Unzip your skin and let me in, beckons Kat Cunning. With their new song and video “Boys,” the singer-songwriter, who identifies as non-binary (they/them pronouns), leaning toward transmasculine, creates a world of acceptance and compassion, a safe haven for those frequently pushed to the fringes of society. Don’t be afraid I know a place for the last ones, Cunning sings over a dance-pop backdrop.
When “Boys” was initially written, alongside Justin Parker and Rich Cooper, Cunning had yet to come out publicly as non-binary. “I have this tendency of predicting the future,” they quip, before adding, “The way I identify has nothing to do with the way that I present. People assume all the time that I identify as female, because of the way that I look, and I haven’t made any extreme gestures to change that. You don’t have to dress in a big gay costume or be extremely androgynous, for that to be an option for how you identify it.”
The accompanying visual, directed by Tee Vaden, with director of photography Maddy Talias, serves “to celebrate transmasculine people, because they’re rarely celebrated or put into the media as more than a token,” Cunning tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call. “As transmasculine people, we fly under the radar very easily. We need all the representation we can for trans people across the board, and I feel that transmasculine people who identify as part of that community are so largely underrepresented.”
Three years ago, Cunning staged “this gigantic opera of my own music, and it was really intense and involved a circus and all this stuff. I put so much blood, sweat, and tears and community into it,” they recall. But there was a part where they longed to have “a member of this community documenting this piece the way that I feel like only someone who understands from the inside what it means.”
Cunning, also known for roles in HBO’s “Deuce” and Netflix’s “Trinkets,” then took to Facebook to find a creator that not only understood but was part of the LGBTQ+ community. Someone recommended videographer/cinematographer Maddy Talias (she/her pronouns), and the two met at a cafe. “We became fast friends,” offers Cunning, who has worked with Talias on several music videos, including their first collaboration together, “Birds!,” from 2019.
“I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do this with people who I knew really loved this community,” says Cunning. Initially, there was potential for a “gigantic budget” to shoot a super-stylized concept video. “I wanted [the actors] to fly in the sky with wings, wearing football jerseys and just like to mix up all these masculine tropes and soft, angelic things that my artistry is also inspired by.”
But the actual budget didn’t quite allow for such grand theatrics. “I had a panic attack. Halfway through, I was like, ‘Okay, I still want my original treatment ideas in here.’ At first, we were just gonna do portraiture to show non-binary, transmasculine people to create a super safe space for everybody to feel celebrated. Then, last minute, I was like, ‘But Tee, I want all of my original dreams, too.’ They were able to help me work in a bunch of them, and it was a total community effort.”
Having grown up in a “very forgiving” Lutheran Church in Gresham, Oregon, Cunning peppers in angelic and Biblical imagery into the clip. “I know some people have very harrowing experiences with places that are not forgiving. I grew up in a pretty loving environment with a queer pastor, and I was really inspired about how biblical stories are so dramatic and they’re so often about awe and reverence for beauty and the godliness of veneration of religious icons.”
Cunning also uses Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, “Romeo + Juliet,” as a point of reference. “I just think that really speaks to me─the courage to drown your need for something or fight for something,” they offer. “I didn’t realize how radical it is in my song that the second verse says, ‘Burn the Bible so you can make little space.’ I have a religious person, an amazing actor and a beautiful trans person, in the video, and I did not check that lyric with him. But he was very forgiving and cool about it.
“I respect what religion does for people, and especially when it’s not being used as a weapon, it can be a really beautiful source of community,” Cunning adds. “For me, it just doesn’t hold that much power. It’s a gorgeous example of how our culture can come together. In this story, I wanted it to be the Juliet or the benevolent creature, encouraging everyone to accept themselves. I just feel like those stories are great stories and we can still play with them.”
Musically, Cunning is greatly influenced by classical music (their absolute favorite ballet is “Danse Macabre”), country music (despite going through a phase of hating it), such indie musicians as Neutral Milk Hotel and Fiona Apple─and even pop group Backstreet Boys. “I thought I was gonna be a Backstreet Boy,” Cunning laughs.
One of their earliest, most influential memories is singing “all of Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ album to myself in the mirror as if I was a diva,” they remember. “So that might have been when the music seed planted before I was really taking note of it.
“Pop can be so courageous. Similarly to how I went through a phase of thinking country was so dumb, I also went through a phase when everyone liked Britney Spears, I thought she was horrible─which, by the way, Free Britney. I’m literally in the middle of making a post about Free Britney,” they offer, now “understanding what she gave to culture and feminism and sexual representation and everything. She’s amazing. But I went through a phase of thinking pop was not cool. And I think that coming into adulthood, realizing what pop can do for the world, and how amazing it can be to write a simple lyric after trying to write all my smarty pants, cool songs, I just I’m really in awe of what pop can do and what a great pop song is.”
In their own work, beginning with the first single “Baby” in 2017, Cunning culls R&B and soul music, fusing with gooey pop music to conjure up their own unique brand. Since childhood, they were always writing poetry, pouring out their heart’s darkest emotions onto notebook paper. “Basically, the two things I did was dance and write poetry. And I never took poetry too seriously, but I just really enjoyed all the English class sides of my education.”
During their tenure at SUNY Purchase, where they earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance, Cunning frequented venues and clubs all over New York City performing spoken word poetry. “My particular brand of spoken word was just too personal, and I was just revisiting trauma over and over again,” so they stopped.
Before they made their Broadway debut as Lila in Cirque Du Soleil’s “Paramour,” Cunning had been performing in another New York show when songwriting crashed through their front door. When they told producers and the director they could sing and write, they tasked Cunning with arranging “a very cool sitar version” of a popular Lana Del Rey track. It was a stroke of genius, laying the groundwork for their aforementioned concert and biggest moment of their professional life.
“[That moment] also helped me to meet the first collaborators that I would begin to write with,” Cunning says, noting Chris Keup, who co-wrote one of their earliest releases, “Wild Poppies.” “That songwriting muscle was always flexed in my life, even though I wasn’t sharing it and if it was just for my own therapy.”
Looking ahead, Cunning surmises “a couple more singles for a little while. I thought that I had an EP ready, or I felt that it was something I needed to do actually. But I think that one of the things is that the music climate is so crazy. I want to give my audience a body of work, for sure. But I think I have a couple more songs to write in terms of rounding out the statement of who I am. I’ve grown up a lot since even writing ‘Boys,’ and I kind of want to round out more of the personality. There’s more to me than always being the hero for the community.”