When BBC DJ and tastemaker Annie Mac decides to champion a musician she likes—one she thinks is on the verge of making real change in the industry—she calls you “one to watch,” welcoming you into a pantheon of luminary artists about to break through the stratosphere. Stars like Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, and Justice graced Mac’s hallowed halls before achieving pop superstardom of their own. So when Mac was recently joined by The New York Times and Billboard in anointing queer Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, star of Netflix’s multi Emmy Award-winning series Trinkets, and dancer Kat Cunning as an artist on the brink of breaking out, it felt like the fates finally aligning to properly celebrate one of the most exciting new artists of our time.
The New York Times has called them “sultry-voiced.” V Magazine notes that they’re “Hollywood's next big thing.” But Refinery 29 sums them up best: “Kat Cunning is part of a new breed of musicians that don't fall strictly under the category of ‘musician.’” Kat brushes that off and modestly says they’re only just getting started. Because to Kat, “just getting started” means training all your life to be a professional dancer and becoming a professional dancer before realizing that you’re also exceptional at singing and acting and becoming those things too. Whether it’s bleeding through their pointe shoes during years of ballet training, returning as Sabine for the second season of Trinkets, or carving out a lane for themselves as one of pop music’s most captivating artists, Kat pursues all of their career paths with uncompromising force.
“For both music and acting,” Kat says, “being an individual is championed. I spend so much of my life trying to fit into the dance world, but finding my singing voice was really validating. I was never supposed to fit in.”
Music instilled itself in Kat at an early age. They first gravitated towards the piano in their daily ballet classes, captivated by classical music’s dynamic range. During car rides with their dad from their “smaller, conservative hometown” in Oregon to their performing arts school, they fell in love with the sounds of pop music, blasting ‘80s hits in the car each way. In 2014, in order to keep a dance job that required live vocals, they told the director they could sing. Their gambit paid off. A critic from The New York Times saw the show and spotlighted their voice: “[Kat] brings an exquisite, indie-siren quality to a series of covers.” “Nobody in my life had ever told me I could sing, or that I should,” Kat says. “But it just worked way better for me than dancing, right off the bat, after years and years of investing in dance.”
With several notable cosigns under their belt, Kat began collaborating with game-changing songwriters and producers like Justin Parker (Lana Del Rey, Rihanna, Sia), Sir Nolan (Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez), and Swedish House Mafia vocalist John Martin to build a thrilling arsenal of songs that all incorporate, as Kat puts it, “my emotional intentions.” Kat’s hard work paid off when Lava Records signed them as an artist earlier this year. “There’s a ‘pinch me!’ element to them deciding to make a statement that they believe in me,” they say. “It really feels like, in its own little way, making it.”
Though Kat doesn’t write lyrics before their sessions, “it all comes down to using your voice,” they say. “I never even considered how badly I was missing that in my life. With music, I can very clearly express my own individuality. Throughout my life, words and poetry have always been there for me – music allows me to convey who I am in a different way.”
Most of Kat’s songs, including streaming hits like “King of Shadow” and “Birds,” begin as poems set to simple instrumentals—“most of them are ballads,” they say, laughing—before they work with producers to “honor the lyrics” as they build tracks from the ground up. “It’s a hard line of integrity to toe,” they say. “But I’m learning to get out of my own way. I love pop music for its simplicity and structure, and I have to work really hard not to over complicate things. My love for language can make me indulgent, but the best songs say exactly what they need to, and nothing more.”
Their upcoming music is “cool and arty” but “it also aims to transcend the mainstream and speak to everybody.” They credit opening for LP on tour “and seeing 2,000 fans singing back every word” as the momentum to stamp their singular, queer perspective (they identify as non-binary) on every song. They call Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, Kim Petras and Sam Smith “guiding lights” as far as uncompromising pop careers go. Sweeping new songs like “Supernova,” “Beautiful Boys” and “Planetarium” take preconceived notions about vulnerability and intimacy and turn them on their heads, emphasizing instead the strength that comes from honesty and openness. “In real life, I’m assertive, I’m confident, and I’m good at drawing boundaries,” they say. “But my music comes to me like I’m Romeo at the base of the balcony, and Juliet is ignoring me. Maybe that’s a metaphor for me not feeling heard or seen for much of my life. But it’s also the reality of a lot of my love stories.”
And while their music career is on the cusp of exploding, their acting career is taking off too. After breaking out with a role on HBO’s James Franco drama, The Deuce, they’re set to return to the small screen this year with the upcoming sophomore season of the award-winning Trinkets (which will also feature some of their new music). And even a global pandemic can’t stop their drive. Though they’re happy to take the time to discuss their career, they sandwich it between writing sessions for their next single and taping an audition for a project they can’t yet discuss. “Acting can be such a relief for music in the way I can disappear from talking about myself all the time,” Kat says. “And music can be such a relief from acting in that I get to say exactly what I want and I’m not trying to be what a casting director is looking for. They balance each other out—and they both keep me sane.”
"Prepare to be mesmerized,” NYLON says of Kat. We say: prepare to bear witness to the rise of one of Hollywood’s most talented multi-hyphenates.