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This may surprise you, but 2020 has been a crappy year. For everyone. It’s been a year defined by megafires and murder hornets, by streaming Hollywood blockbusters and socially distant birthday celebrations, and by anti-mask protests during a worldwide pandemic. It’s been such a bummer year that even the most anti-Christmas cynics would seem to agree that a little yuletide cheer may be the just the thing to offset the endless doomscrolling.
Kat Robichaud couldn’t agree more. If you don’t know her from her 2013 run on NBC’s “The Voice,” you may be more familiar with her and Jordan Nathan’s madcap creation, Misfit Cabaret. The showcase for some of the Bay Area’s best talents — ranging from drag and circus acts to music and puppetry — started in San Francisco, where it performs regularly when not touring to L.A. or Seattle.
At least, it did before this whole pandemic business came about.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Robichaud — who serves as Misfit Cabaret’s top-hatted host — decided now was the perfect time to share the MC spirit with a world sheltering-in-place.
She recorded a humorous big-band Christmas album, “A Darling Misfit Christmas,” and set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund a feature-length Misfit Cabaret film. The film was funded in a week.
As she promoted the album and planned for a New Year’s show at the DNA Lounge, I was able to catch a word with Kat to talk about holiday memories, film collaborators and why more Christmas albums should celebrate “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
As I’ve been asking every interview subject lately: How have you been holding up after almost a year in lockdown? Any secrets to maintaining sanity?
Kat Robichaud: I’m keeping myself very busy with Misfit Cabaret projects and projects outside of Misfit Cabaret. I recorded a Christmas EP in May and shot three music videos for it. I also went down to L.A. and recorded four new songs that I’ll be releasing in 2021. Misfit Cabaret has been shooting a feature-length film, and we’ve also been running a livestream series called “Quarantine” off-and-on over the past eight months. All of this was done safely while wearing masks and social distancing. I’ve also been performing on my own livestream series “Piano and Wine With Kat,” as well as taking on livestream gigs for companies like Patreon and Anchor Brewing. I haven’t had a break at all, and I’m very much due for one.
Given the costumes you’re known for, has your mask collection taken on a similarly stylish turn?
Robichaud: I have a pretty interesting collection of masks. I splurged and got the super-fancy mask that Dark Garden Corsetry makes, which has been great for long filming days. I got a couple Bowie masks from Edge of Urge, a boutique I used to visit when I lived in North Carolina. And I’ve had fans make masks for me as well, which is very sweet and some of my favorites. I just got a silk mask that I’ll bedazzle for our NYE livestream show that we’re putting on at DNA Lounge.
Christmas albums have been pumped out by everyone from Nat ‘King’ Cole and Johnny Cash to David Hasselhoff and Regis Philbin. What led the co-creator of Misfit Cabaret to throw her stylish hat into the ring?
Robichaud: I’ve always loved Christmas music, and listening to Nat “King” Cole, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis was a special tradition in my family. It was the one time a year that my dad used his old record player, so I was really excited that I got to print my Christmas album to vinyl. Gina Barbara shot the cover, and it’s so warm and inviting. The Christmas music came about from three years of “A Very Merry Misfit Cabaret,” Misfit Cabaret’s take on the Christmas variety show. I write music for each new show we do, and I finally had enough songs to release an album.
Your song “Merry Christmas, My Love” had already been released as a stand-alone single in 2015. Was it always a plan to record a full album?
Robichaud: I don’t think so. I was broke [when I wrote that song] and thought it would be fun to write a song for my husband for Christmas instead of giving him a physical gift. At the part in the song where I sing “and also this DVD that we already had but we lost,” I slid an “Inglourious Basterds” DVD out from under the couch with my foot and made [my husband] Guillaume laugh. I’ve always loved that song, though, so I’m happy I got to professionally record it and put it on an album.
Why don’t more Christmas albums feature nods to beloved holiday classics ‘Gremlins’ (my favorite Xmas film) and ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’?
Robichaud: I don’t know, but they should. Everyone loves nostalgia and loves to geek out over pop culture. “The Gremlins Song” exists because I wanted to have Shadow Circus Creature Theatre in our Xmas show, and we thought it would be neat if creator Dave Haaz-Baroque created some Gremlins puppets, and “The Star Wars Holiday Special” [song] exists because we wanted to have aerialist Nina Sawant perform her Chewbacca number.
What does your family think of the album, especially having brought you through all the Christmases of your youth?
Robichaud: Neither of my brothers have said anything, and I had to beg my mom to listen to it after sending her a copy in the mail. She likes it. Unfortunately, my dad passed away some years ago, but I think he would have been tickled by the Christmas album and the fact that his daughter stars in a musical variety show in San Francisco. He passed away before I went on “The Voice,” so he didn’t get to see any of this.
Your New Year’s livestream is scheduled to take place at the DNA Lounge. Have you taken part in any of their socially distant shows this year?
Robichaud: DNA’s shows? No. This will be the first for Misfit Cabaret.
Anything special planned for that show, or will it spoil the surprise?
Robichaud: It’s going to be a more straight-forward variety show, due to the fact that we can’t physically be onstage with the performers at the same time, so no script or plot that runs through the entire show like “A Very Merry” or “Night Terrors.” But our lineup is absolutely stellar. I put a new medley together, and we’ll perform some special originals. The whole vibe is NYE in the 1970s, and I snagged Dallas Coulter at the last second to create a gorgeous sequined kimono that I’m excited to debut.
At the risk of asking the world’s most obvious question: Are you as eager as the rest of us to put the year 2020 behind you?
