Kat Robichaud : A Performer You Should Know
Kat Robichaud is on her way to being a San Francisco legend, assuming we can keep her here. I am not someone people regularly ask to find out about the coolest new artist or local underground band, but I love music and theater so I am always up for checking out a show that someone else tells me about. Because of this I stumbled upon Kat through no effort of my own.
A little over a year ago, I got asked on a date to go see a cabaret show at a small private venue. The date was over an hour late and we wandered in well after the show started. There was a burlesque dancer performing and people were generally milling about, getting drinks and chatting. As I settled in with my requisite manhattan in hand, making small talk, Kat began performing an original song with a voice that stopped me mid-sentence. It was resonant and commanding yet awash in a powerful femininity and was accompanied by a presence that was overflowing the tiny stage. She exuded a magical mashup of ’40s songstress glamour with a rock-star attitude. I was enraptured and watched in silence until she finished, as did the entire room. I discovered later I had lucked into seeing the debut of Kat’s soon to be signature show, Misfit Cabaret, now heading into its 7th iteration at The Great Star Theater.
A few weeks later I ran into the owner of the venue, and proceeded to talk his ear off at how fabulous Kat was and how impressive it was to see a performer of that caliber in such an intimate setting. Who was she? Where had she come from? What was she doing next?
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After a year, several more of her shows, and a bunch of messages back and forth, I finally got the chance to ask her myself.
Can you tell me a little about your background – where you grew up, when you started performing, did you have any professional training or mentors?
I grew up in tobacco country, North Carolina. I’ve always performed in one way or another. I used to drive my parents crazy, bouncing around the house. I was very much a “look at me! look at me!” kid, and it slowly manifested into a career. My parents were supportive but didn’t encourage me to be an entertainer, nor did anyone else, so I went to school for graphic design and got a degree in it. It wasn’t until about half way through college that people started to encourage me perform. I remember going to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and watching Karen O spit beer on some bro’s head, and I was like “yup, that’s what I want to do and I’m gonna do it”, so I just kicked around on craigslist, answered an ad, and joined my first band at 20. It was a cover band called Sugar, later renamed The Design (which is a HORRIBLE name for a band…try googling The Design) and we took off, playing 3-5 shows a week for a solid 8 years and put two original albums. I never actually had a job as a graphic designer. Sometimes it was really fun to play in that band and sometimes it was soul-crushing. Singing “Sweet Home Alabama” all week long for 8 years is terrible and to this day I refuse to sing it. After 8 years of basically living out of a van, I finally quit and the band broke up and I waited tables and did freelance graphic design. That lasted for about a month before I got an offer to try out for The Voice. I had nothing to lose so I went for it, and to my surprise made it onto the show and became a top 10 finalist. The notoriety of the show put me in touch with Amanda Palmer, who I kept saying was a huge influence on me, and we played a few shows together. She pushed me to do a Kickstarter for an album, which I did successfully.
When did you move to San Francisco and what brought you here?
I moved to San Francisco a little over two years ago. North Carolina was done with me, and I was done with it. My husband had just graduated and was job-hunting, so I picked four places that I would want to live and he went for jobs there. San Francisco ended up being the winner. I moved here knowing a few people in the art community, and spent the first few months going out to see bands, drag shows, and burlesque. I was completely gobsmacked by the drag community and how beautiful and creative it is. It completely changed the way I thought of performance as an art and heavily influenced my performances going forward and my cabaret.
What are the challenges to being a performer in San Francisco and what commits you to staying here?
One of the biggest challenges artists face in SF is losing their performance spaces and not being able to pay their own rent. As a little girl who grew up different in a conservative state and who dreamed of fitting in somewhere, I was so excited to move to San Francisco and then so sad to hear about how the city was seemingly losing its heart because artists were being forced out. When I got the opportunity to put on a new show, I knew that I wanted to showcase mostly local acts because the art scene here is incredible and people should see it. The Great Star is such an amazing space and nothing thrills me more than to be able to pay my performers and watch them shine on that stage in front of a loving audience.
What inspired Misfit Cabaret? What is the process to developing each show?
When I moved to SF, I had no band and a brand new album. So I put a band together and started fighting for shows that paid. We played a lot of really fun shows but the money just wasn’t there, so I started playing cabaret/lounge-style shows with just my keyboardist. I wound up playing a show in front of Jordan and Paul Nathan, and Jordan approached me and said she really wanted to produce a show with me. This scared the shit out of me because I’d never produced a show before, but I was also excited because I grew up watching a ton of musicals as a kid and I love the theater, so I said “yes”. Our first show was at a small venue that sold out at 100 people and it was intimate and amazing. The show has evolved into doing a full weekend of shows at The Great Star Theater in Chinatown, which Paul Nathan is the proprietor of. Each show gets better because we’re learning what works and what people love. We always start the show with a full blown music medley of songs that fit with the theme of the evening and we try to get as many laughs as we can plus I always write two original songs that fit with the theme. For example, in Whimsea I wrote a song about a man who kills his wife in an underwater ballroom and had a pair of waltzers act out the whole thing on stage while they danced. I also wrote a theme song for the show, called “Misfit Cabaret”, which is a love letter to San Francisco. For the upcoming Grimm, I have two songs to write in the next couple weeks. One will be about a king, told from the perspective of Maleficent, and the other will be about the dreams of our youth and I’ll sing it while a rope aerialist flies through the air dressed as Falkor from The Neverending Story. If it weren’t for Misfit Cabaret, I don’t think I would be writing these songs.
