“Patience, perseverance, and purpose. If you’ve got those three things in anything you choose – whether it’s music or anything – it’s gonna take an act of God to stop you!”
Strong words from a strong lady – guitarist/vocalist, composer, and artist Kat Dyson, whose ambition and talent have made her a musical force. Her style crosses much musical ground; from knockout solos to tasty slide work and intricate chordal colors – all conveyed with unabashed authority. Combined with a voice that ranges from angelic whispers to roof-shaking glory, Dyson demonstrates the manifestation of love, music, and experience.
Her resume is indeed impressive. She has toured the world as guitarist and vocalist with Collin James, where she played alongside Mavis Staples, Jimmie Vaughan, and B.B. King. She has done studio work for Dave Stewart (Eurythmics), Jeff Healey, Paul Shaffer, producers Sly and Robbie, and Bernie Worrell (Parliment Funkadelic), and played on albums and tours with Cyndi Lauper.
In the mid ’90s, Dyson landed the coveted spot playing alongside one of the world’s most popular musicians, Prince. As a member of the New Power Generation (NPG), she was a featured guitarist and vocalist on several Prince albums, then did the Emancipation and Jam of the Year world tours with NPG.
When not on the road, she has stayed busy performing on Magic Johnson’s “The Magic Hour,” with Sheila E., and on the “Donny and Marie Show.”
Her first big break came as a result of a collaboration with singer Geraldine Hunt on the number one hit, “Can’t Fake The Feeling.” And she now leads her own group, Colour Kommentary, over the ever-changing musical tides, with a sound that embodies everything from cool jazz nuances to high-energy rock to downright nasty blues and funk.
One of seven children, music captured her heart early on. She sang in the school choir before one day asking her mother for a guitar. Shortly thereafter, her mother passed away.
“A lot of guys play guitar to get girls,” she said. “I play because she believed I could.”
Vintage Guitar: Who was your first musical influence?
Kat Dyson: My parents; mother was first. She gave me Mahilia Jackson, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, and Odetta records to listen to, plus all the great jazz singers from her era, like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald. Besides putting me in the school choir, she had me take piano lessons, and she bought my first guitar.
My father’s an audiophile, not a musician. I used to be able to sing every line off the album Sketches Of Spain, by Miles Davis. That was my dad’s “It’s Friday, don’t talk to me!” record. The music relaxed him, and he’d send us out to play while he listened. How perfect was that?
And even though my brothers, sisters, and I listened to pop music on the radio, when he got home, that would stop. He made us listen to jazz, which of course intimidates and exasperates, because as a kid you really don’t understand it.
So I’m there with my little guitar books, tryin’ to learn, and he’s like, “Listen to the guitar player!” He’d put on Wes Montgomery. I’d say, “Dad, that’s cheating, that’s two guys!” We’d argue… I didn’t know, I was a kid. He’d say, “That’s one man – Wes Montgomery. Know who he is!”
Great advice! Who else would you listen to, and what were some of your earliest live playing situations?
I would sit in front of the radio with my guitar, trying to absorb everything I could because the boys in the neighborhood were doing it, and I wanted to do it, too. Besides listening to my parent’s records, I also listened to a lot of Hendrix, the Stones, rock radio, and James Brown, of course. I started playing at school dances, those little junior high talent shows, and all that kind of stuff.
Do you remember your first pro gig?
After I left school, I started playing the chitlin circuit. I was making money, supporting myself, and paying my rent. I played and sang background; I wasn’t really leading the bands. That didn’t happen until I moved to Montreal. I went there to do an “originals” band called Tchukon. It was the first band I ever sang lead in. We actually won on “Star Search,” but that’s a whole other thing.
How did your father feel about your decision to play professionally?
Now, any self-respecting father doesn’t want his teenage daughter out playing guitar in clubs with guys. But of course, I did it to spite him!
He’s proud of me now, but he was mad at me then.
Your song “Can’t Fake The Feeling,” sung by Geraldine Hunt, became a big disco hit in the ’80s. How did that come about?
We were around Montreal when we met. Geraldine was this blues singer from Chicago who sat in with us. I had written a song; actually the first one I had written for someone to cover. She told me she was gonna do a record – a disco record. I was barely 20 at the time. She said she wanted to do a dance record and I’m like, “Okay, cool!” She said she needed a song, and I told her I had one. She heard it and liked it. She changed a few words in the verse to make it more her. They put it on the record and it was number one for like 16 weeks.
How did things change for you following the success of that record?
I started writing and doing a lot of production stuff from there, and kinda kept going with it. I played wherever I could, and jammed with whomever. Montreal is a great place to play.
How does the musical environment in Montreal differ from the U.S.?
The French don’t pigeonhole you so much. If you do whatever you do with passion, they’ll listen. Even if you change it to country the next week or fusion the week after that, if you mean what you said, they’ll go with you.
Tell us about your group Colour Kommentary.
I started the band in 1992. Basically, it’s a collaboration of musicians I’ve played and toured with and have formed friendships with. It really depends on where I am and who’s free, although my “sister in song,” bassist Rhonda Smith, has always been an integral part of the band. We do originals and covers, and have fun away from the norm. The group usually is made up of guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, and sax – all musicians wgo can play their tails off and are looking to have some fun.
