This is the first of a series of expat interviews. I’ll be talking to a wide range of women in midlife who are living the expat life, asking them to share both the sublime and the hellacious sides of living abroad.
Not surprising that it took several tries to get Katt Tait on the phone. She’s not someone to stay still for long. When I caught up with her she was visiting friends and family in the States, taking in the sites at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. More often, though, Katt can be found in western Europe. She’s performed in France, Switzerland (including the Montreux Jazz Festival), Portugal, Germany, Morocco, the U.K., Russia, Italy, and the Czech republic (I think I got them all). And she hopes to get to Korea and Vietnam in the near future.
The stereotypical global nomad is a millennial with a laptop and a remote job. Katt, however, is a seasoned woman who prefers face-to-face connections over digital ones, and whose life is centered around a dogged determination to pursue her art.
I thought this would be a conversation about travel, but it ended up being more about art and human connection, and the challenges and the joys of living a life that you want to live.
So, Katt, how would you describe what you do?
I describe myself as a modern-day nomadic artist, an international artist. My mission is to spread joy through music around the world. That has come to include my other passions: theater and connecting with people (and connecting people with each other).
I’m make my living spreading joy. I can’t imagine that I will ever retire. I will always find a new way to express myself, to remind myself and others that life is precious and that life is to be lived!
Where’s home for you?
I really am at home wherever I am. People say home is where the heart is; well, my home is always with me. I’ve made little families everywhere I go. When I come, I create this sense of home and excitement and sharing. I bring a vibrance, an energy. I think people appreciate that because today a lot of people are feeling a bit stuck without realizing it.
As a nomad, community is everywhere I go. In those moments that I rest there, through the music and the art, a little community is created.
There are people who feel like life can only be lived a certain way. There are people who have told me that living the way I do is impossible, that I need to ensure my security. But I don’t believe in security; I just don’t believe that it exists.
I have a friend who lost all of her retirement savings when the market crashed in the early 2000s. Here she was 75, and she ended up having to still work. Everything that she thought was secure was not. That’s not to say you don’t plan and save — but to think that there is true security in that is false.
How and when did you start this nomadic journey?
I started the nomadic adventure in 2007. I was a radio personality at a jazz station in Seattle, plus I was singing and acting professionally. In 2004, I realized I’d been in radio for 10 years. I asked myself, “Do you want to do this for another 10 years?” The answer was no. I wasn’t sure how my artistic endeavors would support me. My job was great, but I was ready to pursue my art 100%. No more playing in the small pond.
When I told him, my older brother said, “Okay, but what’s your plan B?” I said, “My plan B is to work plan A!” I don’t have a plan B because I’m not going to fail. I fall all the time but I get up again.
So I moved to Los Angeles for a couple years, worked at a jazz station there, and continued performing. At one of my gigs, I met two musicians from Manchester, England, who invited me to play with them there. I bought my ticket. It was a round-trip ticket–but I did not plan to come back!
I only told two people, a very close friend and my brother. I didn’t want to hear anybody’s objections. Both told me to go for it. Never did I imagine where the path would lead me. I only knew it was time to pursue my dreams.
I was excited about Manchester, but as it turned out, things did not go as planned. So I wrote, sang my own songs for the first time, and contemplated my next move. When I got invited to work on a Shakespeare project, I went back to Seattle for the summer. I saved my money and bought another ticket! And I’ve been on the road ever since.
What are some of your favorite places? What do you like most about them?
Every place I’ve been, pretty much, is my favorite place. But Switzerland stands out because I have a surrogate family there. Our home is a beautiful vineyard. It’s been a family home for 100-plus years. It’s a special place. I love to be there and watch the passing of time through the changing of the seasons. The plants grow, and you feel very much connected to all that is. Plus, we have a great view of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva)!
I love Portugal, too. The people are awesome. The food is great. Besides, I love being anywhere close to the ocean. There’s a lot of music there, and great friends. I also feel very at home in Morocco, in the dust and the dirt. It’s colorful and eclectic, they have the best fruits and vegetables, and again it’s near the ocean. People I’ve met there understand that money isn’t the end all be all; they find happiness and joy despite their poverty.
What advice can you give to someone interested in moving abroad or becoming a nomad?
Ask yourself: Why do you want to move abroad? What’s your purpose? What do you hope to accomplish by being in another country? If you’re running away from something, it will be there wherever you go. If it’s to discover, then you’re on the right track.
You can change your path. You don’t have to continue in the same direction just because you started there. It’s harder now that we’re adults, with all of the constraints of all the stuff we’ve collected throughout the years.
So if you’re scared to make a big change, start with changing one simple thing every day. Change the way you drive to work; change what you eat for breakfast. That small change could trigger something in you that could illuminate or trigger something in you that moves you to make another change. So start small and then continue.
