Interview: Kat Wright’s Indomitable & Sustainable Soul

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For over eight years vocalist Kat Wright has been making a name for herself in the live music world. Authentically driven by her roots in soul and folk, Kat sings her truth fronting her band. Her sultry melodies combine with their powerful horns, strings and drums to create something moody, danceable and uncommon in today’s rock landscape. Even though she is described as a young “Bonnie Raitt meets Amy Winehouse,” one of the best things about Kat is that she’s completely herself — and it’s refreshingly charming.

Since 2011, Kat and her band have been playing together upon establishing a popular residency at Radio Bean in their home town of Burlington, Vermont. With one record under their belts, 2016’s By My Side, and a new one produced by Eric Krasno due out in 2020, it’s safe to say they grew into their own and developed a following.

After all these years working locally and touring the country, 2019 has been especially abuzz with praise and chatter about Kat and her band among music fans, whether their robust performance was delivered at a large festival or a small listening room. I asked her about this, and if they’ve recently taken a new approach to garner more widespread attention.

“I didn’t do anything different this year compared to the past,” Wright said. “I think it’s just the grind of the past five or six years adding up a little bit. I tend to really see that happen in the indie-music scene. ‘Indie’ meaning artists who are working independently without labels. A lot of what we do tends to take a while to surface in this way since I don’t have a label pumping my stuff out or anything like that.

“It’s all organic, is what it is. A lot of it is based on word-of-mouth: friends telling friends they’d like my music or putting our songs on during a long road trip or at a house party, seeing something on Instagram or inviting people to a show from out of town. Stuff like that is how it works. I think these days for indie artists it’s not just one big thing that gets us recognition, but all these little things that have to add up to make it happen.

“I find it’s the same as opening a new brick and mortar business, like a restaurant. You could walk by a new place in your town for a year or more, and your friends could tell you they love the new taco place, but it can take time for you to actually try it yourself. I think it’s the same thing. It can take time.”

Living out an organic lifestyle is one of Kat’s dynamic and impressive qualities, both on and off the stage. She holds herself accountable as a citizen of planet Earth, as a band member, friend and daughter, and in turn, serves up an unparalleled genuine vibe. While her overall aesthetic may be old-school with stunning vintage fashion and throwback soul grooves, Kat’s beliefs are progressive. She describes life as being “one big ripple effect” and reminds us that what we do impacts everyone around us, for better or for worse. An otherwise-vegan pescatarian, Kat shared some insight on eating healthy and traveling sustainably while on tour.

“It’s really inconvenient, and it’s really hard,” Wright said. “It requires so much extra effort and that’s really challenging. But most of the hard work we do in our lives is inconvenient, and that’s what makes it hard work.

“Two years ago I stopped eating meat and I stopped eating dairy. I started adding some fish back into my diet when, after I pulled all the animal protein entirely, my nails started to look and feel fragile. It was like my body telling me, ‘Hey you need that!’ So I added fish back in occasionally, but I only eat it a few times a month. I don’t do eggs, cheese, milk or any other meat. It’s so easy to just eat pizza all the time! Especially on the road. I do miss pizza a lot.

“But I really did it for environmental and social justice reasons. I really believe that stopping eating meat is a major thing you can do if you’re concerned with climate change. I am freaking out about climate change! I’m really paying attention to everything going on in that sphere, and have massive eco-anxiety about it all and I am afraid. I’m afraid for all of us.

“I felt really desperate, like, “What can I do?” I felt like one of the biggest things I could do was to stop giving my money to those industries. The meat and dairy industries traditionally exploit their workers, especially people of color and people from vulnerable populations, and I’m incredibly not supportive of that. I’m super not into the cruelty involved in factory farming, either. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be so disgusting, the way it’s done. The whole time we’ve had the technology to do it more sustainably and with minimal cruelty, and we’re just not doing that as a society. It’s just wrong and I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore.”

Kat carries four refillable water bottles on the road to use whenever they stop and skips using cups at restaurants whenever she can. She uses a reusable cutlery set, metal straw, and uses reusable containers for leftovers from green rooms and restaurants.

“We make sure to take whatever leftover food is in the green room on the road with us to lower waste. We don’t have a tour bus or RV so we don’t have a sink, so that can get hard. But we just do it. Because as a planet, we are truly in an emergency situation. We’re all so distracted by scrolling social media, or whatever we’re all doing — myself included. It is a worldwide eco-emergency though, and I just want to do what I can to help.”

So often people deflect these responsibilities by thinking of themselves as “just one person,” saying things like, “Well what can I do to make an impact?” Kat says she’s definitely heard that before but has seen her influence make positive impact first-hand, even though she is just one person herself.

“Everything you do affects the people around you. I notice my band eat less meat because of it. I don’t preach at them, either, and I try not to be judgmental unless we get into it and I will lay down some truths [laughs]. I’m sorry, I know no one wants to have their feelings hurt. But we’re in a crisis. It does make me feel good when my band mates, my mom, or anyone close to me says they enjoyed a veggie burger or a vegan recipe! Because I don’t think they’d have even tried it otherwise.

