Formerly one half of THEESatisfaction, Cat Harris-White is also SassyBlack and her new album is smart, funny, and painfully honest.
Photos by Mujale Chisebuka
“You wanna know about my worst-ever date?” says Cat Harris-White, a.k.a. SassyBlack, formerly one half of R&B/hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction. “OK. Hmm. Right. I’m gonna have to keep it very vague.”
Here are the specifics she can share: Cat was traveling from her home in Seattle to an unspecified East Coast city to perform a show, and a long-time flirtation offered her a place to stay, with (ahem) benefits. But after texting her possible-beau the day of her trip, possible-beau replied: “Oh, uh, you were coming *this* week? I didn’t realize...”
“But I’d screenshot our chats,” cackles Cat. “Because I’m kind of petty. So I was like, [crank voice], ‘Here’s the receipts!’ So they were like, ‘Alright, alright…’”
The exchange set the tone for a long weekend wherein possible-beau stood Cat up at the airport, ignoring texts and calls, and then directed Cat to drag her suitcases and equipment to a nearby bar only to discover possible-beau tying-one-on with their ex and explaining they were off to Boston the next day “because there’s nothing happening in the city this weekend,” but that Cat could totally crash at their apartment. Only they didn’t give Cat their keys, and then they missed their train back from Boston, so Cat was stranded without her gear, without her suitcase, and without a change of clothes.
“When they finally got back from Boston, they invited me to spend the final night of my stay with them,” adds Cat. “But I grabbed my stuff and booked an Airbnb, because even though I had no money I would rather go broke than be about them. And then they started sending me angry text messages…”
It’s hard to be a single woman in the city, looking for love, or even just somewhere to stay for the night. That’s the subtext of No More Weak Dates, Cat’s debut solo full-length as SassyBlack. Cat’s best-known as THEESatisfaction, alongside ex-partner Stasia Irons, whose sublime 2015 LP EarthEE blended Blade Runner funk, Zora Neale Hurston references, identity politics, and environmental concerns with rare skill. No More Weak Dates, by contrast, focuses on a single theme. A semi-autobiographical concept-album tackling the dating game from the perspective of a queer black woman, the album ricochets from the heady hopefulness of new love (“New Boo”), through the uncertainty and paranoia that follow when shit gets messy (“Circle Of Love,” “Mysterious Calls”), to the bleakness and cynicism that descend when the wheels finally come off (“Forest Of Desire,” “Secret Dreams Of A Baller”). It’s smart, funny, often painfully honest stuff.
“I was really nervous when making music with THEESatisfaction because I was seeking approval a lot,” she says, via Skype from her Seattle home. “My whole thing was, ‘I hope I don’t fail. I hope I don’t disappoint you.’” Her SassyBlack alter-ego, meanwhile, has proven a freeing experience, allowing her to tap into stuff she might struggle to express under her own name. “SassyBlack is totally a part of me,” she nods. “She allows me to be super-free, to say slick things, to be witty, in different ways. In THEESatisfaction, I was in a relationship with Stas—first a friendship, and then an actual ‘relationship.’ So if I was going through some stuff, some of it would come out in the music, but not a lot. It was complicated.”
Born in San Francisco, Cat relocated to Seattle as a kid, and grew up obsessing over Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, Tony Toni Tone’s The Revival, “Sunshower” by Dr Buzzard’s Savannah Band and “pretty much every Chic song”. By the age of five, she was writing and performing her own songs, and went to college in Seattle to study Vocal Jazz. It was there that she bumped into Stasia Irons, and the pair bonded over a shared love for jazz, old school hip-hop and neo-soul. “A lot of our friends weren’t really on that, you know?” she told me, in 2015. “They were listening to Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne… Which was cool! But we were trying to find some deeper sounding music. We connected on music first, and then developed a romance.”
The duo played around Seattle, and caught the ear of Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler, who had them appear on Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 debut full-length Black Up and their 2014 follow-up Lese Majesty, and introduced them to Sub Pop Records, who released THEESatisfaction’s two albums. A couple of weeks ago, however, the duo announced on their Tumblr page that the group was done, “after seven years of creating, touring, pushing boundaries and breaking through glass ceilings.”
“THEESatisfaction was a great learning experience,” says Cat now. “I was able to travel all over the world, get signed to Sub Pop and work with some amazingly talented people.” But, she says, the pair had “reached a point that, in order to continue growing, each individual needed to move on to the next phase in their career. For me, as a classically trained jazz vocalist, it felt like the right time. Being a solo artist and producer has always been something I wanted to explore.”
No More Weak Dates finds Cat putting her life “on blast, even if not everything on the album is entirely 100 percent my own personal story.” The process has been illuminating. “I realized, damn, I’ve been through a LOT,” she laughs. “Like, I’ve put myself out there a lot. And making this album has helped me date better. I have a hard time with it, and I hated dating for the longest time. Because of all the awful things that could happen, the nasty surprises.”
Those nasty surprises are the theme of one of the darker songs on the album. Set to eerie, mysterious synth-funk, “Circle Of Love” finds Cat wondering “How would you feel / If you found out new boo wasn’t so new to the crew?” and musing on the feelings of jealousy that can be provoked upon discovering a new lover’s sexual history. As Steve Malkmus once crooned, “You can never quarantine the past.”
