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Photograph courtesy of the author. 

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4 February 2024

Song To A Seahorse


Ms Kitty is the dazzling frontwoman of The Fabulous Red Diesel, a jazz band based on the south coast of England. At home, she’s called Kat, and welcomed me in for a cup of tea. We talked nature, nurture and the creative process following the release of the band’s latest album.


It was the last bright day of 2023 when I stepped through beaded curtains into Kat’s kitchen. Green walls, purple cupboards; emerald tiles, a violet ostrich feather; bell jars full of fermenting mead. In the garden beyond, plants cascaded across the sun-drenched patio, frequented by drowsy flies drunk from the inky grapes lolling over the garden wall. Kat introduced me to a few of the plot stakeholders: Edward the cactus, who was left by the previous tenants; a bird of paradise reminiscent of her late sister; a Virginia creeper keeping time with its seasonal colours. The sea dazzled in a bright triangle between the horizon and the treetops, and we sat, both a little hungover, healing in the sunshine and the birdsong.

Kat, known on stage as ‘Ms Kitty’, made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter on London’s acoustic scene in the early ‘90s. Discovering and burnishing her talent in iconic venues across the city, she played to such fans as Andy Serkis, Mackenzie Crook and Jeremy Corbyn. Now heading up the jazz-funk, gypsy-punk quartet, The Fabulous Red Diesel, Ms Kitty is at the top of her singing and songwriting game. Featuring three virtuosos aside from the lead singer—trumpeter-tubaist-turned-double-bassist Beatrice Gullick (“Miss Bea-have”); trumpeter and guitarist Simon Dobell (“Rabbi Jaffa Delicious”); and Wil, a percussionist-turned-kit-player and Kat’s partner—the band is a potted orchestra packing a hefty punch. I first came across them on a quiet Sunday afternoon in Nunhead, where soaring brass notes exploded now and again through the squeaky swing doors of the local pub. On a stage adorned with tropical artificial flowers, plastic butterflies, and Ms Kitty’s sequinned frock, the band breathed life into the tired but cheery music hall behind the bar. Red dreadlocks ablaze, Kat poured her smooth, sturdy vocals into the mic whilst guiding her hands across the keyboard, pausing occasionally for a bright solo on the flute.

Ms Kitty on her "sun-drenched patio".

Prior to The Fabulous Red Diesel, Kat worked mainly as a solo artist drawing on a wide variety of influences, including Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, and Miles Davis. She had studied classical music at college, eventually trading it in to step onto the London folk circuit as a singer. Though never fully embraced as a keys player in a sea of guitarists, Kat still built a solid reputation there, even supporting Jeff Buckley a couple of years before he died. ‘The room was full!’ she says. ‘And I didn’t know him. It must’ve been 1995.’ Her obsession with live music had begun years earlier, seeing a West Country ‘dad band’ play at her grandparents’ wedding anniversary celebration. ‘I just stood on stage and I wouldn’t get off—and my granddad’s going “Oh, god. Oh, not another dizzy blonde in the family.”’ Far from it, Kat taught herself to play the piano in her father’s house—a welcome alternative to ‘playing with mud, plants, and pieces of paper’. Her first tunes were set to words from a dusty volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems pulled from the shelf. A trace of his themes trickles through the undercurrent of her music: a surrender to the elements and the passing of time, with one eye fixed on the sea.


Meeting and collaborating with Wil made her reconsider her songwriting habits, switching up the ethereal, pensive (‘wishy-washy,’ she says) tone of her solo albums for livelier grooves. These were strengthened by the energy and prowess provided by Bea and Simon, and the band soon became a regular outfit. The Fabulous Red Diesel was born. Kat watched the shift in genre boost the commercial success of her songwriting. ‘If you want to play and get paid,’ she realised, ‘you make people dance.’ Since their first outing in 2016, The Fabulous Red Diesel has left few stones unturned across the vast genre of jazz, from rhythm-infused samba and swing to measured ballads. The band has featured multiple times on Jazz FM, toured festivals and appeared at a host of venues across the UK—including Ronnie Scott’s, to which they return next month.

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By day, Kat and Wil are gardeners. Since moving out of London in the early 2000s, they’ve made their home in Hastings, a swashbuckling seaside town draped in history and lore. England’s original Norman castle peers down at the weary Victorian hotels lining the promenade. A twice-reincarnate pier, whose pavilion played host to The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Sex Pistols, crouches over the sea, spider-like, catching seaweed, barnacles and witchy stones in its rusted pillars as the waves fold into the beach. Behind all this, on a hill looking out to sea, sits Kat’s garden, a hidden haven where plants intertwine much like the genres in her music. Imbued with love, most of the plants—‘little orphans’—were rescued from skips and de-cluttering neighbours and, given space and time, have started to flourish. The bird of paradise flowered for the first time this year (‘orange and purple, like big dragon heads’) and Edward the cactus has had his own ‘little babies’ over the last couple of decades. ‘We just built somewhere really lovely,’ says Kat. ‘We hide here. Then go out, and then hide here again.’ This feeling of protecting what and whom she loves resonates through ‘Somewhere Beautiful’, the final track on Goddess the Seahorse, the band’s latest album:

Gonna build myself a boat,

Sail away, sail away, sail away,

Build myself a boat,

For me and all my family.

Batten down the sides,

And sail away, sail away, sail away,

Go somewhere beautiful

Where I won’t hear your voice anymore.

