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Desert Companion

Ones to Watch

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Kat Kalling
Portraits by Bronson Loftin

Kat Kalling

 

Kat Kalling

Singer/songwriter

Okay, so the myth of “Vegas as a city of second chances” may be a mere opiate for this town’s strivers and hustlers, but nobody told Kat Marosok. She took it seriously. The singer/songwriter moved to the valley in 2016 from Minneapolis at the urging of her boyfriend. When the relationship imploded, she certainly didn’t. She emerged from the fallout with a new persona: Kat Kalling.

“Yeah, the relationship was trash,” she says, laughing. “After it ended, I was like, I need a new identity. You know, I’ve been abused a lot. I’ve been beaten down. And the idea of catcalling, it’s an offensive thing to do, right? But I was like, what if I just reclaimed it? Like, dude, like, I’m Kat Kalling now! It’s kind of ‘ode to feminism.’ It’s a play on my name. It also just radiates badass energy! Kat Kalling started as a persona, but she’s developed into literally who I am.” Hard to believe Kat once went by Katy — this giddily swearing, heavily tattooed raconteur whose sometimes zany, sometimes harrowing life stories fuel indie pop ballads that soar high with feeling but still thrum hard with raucous saloon clamor.

She calls herself an “emo cowgirl” and, well, that nails it. Kalling was born and raised in Sheridan, Wyoming, with all the side dishes. “Literally, I was a horseback-riding, gun-shooting rodeo kid, loved country, Chris LeDoux was my idol,” she says. “My dad’s a f—ing taxidermist! You can’t get more Wyoming than that!” She found punk rock and feminist empowerment later on in Minneapolis, and happily let the two worlds collide in her music. “I loved being a horseback rodeo kid. I’m still the hardcore kid, too. Why can’t I be both?” Her strenuous, gutsy songs are just that, filled with country yearning, punk indignation, and a smidge of pleasing pop bubblegum.

Harrowing story: She had an ugly car accident almost a year ago while returning to Vegas from Wyoming. “I basically got hit by a semi that was transporting rare meats to China,” she says. The accident made her hands chronically numb, which meant she had to switch out her guitar for a mixing board. Her new style — check out the rich remix of her song “GFY” on Spotify, with a cameo by Las Vegas hip-hop artist Ekoh — involves lush production and a sweeter, more distilled pop sensibility. Her friend and producer/engineer Curtis Martin helps her write the songs. “It’s an extreme difference, but not a departure from her lyrics or the vibes or the mood,” Martin says. “This new stuff is like full-on production, big-band kind of stuff. It’s definitely a step up.”

“Curtis fills my weaknesses,” Kat says. “But the music is still authentic to me. It’s just a new side of me stepping into my power and being like, ‘Okay, you know what? I’m a f—ing baddie. Let’s go!’” Andrew Kiraly

 

Jennifer Battisti

Writer

To reckon with her past, she struck upon a new form of storytelling

Jennifer BattistiIt’s time for a new kind of Las Vegas book, and poet Jennifer Battisti has written one. Off Boulder Highway (Tolsun Books, $19), her hybrid memoir of growing up here, brims with drug use, but not the cool-zany Fear and Loathing kind. Latchkey teens skitter unsupervised across a morally ambiguous cityscape, but it’s not Beautiful Children, either. We may need a different bookshelf for this one.

About that word “hybrid”: Like Vegas itself, Battisti’s slim book speed-shifts between wildly different expressive modes — lyrically intense jags of memoir, straight-up poetry, bebop riffs of surreal free writing. You have to give in to its offbeat method, patiently collate its various wavelengths of meaning; don’t read it while half-watching Bridgerton. The timeline zigzags. The language thickens with metaphor. The first person yields to the second, the you she’s addressing often an earlier version of herself careening through the brutal particulars of a common Vegas upbringing: Kids running wild in the vacuum left by frazzled parents working swing and graveyard shifts at the casino ... the family fractures in dysfunction, teen rebellion, addiction, trauma. All the narrative discombobulation is just how this one had to come out.

