#LetTheGirlsPlay: Kat Higgins’ Extraordinary, Ordinary Journey to Nashville
Ask Kat Higgins if she's watched Fuller House and she’ll answer with something like, “Who?”
"You know, the Full House remake?" Blank stare ... awkward silence ... and then: “We didn’t have cable growing up!”
It’s a charming response for several reasons. The show was on broadcast television, not cable, although it’s not clear if it was broadcast near Vancouver, where this singer and songwriter was raised with six brothers and sisters. It’s also something of a fallacy. Television shows have always been somewhat disposable, Higgins says. It’s entertainment and rarely inspiring. This won’t — and didn't — outweigh real life.
“We were on our bikes, outside on the street in hand-me-down clothes,” Higgins recalls.
This blissful innocence is absolute. Spend a little time with Kat Higgins and you'll find yourself taken by her humble, hardworking approach to life and music. She’s confident — penning a song for, and later with, Carrie Underwood provides quite a boost — but far from brash. She’s anti-sass — more prone to telling stories of little boys taking delight in a long car ride, unaware what his mother is running from, than she is getting back at a no-good, ex-lover. If her heart has been broken she’s only replaced it with a bigger one. Some female songwriters cloak themselves in heartache for years. Higgins sheds drama like a golden retriever sheds fur in April.
I like saying things that people think they’re not allowed to say. And at the same time I like to leave them with a little bit of hope … if I can.
It started at home. March’s featured #LetTheGirlsPlay artist didn’t have musical parents, yet somehow the kids picked up instruments and started to sing and harmonize. A local studio owner took interest and started to book them shows — small-time gigs like fairs, churches, fundraisers. The family band notched a couple of Top 15 songs on Canadian radio and started to build relationships with local programmers.
But they were amateurs who thought of music as a hobby until Higgins’ 16-year-old brother John got hurt in a forklift accident in 1998. Doctors said he wouldn’t walk again, which was crushing news for a boy who loved to play basketball. Certain memories sear themselves into the shadows of the brain, and his long hospital stay and the weeks that followed reside there for Kat Higgins.
“He loved playing his acoustic guitar in bed,” she remembers, “and we just all kind of came around him and sang a lot of music when he couldn’t use his legs.”
Miraculously, he recovered. Suddenly, this hobby became a business.
The Irish Influence
Listen closely to some of the songs on Higgins' Soundcloud page and you’ll hear her Irish roots stand up. Her father was raised in Ireland and still has a thick accent. Growing up he introduced his daughter to all sorts of Celtic sounds and instruments. Her own guitar playing is remarkable for the way she adds a percussive thump to many songs, achieved by snapping the base of her strumming thumb into the wood body of her worn acoustic. She also mutes her strings in a way that she says reminds her of an Irish bodhran.
“On days I didn’t have a drummer behind me, I wanted to feel that thump,” Higgins says when pressed to explain how her unusual strumming style was developed. “So, as a teenager that was how I learned acoustic guitar.”
“Probably a guitar teacher would tell me I’m strumming the wrong way.”
Maybe someone would tell her she writes songs the wrong way too, because she writes for herself first, without thinking about what's "hot" or what a hit artist may want. Higgins is a skilled guitarist and fine singer, but her greatest instrument may be a pen. Her songs are raw, but not sensational. This month’s featured song is “We Go Driving,” a ballad told from the perspective of a little boy in the backseat of his mom’s car. He sees a fun trip with his mother. The mother knows the truth, and when it’s revealed at the bridge, a typical reaction is tears strong enough to put out a fire.
“I’ve gotten a lot of, ‘My mom used to do that with me,’” Higgins notes nonchalantly.
"I wrote this after a long drive home one night," she says. The words come slow and with purpose. Nothing seems rehearsed, yet her story finds few obstacles. How she talks to a crowd is how she talks to people she knows.
"I was working late and driving home on I-65, and I was passing this car ... driving was this middle-aged mom with a ponytail and as I passed there was this little boy who looked at me. He was sitting in the front seat. He was so small, I just wondered why he wasn't in bed."
The Family Band
In a family band, Higgins says you can’t write or sing about real things, because you’re standing beside your brother. Anyone with siblings can understand. There’s little that connects her solo music to her family’s music these days, however. Time and life changed her, and them, for the better. Higgins was always the gypsy in the family — the bird that was meant to take flight. The large group slowly whittled to a trio, and they performed as the Higgins' for several years. Then one sister left to start a family and another sibling lost interest ... and suddenly it was just Kat, facing a decision about whether she should chase her destiny in Nashville, or play it safe. It was an easy decision.
“When I would go home and visit it was very, very clear in my mind that I didn’t belong in my hometown,” the Song Suffragettes singer insists, several years removed from her final lasting trip to Music City. “Everyone else in my family felt at home there and they were fulfilled there. And I just always had this feeling in my gut that I had to be in Nashville.”
A unique side to her family dynamic is the rest of her family’s unbridled support and enthusiasm for her music and career. Talk to any first-generation artist (Ronnie Dunn, for example) and you’ll hear about early fears that one fatal mistake could lead to the “Come home and get a real job” conversation. Higgins' parents knew as much about the music business when she started as they did about mining coal in West Virginia. Yet they always encouraged their children to find a calling and chase it hard, odds be damned.
And they fed her right. Experiences replaced television. Dreams replaced drama. Today she’s a firm believer in taking in wisdom, because only when you take in the right kind of food can you turn out something good. Her most high-profile win is a cut on Underwood’s Storyteller album. “Mexico” is a song she wrote with Jamie Moore and Derrick Sutherland, and together they agonized for two years as the singer put the song on hold, pushed pause to have a baby, and started the recording cycle again. The result is confidence.
"It’s made me realize that if you can write something that you love, others will love it. So I just kind of stick with that every day.”
2016 will bring more songwriting sessions with a growing circle of trusted friends that includes hitmaker Deric Ruttan, a fellow Canadian who mentored her, urged her to move to Nashville and gave her a place to stay initially. They share her vision, and later this year fans will have a chance to hear it for themselves. Look for an EP of songs produced by Paul Worley before year's end. And keep checking the songwriting credits on albums from your favorite stars. Kat Higgins' name is going to become a familiar sight.