SassyBlack performs at The Mill on the first night of the festival. — photo courtesy of Middle of Nowhere Fest
SassyBlack (real name Cat Harris-White) is an artist in control of her own destiny. A singer with a warm, inviting voice, she also writes her own songs, produces her own music and even handles her own booking. As part of the duo TheeSatisfaction, SassyBlack collaborated with members of Shabazz Palaces and is a crucial contributor to the Seattle hip-hop scene. Her latest album, New Black Swing, is an original take on R&B, where mechanical beats get warmed up with lush synth chords and her warm vocal harmonies.
While SassyBlack identifies as a queer black artist, her music is not an expression of identity politics. Her main lyrical concern is with romantic love wherever it is to be found. While she works within the African American popular musical tradition, her music is futuristic, beyond divisive categories. Her new album is dominated by her voice, full of lush, multitracked harmonies. Her singing floats over spare, subtle, drum-heavy arrangements.
SassyBlack will be playing on Friday, Sept. 1 during the inaugural Middle of Nowhere Festival in Iowa City (which is sponsored in part by Little Village). Tickets for the weekend are $35; tickets for just SassyBlack’s show at The Mill are $12. I spoke with her by phone during her recent trip to perform in Los Angeles.
Have you been to Iowa or toured the Midwest?
Yes I have. I just played Daytrotter. I played the University of Iowa with my previous group [TheeSatisfaction]; I’ve been to Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, places like that.
Where did your interest in creating & performing your own music begin?
I’ve been writing since I was about ten years old. I come from a family of writers and creatives, in the sense they create their own platform for what they want to do. I’ve always been interested in creating so I wanted to find a way that I create something, and music was the first innate thing for me in terms of being able to create it … the first place I felt comfortable.
What do your parents do and how did they influence you?
They both work in a University, in different ways. They both worked in civil rights; they used to have a newspaper. They’ve worked in all different kinds of communities, and on television. They’ve worked in political campaigns. I think they’re multi-dimensional, visionary kind of folks that like to help people. I wouldn’t want to give them just one label, because where they are right now, my dad is a professor, my mom work for King County, in Seattle. Those are the jobs that they do but they do so much more.
Definitely a big influence.
Yes. They’re my parents [laughs]. Whether your parents are present or not present in your life it is going to affect all your decisions. They’re the people that literally brought you into the world.
On your Bandcamp page your photo shows your outstretched arm and you have a “Thriller” tattoo. What about [Michael Jackson] really influenced you or made you feel that close to him?
Everything. His creativity, his vulnerability, his oversharing, his lack of sharing, his artistry and perfectionism. Also his birthday was seven days after mine so he’s a Virgo, I’m a Leo Virgo; I identify with him like that. For most people, just his music was amazing, but learning his story and watching a lot and learning about people he worked with and how he worked, what he wanted to express — I was really inspired by that. Then I learned through him as well as some mistakes I don’t want to make as an artist.
How do you think your sound has changed between No More Weak Dates and New Black Swing?
It’s changed by the fact that I’m growing up. I don’t know; all my music changes from one piece to another, it’s a natural evolution. It’s like, “How do you think your work has changed from elementary school to middle school?” Or, “How do you think it’s changed from high school to college?” It’s just changed in in the sense that you have more life experience. You can refer back to the projects you’ve done in the past and see how well it’s done — what you want to change or don’t change about it. I guess it’s just evolving, not really a change. It’s just sounds like me to me.
Is New Black Swing all you sequencing on the computer? It sounds like there are some live guitar & trumpet.
It’s all me. It’s sounds I’ve researched. That’s what the New Jack Swing genre was like. I’m a hard core researcher so the music is going to reflect the research I’ve done. I’m glad it sounds like real guitar and horns because that what I was going for.
All projects are going to sound different. Like Quincy Jones or Michael or Stevie or Patrice Rushen. The instrumentation changes on what kind of expression you’re trying to get across. If you listen to any of my other projects, they all sound a little different. The sources I had in terms of actual instrumentation, or the resources I had in being able to communicate my thoughts with musicality. The thing that has most changed in this record is my ability to communicate the musical properties that live in my mind.
You feel more fluent; it comes out more direct?
Just like anything, it’s just learning a language.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews a love of science fiction. Do you have favorite authors?
Yeah I’ve read so many of his books. Love it. Those are in the emotional realm. Other stuff I read outside that are about psychology or law. But those are my go to.
You put out a beat tape based on *NSYNC samples. Was that a for fun project, or what were you intending with it?
I love making beats, I love *NSYNC, so that’s part of a series that’s going to continue over time. But I just wanted to sample *NSYNC. Ever since I was younger I was like, “Oh man, if I could just …” I didn’t even understand sampling, I was like 12 years old and thought, “If I could just have that section of the song and loop it, and sing and do other stuff over it that’d be so fun.”
So I took my childhood dreams and put them to use. I started playing with these songs I was so familiar with. And also it was an experiment so I could get better at sampling. People say, “Sample this! Sample that!” but it’s better to sample something you’re really familiar with because that’s how you get good at it. Once you spend time finding those pieces in songs you know it’s easier to find those songs you just come across.
You do your own publicity and booking. That’s a part of the business a lot of musicians hate. How does that fit in with your work as an artist?
I don’t do all of my publicity … Since last last year, it’s about 50-50 with my publicist, and together we get the work done. I still do all of my booking and management, but I’d like to get out of that. This is something that needs to be done! Before I had a publicist, if I wasn’t trying to do press releases, or not managing myself and waiting for somebody, I would be waiting forever, and I wouldn’t be that successful. I don’t have that privilege to just do that. I don’t identify in ways that might make it easier. As a black queer woman it just doesn’t come that easy, to just be scooped up.
The music that I do seems experimental but it’s mostly seen as experimental because I do it myself. If I had a producer I teamed up with it would be like, “Oh that’s cool, that’s a producer and vocalist; together they’re doing something different.” I think it’s extra because I do it all by myself. I’m a very proactive person; I always have been. Sometimes I would just like to be in the studio, but I know that my time will come if I just stay focused.
What bands are you a fan of that people might not know about?
I’m a really big fan of Heatwave, a band from the ‘70s and ‘80s. They spawned a lot of popular songs, like “Boogie Nights,” a disco classic, “Always and Forever,” which Luther Vandross then covered, which became huge for him, so much that people don’t know Heatwave did it. It spawned songwriters like [Heatwave keyboardist] Rod Temperton, who went on to write “Thriller” with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. [Heatwave] was an amazing talented crew of folks. Some of the members have passed away. But they’re a huge inspiration to me. Because they were not afraid to make music that was feel good and reflected who they were. They were never afraid to do that; they just let it go and let it shine. That’s really empowering for me and how I create music to this day.