“It felt more organic, not only to my thinking but also my memory,” the Las Vegas native says. “So much of the book is based on trauma, and it kind of mirrors the way trauma gets stuck in our bodies. It’s like these little fragmented flashes.”

“Vivid, sad, and powerful,” former Clark County poet laureate Bruce Isaacson emails about the book. “Her writing re-creates the thrills of abuse and the crucible of pain.” In one agonizing scene, her mother tries to retrieve her from a home full of addicts as Battisti hides in a closet. It’s a drug-house-mirror inversion of the standard Vegas-bender yarn; Dr. Gonzo has left the building. “There’s an emptiness of hopes and values in Off Boulder Highway,” Isaacson notes. But there’s also a poet’s faith in the prismatic powers of language and her determination to upcycle a hard past — and not just hers.

“The stories that happen off Boulder Highway, or on the East Side, we don’t hear a lot of those voices,” Battisti says. “A lot of the people I grew up with are institutionalized or in jail or gone or homeless. Those voices matter, too.”

Sober since 2009, she regards her younger self with the forgiving hindsight and clarity imparted by 12-step recovery: “I feel closer to that girl” after writing the book. “It was really sad that she had to go through some of that.” But it did bequeath her a rich story, one that now includes her young daughter, family members who are “good sports” about being in the book, and the ongoing lifeline of poetry — indeed, readers of this very magazine voted her Best Local Writer in 2019. Next up: a chapbook of flash fiction.

“I wrote (Off Boulder Highway) to have some authority over my story,” she says. “The book is a hybrid, but I feel like a hybrid, too. There’s a before and an after, the two different parts of my life, and I wanted to find a way to make it more cohesive.” Scott Dickensheets

 

Vera Blossom

Writer, editor, audio producer

Her tirelessly inquisitive mind offers lessons in the practical magic of storytelling

Vera BloomVera Blossom gets bored easily. “That’s why, I guess, I am multidisciplinary,” she jokes. And given the numerous projects she’s juggling at the moment, it’s hard to imagine Vera getting bored anytime soon. An essayist, assistant comics editor for The Believer, and audio producer on the podcasts Your Magic and Black Mountain Radio, Vera works to bring a critical eye to the storytelling process, no matter the medium.

“When I was younger, I was always into detective shows,” Vera says. “In my head, I’m playing out the fantasy of being a detective. I’m going to ask questions, look around, and just figure out what story there is to tell.”

Vera’s work has ranged from producing an episode on land acknowledgments for Black Mountain Radio to exploring the costuming in Disney’s WandaVision in archetypical, her monthly newsletter on pop culture and horoscopes. Ever inquisitive, Vera enjoys asking seemingly absurd questions that have serious substance, such as “Is Shrek Sexy?” That was the title of a recent essay in which Vera explored beauty standards within queer communities. Exploring the question, crucially, is more important than answering the question. “I don’t say, ‘I want this story to be like this,’” Vera says of the process. “Of course, I try to think about things through the lens of critical race theory or a political lens, but I’m not trying to do that inherently within the story.”

One subject Vera often returns to is magic — in its artistic sense. “I really feel like (magic) is intuition and intention,” Vera says. “Making art is just having an idea and then putting an action to it, and that’s what a spell is, really, setting an intention and doing some sort of kinetic action or working towards something.”

Whether you call it magic, kismet, or chance, the way Vera became a collaborator on her most recent project reads like an artist’s dream. Scouring a Listserv for writers, Vera stumbled upon a cryptic call for writers and editors with an interest in magic. She applied and landed a spot on the production team for Your Magic, a Spotify Original podcast that explores the cosmic and mystical. The podcast has also brought Vera into the orbit of Michelle Tea, acclaimed author and host of Your Magic. “Vera is amazing because she has this really sharp eye — and ear! — for what works and what doesn’t,” Tea says. “She’s got this practical and technical understanding, but also she is so engaged in culture. She always knows what’s going on, and her take, which is filtered through her queerness and her strong sense of humor, is spot on.”

