Why Kat Dahlia's Vocal-Cord Problems Won't Kill Her Career: the R&B Newcomer Battles Back

Annabel Mehran

Kat Dahlia photographed in New York City on March 3, 2014

Fresh off a photo shoot, Kat Dahlia is being rushed through the streets of Manhattan in a black car. It's early March, two weeks after she released her contagiously funky new single "Crazy" and three months away from the arrival of her debut album, “My Garden,” a pivotal time for the Miami-based hip-hop/soul singer. Most new artists in her position would be relentlessly doing press, touring and making the radio promo circuit. But Dahlia hasn't been able to say a word -- let alone sing -- in 10 days.

Dahlia, 23, has been on strict vocal rest in anticipation of a visit with Dr. Scott Kessler, the go-to voice doctor for everyone from Jon Bon Jovi to One Direction's Harry Styles to the Justins (Timberlake and Bieber). The last time she saw Kessler in November, it was to seek a second opinion for a throat infection he eventually diagnosed as a pseudocyst on her vocal cord. It isn't as serious as, say, the hemorrhage that prompted Adele's 2011 surgery, or granuloma, a severe tissue inflammation that required not one but two vocal procedures for John Mayer in 2012.

But it's already caused Dahlia to cancel her first U.S. headlining tour, a series of club dates in key cities on the East Coast, putting the planned spring release for her album in jeopardy. Without proper treatment, the condition could lead to a surgical procedure and put Dahlia's career on hold for the foreseeable future -- or, should something go wrong, possibly forever.

Such momentous uncertainties would cripple a less determined newcomer. But Dahlia -- who made a strong impression last year with her fiery half-sung, half-rapped single "Gangsta" (a No. 13 hit on Billboard's R&B Songs chart) -- shows few signs of nerves upon entering Kessler's Upper West Side offices.

Taking a seat in the waiting room, she buries her face in the latest issue of New York to pass the time, taking little notice of the evidence of Kessler's superstar clients surrounding her. The whole place is decked out in signed platinum plaques, magazine covers and CD booklets of Kessler's most famous clients. (Mariah Carey's discography greets you in the waiting room, accompanied by a W magazine profile on the doctor.)

Dahlia is with her manager, Chris Smith, who she has been communicating with in makeshift sign language for the past few days. Smith, who's based in Toronto, has made navigating Dahlia through this crisis a top priority, despite a full roster that includes Nelly Furtado and Drake producer Noah "40" Shebib.

The two are quickly seated in Kessler's office. "OK, you might as well start talking now, because we're going to be using your voice to see what's going on," he says. "Be honest - on a scale of 1 to 100, how much have you been completely silent - no talking, no singing?"

Dahlia clears her throat. "Probably, 90, 95," she says, the first words this reporter has heard her utter in three hours. Smith nods emphatically.

Kessler moves Dahlia to the adjacent exam room, and uses a camera-mounted instrument to project a video of her vocal cords on a screen as she sings "eeee" in a compressed falsetto. The sound comes out full and clear, but there is noticeable swelling on her left cord. "I am disappointed to say it's not significantly improved," says Kessler. "Not enough to say we're on the right track."

Dahlia looks downcast. "It seems smaller to me," she says, "but it's definitely still there."

Kessler says a second opinion from a vocal surgeon will be required - as well as, finally, some singing. "You should sing today and not hold back. You want to be able to report, 'I have no limit, I'm pretty much there,' or, 'I'm not hitting the notes I used to.'"

The next morning, after a day spent rehearsing in her hotel room, brings good news for Dahlia. The surgeon, Lucian Sulica, suggests she could soon get back into touring form, with the right mix of vocal rest and vocal therapy -- the kind of formal training that the raspy-voiced singer admits to never having had prior to being signed at age 21 by Sylvia Rhone, recently named president of Epic, to Vested in Culture in June 2012.

"It's like learning to walk a different way," Dahlia says the next day, hours after her first therapy session. "I was starting to feel like I was training to be a monk - you have to be so f-ing quiet for so long."

Dahlia says she'll have to make some basic lifestyle changes as well. "I was going out a lot, not sleeping and not taking care of what my vocal therapist calls 'vocal hygiene,'" she admits. "I'm from a Cuban family, so we're used to talking really loud. You come to a Cuban restaurant anywhere in Miami and we're practically screaming at each other."

The positive turn of events is a relief to Rhone, who's so eager to get back to work on Dahlia -- one of the biggest 2014 priorities for a young imprint still finding its feet -- that she cuts short a meeting on a new Michael Jackson project to play Billboard selections from “My Garden” in her corner office. An early listen to the album finds a mix of grit and streetwise soul that puts Dahlia at the forefront, with her throaty, muscular vocals scraping the sugar off even the poppiest moments, like the should-be-smash "I Think I'm in Love Again" or the ethereal "Walk on Water."

Though Dahlia has several cuts with A-list producer-songwriters Salaam Remi and Rico Love and recently laid down vocals for rapper Future's upcoming album, there are no features planned for “My Garden.” "The music stands up on its own," says Rhone, who repeatedly stands up to wave her arms in time with Dahlia's beats. "She has a great sense of security -- she's an independent gangsta girl."

In light of Dr. Sulica's optimistic diagnosis, Dahlia will spend the next month shuttling between Miami, her hometown, and Los Angeles for more therapy and a return to the studio, before finally starting a proper promo tour for “My Garden.” A return to the stage is still in the works -- and Dahlia can't wait.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm still sitting in the dugout because I can't be out there playing right now," she says. "But there was a certainty today that I hadn't felt in a while. There were so many moments these past two weeks where I felt kind of closed off and just helpless. But today was a good day."

Dahlia realizes the Ice Cube reference she's just made, and repeats it, with extra swagger: "Today was a good day."