Unconventsch and Worth Mentioning: Some Words with Kat Lee-Ryan

Kat Lee-Ryan 2 Vinehall Studios

Beyond the theatrics of make-up that’s just a little extra, peacock feather ‘n’ tie-dye shirts and rainbow-emitting disco balls lies a voice with the call of the sirens and a hot handle on the blues. Kat Lee-Ryan, from the saucy band The Fabulous Red Diesel, belts out stark and original lyrics with soul-felt tonality.

“No Rest (for the Wicked now)” is a N’Orleans-fused-with-reggae ditty sharply punctuated by a muted horn and funky stickwork from the percussionist. It begs for audience participation and sultry dancers. Another gem is the schmaltzy, heavy on the wailing horn “Tree Talking” that adds a fat dollop of tuba and assertive storytelling by Kat. Unpredictably, it breaks out into a flute-driven bridge. What!

Where did you receive your musical training?

I had an incredibly musical set of schools, the first being Richmond Methodist Primary, where we did choir competitions, shows, music competitions between schools, continuing into Stamford Bridge school where a really gifted music teacher made sure we could all read music (both clefs) and play an instrument. I had access to a piano from the age of six, and used to invent tunes on it to the poetry of Robert Louis Stephenson (it was a book I had). I had a great music teacher so I could play two-handed by the age of nine. I also studied flute.

By the time I was 10 I had theory and could read piano music, and I was off! I got into The City of Leeds College of Music studying piano and voice. I only stayed two years. The call of the live scene was too much for me and I started gigging.

I have played a harpsichord, clavichord (one of my teachers was a student from York University and sneaked me in there so I could have a go!). I play keyboard live, and have a gorgeous Ronisch piano at home, and the instrument I would like to learn is cello. 

How has your voice evolved over the years?

I would say it’s leaning towards light classical, clear, bright, I like it more now that it is older. There’s more history in it, and it’s lower, so it’s more suitable for jazz.


How do you protect your voice?

I don’t smoke, keep hydrated, and use a warm-up CD by Sam West. It’s 14 exercises , takes about 40 minutes, and I never sing without doing them first. I have also got exercises by Tona DeBrett, and Anton Brown, and an amazing natural voice workout by an Australian ex-monk called Chris James. I never use lozenges or painkillers to sing, I tried it once and was out of action for a month.

Why did you start the band?

Long story!! I am married to my drummer, and we used to be in a band called Naked Angel. In 2004 we moved from London to Hastings, and as a result Naked Angel became impossible to carry on with. Wil (my husband) is a funk/soul fanatic, and wanted to go in a different direction with a new sound, so I went along with it. I had always sung folk/jazz but he was confident we could pull it off, so we enlisted the help of some very talented mates (Chris Piper – bass, Max McNeilley – guitar) and started the band.

I found that my songs could be played in any style, and the pubs in our town wanted dance music, so we created a funk sound. We were aiming at the festival circuit too, and as far as we could see, it was the up-tempo bands that were getting the best slots, and ta-da, our sound was born.

So, The Fabulous Red Diesel means what?

It began as Red Diesel, – it’s a bit convoluted – but when we first moved to Hastings, we noticed crews of Department of Transport police stopping trucks and testing for the presence of Red Diesel. We (being from the city) had no clue what that meant, and when we found out, thought it was hilarious.

Red Diesel is the same as ordinary diesel, but is a fraction of the cost, and we do the same job as any famous band, and get paid a fraction of the cost. We added ‘’The Fabulous’’ to the name because someone introduced us like that at a gig and it stuck.  Also, the dot com was available, whereas RedDiesel.com was already taken!

Who plays with you?

Ms. Kitty – Kat Lee-Ryan, strengths: strong singer, busy songwriter, gig booker, general manager. Me.

Duke Boom – Wil Lee-Ryan. Strengths: highly original left-handed drum style. He keeps strict time, keeps the sound in shape by being a perfectionist, listens intently from the back to eliminate mistakes and weak points, with a keen ear for arrangements and tidiness. He also has a vast knowledge of all types of music and an amazing ability to hear absolutely everything in the mix, and where it should be. Brilliant at live sound also, and bringer of cool.  Drum-wise, he is a very subtle yet powerful player who pays very close attention to detail. He plays the melody line, sticking very close to Ms. Kitty’s lyrics, and has a wide range of dynamics. 

Miss Bea Have – Beatrice Gullick – trumpet, double bass, tuba. Classically trained, amazing memory for arrangements, constantly keeping us all in the right place in the song. Excellent melody composer and sorts out the brass section. Great sense of fun and lively stage persona.

Simon Dobell, aka Rabbi Jaffa Delicious. Simon is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist. He has a very distinctive style, he creates soundscapes, moods, and vibes. He is very difficult to pigeonhole, but a totally essential part of the sound. He uses a lot of effects and feedback, even on trumpet, as well as electric guitar. He does a fine Russian backing vocal and is another dramatic stage presence. He is also the band accountant, which is very handy ! 

The band’s sound is lively and campy. What do you like about this?

Lively and campy! I like this because it was our aim. Being up-tempo means bookings, especially as we are an originals band, so our foot in the door meant we had to keep it lively. We also like to have a laugh, so I guess that is how it comes across as camp!