On Vera’s list of future projects: Video games. “Video games as a medium for fiction are definitely underrated and undervalued,” Vera says. There’s no doubt she’ll find some storytelling magic in that medium as well. Nick Barnette

 

Melissa del Rosario

Film producer

Making scripts a reality is a passion for this master of logistics

May 2021 was a big month for Melissa Del Rosario: She graduated from UNLV, and her first feature film, Take Out Girl, was released nationally on VOD. Those are two unlikely accomplishments to go hand in hand, but Del Rosario has been overachieving in her career as a movie producer for years now. In 2018, she traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with A Christmas Dinner, a UNLV short film she produced in just 48 hours.

A native of Riverside, California, Del Rosario was a theater kid in high school, until a friend inspired her to shift her focus to film. “He would tell me it’s about the legacy, it’s about being able to watch a film over and over and not being able to experience a (live) performance over and over,” she says. That friend was murdered when Del Rosario was in high school, and pondering his memory led her to a revelation. “Here I am watching his videos over and over and wishing he was here,” she remembers. “I would love to make something that would make that kind of impression.”

Meliisa Del Rosario

She’s off to a good start with Take Out Girl, a crime drama inspired by the life of star Hedy Wong. Wong wrote the script with Las Vegas-based director Hisonni Mustafa (see interview on p. 21), who reached out to Del Rosario about producing when she was at Cannes. “I just remember sitting on the beach for like three hours going back over and over the script and thinking, ‘This is going to be made?’” she recalls. “What a powerful story about an Asian American woman, who you rarely see in a leading role, who isn’t sexualized, who is just smart and determined and a go-getter.”

Although an indie film producer ends up with multiple jobs (Del Rosario served as script supervisor on Take Out Girl and even acted in one scene), dealing with logistics is Del Rosario’s true filmmaking passion. “I love paperwork,” she says with a laugh.

“(Melissa) was so important to the process, and her perspective always helped us keep the film feeling as authentic as possible,” says Take Out Girl director of photography Alberto Triana.

Del Rosario has several forthcoming projects in various stages of preproduction, and she’s pondering grad school in LA Wherever her career takes her, she’ll always be grateful for getting her start in Las Vegas. “I feel like Vegas will always be a home for me,” she says. “I’d love to stay here and keep making movies if possible.” Josh Bell

 

Jason Nious

Performing artist

He’s stepping boldly into the future of dance — and theater

Jason Nious

“Gimme some mo’!” Jason Nious bellows as he rhythmically stomps, claps, and shouts on the stage, inspiring the audience of kids to spill into the aisles to dance. At this recent Juneteenth show at Discovery Children’s Museum, Nious and fellow dancers Danielle Hicks and Khalid Freeman are performing as Molodi, a dynamic dance troupe in which their bodies make the music. Called step dancing, the style has origins in African tribal dance, and continues its legacy in many Black fraternities and sororities.

“The entire body is used to produce intricate rhythms and sounds through a combination of footsteps, handclaps, and spoken word without any music,” Nious explains. A former gymnast, Nious has worked as a choreographer, teacher, dancer, and acrobat (you may have seen him in Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ and Zarkana), but now he’s making some bold new moves, incorporating rhythmic dance into his other passion — theater.

“My intention is to help usher percussive dance into the theatrical realm as a storytelling vehicle,” he says, “to show and share the awesomeness of our human bodies as instruments, and to inspire a sense of unity among all people through rhythm, collaboration, and personal expression.”

This fall, Nious will serve as artist-in-residence for the San Francisco-based Museum of Dance, performing in Roots, which tells the story of Black dance in America with words, music, and, of course, rhythmic movement. But you can catch his novel mashup of dance and theater right here in town soon enough: Nious is slated to write the choreography and body percussion for Broadway in the Hood’s production of Choir Boy, which premiers in October. And in January, he’ll direct the stage reading of Skeleton Crew for A Public Fit Theatre Company. “The plan for (those productions) is to use rhythm-making in an effective way for theater, to use it more like a score to set the tone and feel of the scenes,” Nious says. “Instead of a regular musical score with a big band and live music, it’s body percussion.” Sounds like a moving experience. Rachel Wilson

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