“I’ve had some weird connections,” Cat says, of the inspiration for the song. “Like, I dated someone whose friend was my ex, and my ex used to tell her all about me when we were dating. You can’t escape this stuff. It’s a small world. We have this weird entitlement, this sense of ownership over our partners. But no, they own themselves, and they had lives before they met us. It’s hilarious, really.”
No More Weak Dates isn’t just a catalogue of romantic tribulations; the album also features romantic Tribbles (for non-nerds, tribbles are fluffy, purring, gentle creatures that feature in four episodes of Star Trek). “Comicon” is an erotic excursion wherein Cat develops a level of trust deep enough to take her new lover along to the Emerald City Comicon, where they’ll be “dressing like Klingons” and “participating in my sci-fi fantasies,” as Cat winks, “I bet you didn’t think you were chilling with a sexy Trekkie.”
“I’ve still not been to Comicon yet,” Cat admits. “So it’s partly a song about how I want to go, and what I want to happen there. I want to see Michael Dorn [the actor who plays heroic Klingon Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation] talk about what it was like to make the show, I wanna see all the props, blueprints, and costume designs… That would be a fantastic date-night for me. Mainly, I wanted to write a song that people of color, queer folk and other people who like soul music and might also like Star Trek could relate to… A psychedelic, soulful song, about how I could be Worf, and you could be Jadzia Dax…”
Part of Cat’s attraction to sci-fi culture—and Star Trek in particular—is its empathy with people of color and people who identify as queer. “I felt so free watching Star Trek, because even since the very first season there’s always been a black person, a woman,” she says. “So I always felt like I could identify with Star Trek. Even as a queer person… Jadzia Dax [a character from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine] was a Trill who slipped between genders; she was a man in a previous life. I feel very masculine and feminine in my being, and I feel like Jadzia Dax really captured that. She was really attractive to me, for her femininity and her masculinity, and she was constantly transitioning through life into different beings and different genders, and different races as well, different species. In fantasy and sci-fi, there is nothing to hold you back: you could be anything, a dragon, or a lamp. You could be *anything mystical and magical. There are so many boundaries on Earth, but in fantasy I get to be a hero. I could be Storm from X-Men, and get to change the weather, to control *everything. It’s super-powerful.”
Though many of its messages and stories are universal, Cat says No More Weak Dates is written explicitly from a black, queer perspective. “I wanted people to know who the album’s about, and it’s about me,” she says. “So it’s not about a white woman or a white man. Naw, it’s about me. There are a lot of universal aspects, like, you ask somebody out and they let you down, or you think everything’s fine but actually it’s kind of creepy. Everyone’s just looking for love. The differences come with dealing with being marginalized. I think the every day stress of being a black person, put on top of being a woman, and being queer… There’s constant stresses, and when I’m looking for a partner, I’m looking for someone who can be there for me, and be present for me, while I’m dealing with those things.
“I can go to a bar, and maybe I’m being ignored. Someone who’s not dealing with the constant forms of oppression and marginalization that I am, they won’t see what I’m going through. They’ll be, like, ‘Why are you so annoyed? Just be patient.’ And I’ll be, I’m patient, I’m patient all the time, come help me! In their world, that’s not the same thing.
“That’s why it’s important for me to be, like, ‘These are my experiences as a black queer woman.’ This is why I’m so cynical, why I’m being critical about this, that’s why I’m having these dilemmas. If you think about it through my lens, you really understand why… I’m just tired, I just need someone to lay down with right now, because it’s really hard to find a life-partner who will be able to understand everything I’m going through.”
Making the album has, Cat says, been a therapeutic experience. “Like I said, I learned a lot. Like, a lot of the time, when I’m dating, I’m all about, ‘Who do I need to be, to impress that other person?’ But the truth is, it also has to be about, What do I need, to be happy? What do I need to be feeling?” The describes the songs as dark and mysterious, and while there’s some serious stuff going in the lyrics, Sassy Black’s psychedelic soul—the squelchy, bedroom-eyed synthscapes—also make for a fine soundtrack for seduction. “There’s some very seductive songs on there,” she nods, grinning. “And then there’s some songs on there that are lyrically super-real, which might kill the mood. Maybe throw the instrumentals on.”
Her own personal make-out music, she says, would be “jazz instrumentals. I’m a jazzy cat. Or even soft-funk, like some Steve Arrington, some George Duke, maybe even some Herbie Hancock. A good, classy Herbie album, though, nothing too crazy. I’m shooting for being in their musical realm, where they have some stuff that rocks out or is crazy, and some stuff that is super-smooth, where you feel like, ‘If I put on this record, everything will be alright.’”
Is No More Weak Dates SassyBlack’s super-smooth album, or her crazy album? “At one point I thought it was gonna be my comedy album,” Cat laughs, “and when I perform it live, I tell a bunch of jokes between the songs. I don’t know… It’s a good album for if you want to have feelings. All the feelings.”
Sassy Black Tour Dates
6.3 The Lyric - Los Angeles, CA
6.8 Velvet Lounge - Washington DC
6.11 Gramps - Miami, FL
6.21 Bananas at Kaos Network - Los Angeles, CA
7.14 Holocene - Portland, OR
8.30-9.1 Pop Kultur - Berlin, Germany
Stevie Chick is a writer living in London. Follow him on Twitter.