Jordan Levin

Soulful Miami singer does it her way

ON THE RISE:  Kat Dahlia was born and raised by Cuban emigre parents in Miami.
ON THE RISE: Kat Dahlia was born and raised by Cuban emigre parents in Miami. Miami Herald staff

Kat Dahlia could have been just another party girl on the alluring treadmill of quick-cash waitressing jobs and alcohol and substance-fueled club nights, with a junkie boyfriend thrown in to keep things interesting. But the 24-year-old Miami-raised singer and songwriter had three qualities to lift her out of that dead-end cycle: a vivid musical imagination, a singularly soulful voice and a combination of grit and naivete.

Which have brought her to the exceedingly rare position of being maybe-the-next-hot-thing, an original artist who has come out of nowhere (i.e. no TV reality shows) with a major label album, My Garden, released last month and popping on the iTunes charts; videos with millions of Youtube views; performances on the Today Show, a Super Bowl event, and the upcoming SXSW; and salutes from NPR, Entertainment Weekly and Latina Magazine for her sultry, defiant and emotionally fraught songs and gutsy, bluesy voice.

“I think it was all the bad stuff that happened to me, some good stuff had to happen to me too,” Dahlia said recently over an espresso at the Buena Vista Deli, near the Design District. “Songwriting for me is always like a movie, but based on true [stuff]. Maybe my life became so dramatic because I always imagined life in a dramatic way. I love relationships. I love love. I love hate.”

Her life has had its share of drama. Dahlia, whose real name is Katriana Huguet, grew up in Miami with six siblings, from her Cuban exile parents’ marriage to each other and from other relationships. After the couple divorced, Dahlia’s father started spending much of his time in casinos, while the kids lived with Dahlia’s mother, moving annually as the couple’s successful moving business failed. During the Elian Gonzalez controversy, they sold Cuban flags on the street. “Yeah, we were that family,” Dahlia says, rolling her eyes.

She got into music in part because she and her siblings were always home, making up raps to entertain themselves in lieu of watching cable TV the family couldn’t afford. But Dahlia was obsessed with music, starting with Britney Spears and Disney soundtracks, moving on to classic rock — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Ramones; and from there to jazz and blues. As Dahlia became a rebellious, black-clad teenager, she began writing songs and shutting herself up with her music, often because her infuriated mother had grounded her for sneaking out to South Beach music clubs like Jazid and Purdy Lounge.

“I’d sit in my room and let my mind go — listen to B.B. King for hours, over and over, just lay in bed and imagine things and sing it out,” she says. “I had a lot of angst.” Miami Beach Senior High School was a major source. “I hated school — I just thought ‘what is the purpose?’ Learn this so you can pass this test, so you can go to college, get a piece of paper, get a job. I’d say ‘when does it end?’ And the teachers would be like ‘just learn this chapter!’”

She was still in school when she started waitressing at high-end South Beach hotels and getting deeper into nightlife. But after getting fired twice, she jumped off the merry-go-round. “It’s a really fun lifestyle — and I was young and making money,” Dahlia says. “But you’re just treading water: paying your rent, going out partying, going to the beach, going to work, partying again. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

A month after losing her job Dahlia, 20, was off to North Bergen, New Jersey, where she could crash with her father’s relatives and live just across the Hudson River from New York music fantasies. But she was soon floundering in a toxic, abusive relationship with a boyfriend addicted to cocaine and alcohol. She managed to leave after a year, then struggled, waiting tables and trying to make music.

Her frustration overflowed a day after fighting with her manager about working yet another double shift. She sat down at the restaurant’s bar and wrote Gangsta, a throbbing, soulful blues-hip-hop hybrid where Dahlia veers between confessional despair over hard times and her desolate family history to a defiant chorus of “I do it all myself, I don’t get no help.” She recorded it in one take in a session she paid for with the tips from all those double shifts; the video, with Dahlia slinking through Little Havana, has now gotten more than 17 million Youtube views.

Writing songs became an emotional outlet — a way to process her past and present. I Think I’m in Love tells of her fear of being trapped by love. “I’m falling for this guy and I’m terrified, and when I’m terrified I tend to push people away and put on this tough exterior,” she says. “But really I’m going crazy, like I’m hallucinating. It has those moments where I hate that I’m falling for you, because I don’t want to get hurt again.”

Dahlia says she was clueless about the music business. “I didn’t know anyone or anything,” she says. “But I started realizing there are so many artists inspiring me and people who actually do this. So I started to ask, ‘How do you do this? How does this work?” She began fumbling her way, paying for studio time and an engineer to record some of her songs, throwing her own celebration of the EP she recorded in a single day. She was at a party at a New York recording studio when her music came on and Dahlia saw a woman eyeing her with peculiar intensity.

“She’s staring me down, and I’m thinking does she want to [have sex with] me or fight me? I’m like what the [hell] is wrong with this [girl]?” Dahlia says. But the woman turned out to be a representative for a new label, Vested in Culture, a subsidiary of Epic Records. Both are headed by Sylvia Rhone, a legendary veteran music executive who has headed several major labels and overseen the careers of a host of major artists, including En Vogue, Missy Elliot, Natalie Merchant, Erykah Badu, Jason Mraz and India.Arie. Rhone was so struck by Dahlia’s music that she met the singer and began the process of signing her the next day.

“I felt she was one of a kind,” Rhone says. “You could hear she had artistic integrity, a great voice, soul to that voice and emotion in her songs. She was one of the most authentic and original artists I had heard in a long time.”

Rhone thinks Dahlia’s outspoken personality and gritty background will help her stand out in a world of media-groomed video vixens.

“Look at Amy Winehouse and Adele — they didn’t fit into any cookie-cutter pop formula,” Rhone says. “I’ve been in the business a while and signed a lot of different artists. I’m always attracted to people who have a story and are honest about who they are and can engage emotionally. Kat has lived a life, and it has informed her art.”

(Though VIC is promoting Dahlia as a Latin artist, My Garden has only one song in Spanish, Tumbao, a hip-hop homage to Celia Cruz’s La Negra Tiene Tumbao. Dahlia, who idolizes Cruz and the Spanish flamenco-soul singer Buika, says her next album will focus on Latin and Cuban music.)

Despite her lack of performing experience, she loves being on stage. She has done one short tour, with another slated this spring. In concert she can bring the audience into the emotional fantasies of her teenage room, expanding the soul-baring relief she gets from songwriting.

“Someone suggested that I should tell my story through the songs,” she says. “I was like omigod this could be like a one woman show, but musical. I connect all the songs and it becomes a story.

“Ironically, the more honest I am about myself with people, the more comfortable I get on stage. … It’s always about bringing them into that world and bringing them into that room, getting people immersed in the music and the story.”