With her own special brand of theatrical rock & roll and trademark powerhouse vocals, San Francisco-based Kat Robichaud is a true industry force to be reckoned with. A fighter who overcomes every obstacle in her path and constantly strives for new levels of creativity and wonder in her music. Now in spring 2017, she’s back with a brand new album titled Misfit Cabaret which is set to release worldwide this Friday, June 2.
In this exclusive interview, Kat spills the details on the new album, the incredible variety of entertainment at her live shows, how one of the new songs was inspired by the story of an underwater ballroom, and much more.
Infectious Mag: Hi Kat, thanks for taking some time out to chat! Since making your big move from Raleigh to San Francisco in 2014, what’s been the biggest benefit to being an artist and performer in the Bay Area?
Kat Robichaud: San Francisco is a very “try something” city where people applaud you for experimenting with art and music. There’s a community here of artists and art lovers that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s been so nurturing that I was actually terrified to travel outside of the city with my show, Misfit Cabaret. We took it to Seattle for the weekend and people loved it, so that was a “phew” moment. I would love to bring the show to Raleigh and the east coast to see what they think.
Conversely, what’s been your biggest challenge to overcome in SF?
San Francisco rent prices are insane. Absolutely insane. Like, the city needs to step in and do something because pretty soon all of the theaters are going to be gone as well as the artists and everyone remaining is going to be paying way too much money to live in a crowded dirty city by a body of water. At first, SF artists were moving to Oakland because it was affordable but now Oakland is just as expensive as SF and it’s seeming to spread. When I first moved to the city and someone told me that I missed it, that the art scene was dead (a sentiment that I’ve read repeatedly over the years in various hipster blogs), I was indignant. “BUT I JUST GOT HERE!!!!” By the way – art is NOT dead in San Francisco. I have more local bands on my iPhone than I do top 40 bands, and there’s a plethora of shows happening on any given night. You just need to know where to find them, but even that is easy.
About 2 ½ years after releasing the highly acclaimed Kat Robichaud and the Darling Misfits, you’ve got a brand new record titled Misfit Cabaret coming on June 2. What was the recording process like for this album and how was it different from previous albums?
Misfit Cabaret is a much more collaborative effort between me and my producer, Daniel Garcia. I wrote all of the songs for my themed variety show, Kat Robichaud’s Misfit Cabaret, and after a year I had enough songs to put an album together. I wanted the cabaret songs to translate into a rock album that you could enjoy without seeing the show. I also wanted them to have electronic components that blended well with traditional instruments. I had heard Daniel’s work on Lila Rose’s album We Animals and thought it was the perfect fit for what I was going for. Daniel and I sat in his home studio for a solid month in pre-production with these songs. There were some that he didn’t touch much, like “Misfit Cabaret” and “Divine Decadence”, but songs like “Artists” got the full electronic treatment and chopped up and moved around to my liking, and “She Looked Like She Owed Death Money” went from a celtic chant to a goth rock stomp. It was really fun having that type of constructive collaboration.
By the time I started working with Daniel, the songs were already written and had been performed in front of people as part of the show. With The Darling Misfits album, these songs were written and recorded before I had the chance to test them on an audience. I had just come off The Voice, and writing an album was the next logical step in my career. I also had a lot of strong feelings having just come off a show where 14 million people were watching me and scrutinizing me. I did a Kickstarter immediately, got it funded, and then started writing the songs. People put their blind trust in me and I wasn’t about to let them down. A lot of the songs were written on an 80s Yamaha grand piano at Manifold Studios while my producer at the time, Ian Schreier, popped in and out of his console, making suggestions and asking me questions about each song in an attempt to guide me in the right direction without disrupting the creative process. I brought all of my favorite musician friends in and we rehearsed for two weeks and recorded for two weeks. Then I immediately moved to SF and obviously didn’t take the band with me, lost my manager, and I had to start from scratch in a brand new city with no one knowing who I was and no PR with a brand new album. It was a recipe for failure but I turned lemons into lemonade and just kept banging away at the damn thing, surviving in the industry in any way that I could. And miraculously I was able to put out another album.
In a recent interview with SF Sonic, you said that Darling Misfits “dealt with everything I’d been through for the past 10 years and the growing pains of becoming a musician”. What does Misfit Cabaret represent to you and what is its overarching message?
