Growing up, what was your relationship like with your parents? Did you think they were lame? Were you one of the few who thought they were cool? Imagine growing up with a father who, quite literally, has some of the most famous people in the world over the house on a regular basis. That was the reality for Kathleen Riggs, daughter of world-famous vocal coach Seth Riggs, who worked with some of the biggest names in music, like Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand, during his storied career.
“My dad was already working with Michael Jackson when I was seven or eight years old,” said Riggs. “I didn’t really want to bring a lot of attention to me for that, so I actually didn’t tell my friends what my dad did. I just told them he was a music teacher.” A music teacher who just happened to dedicate himself to bringing the best out of Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Michael Bolton, among others. Riggs would, quite literally, sit in on the sessions her dad was having, as her dad’s workspace was right at home. But despite the surreal nature of the profession, her parents tried to keep things as normal as possible. “I had a bunch of brothers and sisters growing up and my mom would put us into his studio while he was teaching while she was dropping one kid off at soccer practice, or whatever,” she said. “She’d be like, ‘Hey, sit on the couch, don’t say anything, do your homework.’”
Riggs would soon begin to study the art of, in simplest terms, vocal coaching, herself. At a certain point, her father thought it was time to take it to the next level. “He started training me when I was seven years old and I was very consistent,” she said. “When I started getting into my teens, and my friends are preparing applications for different colleges, my dad was like, ‘You need to teach this. Come sit in here with me and start taking notes so you understand why the exercises work like they do. Why they can apply to all genres of music. Why this has been so successful for me.’ So, at 15, that’s what I did. It wasn’t like I was coming at it from just a singer’s perspective, I was starting to come at it from the teacher’s perspective. The ‘Why?’ and the ‘How?’ Then when I was 17, I started teaching.”
On a performance level, she grew up singing a wide variety of styles, including musical theatre and classical, but she ultimately gravitated towards R&B and soul-funk. Today, she jumps around to her hearts content. “I love Chris Stapleton, but I also love Sara Bareilles,” she said, of the styles she can touch. “I sing all different kinds of music, but I’d say mostly, for myself, I lean towards R&B. I grew up with SWV, and En Vouge, and Stevie Wonder. Those are my peeps.” Her ability to perform different genres, as a vocal coach, is something she feels is necessary for her profession. “I feel like it’s very important for you to walk your talk,” she said. “Being able to sing what I teach, I’m able to wear different hats and able to express what I’m able to do very easily and freely. It just makes a teacher stronger. If I’m teaching you vocal exercises but you don’t know how that is going to sound… if you had the teacher be able to represent that, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh my God, this is something I want to learn. I want to be able to do it the way that person does.’ But if they can’t show you, I think that’s a problem. If you can’t do what you’re talking about, it’s a little bit of a disservice.”
Walking the walk and talking the talk have allowed Riggs to work with a litany of voices. From contemporary pop acts such as Dua Lipa and “Glee” star-turned Olivier Award winner Amber Riley, and established icons like Ozzy Osbourne and Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, among many others from Broadway, film, etc. “It’s the difference between building someone up from the bottom vs someone who is more seasoned,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are, it depends on your habits. Your sleep schedule, your vocal technique. Working with Ozzy, for example, which is different than a client who doesn’t have as much experience, is that we work more so on song application. The technique I teach is supposed to save you, and save your voice from getting into trouble. The things you run into while touring is, say, a loss of voice. Why did you have the loss of voice? What I get to do is… we do a good amount of technique, but can you apply the vocal technique into actual singing? It’s going to save your ass when you’re performing live. I’m just polishing the diamond.”
Riggs worked with Dua Lipa, now one of the biggest pop stars in the world with hits like “New Rules,” “Levitating,” and “Don’t Start Now” under her belt, during her debut album cycle. She was still finding her footing back then, in every single aspect of her artistry, but Riggs helped her find her way. She also worked with rapper Saweetie, among others in the hip-hop world, to help diversify her style. “A lot of rappers come in actually wanting to be able to sing,” she said. “Otherwise, they’ve got other people featured to take the hook. Saweetie wanted to have more breath control because there’s a lot of words and singular breaths. People who don’t really fancy themselves as singers start singing and get really excited about it.”
Beyond the high-profile names she has worked with, Riggs works with students of all experience levels, and treats them all with the same reverence. “For me, it just takes me to slow down and be patient,” she said. “Most of my students are already out performing or have this inner confidence that this is what they want to do. So, they show up differently than, say, someone who is really shy. I really just try to have patience, and I don’t think I come off as strict. It’s more fun and exploratory.” That sense of fun and desire to explore the voice, Riggs says, is critical overall. “I just want to provide an environment that is loose,” she says. “Loose, gentle, and patient. That’s the way that I learn. If it’s too hard, or too strict, or if we’re striving for perfection, my ears will turn off. I won’t hear you. If it’s loose and playful, yet educational at the same time, the shell melts away quickly. Then, you’re not seeing me as an authority. You’re seeing me more as an equal, like we’re on the same page.”
To conclude, Riggs shared what she believes all musicians strive for. “At the end of the day, a really great singer isn’t someone who is always technically astute,” she said. “How well can you open up? How easy is it for you to open up? We’re trying to share our heart. We want to be able to express whatever is on our heart without feeling trapped by our instrument. At the end of the day, what makes a great performance is being able to feel free enough to express what you’re feeling, and having that land on your audience.”