Kat Dahlia uses her voice as a weapon. It’s a voice that cuts sharp and deep, straight to the chambers of the heart. Like the beautiful variations of the flower genus her name represents, the Miami-bred, Cuban-American singer-songwriter’s hotly anticipated debut album, aptly titled My Garden, is complex, intoxicating and unforgettable. “My album is a plethora of sounds, not unlike a garden of flowers,” Kat says. “You have daisies, sunflowers, willows, thorns—all evoking different emotions, expressions and meanings. I’m inviting everyone into my garden, my mind, my music.”
Without a doubt one of the hottest new artists to watch in 2013, there’s no one quite like Kat Dahlia. Her electrifying sound is a sultry mix of pop, Latin, hip-hop and reggae influences, and she deftly alternates between unleashing pure, infectious lyrical fire in party jams like “Money Party” and poetically pondering heartbreak and relationships in ballads such as “Walk on Water.” She is an artist of her own making. “There’s no other way to stand out than just being myself,” says the rising Latin pop star. “I write my own music. People say my voice is very unique and I do this rappy thing that’s kind of different, but if you really want to break it down, I’m just being myself.”
Born Katriana Huguet (and formerly known as Kat Hue), she’s the rare artist who will go into the studio and record nine songs in one day. Tell her she can’t do it and she’ll prove the naysayers wrong. For years, she waited tables six days a week to save up enough money to independently fund studio sessions, a music video and an EP all on her own. That combination of hustle and infectious vocals is why music industry veteran Sylvia Rhone swiftly signed Kat to her Vested in Culture label with Epic Records the very first time she heard her demos.
It’s easy to understand why Rhone didn’t want to let Kat Dahlia slip away. She’s a natural born storyteller whose inspired material comes directly from the hard knocks that life has served her. “My songwriting is all stories. It’s influenced by a lot of blues, Elvis, and the Buena Vista Social Club, which are all made up of stories.” In her song “Tumbao,” for instance, Kat pays homage to Celia Cruz’s “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” while she playfully questions the stereotype associated with being a Latina recording artist: “Sí, yo hablo Español / But, baby, I ain’t trying to fit that mold / I’ma keep my creative control / I’m just a South Beach girl with a lot of soul.”
The spirited 22-year-old was raised by Cuban-born parents in Miami Beach. Though fluent in English and Spanish, her French surname, Huguet, is owed to her paternal great-grandparents who came to Cuba from Lebanon. Kat’s parents emigrated to the U.S. as children and their island culture carried over into the language and salsa music that was fundamental to her upbringing, as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Willies wafted through the air in her abuela’s kitchen. “I always knew I wanted to do music. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.” Kat performed her first solo, “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie, at a benefit when she was 8-years-old and started writing her own songs at age 15. “I would rip instrumentals from YouTube to make songs because I didn’t have a producer or a band.”
Self-reliance is a trait Kat learned early to survive her riches-to-rags childhood. Her parents were once successful entrepreneurs who owned a moving company, but their business unraveled after they divorced, and Kat and three of her six siblings went to live with their mother. “My parents came from no money, made money, but little by little went back to the struggle. We lived in a hotel room for a while and there was a time when I slept on a sofa-bed with two of my sisters while my other sister slept in an armchair. That’s when I realized I had to do shit on my own.” Kat recalls those harsh experiences in her autobiographical first single, “Gangsta,” as she vividly sketches the painful details of her life: “No, I ain’t stuntin’ like my daddy / He’s living with my grammy / Used to be a big baller / He’s surviving off of gambling / But I love him, he’s my daddy / Yeah, I love him, he’s my daddy / Put him in a big house before I ever see a Grammy.”
By age 18, Kat had saved up enough money from waitressing at Miami hotspots like STK to strike out on her own, however, the nagging feeling that she wanted more from life prompted her to move to New York. She soon settled in North Bergen, New Jersey, but on arrival in 2010, became derailed by a toxic relationship. A year later, she emerged confident, strong, running her own game and endowed with the insight to channel her emotions into songs that she wrote. That’s when Kat Hue became Kat Dahlia. “My friend J. Dens—who produced ‘Gangsta’ and ‘My Garden’—came up with the name Kat Dahlia,” she explains. “At first, I was hesitant about it because I thought maybe it was too dark and harsh. But when I looked up the definition of a dahlia, I discovered that it’s a beautiful flower, one of a kind that’s very hard to grow and very hard to duplicate. I also like the duality of the hardness and softness of the name, which is why I feel it’s an accurate reflection of me as an artist.”
The juxtaposition of darkness and light is a recurring theme in Kat’s lyrics, one that she explores with aplomb in My Garden’s tantalizing title track, in which she chants, “My garden’s white of daisies / And it’s untouched, come play / Check in my rhythm, baby / My sky’s been looking grey / My garden’s white of daisies / And it’s untouched of sin / My root’s been craving lately / To soak in your diamonds.” It is also the core of her appeal as the rare pop artist who embodies both style and substance. “I feel like a messenger,” she explains. “I want to send a positive message of love and put out good music that constantly challenges me as an artist.” Beware: Kat Dahlia has arrived, she’s armed and she’s dangerous.