Misfit Cabaret is a love letter to my childhood. While Darling Misfits was a “hurry up and write this damn thing and squeeze every ounce of feeling into it or else”, Misfit Cabaret had time to breathe. I wrote Darling Misfits in less than 2 months. Misfit Cabaret was written over the course of a year. The show itself pulls a lot of inspiration from gritty 80s pop culture which has forced me to revisit my childhood and the pains of growing up as a weirdo in suburbia. Overall I had a great childhood, but I grew up with the feeling that I wanted to get out and go somewhere and be something bigger than I was. I’ve always had this inexplicable need to prove myself to SOMEBODY, ANYBODY, I’LL SHOW THEM! Maybe it comes from watching MTV for hours on end while my mom was constantly dragging me to one brother’s boring baseball/football/basketball/soccer game after another or never getting picked to be in a stupid school play and so on and so on. Getting to perform Misfit Cabaret makes me downright damn giddy. My heart is all over that stage and it naturally flows into the music. Absolutely nothing is forced. Putting on these costumes and playing pretend is me not pretending anymore, if that makes sense. Darling Misfits was testing the waters. Misfit Cabaret is me diving in.
The six-and-a-half-minute epic “The Last Waltz of the Wrights” feels like a perfect summary of the album as a whole, featuring haunting piano parts, dramatic strings, tribal-sounding drums and your soaring vocals leading the way. Can you talk a little bit about how this song’s many pieces came together?
“Last Waltz” is one of my favorites on the album, and it came about from reading one of those obnoxious slideshow clickbait articles you find after hours of boredom on the internet (they’re not all a waste of time!). Someone had snuck into this old estate in Surrey, England and grabbed pictures of a decaying underwater ballroom…with a grimy green glass ceiling…in the pitch black of night. The photos made the hairs on my arms stand up. There’s no way that place isn’t haunted. I did some research on the estate and found out that it was owned by James Whitaker Wright, who got caught embezzling money to maintain his lavish lifestyle, and rather than face the charges, he took his life in the courthouse by swallowing cyanide. That is British drama in the 19th century at its finest. The story consumed me, so I had to write a song about it. In real life, James did not kill his wife, though I’m guessing her life wasn’t great after her husband’s conviction and suicide. I wrote the piano melody to sound like drowning and I drummed up the villainy. Maybe on the next Misfit Cabaret album, Anna gets her revenge.
I knew I wanted a string quartet on the album, so Daniel hired his friend Shaina K. Evoniuk from Jazz Mafia to put a quartet together and they came in and within two hours had banged out their parts on “Last Waltz”. I cried through the whole damn recording process, it was so beautiful. There are few things in life more moving than listening to a string quartet play a melody you wrote. It’s thrilling and humbling at the same time. I still get goosebumps. I wonder if James Whitaker Wright has any idea I wrote a song about him. I hope he’s not mad about the ending.
(Side note: if you want to see the pictures, check them out here.)
Seventh track “My Escape” features some of the softest, most delicate vocals and lyrics you’ve ever delivered on a record. What was it like reaching into such a seemingly vulnerable place to create this song?
Some of my chord progressions on Darling Misfits are “epic”. Not epic in the sense that I’m blowing my own horn, but epic in a Gulliver’s Travels kind of way – they’re all over the place, especially “The Apple Pie and The Knife”. I wanted to challenge myself to write a simple, good song with 4 chords that repeat over and over, like every pop song over the last 50 years. Some of the best songs are the simplest, i.e. The Beatles. I also liked the concept of simplicity as a delicate thing, much like love and relationships. When we went to record the song, we started adding the full band and then we started adding strings, and got pretty far along, until I realized that the lyrics in the song didn’t call for any of that. The lyrics are precious and a little silly, so a string quartet makes no sense. We scaled it way back and let it breathe, and I sang it as vulnerably as I could. AND THEN something really weird happened to the recordings where we found these crazy pops that a zillion professional audio engineers have not been able to identify. GHOSTS. Ghosts that cost me money, as it turned out, because we ended up having to rerecord the entire damn song. Thank goodness that it was just piano and vocals.
Whereas Darling Misfits was a conglomeration of genres and lyrical topics, Misfit Cabaret feels generally more controlled and theatrical, as if you’ve found a comfort zone of sorts. Would you say that the former was a record you needed to make, while the latter is the record you always wanted to make?
Yes, and I think I wore out the explanation in the previous answers. haha. Misfit Cabaret is a love letter to my childhood, but I think the overarching theme is masks, which I’m hiding behind in almost every song. I write my own stories through the eyes of pop culture characters like Sally Bowles, Edward Scissorhands, Satine – all characters who faced rejection in one way or another. I’m a relatively private person and my persona on stage is yet another mask. I think about the things I say, even if it seems I’m blurting at times. I’ve learned to hide what I need to hide, or want to hide.
