Kat Cunning Spins A Queer Narrative In Her First Music Video

Photo: Courtesy of subject.
Welcome to The Drop, Refinery29's new home for exclusive music video premieres. We want to shine the spotlight on women artists whose music inspires, excites, and (literally) moves us. This is where we'll champion their voices.
Kat Cunning is part of a new breed of musicians that don't fall strictly under the category of "musician." Cunning, whose full name is Katrina Cunningham, is a dancer, actor, singer, and songwriter. A trained dancer — she has a BFA in dance from SUNY Purchase — she starred in Cirque du Soleil's first Broadway show Paramour just last year. But this year, she's trained her eye on music. "Wild Poppies" is her first music video, although it feels like Cunning is made for the form. The video itself evokes a frantic 1800s Moulin Rouge: Dancers in red hoop skirts hurl themselves around a placid Cunning, who wears a long black gown.
According to Cunning, who spoke with Refinery29 in advance of the video's premiere, the piece has two sources of inspiration: The Wizard of Oz and Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron. These two are admittedly opposite works; Oz is about the exploration of a fantasy, while Harrison Bergeron depicts a futuristic world where, in the interest of equality, citizens must restrain their individual talents. For example, a graceful dancer in the world of the short story must wear weights so that she's just as clumsy as the next person. Cunning finds a channel connecting the two, though: For her, Oz is a tragedy for the same reason Harrison Bergeron is. Dorothy gets a taste of fantasy — the yellow brick road and all that jazz — but then, she has to return to bleak, black-and-white reality, where people aren't even aware that fantasy exists.
If that seems like heavy imagery for a music video, then you haven't been watching the genre: Music videos are more elastic than ever, bending to tell stories in ways we never thought possible. And Cunning, a storyteller, seems born to make them, although "Wild Poppies" is her first effort. To coincide with the premiere, Refinery29 spoke to Cunning about The Wizard of Oz, women in music, and Cunning's ambitious future plans. (She hopes to mount a Broadway-level traveling concert someday.)
Refinery29: Let's just jump right in. Did you choreograph "Wild Poppies" yourself?
Kat Cunning: "The original version of this choreography was made six years ago by me on eleven dancers. And then I adapted it to fit this piece, which is sort of based on the same thing I originally choreographed it for.
"I [originally] choreographed it based on Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron in Welcome to the Monkey House. Which is this story about repressing talent, essentially. It's a story of repression in a community where people are made to harness all their talent or their beauty. I was really moved by that story and I brought it to life in a dance. It was a fantastical dystopian world in the same way that 'Wild Poppies' was for me. At least, the song that I wrote."

In a way, this song was a version of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy doesn't come home.

Your dancers in the video are all wearing hoop skirts, regardless of gender.
"Yeah, that's super important to me. I'm queer, and the song itself is — I mean, it's loosely based on Wizard of Oz, which I've been obsessed with since I was as young as I can remember. And then, growing up, coming into my own and realizing I was gay, it was a funny realization that The Wizard of Oz is also actually such an emblem for the gay community. It's 'Over the Rainbow,' Dorothy, Judy Garland — it's like a poster story for gay people finding themselves. In a way, this song was a version of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy doesn't come home. Like that ending monologue, when she's like, 'And you were there, and you were there! But it couldn't have been you, could you?' I saw that as kind of a bummer. She literally goes back to a world made of black and white after you've seen — at the time — one of the first color films, ever. She has so many adventures, and for me that story is akin to finding your community of people and particularly a colorful queer world full of beautiful freaks. For me, that's what the song is about — finding that family."
So, the costumes are meant to evoke The Wizard of Oz?
"In designing the costumes, I went for a high-fashion Wizard of Oz [with] a little dystopian, muted feel. It was reds and whites in this hazy green-ish world. So it would feel a little post-apocalyptic and dark. The skirts are modelled after skirts from the 1800s, because I'm really inspired by the 1800s and the Baroque period and music and elegance and opera."
Clearly, you're comfortable working in visual mediums. How does your performance history inform your music?
"Well, I try to make songs that I want to perform. And I try to tell stories that I think people will want to connect with and will want to experience live. So, in all of the shows that I've done, I've learned how to tell a story and how to connect with an audience and the cadence of a good show. For me, these are like little operas that I want to produce. They're ballets that I want to dance with dancers. And then, eventually, the dream for me is to have a huge touring concert where I have the budget of a Broadway show and I get to bring all these visuals to life. Instead of thinking about making a really great song every time I write a song, I'm really writing about a world that I want to step into that I think will affect people."

from my microperspective of this industry, I just want more access to more female engineers.

The music industry is at a turning point right now, as evidenced by Sunday's awkward Grammys ceremony. What do you think needs to happen for women to get equal treatment at the Grammys?
"Personally, from my microperspective of this industry, I just want more access to more female engineers. I want studios to have more of a feminine, homey touch. But I feel like I have never worked with a female engineer, and I've talked to a lot of people from the last generation who were like, 'I really wanted to be one, but it just was not a safe environment for me.' Engineers, for me, when I'm recording a vocal, and I want to be full of honesty, and candor and my message. I would just love to have more women in that role, where they're picking and choosing the takes for me. Or more queer people. I want more queer people defining the space where that creation is happening. I want to these people to find me! If you're a female engineer or a female musician, and you want to collaborate with me, I want to collaborate with you."
Watch the full music video for "Wild Poppies," below.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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