There’s a fearlessness to Kat Williams on stage — she’ll attempt to sing almost anything. “After working in the prisons, honey, I can sing a song I don’t know,” she says.
Williams has become one of the area’s most popular bandleaders, something she never really saw coming, after two-plus decades of work in law enforcement.
“I wanted to be a cop since I was in the 6th grade,” she says. “I grew up in an environment where people didn’t follow the rules. And I didn’t want to be like that, so I chose a profession where if you broke the rules there were consequences. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
A Buffalo, New York-native, Williams worked for the New York State Department of Corrections for ten years, then, seeking a change of scenery, followed a friend to Asheville.
“I was walking past Malaprops,” she recalls. “And a guy said, ‘How’re you?’ First time I’d ever heard anyone say ‘How’re you?’ And I said, ‘I’m fine, and how are you?’ And he started telling me how he was, and I thought it was the coolest thing. In New York people just didn’t say ‘How’re you’ on the street.
“In New York it was kind of like you were on survival mode, and down here you’re not just existing, you’re actually having opportunities to be connected to people, and live a productive life. So I always say Asheville saved me.”
Williams worked for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, and sang karaoke at night to relieve stress. “It brought me comfort,” she explains. “I think that being onstage and singing songs was the first time I really felt at home. I guess it got around, the girl who was singing at karaoke, working for the sheriff’s department.” Williams was soon offered steady gigs at Tressa’s and at Magnolia’s, and the ball hasn’t stopped rolling since.
Tryon-born singer Nina Simone was a big influence on Williams. “For a black woman back in the day, she’s wearing that natural hair, where everybody had the processed perm look. You talk about keeping it real. I always want to sing with that much heart,” Williams says. “I loved Ella too. Ella Fitzgerald had playfulness onstage. She could have fun. I learned to be free with music onstage from Ella.”
Williams typically covers everyone from The Allman Brothers to the disco divas. “I love to sing it all,” she says. “This is kind of an original music town, but I feel like each song I sing, I make it my own. It doesn’t matter if somebody else wrote it, because I’m going to make it my own anyway.”
The singer enjoys doing all-request shows. “As long as I have Internet onstage it’s fine, we’ll pop it up and sing it. We’re creating music onstage, we’re creating memories for people, we’re bringing joy through music.
“I tell people, ‘Leave your worries at the door, or bring them with you, it doesn’t matter. You won’t leave with them, you won’t even remember what they were.'”