Talk about the CD “Live at the Lamb” and your favorite song on it.

“Live at The Lamb” marks the end of an era. Two of our members were leaving (Chris and Voodoo) and I wanted to capture the sound we had made, as I thought it was so good. The Lamb in Lewes was one of the best pubs to play in our area, and the pub has since closed down. So it was the end of an era for the pub too.

It was the home of one the Lewes’ Bonfire Societies (Waterloo I think) and the nights we played, they would be up on tables, drinking and singing, sometimes louder than we were. It was a special place and has been sorely missed by everyone who played and drank there. My favorite track is “Perfect Summer Day,” because it simply describes how I like to spend my Saturdays, with my two daughters, sitting by the sea, eating chips and drinking tea. 

“Tease” has a celebratory and expansive sound. Why did you write it?

This song was inspired by a lady I knew who used her sexuality to get people to do what she wanted. However, she wasn’t totally honest about it, and would tease and flirt, but that’s about as far as it went. The whole song is based on my observations of her. The sound comes from dreams I have of being on a horse-drawn stage in Russia in the 1800s, performing with a singer, going from town to town making money. Eventually we flee, I assume it’s a past life memory, but who knows. I like to think it is.

What other bands do you perform in?

I don’t perform in any other bands, but I do perform as a soloist, under my name. The songs are softer and more acoustic, as I accompany myself on piano. I use a lot more 6/8, as it’s my favorite time signature, but not so good for dance music. 

Do you perform covers too?

It’s all originals. I have tried covers, but I don’t enjoy it. I write on average three songs a month, so I like to get them heard. It’s my passion, and it’s the reason I perform. 

What are you visualizing when you sing?

It varies, sometimes I see the scenes I am singing about, but more often than not, it’s a place in the clouds, it’s like flying, it’s lights and sunny and warm and I’m just suspended in midair…completely alone. 

What is the Hastings jazz scene like?

In Hastings there is a lot of jazz, from traditional umbrella dancing jazz, to Mardi Gras-style Fat Tuesday, to smaller jazz festivals in individual pubs: the Jenny Lind Hotel, Pissarro’s. It’s the home of Lianne Carrol who regularly performs at Porters’ Pub in the Old Town, and King Size Slim, and loads of lesser-known and highly respected jazz musicians who play regularly.

It’s incredible, you can pick from at least five different bands every night of the weekend, and there is always live music of every sort throughout the town. There are two jazz clubs, The Hastings Sea Anglers, and The 1066. We also have the Rye Jazz Festival every year, and we are part of that. 

What’s on your wish list?

I would love to do Ronnie Scott’s, Jools Holland’s Show, the Montreux jazz festival, WOMAD, Love Supreme, The 606 Club, The 100 Club and I would love to do a lot more playing in Europe. I hear that their scene is much more open-minded than ours and more lucrative.

What songs do audiences request the most?

They mostly ask for specific songs, ‘’I Wanna Go Home,” ‘’Take Your Hands Off My Man’’ and “Ring Around the Moon.’’ Sometimes they ask for covers, and I just say, “Yep, we’ll be doing a song by (insert name here)’’ and then just do one of ours.

What is the musical play Sparkly Bird all about?

Sparkly Bird is a concept gig, a true story told in 12 songs. In December 2004 a young woman hung herself from her loft stairs. She had a great job, a lovely husband and a beautiful young son. She didn’t leave a note, and nobody could understand what happened.

The woman was my sister, and the songs were the ones written before and after her death. I tried to find out what had gone on by asking friends, collecting tiny pieces of information from people who had known her. The result was an understanding about her mental illness which she had hidden from all but one friend, and the whole show is a kind of suicide note. We have two dancers, one narrator, visuals and of course The Fabulous Red Diesel. The style is much more laid back, more relaxed tempos, some blues, some acoustic pieces, and an awful lot of drama and emotion.

We are playing in theaters around the Southeast at the rate of one a month, and it is being supported by ”Mind” and ”Together.”

How do you arrange a pop-up show?

We have been doing pop up all our lives really, it’s the essence of a festival! We can provide our own PA and decor, so it’s always been our principal way of performing. I think at our level it’s essential, and has always been going on.

What was “Suzanna Raine” about? Is it a bit different from your other songs in being so lyrical and rolling?

This is part of Sparkly Bird. The style is my solo style, which is how I always play when I am on my own. It is about the way grief lifts, like a fog disappearing, and how you hold onto grief because it is your last tangible link (or so you think) with the person who has gone. 

Favorite place to play in the UK?

The Jazz Cafe. The piano in there was incredible.

Where do you want to perform?

New Orleans, China, Australia, India, Morocco, Spain, Europe. Anywhere that will have us.

Current projects?

Sparkly Bird the album.

Booking Sparkly Bird.

Sparkly Bird – the film.

How will you get more play this year?

I think it will be through Sparkly Bird and the theater circuit. It is such an unusual show, and has such a good reception so far, that it will get us into places that we would not be allowed as a band doing our normal gigs. I get the feeling I have to really give it a good go.

Other comments? 

Thank you for asking all the questions! 

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/kat.leeryan.7.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Kat Lee-Ryan. Second photo (c) Marian Child/Vinehall Studios.

© Debbie Burke 2018

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