See SassyBlack on Saturday, December 7, at the Clock-Out Lounge.
SassyBlack performs on Saturday, December 7, at the Clock-Out Lounge. TEXAS ISAIAH

Ever since starting out as a music/arts/culture writer, the Afrofuturist artist Catherine Harris-White, aka SassyBlack, has long been on my radar as someone I sought to cover and, eventually, interview. Harris-White’s musical alter ego makes space-age electronic soul that’s a breeding ground for radical self-love.

The unapologetically Black and queer artist who studied jazz vocals and graduated from Cornish College of the Arts works the same vein as Lizzo’s self-care-focused Coconut Oil. On Ancient Mahogany Gold, Harris-White’s new LP as SassyBlack, she sometimes flirts with the idea of having a partner, but the object of her affection and protection is usually herself. 

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I recently fulfilled my destiny and spent some time on the phone with Harris-White, discussing her evolution, her creative process, and the many opportunities she’s seized on her journey to becoming a successful, self-made independent artist, starting with her time as one-half of the hip-hop/soul duo THEESatisfaction.

“Oh gosh, so much has changed, because when THEESatisfaction started I was really young,” says SassyBlack. “I had just graduated from college and I was like 21 going on 22, and I was just like still super fresh. I had been training to perform and I was in bands, so I had already been performing a ton, but I wasn’t super confident about performing by myself because I always leaned on other people. And that’s a typical thing for a vocalist: to just kind of lean on other people to kind of highlight what you do. Especially because I don’t have an instrument besides the one that lives in my body.”

After two studio albums on Sub Pop, several mixtapes, and some stellar collaborations with Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction disbanded in 2016 in order to “rest, reflect, and grow independently.” Even while Stasia Irons, the other half of her music-duo-turned-romantic-partnership, continued recording as Stas THEE Boss, Harris-White emerged victorious from the ashes of a project she didn’t feel fully free to create in.

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“I always had kind of a unique voice,” she says, “but I was definitely following others’ ideas of me and focusing on what they needed for their project or what was needed for the group, versus what I just wanted to do. So now I’m very off in my own SassyBlack universe. You know how there’s a Marvel universe, and a Star Wars universe? I’m in a SassyBlack universe where all this kind of stuff happens. I mean, ever since THEESatisfaction ended... it was really hard to get on stage by myself, but now that’s like my jam. It’s just me. It’s the Me Show.” 

Harris-White’s scope of work is impressive. Since 2014, she’s released a project a year as SassyBlack: from the short missives Personal Sunlight and Me and Mines to the more expansive visions on No More Weak Dates and New Black Swing. In June 2018, she dropped another groovy stunner with Wakanda Funk Lounge, followed by Ancient Mahogany Gold, released this past September and represented by a gorgeous illustration of Harris-White’s face drawn by Wutang McDougal.

Ancient Mahogany Gold, entirely self-written and produced by Harris-White, is arguably her best work yet. While previous releases homed in on her geek-oriented interests like Star Trek and wanting to go on a date to Comic-Con, this new album is more introspective, basking in the almost infinite beauty of singlehood.

“I wanted it to be something a little closer and a little bit more vulnerable,” Harris-White says. “Even though I tend to be vulnerable, I wanted it to be more of a sensual conversation, more of an intimate conversation.” 

She begins the album singing soberly, “I have a feeling/That life has no meaning,” on “Left or Right,” proceeding to ask herself for direction (left or right?) and eventually reassuring herself that it’s going to be okay regardless of the path she chooses. 

While the album offers exactly zero features, Harris-White does tag a few friends for instrumentation. “Sweet Vibes” lives up to its title, featuring strings from Vaughan Octavia, while the crisp snaps and bass on “Ooh” set the stage for tabla player Javad Butah and some flute and melodica from Jovino Santos Neto (one of Harris-White’s former professors). And on “Antidote,” there’s some wonderful percussion from former M.I.A. drummer Madame Gandhi (the headliner for SassyBlack’s December 7 show at the Clock-Out Lounge).

Elsewhere on the album, there’s an encouraging, ironically upbeat pulse to “Depression,” with Harris-White melodically chanting “Dance, feel, heal repeat/Natural therapy” and then crooning “It’s so much better to know” with building intensity. In fact, Natural Therapy would be a great alternate title for Ancient Mahogany Gold. Listen to its repeated affirmations enough, and you’ll find yourself absentmindedly offering support to your neglected inner child with nurturing lyrical messages like “I love myself.” 

When asked about her process, Harris-White says, “Music for me is still very personal and it’s public. I love the music, and I love being on stage and stuff like that. I’m creating it for other people but it’s still my own healing process, and so I’m still a little sensitive to [having] some other people rapping and singing with me. So, we gon’ wait on that.

“And the thing is,” she continues, “I move in my own space. I’m not on a label, I’m on my own label, I do my own thing. I make my beats, I write my songs, I rap, I sing—I do whatever. ’Cause I have space and I have time, and I’m not in a rat race anymore. I’m just doing me. I’m not in any rush.”

In addition to making music and touring, Harris-White also teaches Ableton music production through a program at King County Library and has curated a plethora of shows in the Seattle area. She’s also made a few TV appearances in recent years, including a spot on Vinyl, the HBO series produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, and a small role on Broad City. There was no way I was going to let her off the phone without asking how the latter came to fruition during the show’s final season. Apparently, Harris-White has known Abbi and Ilana for a few years, ever since meeting them at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser in New York.

“It turned out that Abbi and Ilana were already fans of THEESatisfaction, so that was tight,” she says. “I waited a really long time because I cherish them, and I truly respect them. And I’m not a person who asks for a lot of favors, like I really have to believe that the ask is worth it. So it took me years to even get the confidence up, but I was like ‘Oh this is your final season. Can I just be a barista in the background of an episode please?’ And they’re like ‘Okay.’ And then they gave me like an actual role. Ilana was directing and I got to be in it with Abbi, and I was like, ‘You know, you didn’t have to do this.’ It was like the day after my birthday too—after I turned 32—so it was like the best day ever.”

Harris-White says what most people don’t know is that she’s been acting (mostly onstage) for a long time, but now that she’s appeared on screen, she says “I guess I need to start trying to act for real. Maybe I could get a role on a show.”

If that weren’t enough, Harris-White is looking for opportunities to work behind the camera too. She’s currently in the process of writing her first short film treatment.

Still happily and productively single, SassyBlack says she already has another project lined up, which she plans to release this winter. 

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“I’m in a hardcore relationship with me and my music and my creative side, and you know, [Ancient Mahogany Gold]’s really been able to bring a lot out of me.” she says. “I’m very focused, right? So this amount of time to not be in a long-term relationship with someone, is just really me deepening my connection with myself. But also like, really strengthening my ear, my intuition, and my gut.

“This next round of music is just gonna be stronger,” she continues. “Now it’s more of a direct phase of like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna build on that, this is gonna build on that, and that’s gonna build on that.’”

“At some point you gotta just leap. I tell my students and my clients, ‘There’s a space for us all in the world and in the universe, because there’s so many people in the world. You just need to find them.’ And thank goodness for the internet and all this technology... you can actually start finding them. But you have to find yourself first to be able to find them.”

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