As you were rising through the ranks, did you experience anything that might have discouraged you?
Yeah, I’ve gone through everything. I’d be playing at clubs where guys would pull up chairs and put their ears next to my amp, making sure I wasn’t faking.
How did you and Sheila E. get together?
I was with Godin, a great guitar company from Canada, when I met Sheila in Germany at a music trade show. We started communicating – sending each other tapes to do some writing together. Unbeknownst to me, she sent one of my tapes along to Prince, then called me. She said, “He’s putting a band together, so I sent your tape to him.” I said, “Sheila, what did you do?”
How would describe that experience?
Excellent. It was a good exercise in taking everything to the max; taking what it is you do, and just doing it until there’s no other place you can go.
Exhaust all possibilities…
Yeah. Everything is geared around maximizing the music, maximizing the time, maximizing the rehearsal process. It’s a perfect setup. If you have an ounce of genius in you, it will be uncovered. It was wild, and he is more critical of himself than he is of anybody. Therefore, live up or shut up.
Being a true disciple of music, how would you define your role?
Music is king. No matter who that music might have gone through. If that person is an egomaniac, that’s their problem, but the music came through them.
So if the music demands that I play one note every eight bars, I’m gonna own that note, ’cuz that’s the note the music needs. It’s not about playing a solo; it’s about what the music needs, so it can get to the listener the way it flowed through the original writer.
That’s the thing I adapt. Peoples’ egos and their personal problems matter only a little, because the music is king. I know it sounds simplistic and philosophical – and I’m not gonna say it hasn’t been without pitfalls – but whenever I go back to that place, it makes everything clear.
Are there any particular guitars and equipment that help you express yourself?
I’ve bought a lot of my gear over time. I own a Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, and many Godin guitars – they’re one of my main sponsors.
As far as my “vintage” choices, I have a few. A new acquisition is a ’61 Gibson ED-125 that I love. It’s warm and full-bodied, challenging and responsive. For rockabilly and such, I have a ’67 Gretsch Monkees, complete with whammy bar! For slide blues and roots music, I have a National Resolectric. It’s like a dobro with a standard pickup that you can blend in.
On the newer side of vintage, I have a PRS McCarty hollowbody and a Godin Radiator. These each have very distinct and warm vintage tones.
For amps, I have Koch and Peavey for tube situations like club dates and blues sessions. I use a Rocktron on the TV shows and concert/studio situations.
And I’m a wah wah girl. I have a Morley Bad Horsey that Steve Vai gave to me. I’m ashamed of how many wah pedals I’ve got!
At present, who are a few of your favorite guitarists?
Oooh, this sounds like a trouble question… Jeff Lee Johnson, John Scofield, Jimi Hendrix, and my friend Carl Burnett for starters. There are many more.
What’s on your itinerary in the near future?
At this moment, I’m with Donny Osmond on his This Is The Moment world tour! There are plans to take it abroad in the fall.
I’ve also been working on the upcoming Ziggy Marley album with [the Red Hot Chili Peppers'] Flea on bass and the legendary Steve Jordan on drums. What a blast those sessions were!
And I’ll be touring this year with Sheila E. and the E Train – we performed on the Smooth Jazz Awards show, which will be televised May 26.
Then I’ll be performing with my good friend, Ivan Neville, in support of his album, Saturday Morning Music.
And I’m playing with Patrice Rushen, Paul Jackson, Jr., and Mike Phillips, in a project called Unwrapped,Vol.1, on the Hidden Beach label. It has been on the Billboard top 10 jazz charts for months, and we’re preparing to do a promotional tour.
I’m also writing new material for a personal project, and doing music for a film, and a documentary series for HBO.
Where would you like to find Kat Dyson in the next few years?
Hopefully, having my own say. Put out one or two records of my own, continue to collaborate with people I creatively “love,” and hopefully give back some of the things that I’ve been able to learn, in a way to inspire. Not to say, “See, that was hard,” but rather, “See, you can get past that if you listen, practice, and try everything.”
The entertainment business is about inventing and reinventing. You’ve gotta look for something new, but you gotta find your voice first. Seek your own creative voice, because that’s your musical blueprint.
How long would you like to continue playing and producing?
That’s something that I can do until I’m 92 – to give something back. You will always have people that seem to be drawn to, “Life is hard, it’s so hard.” Of course, this is a learning planet. There’s no reward unless you know how tough it was. There’s no reason to celebrate unless you overcome something. Patience, perseverance, and purpose; that’s the key to anything, not just music.
If you allowed yourself a hiatus, what would you do?
If I could take six months, I’d explore alternate tunings, travel, and study with string masters from different countries. And practice, practice, practice. Playing music for a living is fine, but I’d just take my time to explore my horizons. You need that to refresh who and what you are.
Any advice you’d like to share with the upcoming players out there?
Listen to everything! Music is like food, absorb as much as you can and find out what you like. But you won’t know until you taste it all, until you try a bit of everything!
Photo: Steven Parke, courtesy of Kat Dyson.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.