As far as process….Jordan and I talk months in advance about what the next theme is going to be. I have a “rolodex of awesome” full of performers that I’m constantly adding to, and I hire people based on how well they fit the theme of the show. At first the performers were all people that I had seen and thought were amazing, so I kept in touch. Now, I have a lot of performers reaching out to me that want to be in the show, and that’s wonderful. I arrange the medley at the beginning of the night and I write new lyrics to the Misfit Cabaret theme song so that it represents the new performers we have for the evening. It’s a lot of work, and some say unnecessary, but it’s worth it to me to see it all come together at the end.
You have successfully used Kickstarter to fund Misfit Cabaret and an upcoming album. How do you feel about the process of crowdfunding to support the arts and do you have any tips for first timers?
Kickstarter is one giant trust fall. It’s scary as hell, but I’ve been very lucky and I have amazing supportive fans. I’ve done three at this point. I always say it’s going to be the last one I do, because it is really hard to continually ask your fans for help, but I think they know at this point that it’s the only way I can produce new music, because I’m not signed with a label. I’m 33 and I was told that when I got off The Voice that no label would sign me because I’m a woman in my 30s that wants to sing rock and roll. I was a “hard sell”. Amanda Palmer helped me a lot with my first Kickstarter, and both she and Neil Gaiman were really supportive in getting it off the ground and it definitely made it a lot easier. I’m thankful that platforms like Kickstarter exist and that I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m a “hard sell”. I have complete control over my music and my art, and that’s amazing.
Here’s my advice to anyone getting ready to launch their first Kickstarter. First, make sure you have the support that’s going to back you. Play the shows. Build the audience. Get people to sign up on your elist and build relationships face to face (because it’s pretty rad to recognize people in the audience). Keep your video short and concise. Tell your story,be yourself and keep it positive. Set your goal at the bare minimum of what you need to make the project and create packages that excite people, but do the math and make sure that once your packages are completed and mailed, you still have money to actually make the thing. Spreadsheets are awesome. The most important thing is to be good to your fans and communicate with them. These people trusted you with their hard-earned income. Make them feel special and loved. FOLLOW THROUGH with what you said you would do. If you flake, you’re burning your fans and they’re not gonna come back. If you work really hard and deliver, chances are they’re going to keep supporting you. It’s all about love and trust. I set my delivery date on the newest album to December. We had some setbacks and that means it took more time, but I’ve been communicating to my backers non-stop so they know that I’m working hard and doing everything in my power on getting the album to them. I just got the masters of the album two days ago and I immediately sent an email to everyone to tell them how good it sounds and I can’t wait for them to hear it. It’s a process and I’m doing it alone and I think they understand.
What was your biggest or most heartbreaking failure and how did you bounce back?
The Design (Sugar the Band) was my most heartbreaking failure. It was my entire 20s, and I spent it on the road, touring up and down the east coast, playing every single Wild Wing Cafe that existed. I had no idea what I was doing. At first it was fun and then it just kept getting worse and worse, and I watched as one band member after another left until I was the only original member left. I started out as the youngest member of the band and ended as the oldest. I worked so hard for so long that I just couldn’t let go. I told myself that if I quit, I would be missing out on an opportunity that was right around the corner. It wasn’t until I listened to Freakanomic’s “The Upside of Quitting” that I realized it was actually ok to quit. So I quit and it was heartbreaking but I learned so much from being in that band. I learned how to talk to an audience and how to hold myself on stage. It made me a better performer and a better singer. I learned how to treat other people and how to be professional. And when the band finally broke up and I was finally able to let it go and walk away, I was offered an audition with The Voice and that ended up being an amazing experience that opened a lot of doors for me. I know it’s so cheesy to say, but I learned that taking a step back is not the same as giving up and you just have to keep finding new ways to fight.
Am I correct that you are also in a David Bowie tribute band?
Yes, I am also in a David Bowie tribute band called The First Church of the Sacred Silversexual. I discovered the band within the first month I moved out here at Trannyshack (now Mother) and fell in love with them. I stalked them online and told the Lysol, the reverend of the group, that I would love to buy him a beer at the next show. A week later they played Boom Boom Room and by the end of the evening I was up onstage, singing “Fame” with everyone, and had joined the band by the end of the set. It really was the coolest thing ever, and they’re all the warmest, loveliest people. The guitarist, Adam Dragland, is my guitarist for Misfit Cabaret and The Darling Misfits. Brendan Getzell, my right hand man and keyboardist for Misfit Cabaret, just joined the First Church as our keyboardist a couple months ago. Jillian Gnarling performs her awesome brand of drag at my cabaret all the time. It’s a big family. We only play a couple times a year because everyone is so busy with their other projects, but it’s so fun when we get together. We play The Chapel every year for Bowie’s birthday.
Where to see Kat next:
Singing with The First Church of The Sacred Silversexual this weekend at The Chapel on January 6th and 7th for the 6th Annual Bowie birthday bash. Tickets available here.
And keep an eye out for her just finished album in the next couple of months!