Kate Rigg: Music Mama

Family Portrait Slanty Eyed Mama Kate Rigg Lyris Hung
From left, Lyris Hung and this week’s Portrait, Kate Rigg, of Slanty Eyed Mama. (Photo: Helen Tansey)

The Oxford Languages dictionary defines the word “community” as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals.” 

These days, it seems harder to find this in the LGBTQ+ community than I had coming up and out. It’s especially hard for women, now that there are no lesbian bars left in the city. Where to go? Well, during the second weekend of September, you can get your girl groove on not far from here at the SisterSpace Weekend Women’s Festival in Darlington, Md. SisterSpace is three days of amazing music, comedy, arts and crafts, sports, campfires, workshops and a sense of community that harkens back to the days before the internet where you had to go out to find like-minded people.

The roster of talent performing at the festival is outstanding, including this week’s Portrait, Kate Rigg, who along with violin virtuoso Lyris Hung, forms the talented duo Slanty Eyed Mama. Described in their website bio as “Two Asian Good Girls Gone Badass,” the group is part hip hop, part rock, part electroclash and a little bit of magic. Rigg is an actor/playwright and a well-known comedian, who has been on Fox’s “Family Guy” and two seasons of Dr. Phil’s talk show, where she talked about the Asian-American experience to 5 million people. She has also toured extensively as a stand-up comic.

I was looking on your website and I saw that it said you’re originally from Canada and Australia. [Laughing] Which is it? 
I’m a little of both. I was born in Canada, but my dad’s Australian and my mom’s from Indonesia, which is close to Australia. My family’s all in Australia.

Tell me a little bit about the family. 
Both Lyris and I are only children. As I said, I’m a mixed-race person and she’s born to two Chinese people. I was raised in Canada for a part of my life. And there were no relatives there, no uncles and aunts, grandpas or grandmas, no family other than my chosen family, so it was just me in the world in my mixed race-ness.

What did your folks do? Were they in the arts?
No, no, no, no, not at all. My mother, even from beyond the grave, is telling me that I’m bringing shame on the family by not being a doctor! I’ll speak for Lyris, since she’s not here. We’ve toured together for 20 years, so I know all her answers! Her mom was a visual artist, and her dad was an engineer, and they did the non-Chinese thing, which was they let her do whatever the hell she wanted. It’s funny that she ended up playing the violin, which is what people think all Asian parents make us do, but she’s the one who at six, pointed to the stage and said, “I want to do that.” They supported her and let her be an artist, unlike my fucking parents, who in my dreams are still sending me messages from the grave with the number for Harvard medical school! I had a white parent and even he jumped on that bandwagon. 

You reference a lot of Asian stereotypes in your act. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much the Asian community, like the Native-American community, was appropriated on TV and in the movies. I was watching an episode of “Bonanza” and of all people Marlo Thomas was playing a Chinese woman, complete with a bad accent.
Yeah. I mean, David Carradine played a character that was written for Bruce Lee.  Shirley MacLaine did it. So did Mickey Rooney. It’s been happening less now. But there’s a tradition of yellowface in the media, for sure.

I love that you subvert the narrative that we’re often fed. 
Slanty Eyed Mama was formed to give voice to American Asians, people who grew up in this country, who have very much an American experience growing up here, but because of the way they look, are categorized as foreigners. During the COVID pandemic, you could see what a fucking shit show that turned into. The fact that there was all this aggression towards American Asians shows you that there still is a perception that just lies dormant — that American Asians are not actually Americans. Just based on a visual perception, that they’re foreigners just sort of squatting in America, which is insane. They’re taxpayers. They work in banks. They go to school. They’re lawyers. Whatever. Those are some of the things we’re talking about in our experiences, as it’s a very American experience.

But that’s not really what we’re bringing to this festival. That’s more my stand-up act. Our act is really about the connections and singing; about the American experience and a woman’s experience and the experience of being an immigrant or a child of immigrants, a woman of color — all that stuff. Our music and our lyrics carry messages but the focus is really about reframing popular music, comedy, trip hop, and rock and roll, but switching it up. Even the way Lyris plays the violin is different. She plays it like a guitar. She plugs it in. She samples herself. She bows. She picks. She just plays it in all different ways.

The way she approaches the instrument deconstructs what people think the violin is, and then in the same way, we’re gonna deconstruct the idea of what people think an Asian person is, or specifically, what an Asian woman is. We never intended to be by Asian for Asian. We’re about just being part of a community of women and talking about the women’s experience from our point of view as Juilliard students, as musicians, as queer people, as a poet, as an Asian person — like all that stuff, molded together.

What was one of your favorite gigs?
One of my favorite gigs was at the Smithsonian Institute. We’ve been there twice, but my favorite show there was called, “Birth of an Asian” and it was a sort of a hybrid music, comedy, and spoken worship combination. I did characters and shit. It was a really exciting place to play because, hey, it’s the Smithsonian, right? People were lined up to see us, and we sold a lot of stuff, which was cool. It was just really exciting to play in such a classic institution, a place that was about learning and about heritage and arts. To then bring our very contemporary, spit-fire, spoken-word, comedy, rock-and-roll edge into that space, and have people love it, was moving. 

