Sexy, sly, soulful and full of heart. Catherine Harris-White’s new SassyBlack solo album, New Black Swing, is the young artist revealing and revelling in the most nuanced, real and complex version of herself yet.
Harris-White has recorded as SassyBlack for years. It was her moniker even when she was one-half of the Seattle-based hip-hop/R&B group THEESatisfaction (2008-2016), but it’s only on this record, her second full-length solo album, that she says she's owning the many dimensions of “adult SassyBlack.” New Black Swing celebrates Black, queer women, sex, relationships and self-love in all its forms. It’s also incredibly hot. With its sticky grooves and lush arrangements, it's one of the best get-down and get-busy records in recent memory.
CBC Music spoke with Harris-White via Skype about rebellion, making beats and being a Black, queer woman in America. She was also kind enough to take us track-by-track through New Black Swing. Scroll down for the interview and so that SassyBlack can take you through the album herself.
What was your headspace for writing and recording this record? It feels like you were feeling yourself, but I don’t know for sure.
[Laughs] Yes! It's just self-love central. I was feeling good about producing. I was producing every day, a beat a day, and I was just feeling like whoa, I actually know how to communicate what's up here [points to her head] into my computer. It just started making more sense and I was really excited and I was watching a lot of tutorials, so I was feeling myself. And I was on tour in September last year in Europe, and it was my first time touring Europe by myself and I was just like, whoa I did it! Somehow I did it.
I was talking to my family a lot about what we wanted it to sound like, what we loved about new jack swing, what made it new jack swing, our favourite artists and stuff. It was very insular, circles of people who I already know love the music. I've always wanted to do something like this and it felt like it was time. I was like, ‘I can do this! I feel confident in my musicality and my creative self to do this.’
I love journeys of people figuring themselves out and particularly I have this soft spot for real stories of triumph because it is still difficult for women to make it, especially as producers.
It took a while for me to feel confident to even call myself a producer. Even a singer for a while, but that was a long time ago. Like, I’ve been singing consistently since I was 14 or 13. I don't know. It's still kind of a bumpy ride. There are so many different aspects to being an artist. I'm still learning my balance. Even having done it professionally for 13 years and more in the public spectrum for six — it's interesting because you still always have to start at square one somewhere. There's always going to be people who don't know, no matter how much work you put in, and I don't want to be the kind of artist that already has all that because I think that's just too much for me personally. I think it's awesome for the pop stars that I love and adore and I will go to all their concerts, but I have to figure out what kind of artist I want to be, what kind of visibility do I want, what kind of private life do I want?
And also, what do I want to do creatively? Creative-wise, I'm just always planning and plotting on what the next step is. It can be kind of hard when you're trying to just make money off your craft. People are like, ‘I can't understand what this is,’ or ‘How is it going to translate?’ And I know a lot of the times it's because I'm a Black woman and they don't know me so they don't know, like, my charm, my little flair. [Smiles] They don't know about my corny jokes and how it makes people laugh and they're like, ‘Ah yes yes I love this SassyBlack show!’ They see a picture and I know they see tons of pictures, too, so I know it's not just me but they see this picture of this person and they're like, ‘How am I going to shop this? We’re having a hard time having this venue open we’re already have a hard time having attendance. Why would I risk it on this person?’
But I know there's a lot of other people though, male producers, white producers, who get up there and are like, boop boop [mimes pressing keys on a computer) and everyone’s like ‘Ahh! They’re amazing!’ And not to say that they're not amazing but it's more accessible to the mind I think, the way that things are systematically laid out, that you want to see that kind of artist. But I was just, like, people like people. They love people who are reflections of themselves and obviously people are going to identify with me because I'm a woman, because I’m queer, because I'm Black — either in all those categories or one or maybe just because they like Black people. [Laughs] Any of those things that play into it. It's just hard to crack the code.
There are a lot of issues around your safety in America as a Black, queer woman, and yet this record feels so much like a celebration of being Black, queer and a woman. Is New Black Swing a sort of resistance to the realities of America right now?
Yeah, and it's like my own rebellion because I create to heal myself and what I'm going through. It's like every day it’s increasingly difficult to watch anything or go outside. Everything is a trigger. I was very sensitive as a person before and now it's like we have very thick layers of skin because you have to hear it all the time. You're consuming it all the way from your laptop and the radio and the newspapers and walking on the street. The conversation, you're always absorbing it. So you have to have thick skin to not offhandedly respond, but you actually have thin skin, it's just building up because you're not responding. So I have to deal with it in some way. And I used to do more marches and protesting and stuff like that. I don't do it as much anymore just because my energy levels, I just can't permit that feeling. But I support folks who do that. So for me now, after years of doing that, I'm spending all this time creating and trying to put the energy into my music.
Track-by-track guide to New Black Swing
"‘Games’ is one of my favourite songs. I mean, I love all my songs right now. I really love this song because it's so catchy and poppy and I've always wanted to write something like that. I was making a beat a day, which is how all my projects have been started recently. I got up and I was thinking about this new jack swing album so I was just looking through my synths, because I know all my floaty synths already and which ones I love. So I played it and I get the effects on it, and I just get the first, ‘Laaaa,’ the first couple chords on it, and then I just started singing it.
