Notes From The Green Room: Hanging Out Back Stage With Kat Dahlia Before Her Show

I’m finally at the point in my career as a music journalist where I’m interviewing the same artist more than once. Miami crooner (and occasional rapper) Kat Dahlia is one such artist. I first talked to her a year ago on the cusp of the release of her debut album, My Garden. At the time, the 25-year-old had just finished a grueling year of recording and recovering (she had a cyst on her vocal chord that required both surgery and the cancellation of her first tour). But when I spoke to her last week, things were different.

2015 has been a good year for Dahlia who is on her first West Coast tour since her surgery last December. She’s traveled a bunch and has taken a break from the arduous songwriting and sequestering that preoccupied her so much last year. “I took a little time off to live and just wake up in the morning and be like, whatever,” she said on the phone last week. “I didn’t want to force myself to get back in and try to create, so I took some time off.” Her voice is also doing “fantastic,” she says, despite the fact that she’s been consuming everything she's not supposed to eat (i.e. dairy and sugar). Usually, the singer sticks to a strict gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free diet, but she decided to loosen up and live a little the past month as she traveled through Europe with a friend. As she told me on the phone, “I just had my last piece of bread and butter and now I’m done. I was like, ‘Sorry, guys,’ and we parted ways.”

[jump] Walking into the green room before Dahlia’s Sunday show at Social Hall, I knew exactly what to expect. As a journalist, you interview a lot of people on a daily basis and rarely answer questions about yourself. But this was not the case with Dahlia. She was inquisitive and conversational and it almost felt like chatting with a friend. She was dressed in an outfit that perfectly encapsulated both her persona and musical style: black ripped jeans, black crop top, red flannel tied at the waste, black knee-high boots, and her hair in a messy bun. In other words, Dahlia is outgoing and fun, but laidback with approachable. Her music, which can broadly be categorized as pop, is also not the shiny, neon pop that one would associate with, say, Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez, but rather a rumpled, grungier version that’s more visceral and down-to-earth.

As she sipped tea, and avoided eating the chocolate-covered albums and tortilla chips on the table beside her, she told me how she’d slept for 12 hours straight the previous night on account of partying a bit too much after her show in Seattle the night before. “Right now, I feel a little tired, but I’ll just take a little shot of Don Julio before I go onstage,” she said. “I hate it so much, but it does the trick.”

As the DJ, Val Fleury, warmed up the crowd with her electro-pop remixes, I continued hanging out backstage in Dahlia’s dressing room while her friends trickle in. There was Ben, the owner “of a fucking forest in Napa Valley,” whom Dahlia and friends had met through Airbnb whilst traveling down the coast this past September. They'd spotted Ben’s “sky tents” on the site and had immediately booked one for themselves. The fact that Dahlia had invited her Airbnb host to her show (and seemed genuinely pleased that he'd come), said more about the young artist than any of her lyrics.  When she found out that Ben would be visiting Los Angeles the next week, Dahlia perked up even more. “Then you can come to my place!” she cried. “You can be my Airbnb-er!”

More friends entered the room and Ben’s “sky tents,” en plein air hot tubs, and pond full of otters became the piece de resistance of the conversation. Dahlia confessed that she’s “obsessed” with otters now, recently had a dream about adopting one, and believes that she either “was an otter” or is an otter. She fawned over Ben’s faux white fur jacket and he magnanimously offered to let her borrow it for the show. The conversation was light and airy, punctuated with a lot of “OMG’s!” and hyperboles, but so what? This was a 25-year-old girl’s dressing room before her first live performance in San Francisco in over a year. As Dahlia explained while her manager ushered us out of the room ten minutes before her set so that she could warm-up her voice, “This is exactly what I needed. Something to get me excited and amped up before my show.”
The entire room went dark as Dahlia, basking in the glow of a lone spotlight, strutted across the stage. For those who have not been to Social Hall, it’s sort of like the basement stage of the Regency Ballroom (which is upstairs), and, as such, is less fancy and more low-key. From a performer’s perspective, it might be a bummer venue because it’s not as grandiose and big-time, as, say, the Oracle Arena, but from the crowd’s perspective, it’s an awesome place to see someone live. The stage is only four to five feet tall and there’s no barrier preventing fans from standing right up against it or reaching out to touch the performer.

For a Sunday night, the turnout was great. A few hundred fans packed into the room as Dahlia opened her set with the single, “Clocks.” She cycled through a number of songs from her album (“Saturday, Sunday,” “Mirror,” “I Think I’m In Love,” and “Crazy”), interspersed with covers of her favorite songs-of-the-moment (“Anecdote” by Travis $cott, “The Hills” by The Weeknd, “White Iverson” by Post Malone, and “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber). It was a smart tactic because those are all absurdly popular songs that 99% of people in the audience recognized, but her voice was better suited (more firm, more sure) to her own tracks. Though she sings pop, Dahlia has a deep, throaty voice, which doesn’t necessarily pair with any old beat. Then again, that might be why she did those covers: To branch out and try new styles.

Dahlia ended the hour-long set with the song that originally brought her fame in 2013: “Gangsta.” It’s a powerful song, one in which Dahlia’s voice shines to the best of its capabilities, and it was a fitting end to the show.

When this tour ends, Dahlia will return to Los Angeles (where she currently lives) to “just sit down with a paper and pencil in my room in solitude with my thoughts” and, ostensibly, write new material. While the first album went in many directions sonically – there was a bit of hip-hop, a bit of pop, a bit of RnB, and even a bit of Spanish – her next record will be more streamlined. “I want to focus on the lyrics and the actual writing first,” she said, “and then get a producer to come and flush out the sound with me.”

As she told me when I left her dressing room, “2015 was [a] chill year, but I’ve decided 2016 is going to be grind year.”

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