I think the reason that we can hold our own in a space like the Smithsonian is that we’re both Juilliard trained and the lyrics are complicated and politically literate. And of course, Lyris is a virtuoso at what she does. So we bring a really high-end experience, but with a sort of contemporary and almost pop-culture flow. I love the gigs where they don’t know what to expect.

So changing gears, what was your coming out experience?
I mean, I don’t think either of us really had one. Honestly, I don’t think Lyris or I had a single coming out experience. We just sort of lived our lives. I moved to Australia and then I moved to New York to go to Juilliard and then I stayed there. I had boyfriends. I had girlfriends. I had whatever. I don’t think either of us ever made a formal announcement. We just started dating who we wanted to date and that was that. 

No pushback on that front from the family?
Well, we’re both only children. Lyris’ mom died when she was 11 and her dad was quite silent. He really didn’t have much to say on the topic. My parents lived in Australia and I really wasn’t having it. I just didn’t want to hear about it. [Laughing] We didn’t really give them the option to say anything, so [there wasn’t] really any pushback for either of us. We’ve never been in the closet, but we’ve never actually sat them down and said, “Mom and Dad, I have something to tell you. I’m queer.” We just dated who we wanted and everybody had to fall in line or fuck off, that was basically how it was.

Cool. Well, I’m excited to see you live. Have you been to SisterSpace before?
I’ve done the virtual event. I’ve never been there in person.

Ah, that’s right. What are you looking forward to? 
I love a festival, the kind where people are in a beautiful environment, surrounded by nature, listening to words and ideas with music flowing. It’s my favorite thing actually. I love it. We’ve always had a really good experience at that type of gig. Lyris and I travel really well together too. We’re a lot of fun. We’re very low maintenance. So I’m really looking forward to hearing the other musicians. I’m looking forward to hanging out. I’m looking forward to the sort of real in-person experience of being with other women in community with everyone. 

And it’s also really a time to think about the issues, and the joys and the fears and the stories that connect us. I love that. I find it’s a very theatrical 360 experience, because you’re living in the same space for a few days. So we’re really looking forward to that; the immersiveness of it. It’s very different than just listening to a song or even going to a concert when you’re living there and taking meals with people that you’ve never met before. It’s a real opportunity for unexpected ideas and conversations to pop up. I loooove it. 

I’ve met some amazing women there, so I know what you mean. And of all the festivals that I’ve been to, SisterSpace is probably the most laid back of all. 
Oh, amazing. I’m excited to perform. We are very unique, like, you probably have never seen anything like us, both in terms of the contents and in terms of the way we write a piece, like a song. It’s unique. We love bringing a really fresh experience to people. We don’t just write love songs. We don’t just write political songs. We don’t just do comedy. We have a very hybrid nature, probably because I’m mixed race, but also because of the way we trained, we are trained classically, but we’re performing really contemporary music. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope when you’re watching us. You’re looking at politics. You’re looking at sex positivity. You’re looking at our identity. You’re looking at comedy. You’re looking at just the beauty of what Lyris can achieve with just one violin and a pedalboard. Like, it’s pretty amazing.

Now you’ve really got me excited!
Well, yeah, it’s a fucking awesome experience! We love doing it. It’s a passion project. We’ve been doing this since we graduated from school and we’re like, “Hey, there really aren’t people that are expressing what we want to express.” For a long time, we’d have to borrow culture from other people but we were like, “Hey, let’s just make our own.”

All right. Let me just wrap up with a couple of totally random questions. 
I love random questions, let’s hit it!

What’s a role you would love to redo in a remake? Being biracial, mine would be the daughter in “Imitation of Life.” 
Oh, that’s beautiful. Well, I want to play Hamlet. So there you go. 

What’s a trait you inherited from one of your parents?
My mother was very friendly and loved to throw parties. She was like a hostess with the mostest. And I definitely inherited that from her.

What (non-living) entertainer do you wish you could have seen in person? 
Oh, my God. I wish I could have seen Sarah Bernhardt perform. She played a female Hamlet and she lived during a time where women were running their own theater companies. There was no directors telling them what to do. They had their own theaters. They were choosing their plays. They were choosing their designers. They were really in control of creating an artistic experience for people. Sarah Bernhardt did it. Isadora Duncan did it. I wish I could have been around in the early 1900s to be part of that.

Three sounds that bring you joy or make you reminisce?
Mmm. The sound of freshwater lakes on a shore, which sounds very much different than on the ocean. There’s more of a crisp sound to it. Another sound that makes me reminisce or brings me joy? Pretty much all Top 40 radio music from the ’80s. I was a little kid during the ’80s and I freaking loved that music. I listened very intently to the radio. What else do I love sound wise? 

You can give me one smell instead of one other sound.
OK, the smell of jasmine flowers because it reminds me of the first place I lived in Los Angeles.

All right, that’s all I need. I will meet you for late-night karaoke when we get to SisterSpace!
You’ve got it. Rock and roll! See you soon!

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