Robichaud: Yes. But it’s not like the second the ball drops, everything is going to be magically better. We have a lot of work to do as a country.
Having met your funding goal, how far along are you with the Misfit Cabaret film?
Robichaud: We’re almost finished. We’re taking a break for the rest of the year and will finish up filming a few scenes in January.
Is there a release date set?
Robichaud: As soon as we can finish it. We’re hoping for May and will do our best, given the uncertain circumstances the world currently faces.
What’s the game plan one makes for a full-length Misfit Cab film? Did you and Jordan always intend for it to be a collection of acts in the show done anthology-style?
Robichaud: I think we just wanted to embody the heart of Misfit Cabaret, channeled through my original music with some truly amazing local performers, with San Francisco as the background. Each performer starts with an obstacle at the beginning of their song and conquers it by the end. It’s a love letter to the city from darling misfits who came here, seeking acceptance that they couldn’t find elsewhere. I think it’s a wonderful introduction to Misfit Cabaret for people who have never seen it, and fans of Misfit Cabaret are going to be thrilled. Andy Strong and Mark Semegen are doing a fantastic job of shooting it, and the footage that I’ve seen is breathtaking.
How were the specific acts in the film chosen?
Robichaud: We wanted a good mixture of alumni and newcomers to the Misfit Cabaret family. Usually, I pick performers based on how well they’ll fit the song, but we also wanted our performers to be excited and feel connected to the songs they were performing to, so in some cases, we let them pick. Johnny Rockitt was perfect for “What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism” and Sgt. Die Wies was perfect for “Bully.” Jordan Nathan, my co-producer, and I went back and forth on a few acts, with her vision usually winning out. It’s been an interesting process.
What does shooting it socially distant look like?
Robichaud: Everyone wore masks on the set the entire time, except for when the performers were being filmed. The cast and crew got tested regularly, and we practiced social distancing at all times. Purell was everywhere, and we kept alcohol wipes in the bathroom at each venue. Several shoots were outside. On indoor shoots, we made sure there was plenty of ventilation. If someone was feeling remotely sick, we postponed the shoot. For the scenes with the band, where we all had to be onstage at the same time, I had bedazzled masks for everyone to wear.
Has working on the film led to any particular creative sparks that you can see becoming permanent, even post-pandemic?
Robichaud: Honestly, I am so tired, I can’t think past New Year’s. [laughs] We have certainly had to pivot to keep Misfit Cabaret up and running and to stay in the hearts and minds of our community. Shooting the film has been a really wonderful and rewarding experience, and I could definitely see us doing more than one film in the future.
You activated the Kickstarter campaign late September, met your first goal roughly a week later and met stretch goals within a month. What magic spell did you folks recite that seems to elude other crowd-funders?
Robichaud: We have an incredible community that sees the hard work and love that we put into each project, and they support us. We are incredibly fortunate to have them, and they’re the reason we keep creating and striving for each project or show to be bigger and better every time. I think they’re gonna be blown away by the film! This is the seventh Kickstarter I’ve created and the third Kickstarter Misfit Cabaret has run, and I think we’ve proven to our fans that we are reliable with delivering the product we promised, as well as the rewards we promised. And we make them fun. One of the rewards for my Christmas Kickstarter was a Gizmo puppet handmade by Dave Haaz-Baroque. I had to take a few photos with them before I shipped them off to their new homes, and of course, I kept one for myself because they were too cute not to.
One imagines that meeting stretch goals similarly extends one’s artistic vision. What would you have had to give up if the goals hadn’t been met?
Robichaud: If we hadn’t met our stretch goals, we wouldn’t have been able to afford our last performer nor would we have been able to afford to rent certain venues. We made very good use of the extra funds and were grateful to have them.
One of the Kickstarter rewards is a heart-shaped USB containing the finished film. Dare I ask where you found someone to design that unique keepsake?
Robichaud: No, don’t want to talk about that and reveal our secret sources.
Releasing a film online means a potential wider audience. Is the world ready to witness a uniquely SF brand of musical raunchiness?
Robichaud: Absolutely! It’s also our goal to show the world that art is not dead in San Francisco, which is a nasty rumor that has been circulating for years. I’m hoping that this film will be to a curious adolescent what “Rocky Horror” was for me. I grew up in a conservative town, and I am very grateful that I at least had Rolling Stone magazine and MTV to show me there was a much bigger world out there for me and that it was OK to be different. The Misfit Cabaret film is very much about acceptance and self-discovery, and I hope it helps any young person (or young person at heart) that finds it and needs it.
What’s the perfect holiday beverage — boozy or not — to sip whilst listening to the Christmas album?
Robichaud: I’ve been pretty obsessed with Negronis lately. Eggnog also does the trick.
And finally, what are you hoping to find under the tree this year?
Robichaud: A successful album release. Every package I ship this holiday season will be like another present under my tree. If people love the album, that’s all the cheer I need.
* Kat Robichaud’s album, “A Darling Misfit Christmas,” is available to purchase digitally on her official site. Autographed CD and vinyl editions are also available. The album is currently streaming on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, YouTube Music and Tidal.
“Misfit Cabaret: New Year’s Eve” will stream live on the DNA Lounge website at 8 p.m. on Dec. 31. In addition to Robichaud, the show is scheduled to feature performances by Brendan Getzell, Jonbenet Butterbuns, Jet Noir, Christine Lee, Honey Mahogany, Polly Amber Ross.
“Misfit Cabaret: The Movie” is currently in production.
* Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.