From top: Catherine Harris White; Mike McGrath Bryan
Catherine Harris-White, classically-trained singer and composer, formerly of Sub Pop-signed soul outfit THEESatisfaction, currently performs solo under the pseudonym of SassyBlack, a purveyor of what she calls “electronic, psychedelic soul” and “hologram funk”.
Before her only Irish appearance on her current European tour next Saturday at AMP in Cork, and in the first of a new arts interview series, Catherine tells Mike McGrath Bryan, from the ‘sheet’s music desk, about her new album, the creative process, and more.
Mike McGrath Bryan: “You’re just off the back of the release of your debut solo album No More Weak Dates, back in May. How have you found the reaction to it thus far?
Catherine Harris White: “The response for my album has been really positive. People seem to really dig it, as well as relate to it, which is what I really wanted for the record. It was a new experience to create an album on my own and I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor.
Mike: There’ve been comparisons made in certain quarters with yourself and some of the greats: Ella, Erykah Badu, etc. and there are certainly cases to be made for same. But your production and songcraft is so out there, so sci-fi, in places. How do you handle all the heady talk, first off, and can you go a little into detail on fitting that classic jazz/soul voice into your own soundscape?
Catherine: Those are some great comparisons, and I am honored by them. I love space. I love to explore sounds and their meanings. I find it comical when listeners are overwhelmed by my compositions. It makes me giggle because I got them to feel an emotion, and maybe some discomfort that in the end most really enjoy. I am here to entrance, to bring you on a journey. I’m a story teller, so whether through production or my vocal expression, a story will be communicated. That’s what SassyBlack is here for.
As for my vocalizing, it’s really easy for me to sing over my production. The melody, beat and lyrics come together pretty much simultaneously. Jazz is one of the freest expressions I have. The variation of styles within it ranging from bebop to swing to straight ahead to free jazz itself, is inspiring and leaves space for my voice to truly thrive.
Mike: Your previous outfit, THEESatisfaction, and your work with Shabazz Palaces, all released on Sub Pop. How did it all come to pass, and compare/contrast working with the (relative) security of a label and releasing independently?
Catherine: Working w/ Sub Pop was something celestial. It still feels like a dream. They noticed the group because of all the work THEESatisfaction was doing. We were just making that much noise in Seattle, people couldn’t ignore it. Shabazz & THEESat made space for a lot of similar sounding groups that were pushing the envelope in the city and Sub Pop recognized it.
While I do miss working with a label, the adrenaline rush of making what you have work is refreshing. It keeps me going because I have to keep going, there’s no other option. If I want to reach a certain level in my career I have to make it happen because no one else is going to do it for me. It helps to keep my eternal flame fueled and lit.
Mike: Moving into assuming the name SassyBlack, what were the biggest changes for you, working solo and independently, both in terms of creativity/”the process”, and in terms of logistics with recording/touring?
Catherine: The biggest change for me was trusting myself. I am used to bouncing my ideas off of someone else, looking for some sort of confirmation that I am doing the right thing. Working on my own, there is not much room for self doubt, so I trust my instincts. If the music feels good today and tomorrow and a week from now and it makes me feel a special joy, I know that song is worth focusing on. Especially if I hear it and forgot I made the song, that’s when I know it’s right.
Recording is much easier. I have been in studios recording since I was 14 when I was in choir, so I am very familiar with how to create the feeling I want. Touring is waaayy easier. It’s just me right now. Me and my laptop and controller. I should give them some names by now, maybe Gina & Maxine. They are sassy like me, and need to be treated a certain way to perform at their top levels. So I try to speak kindly to them and make sure they have time to rest.
Mike: The album was preceded by a few EPs and a single in the years prior, including a diversified Christmas EP entitled Blackest Winter. How was it to take ideas and concepts and put them out there in more concise packages on an ongoing basis, compared to the established album cycles?
Catherine: I want to be a perfectionist but something between my Leo and Virgo self will not allow that. So I spend a lot of time creating (music, writings, hats) and they don’t go anywhere but to a folder or a playlist on my phone. The projects I have released are a small portion of the works I create which I think it the case with a lot of musicians. Honestly I want to & will be releasing more music throughout a 12 month span. I have so many feelings and situations I am working through, and I’m constantly changing, so I feel like my music should reflect that.
Mike: No More Weak Dates, as mentioned, released earlier in the year, and was entirely self-produced, composed and performed. What was the process of doing so like, and how do you direct someone in mixing and mastering your work after being so involved up to that point?
Catherine: It was a very interactive, vulnerable experience. I had never worked with my mixing engineer Sam Anderson before. We had played festivals and shows around the city together in our respective bands in the past but never hung out or anything like that. He reached out to me about singing on a song and I dug his vibe, so I asked if he would mix what was then a small EP. He agreed and the EP grew into an album.
My creative process has been so private, almost too private because then I wouldn’t share it or play my music for anyone. Music is a spiritual and intimate experience for me so to share that is to share my rawest self, flaws and all. When working with Sam, we both had to be patient to learn how to communicate with one another. Listening was a must. Also we had to become friends. He knows me in a special way, because he has heard my music in its purest form and was open to it, and I allowed space in my spirit for his criticism and opinions on my soul.
Mike: New Boo came with an accompanying short film, can you take us a little through the concept and production?
Catherine: I was blessed to work with a few kind folks who believed in my sound and visual. Melany Bell, Joey Dunn & Dave Wilson are special, patient people. It came together incredibly organically. Dave, Joey and I got together with some rough ideas Dave had for the song and we brainstormed. Once we had the idea of compiling many dating interactions into one experience at a friends event, things began to fall into place with ease. I did all the casting to match the personas we discussed. The process and short are a new space for me which I will continue to venture into.
Mike: You’re heading on your first European excursion this autumn, including a Cork stop – what are your thoughts before heading out on the road?
Catherine: I am excited and nervous. My career as SassyBlack has me traveling often on my own and I love it. It’s also reaffirming. I work really hard and feeling that people see my work is inspiring. I’m actually on the plane to Berlin right now, thinking about the beginning of this grand adventure. I’m really excited to see what the audiences will be like.