“The stuff we do, even as one person, really does matter and make an impact.

“And for the record, I grew up in a family that eats dairy and factory-farmed meat. I was raised on meat and cheese every day like so many of us. I didn’t grow up knowledgeable about this, or in a hippie-dippy family at all. I actually have a cousin who I recently found out uses disposable silverware and paper plates every meal, so my brother laughs that everything I do is countered by what [her cousin is] doing. And yeah that makes me upset! But it doesn’t stop me from doing what I think is right. Because if I wasn’t doing this, then his actions would be even worse.”

Kat went on to say that most humans want to be good people and that leading by example is a powerful way to share your message. The people around you do take note, and as she mentioned, sometimes even make changes that lead to helping the world around us.

Kat is rich in support from her friends and family and got her musical start touring as folk-duo Loveful Heights with her lifelong best friend, Maggie Clifford. Maggie has encouraged her to share her voice since a specific moment singing Mariah Carey on a soccer field when they were just 10-years-old. Kat has never had vocal training, and she says she knows she’s kind of a unicorn.

“My band mates have been working on their instruments their whole lives,” Wright said. “I definitely sing all the time. Ask anyone who knows me! But I’ve never taken lessons or anything like that.

“If you had asked me as a little girl what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have definitely said singer. But I let myself believe that it could never happen for some reason. I think it’s because I would try out for shows in high school and middle school and I would get cut. Maybe my chorus teacher hated me [laughs]. I just didn’t get the support I needed in those avenues, and it shut me down. I thought it wasn’t for me.

“I really grew my voice around a campfire, honestly. Then in college [Alfred University] some of my guy friends who played guitar encouraged my singing and I totally credit them for believing in me enough to get me to put myself out there. I started doing open mics at a local cafe downtown and that’s where I really started performing. With the positive peer feedback, I got it was the validation I needed to try it out.

“Not long after that when I graduated, I found myself back in my hometown [Rochester, New York] and that is where I reconnected with Maggie. We just wanted to get out of Rochester and were looking at WWOOF’ing [Willing Workers Of Organic Farms], and all kinds of things to just get out of there [laughs]. She is an extremely talented guitarist, songwriter and singer, so we decided to just start a band. And that’s how Loveful Heights was born. She was more advanced than me musically, so I felt honored she wanted to tour with me. We basically just made a tour out of where we had friends or knew people, and that’s when I really started to feel like a performer.”

Kat credits her father for a lot of her early musical influences, stating that his stereo was the center of their home. Her brother is her secret manager, helping grow huge draws in Washington D.C. where he lives and her band celebrates one of their biggest markets. She explained it took all these people to remind her she had a gift even when she didn’t believe it herself, and that is something extremely beautiful.

Maggie and Kat grew up seeing shows together, including Galactic, who Kat recently opened for at Brooklyn Bowl, and her upcoming record’s producer Eric Krasno’s band, Soulive.

“Working with Eric Krasno is so cool,” Wright said. “I’ve been seeing Soulive since I was 15, screaming in the front row! So being at his house working on our music is just like, ‘Is this my real life?’

“The new record feels like a really natural evolution. The songs are a little different. They’re more intimate and more personal. When it’s ready, I’m excited to share something that is a little deeper. I think that’s what we all want to do as artists, that whatever we create, we are pushing to tell our stories. I think this album definitely does that.

”[Krasno] recently relocated to L.A. so I went out there with Josh [Weinstein, bass] and Bob [Wagner, guitar], who have been in the band since the beginning. We did the tracking and had studio musicians, which was a new thing for us. We don’t have a name for it yet, but I’m excited to keep working on it.”

Kat tells her story with music but also represents her personality through fashion. She believes in clothes that fit well, last for a long time and flatter the body they’re on. She makes some of her own headpieces, and her exceptional collection of vintage hats grows and grows as fans and friends gift her heirlooms and hand-me-downs that fit her personality. She explained that she even buys hats to display that she knows she won’t wear and that her apartment is like a funky hat museum. Reusing clothing definitely goes along with Kat’s whole approach to things, so it’s no surprise she’s also a vintage clothing entrepreneur.

“Just this past year I opened a booth in a shared space where I sell vintage clothes in Burlington,” Kat said. “I’ve been able to liquidate some of my personal collection of things I either don’t wear anymore, or that never fit right in the first place. It makes me feel good people can wear this beautiful art instead of buying fast-fashion, which is one of the world’s largest polluters and exacerbates climate change.

“I love having this shop as an outlet, and I even designed the tag that goes on all the clothes. I have such a passion for pieces that have personality, really fit the person wearing it and withstand the test of time. Not everyone needs to look the same. I think when people are the most beautiful, they’re wearing things that suit their bodies, instead of wearing something just because it’s popular.

“I don’t love the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘60s more than another decade or something. I just love stuff that fits and makes me feel good.”

The same sentiments about her clothing could be said of Kat’s music: repurposed vintage with a modern twist. It makes you feel good, and there’s truly something for everybody. Catch Kat Wright on tour now and keep your eye out for her 2020 release.

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Kat Wright