Also, don’t be afraid to do things in a new way. Think about the skills you have to share. What can you offer in exchange? Sometimes you can volunteer in exchange for housing; sometimes somebody might pay you in vegetables. Think creatively, and always be open enough to ask! Remember, it’s not always about opening your wallet and throwing money at a situation. Money doesn’t always help you make a personal connection or build bridges.
Tell me about your mission: To spread joy through music
People are meant to connect. Changing the world doesn’t have to be a grand swooping gesture. We can make the world a better place one connection at a time. If you just live your life for the moment, then people will remember you. That to me is enough because it’s energy that continues to uplift the world around you. That’s what I want my music to do: I want people to remember that we are awesome beings.
My one-woman performance, Black Magic: Songs Unchained, is about the power of black music, especially spirituals. It explores why we as black people have so much magic, how it reaches back to the slave experience. We have to celebrate that!
My current project, “Spontaneous Combustion,” is a live improvisational experience where I gather musicians, and we create music live in the moment. One instrument starts, another comes in, and before we know it we’re creating something special. Some of that has come to remind me of preaching. Sometimes the words and messages that come to me as I’m singing are about taking control of our lives, opening our minds; other times its fun things, sex — we gotta have that too!
Whatever the energy is in the air is what gives me those words. It’s a metaphor for life. When you’re available and open and willing to connect, anything is possible.
I know my readers have concerns about being lonely, but it seems like you meet people wherever you go.
It may have something to do with the way I was raised. Our house was always open. My parents helped so many people. And so many times now I have met people who have opened their homes to me.
They would say, “You’re always welcome here,” and mean it. You have to take people at their word. When people say they’re crazy, believe that they are crazy. When they say they love having you around, believe that they love having you around!
When I went to Paris, I knew no one and my money was very slim. After a few days of singing in jazz clubs, talking to people, I met one guy who offered his place for a couple of days. (No funny business; he slept on the couch.) And then I met a someone else who had a home big enough for two. I lived there for nearly nine months.
I always make sure I’m doing extra things without being asked. I try to think how I can make their lives lighter in the moments that I’m there. I cook; I sing.
And I discovered that there was something I gave to the people I stayed with. They needed someone to hear them, compassion, and “spiritual uplift.” I’ve had people cry on me so hard from releasing their secrets, and their stories that they’d never told anyone. It’s happened to me everywhere. So I come to lift the vibrations with my music and my life philosophy.
Thoughts on “traveling while black”?
Sometimes I get asked if they like black people in this or that country. I tell them, “I don’t know whether or not they like ‘black people,’ but they might like you!”
The racism in the United States has really shaped our thinking. Your worldview as an American is not universal. That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist other places, but we have to move into the world and believe that we’ll find our place in it.
What was one of your challenges?
In Barcelona, I was looking for clubs to take me in, but I couldn’t find the vibe for me. So I thought, well maybe I should sing on the street like I saw so many other people doing. My perception of street musicians was that it’s not a real musician; it’s just someone who needs money. But I learned that that is so not true. I met so many people who were using the street for different purposes, to hone their craft.
I was really afraid to do it, scared out of my skin. But I looked back at my mission and said, “Do you want to spread joy through music or not?”
So I did it. I went to a quiet little corner on a street where I thought no one would see me, and I sang a jazz standard. But then a couple came around the corner and told me it was beautiful — and I ran off!
Then in Paris, I was singing in nightclubs, but they didn’t want to pay me for my music. I kept resisting singing on the street, but then I would remind myself of my mission! I knew that I could reach more people singing on the street than in a club.
So I found a spot that had an overhang and great acoustics. I put down a little bag and sang for about an hour or a little more. I did it more and more, and used that time to practice my chops, send out good vibrations, and put money in my pocket. I’d make more money singing on the street like that than some of the guys I met who were playing in the clubs.
Any advice for women want to take the leap — either by pursuing their art, or moving abroad, or both — who are getting resistance, either internally or from other people?
Be clear on your mission. When you have a mission, when you know what your objective is, you don’t let anything stop you. You just have to try even if you fall on your face. Keep doing it and keep talking to people about what you’re trying to do.
It’s good to talk about your dream, but you have to be careful about who you share your dream with! Some people will tell you to put your dream in a box. So you have to choose with whom you’re really going to share your passion.
With some people, you just skim the surface; you don’t give them an opportunity to put negative thoughts in your head. But others, the right people, they can help you expand on your idea, or give you advice about how to get started.
It’s good to have people in your life who are good listeners, people who know you, who have skills that can help you. When you give the right people the opportunity to put energy behind what you want to do, the results can be really surprising.