The opposite of fleeing, the narrator takes a stand, secure in what she has built, with two fingers raised to those poised to take her down. Avoiding the phrase “self-care” (a ‘yoghurty, muesli-eating term’), Kat acknowledges the vital need she had to create a safe, nurturing environment for herself and her immediate family having experienced sexual abuse as a child. The gaslighting which followed, on her own part as well as various older relatives’, posed a significant psychological obstacle which lasted well into adulthood. With therapy and support, including the help of Survivors, Kat found a place of stability, gradually repairing the damage inflicted by such trauma. ‘You get it out of your system. It’s there but it doesn’t define you anymore.’ Pruning negative influences, and people, from her life was a vital stage of this healing process. ‘Instead of allowing things into your world that might not be very good for you, you don’t. You draw a little circle round what you’re having in there, and you put in what you want, and everything else can do one.’ What remains is a strong core of close family and friends, and the safe retreat of her beloved home.

We return to the theme throughout our conversation: choosing and cherishing what is important to you, at the helm of your own life. Kat’s emotional resilience translates to the way she approaches the music industry: a sea of ‘no’s where the faint glimmer of a ‘yes’ flashes occasionally beneath the surface. One of these sprung up in the spring of 2020, when The Fabulous Red Diesel got to support James Taylor at St Mary in the Castle. The iconic Hastings venue was to close a year later owing to the impact of the pandemic, and the band’s hopes of playing more gigs following their successful performance were dashed to the ground. Of all those who struggled in the gig economy, Covid hit musicians especially hard, but Kat didn’t give up, turning to Zoom to carry on performing, and finding the motivation to continue to write. The result was Goddess the Seahorse, which, released in 2023, was the band’s first album following the pandemic. Kat chuckles when I ask about the origin of its name, and the eponymous seventh track. A self-described pagan, Kat had been trying to put her finger on what, if anything, she would choose to worship. She ruled out men, then women, and ultimately looked to the animal kingdom. She settled on a seahorse—wrongly (she later realised) identifying them as hermaphrodites. ‘But they’re quite sweet: the male seahorse helps with the babies—that is true—and they dance for hours and hours in the morning.’ 

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Asked if she’d call herself spiritual, Kat wrinkles her nose. She appreciates the common intentions of faiths at a grassroots level, believing them to preach much the same thing, but is highly sceptical of organised religion. It’s the pomp and privilege she can’t stand—when ‘the bishops can have extra cakes and that. I don’t remember that being in the Bible.’ Rooting oneself in nature seems, to Kat, far more beneficial to both the human race and the planet—a view shared amongst the many pagans in Hastings. In spring, Kat is a regular attendant at the Jack in the Green ceremony, held high above the town at the hill fort, where people dress in green and dance around the effigy of Jack in one of the last upheld May Day traditions. 


Kat’s communion with nature may be her day job, but it also sustains her in emotional terms. Throughout our conversation, a red admiral butterfly comes to settle on my blazing white shirt, an impromptu sun bed. Kat considers it through her sunglasses, and recalls her late friend, Wiv, who died in a motorcycle accident. At his funeral, a red admiral settled on his brother’s shoulder and remained there for the rest of the ceremony. ‘We see these now, we call them Wiv. It was him.’ The butterfly flits off to sample the sweet overripe grapes, returns to my shoulder, and leaves again. 

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In music, as in life, Kat seems to have a knack for accepting with equal verve all the joy and fear that comes her way. As a newcomer to the industry Kat has navigated for decades, I express trepidation about exhibiting my work before it’s good enough to see, knowing that, paradoxically, it will only get better by being seen, critiqued, improved. ‘If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more,’ she says, citing Erica Jong. The pursuit of any creative discipline, she adds, is a lifetime of learning, and the gems can only be found in the mess you make to start with. ‘If you’re going to find anything of worth or depth, I think you’ve got to make mistakes. And you’ve got to be free enough. And not worried. Fuck ‘em!’ Time and again she has brought new ideas to the band, only for them to be shelved, then dusted off months later, tweaked, and reincorporated into their repertoire with enthusiasm. Her diligence speaks volumes in an increasingly fast-paced, stream-ified industry, where the ease of releasing one’s work is at odds with the eternal challenge of engaging an audience. Perhaps, thanks to social media and streaming, the pull to critique, rethink and shape the work to one’s ultimate satisfaction has grown weaker, even whilst paranoia about external judgement has increased. Nests of boredom where ideas were hatched (the hours Kat spent poring over eighty-eight keys and a poetry book, for example) are threatened by the rising torrent of instant gratification. How do you stop the pride of having created from curtailing the gruelling, glorious process of creating before the idea is fully formed? 

‘Sit on it,’ says Kat. ‘Like an egg. Leave it for a bit. The shell has to harden before you go, I don’t know, throwing it round the garden.’ She laughs—‘What am I on about?’ Artists on the internet: an ostentation of squawking peacocks trading in their eggs for a sense of purpose, recognition, whatever loose change remains after the streamers have taken their cut. Defiant, Kat slices through the white noise and the pixels, a master of self-assuredness strengthened by each plant she tends, each song she writes, plays, sings.

The butterfly’s back. 


‘They only live for a day, don’t they?’ Bowing his wings, he flaunts his flaming bands the colour of Kat’s dreadlocks. ‘He’s living his best day.’ 


In a flutter of orange and black, he ascends, into the great bright blue.

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The Fabulous Red Diesel plays Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s on 11th Feb, 8-10pm. Tickets here (£12). Listen to Goddess the Seahorse here.

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