. Co-writing with Mike is a ball. When he and Guy Hale are both in the same room, that’s a lot of ab work because you’ll be laughing all day. And then you throw Albert into the mix, and it feels like you’re one of the guys who is visiting the frat house. It ends up being a hilarious, creative masterpiece and my stomach hurts and I’m floating on air.” (Zito seems to feel just as positively toward Kat, as he stated the following regarding why he wanted her on his label: ‘Kat Riggins is a true artist that performs from her heart and soul. She IS the music.’)
Some people have tried to claim that the lyrics to blues songs are too simplistic and cliché, but there is no evidence of that in Kat’s original songs. She has always tended to write songs that are deep and address social issues or psychological concepts. With her latest releases, her writing seems to have turned even more toward directly addressing social justice issues and including spirituality.
“It feels like a little shift. With every album and with every passing year, I feel like I get a little closer to knowing who I am and figuring this mess out. As I learn all of that, I become more secure. When we are trying to figure it out, we can get insecure and wonder if we are going in the right direction, or if we should worry about losing friends with what we say. But if I am going to preach authenticity, I have to be a real person. An artist is meant to be a light in the dark. If it’s an artistic gift that you have and you have a platform, part of the strings attached to that gift is the responsibility to tell the truth. At this point I’m doing more of that. I would like to find many ways to say thank you. I’m very grateful and I’m trying to put more of that gratitude in my songs. A lot of it is spiritual and I must be honest about that too. I like including Gospel interludes from my childhood. It’s a special piece of me to put in every record—to identify my soul.”
Kat confirmed that songwriting can be an extremely cathartic experience. She noted that one of the most therapeutic songs that she wrote was an early song entitled “Forgive”, which talks about being able to let go of hurt from past relationships. More recently a song about her mother has led to one of her most cathartic writing experiences.
“On ‘Mama’ I am crying on the track, and we didn’t cut anything out. All the tremors and breaks in my voice and the breathing—it’s all in there. You probably won’t ever hear me do that song live, but it was just very cleansing to record it. My mother passed away in May, and her birthday was in May, and Mother’s Day is in May, and I felt that I had to reclaim the month of May and bring a joyful occasion to that month. So, my wife and I chose to get married in the middle of May. It’s never going to be easy to handle the loss—no matter how long ago it was. You get stronger and it gets easier to cope with and you focus on the knowledge of having known and loved that person. But all the images still come up—I see her dancing to Sade on Christmas and images of her in her holiday shirts—like the one for Halloween that says, ‘just give me the damn candy’. I’m remembering all of those beautiful moments.”
Blues songs can also be healing and cathartic to the listener, since writers often share their personal experiences with trying times, which in turn makes those in the audience feel less alone. Sometimes those audience members approach Kat to thank her for those comforting moments.
“The first time it happened I almost couldn’t keep it together. It was someone thanking me for writing “No Sale”. It’s about the road to recovery and a sobriety journey. Then people have thanked me for saying “God” on stage, since many are afraid to. So, this is why I tell the truth. If my spirit puts it in my heart to write and I share it, somebody has got to be helped by it. I try to be obedient to that. Even if nobody ever came to me to thank me, I just know that I’m not supposed to keep songs like that to myself. The blues is a specifically healing form of music because of the rawness of it, the truth. The simplicity of it—that is what is attractive. Someone will hear it and it will help.”
In addition to extensive writing, Kat has also been painting more since the start of the pandemic. She frequently takes a lyric from one of her songs and puts it in a painting. She has also taken that time when venues were closed to initiate plans for collaborations with other artists.
“Some good came from that little forced hiatus. I remembered how much I loved getting my hands dirty, so I started painting again. They are all for sale on my website and I always bring them out to shows whenever there is space at the merchandise table. And there have been some inquiries regarding co-writing with other artists. I can’t say too much about that right now, but there will be some exciting announcements coming soon.”
When asked with which artists she would like to collaborate, Kat mentioned Keb Mo’ and Fantastic Negrito, but her list seemed to focus primarily on women who, like her, are strong, powerful, and exceptionally talented.
“Tina Turner would be my dream collaboration, but I would love to work with Betty Lavette, Ruthie Foster, and Larkin Poe. Also Beth Hart—I want to just drink her voice—it’s so moving!”
We can only hope that we will be present in the audience if any of those collaborations should occur.
You can find out more about this talented artist, including seeing her tour schedule, sampling her music, and checking out her paintings on her website: www.katriggins.com