Ironically, I just opened for Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots, and I allowed myself to be a lot more open with the audience. Edward’s violinist, Patrick Q. Wright, told me after the show that I should open up more. It was kind of a shock, considering I spent my entire 20s being told to shut up on stage and just “play the songs”. I’m still getting used to it.
With your well-known love of musical theater, is there anything you’d love to do specifically in that world someday? Like composing the soundtrack to a play or even writing a play of your own?
Yes, I think that would be lovely; I just don’t know what that play would be about. Misfit Cabaret already is a musical of sorts. It flows like a proper theater show without any breaks and is constructed in such a way as to tell a story. I was in my very first musical last year, The Boy From Oz. I was Liza Minnelli. It was fun and an educational experience. I would definitely do more. But I’m currently enjoying being my own producer and star and creator of the show. As much as I’m enjoying my little vaudeville bubble, Lin Manuel Miranda must wake up high as a fucking kite every day.
Along with the album’s release, you and the Misfit Cabaret have a pair of live shows coming June 2 and 3 at The Great Star Theater featuring a wide variety of entertainment. Even a dance contest during the intermission! Can you give the fans an idea of what to expect at these shows?
It’s absolutely nuts. Each show just keeps getting bigger and bigger. At this point, we have at least 300 people that come to every single show, and we’re learning what they really love and what excites them, and we’re leaning into that. We are a variety show that centers around music, and the music is anywhere from rock to broadway to theme songs from your favorite 80s cartoons. I write two original songs for each new show and we have an original theme song that most of the audience knows the words to now, especially the part where we scream “fuck” about paying SF rent prices. The first time the audience screamed that with us, it took me aback. It was the coolest thing. We have aerialists and drag queens and burlesque artists and local musicians and sword swallowers and puppets and sideshow performers. Each show starts with a giant 15 minute (ish) melody of about 30 (ish) songs that fit with the theme and the audience sings along and claps. We try to be immersive as possible but get a seat upfront if you really want to be a part of the show. And at the end of the night, we grab people up on stage to dance with us. It’s honestly the most emotionally rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
In the wake of the horrific attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, emotions are naturally running very high among concert-goers of all ages. What would you say to any music fans out there who may fear that live music is no longer a safe haven for them?
Nowhere is safe. I could die as I sit on my bed in my locked apartment, responding to this interview. I had a friend in middle school who slipped in the shower and died. Life is so short and so fragile. You have to live every day like it’s your last, and staying inside won’t do you any good. I had the honor of meeting Christina Grimmie when we performed at a Voice concert together in San Jose 3 years ago. She sat down and talked to me for an hour and was so gracious and lovely and did everything she could to include me in the group when I very much felt like the outcast. She was down to earth and incredibly humble for how insanely talented she was. She was 22 when a deranged fan walked up to her at a meet and greet and shot her in the head and killed her. It scared the living shit out of me. I talked to Amanda Palmer about it, someone who is notoriously accessible to her fans, and we both agreed that you can’t live life behind bullet proof glass. What happened at the Manchester concert could have happened anywhere, and does. I played a show to a room of 500 people where there was no metal detector at the door and people could walk right up to me and hug me, and that’s what I want. The Aurora shooting didn’t stop people from going to movies. The Manchester bombing won’t stop people from going to concerts, because the Paris shootings didn’t stop people from going to concerts. Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. -Victor Hugo
It makes me so sad that we live in a world where this is possible. I honestly don’t know what else to say.
Along with Misfit Cabaret‘s release and the Great Star Theater shows, any other big plans for summer 2017, music or otherwise?
Misfit Cabaret is performing at Camp Tipsy on June 17th and on the main stage of Pride SF on June 24th. Camp Tipsy is a burner-esque boat building festival on the lake, so we’ll perform our nautical themed show, Whimsea. For Pride, we will perform 4 original songs from the show and will have Fou Fou Ha! dancers representing for SF’s vaudeville community.
And finally, any last words for all the adoring Kat fans across the world?
Just be good to each other. Don’t judge someone based on the music they listen to, or their religion or sexuality. The US is going through a tough time and there are forces that are trying to divide us, and that’s bullshit. We have to work together. This world is big enough for all of us. I mean, it is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and San Francisco wants you to remember that every time you walk out the door, so it could be the inner hippie in me talking, but I really do feel that we need to chill the fuck out and love each other.
Come on, people now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love one another, right now. Or something like that.
Kat and the Misfit Cabaret are also performing live at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco on June 2 and 3, and you can buy concert tickets here.
Check out the music video for the album’s second track “She Looked Like She Owed Death Money” below!