"My lyrics come as I produce. So it's made up like a couple of chord progressions and it was just going on a loop. I started singing the lyrics and they just came, ‘Why you treat me like this?’ New jack swing and I'm thinking about R&B, and it's always like, I can love you better, you're the one, or heartbreak, like you could be the one! Or, there's just desperation: oh my God, why did you even do this to me? But it’s not really confrontational, just like, ‘Why? Oh, I guess that’s love!’ Doot doot do do do!’" [Does a little dance.]
2. ‘Passion Paradise’
"This is my super seductive song. I don’t really write a lot of songs straight-up about sex at all. I didn't want to just be out there and being like ‘Yeah!,’ real raunchy. I think about a lot of seductresses, like, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick and a lot of soulful R&B artists that just have this way of being, like, ‘Hey girl. Come over here to my wonderland.’ I wanted to have a sex song that maybe people could play [laughs]. I might have one or two others, but I don’t have a whole, like, ‘Hey, let me put on this SassyBlack and get the mood right.’"
"I love pop songs, I love R&B songs but it's so funny — well it's funny and also just awful how aggressive a lot of them are. [Laughs] I love it, but it’s also terrible right? Like a lot of songs are like, [sings] ‘She’s gonna get it, she don't have no choice.’ What the hell is this lyric? What is this? It's actually terrible. Or like, [sings] ‘She doesn't even know how good it's gonna be.’ Like, how come we can’t know? Why can't we inform them? It's just super aggressive and stuff. So, I wanted to make something that was like, ‘Hey, I know because you have told me verbally that you won’t be satisfied if I'm not around and I understand that.’ It's more of a conversation instead of ‘I already know what you need and what you want.’ This is, ‘No, I understand because we talk a lot, we're really good at communicating, and I just want to make sure that you have the things that you have because I know what you might need because you told me.’"
4. ‘I'll Wait for You’
"The fun thing about this is the complexities and the intricacies of love instead of just saying it's like one way or another. If you are in an argument with your lover or whatever and you're like, ‘I’m going to give you some space. I know you're going through some stuff.’ And you need space too and you're going through your own stuff. But then at the end you know you remember why you love them and you’re looking forward to the other side of it."
"I mean obviously electronic feels but something that could have a live aspect to it. ‘Wild’ is, again, that infatuation. It’s such an interesting term. ‘That person, they drive me wild.’ But truly, being older now, I know about that feeling. Someone’s just driving you to your most pure instincts, right? Like, I'm like an animal in the forest for you, I'm going to go and get this antelope and tear it to shreds for you. That might be a little too intense [laughs].... But I didn't want it to be like a hardcore-sounding song, it's a sweet song. I'm not normally anywhere near wild but for you, I am wild."
6. ‘What We Gonna Do’
[Laughs] "I giggle before every song. Make sure you write that in. I always wanted to be in a girl group because of TLC and SWV and Zhané and En Vogue. I wanted to be in it because I was like, ‘Yes, these beautiful Black women’s bodies are coming to give you the business.’ Even Destiny's Child and Blaque and Diana Ross and the Supremes, all these groups, just, oooh, seductive! But, like, also classy and all these different levels. When I was making this, like even the freakiest Boyz II Men song, just trying to bring that to life without being too vulgar.
"It’s taking a step for me, because I haven’t written songs like that, that I would perform in front of people yet. When I heard this, I was like, this is a good record. As long as this is on there, the whole album will be fine."
7. ‘Watching You’
"The shape of the album, we just kind of get you in softly. The soft synths of ‘Games’ and then you’re starting to learn, like, oh, she’s a little different than we thought. She plays it real innocent at the beginning, then we get ‘Wild.’ And then ‘Watching You,’ you’re like, ‘Dang! She be up to stuff!’ This is the many dimensions of adult SassyBlack.
"Sometimes when we’re talking about ‘watching you,’ well, there's just different levels to watching. My friends are like, ‘This is your stalker song,’ but I'm not stalking anybody! I'm talking to them at the beginning and at the end and you could clearly see that I'm having a conversation. But I also just really want to write a catchy song about a couple crushing."
"There's this song and another song on the record that are beats made from different times and are incorporated into one another. This is a song that I was making two different messages and I wanted them to go together. It took me a very long time to write lyrics because I was like, this beat sounds kind of crazy, but I wanted it to sound like that. I wanted it to sound like people were working out in a warehouse. [Laughs]
"I don't even understand why that would make sense, but there's some weird warehouse in an industrial neighbourhood where people knock and there's code to come in and someone’s doing kickboxing and others are playing instruments, too. It's just about how you walk through relationships sometimes that have no purpose and we just stick with it. But the idea of change is heavy. Like, since I'm so used to this life, please don't change it 'cause to change it is now I have to deal with a different thing."
"I like leaving my records on an up note now. It's so important to me, if you can, depending on what kind of record it is. But I wanted to leave this upbeat because we've been on all these different places. My past records, because of where I've been in my life, there's different overtones. For this one, though, it's about a mantra I share with myself, that I am worthy. As artists, as women, as queer folk, as people of colour, as Black folks, all these different categories of people that exist in the world, you just get down on yourselves and you're like, ‘I am not worth anything. I have no purpose here. I have no reason to be here.’
"But there is value to everyone and you just have to find it... I hope I can see a kids choir sing it some day. [Laughs] So they can feel like they’re worthy and they have purpose, that would warm my heart. I just advocate for self-love and care and no matter all this other stuff that you're going through. Yes. You might want somebody who don't want you. They might have broken your heart, you might just be excited. They might love you and you're all good. But at the end of the day, you just have to remember your own value, with or without this person, in this world and in yourself."
Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner