We are used to the name Felix Coetzee being up in racing lights, what is not quite such common knowledge is that the Coetzee family has an equally talented and hard-working member in their eldest daughter, Katherine, who is currently taking Hong Kong by storm with her rock vocals at Happy Valley every Wednesday night. I caught up with her on a recent visit to Cape Town and got a unique, behind the scenes look at what goes into the Happy Wednesday concept.
I confess to not being entirely sure what to expect. I researched (read: internet stalked) her a little beforehand, so had a rough idea of what she looked like (which turns out to be nothing like her dad) but she sounded nice via our Voice note exchanges and we eventually found a mutually agreeable time to catch up at Knead in Wembley Square.
I’ve always wondered about people who perform for a living as most have very separate and distinct ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ personas. Even though we are (mostly) off stage (a notebook and pen can be intimidating) it was interesting to meet the girl behind the name, so to speak.
I have been privileged to spend some time in Felix’s company and while the petite blonde perhaps doesn’t resemble her famous father that much, it is in their demeanour that the resemblance is striking. There is a very similar energy, focus and professionalism.
Katherine Alice Coetzee, better known to fans as Kat Aklysm, was born in Durban and spent her formative years travelling South Africa, Mauritius and Hong Kong as Felix’s job demanded. Although there is a strong horse influence from her dad’s side and she enjoys interacting with horses, Kat never took to riding. Her mother, Janine, fostered an interest in ballet and the performing arts and that’s where Kat found her niche.
While at school in Hong Kong she got into dancing and singing training. Unfortunately she couldn’t attend theatre school in Hong Kong because she was fluent in Cantonese, but the school taught in Mandarin. However, when one door closes, another inevitably opens and she enrolled at theatre school in Cape Town instead, where she studied musical theatre and obtained a teaching qualification.
Spreading her wings
Kat spent some time in London and started gigging on the strength of her voice and guitar skills. She met and worked with renowned theatre producer Richard Loring. The two wrote a show together and she credits him with teaching her how to create something ‘shiny’ and produce it on stage.
Next she got a job with Peter Toerien at Theatre On The Bay which she really enjoyed, but it was admin-based and she longed to be on stage. “So I picked up my guitar, applied at a local bar and kept getting booked,” she says with a broad grin.
Through performing at venues in and around Cape Town, she met a group of musicians and started learning rock vocals. It was a learning curve after her more classical training and she lost her voice for a few weeks while she made the transition. She spent two years gigging around Cape Town, with personal highlights including being invited to play at Artscape on New Years Eve twice.
Deciding she needed a break, Kat flew to Hong Kong to spend some time with Felix, who is contracted to the Hong Kong Jockey Club mentoring their apprentices. “The band broke up at the same time and I wondered whether it was perhaps a sign,” she muses. As a precaution, she packed her trusty guitar.
Once in Hong Kong, Kat approached the first bar she found, asked whether she could come and play and got the thumbs up. “It was a sleepy Monday night and once I started singing, the bar really filled up and I got five more bookings on the back of that first night.”
Hans Ebert, better known in racing circles as the RacingB*tch, is a music exec and part of the force behind Happy Valley’s ‘Happy Wednesday’ concept. He is also a family friend. After hearing Kat perform, Hans was sufficiently impressed that he offered her and her guitarist Jay Apungan a residential gig at Happy Valley’s beer garden and Kat and her band and are fast becoming a popular Happy Wednesday feature.
When I ask whether she is starting to get recognized, she laughs and says yes. So much so that there are now two queues of fans after races – one wanting autographs from the jockeys and the other for those seeking autographs and photo ops with Kat and her band.
Does she enjoy Hong Kong? “Hong Kong is very cosmopolitan, and I grew up as a bit of a ‘child of the world’, so I feel comfortable there. It’s a cool place to be because it’s always changing and always staying current. ” In terms of the HKJC set-up and Happy Wednesday in particular, she says that everything runs like clockwork. “My first night at Adrenaline, the CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges came up and chatted to me after I’d sung Paradise City. There aren’t too many CEO’s who take the time to make other people feel important. It is a great organization to be part of.”
With things going well at the HKJC and Kat keeping busy with other gigs for the rest of the week, she has decided to stay in Hong Kong for the time being.
Despite being a creative, she is very structured and organized in her approach and it is clear she spends a great deal of time and effort planning her look as well as her sound. “I usually get up at about 11 and by then my dad’s already gone to work. We live at the Hong Kong Jockey Club facilities in Sha Tin, which is about an hour from Happy Valley. There are lots of things I need to do to look shiny on stage, including my hair and make-up. I don’t have the most cooperative hair,” she grimaces. Her look – even during the day – is standard issue rock chick black and her blonde hair is swept up on one side and plaited back off her face. “I based it on an Anime character,” she explains. “By 2pm I’m ready to go and head off to Happy Valley. At 3:30pm we do a sound check which takes about an hour and then we rehearse. After that, we go and grab something to eat, because once the races start, the evening tends to go really fast.”
What is the Happy Wednesday crowd like? “When the gates open, people literally rush in to grab their seats. People are there to be entertained and have fun, but the focus is very much on the racing. We are careful to be very respectful of the race day activities and only play at strict intervals between races so that we don’t upset the horses.”
In between songs, the band stays in a holding area near the stage so that they can interact with the crowd. “The whole event is very well organized and everything runs like clockwork,” she continues. “Everyone is passionate about they do and dedicated to their job and it’s all about the public and making sure they have a good time. We keep things fun, and try and link with what’s just happened on the track, like Joao Moreira winning 8 races – people are there for the racing after all. But it does get easier as the night wears on.”
Do they play at Sha Tin as well? “No, Happy Valley is aimed at a younger crowd with a focus on entertainment and the weekend meetings at Sha Tin are more serious and more for the serious punter and racing fan, but we do play at other venues during the week.”
Kat does covers of well-known songs, which are easily recognizable and easy for people to sing along to. They are usually done by about 11pm and she surprises me by saying that they pack up and try to get home as early as possible. We’re gigging every night, so you need to make sure you’re getting enough sleep.”
Kat credits her love of rock music to dad Felix, who is a huge Guns ‘n Roses fan. “He once waited ages at the Grand Hyatt just to see Axl Rose,” she confides.
Having always related to Felix in terms of his professional, race riding side, it is interesting to get an insight into him from a more personal perspective, but like any successful sportsman, a lot of his life was dedicated to his job. “People talk about hard work – it’s another level with him,” she says with obvious respect and admiration. “He was always very disciplined and would never drink or eat before a ride – that was almost a lack of professionalism to him. But he taught me that hard work does pay off.” It is clear she has inherited his work ethic and she works hard at her stage performance as well as her music.
“I originally learnt to play the piano and the guitar and that’s when I developed a love for the minor chords. My dad taught me to love rock music while Hong Kong was more emo and more into music like Green Day, Muse and so on.”
She is working on some original material, with the hopes of touring with her band and possibly being signed up to a label at some point. Where does she draw her inspiration? “Sometimes you just hear something that makes your heart jump, but I feel if you want to write great music, you need to listen to great music and great musicians and figure out what makes the world fall in love with them. I listen to a lot of music for educational purposes.” But it’s not all work – although her professional focus is on rock, she prefers listening to funk for recreation – “funk makes me happy,” she smiles.
Her favourite part of the job is the adrenaline of being on stage. “I enjoy being able to express myself creatively and do what I want and get people to enjoy it.” The worst part of the job? “The false eyelashes. Seriously, that glue is painful!” she laughs. “But literally that is it. I love what I do. It doesn’t get boring, or monotonous, and if you do think it’s in danger of heading in that direction, you just add in something to challenge yourself. I also think it’s important to be around people who pull you up, not bring you down. I’m really lucky to be able to do this full time.”
If anyone wants to follow Kat or perhaps see her perform, she plays at the Hard Rock, Mason Eight, Hemingways and Carnegie’s and you can also follow her on social media via @KatAklysmMusic or @FastTrackHK