‘Hella weird, hella fine’: Solo jazz diva SassyBlack on her new sci-fi funk jams
The Seattle musician talks about her latest album, self love and influences from Comic Con to Chaka Khan.
Catherine Harris-White isn’t giving up on love songs. But for the moment, the singer is focused on giving herself love rather than trying to find it. Better known by her solo diva moniker, SassyBlack, the Seattle musician, who calls herself an “afrofuturist,” cites influences from sci-fi to jazz songstress Sarah Vaughan.
On her new album, Ancient Mahogany Gold (releasing Friday), she looks within and discovers a new sort of romantic muse — her geeky, jazzy, queer self.
“I’ve been working on giving myself to myself in entirety,” she says. “I want there to be goodness for me and I want there to be good for others. Thinking about that has been momentous.”
Her new album reflects a balancing act. On one hand there is the very human craving to love and be loved; on the other is the reality that only you can love yourself the way you should be loved.
It’s an existential dilemma she explores lyrically in the single “Do It”:
You lookin’ good, you’re/ Lookin’ great/ But I won’t, I won’t/ Cause I love me/ More than you/ Could ever
The 11-song album presents an introspective side of SassyBlack. It’s a thematic leap from her 2016 debut album, No More Weak Dates, which centered on the tribulations of dating and the emotional weight such interactions carry.
Ancient arrives just in time for Seattle’s moody gray skies and showers. With a focus on healing, self-love and Black excellence, her signature celestial sounds, funky beats and soulful vocals might help hopeless romantics learn to love themselves through the autumn gloom.
Crosscut caught up with SassyBlack to talk about healing through music, smoking cannabis for inspiration and the legendary Black excellence of Ella Fitzgerald.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
It’s been two years since your last album, New Black Swing. What have you experienced since then that shaped the tone of your new album?
I think finally stepping strongly into who I am as an artist really impacted the way this record sounded. This is my third album. I just turned 33 — I didn’t even put all those things together until this moment. I’m stepping further into my creative expression. It’s like with any language. I’m finally getting a little more fluent so I can express myself more clearly. Ancient is a testament to that. I was just learning how to be myself for a long time.
Ancient Mahogany Gold focuses on self-love and putting yourself first, as opposed to the journey of dating or finding a romantic partner. What made you realize this was the direction you wanted to go?
I just grew up. For a lot of people love is like the thing. You're supposed to fall in love. That’s all we’re fed. I was going through a lot of issues with dating. I was just tired of it. New Black Swing is all about hooking up, meeting somebody, telling them how it is, dancing at the party. My diva, sultry, jazzy, R&B self needed that outlet and wanted to talk about all the dating stuff. Ancient is about self-value, self-love and preservation. There’s more to life than dating someone and marrying someone and feeling that outside love. How do I value myself? What do I really think of the world, and what's happening?
Does this mean you’re done with romantic love songs?
Oh hell no. That’s impossible. I'm not going to say I’m a helpless romantic because I'm not helpless, but I love romance. I love loving people. It’s funny, I always say I don't like people, but I love them. People as a concept are kind of boring and terrible, but I love them because of the intricacies and complexities of them and the complexities of attempting to love, platonically loving people for their existence. But no. I'm writing so many love songs, it’s silly.
You’ve said in the past you like to do research when working on a new album. What research did you do this time?
Yeah, I’ve been studying a lot of stuff. Like mindset and how our energy can change what comes about in life. Everything is the law of attraction. Everything in the universe is an exchange of ideas and energy — that's just existence. I was just so fascinated about our minds and how they work in changing up the energy.
What lessons have you learned working on your previous two albums that you brought with you this time?
I learned patience and diligence, and I also learned what type of creator I am, which is sporadic. I’m going to chalk it up to my star signs. I’m Leo and Virgo right on the cusp. Leos are loyal but they’re lions, they’re wild, all over the place. They have their regimens and routines, but they don't want to be tamed. Beyoncé is a Virgo; [there’s] a certain height of perfectionism and excellence. I realized I love being alone because that's when I get to my weirdest instance and that's when I hear those magic sounds and really listen to the music.
What’s it like seeing the rise of Black women like Cardi B, Lizzo and Beyoncé in pop music?
It’s interesting because the record industry and record labels were based off of exploiting Black women, and it still goes on. It’s really exciting to see all these amazing artists do their thing, but at the same time those women have no privacy. They post one thing and one person is already waiting to screenshot and exploit them even further.
Where does your music fit (or not fit) in the realm of Black music queens?
I don’t know. I’m just hella weird, hella fine and Imma do it my way. I liken my voice more to jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan. Ella Fitzgerald was one of my biggest inspirations in terms of trying to sing. Now I'm very inspired by Chaka Khan. I don't know where to fit in. It’s not even about that; it’s just about being. That’s most of the journey.
What does your perspective as a queer Black woman bring to your music that differs from that of other musicians?
I’ll be real. I have love-loved a man and love-loved a woman openly and I understand my love comes through expression and feeling, and not through gender or gender expression. I think that makes everything different. Because if you're in the confines of your gender and you’re in the confines that your partner can only look a certain way, then that's going to change how your expression comes out. So I think that’s what I bring to it, that freedom.
Where did the name Ancient Mahogany Gold come from?
I was sampling a cover of an Andre 3000 song by this Norwegian group. I started working on it and I just said the word. It just came to me. Being from jazz, I improv a lot. You sing stuff that rhymes and Ancient Mahogany Gold came out and I was like, “That's something bigger, that's good enough for a title. I’m going to have to work that into something.”
Which track would you say tells listeners the most about where you’re coming from on this album?
It’s hard. There's a couple of songs. This album is very cinematic. It's like reading a book; it’s like a story. It shakes you up at times. “Left or Right” is a good example. “Do It” is a good example. I was really intentional about all the songs being able to reflect into the other songs so they can all explain each other. “Black Excellence” is so special to me. It’s like my real sci-fi funk jam. It is just dedicated to Blackness. I don't have a lot of songs that I just dedicate to being Black.
Ancient Mahogany Gold is being released in conjunction with a cannabis strain of the same name. What’s the story behind that?
I wanted to start doing pairings with the records I release. This one just came together really well. I met the folks at Heylo [a cannabis strain developer]. They were very cool, chill people. I just asked them. It was kind of divine. The first one I tried was the most golden oil and matches my hair, which is hilarious. It’s a sativa, clear thinking, just like how I wanted it to be.
Does cannabis play a part in your creative process?
I vape a bunch and smoke a bunch. It's something creative that keeps me going. It helps calm down some of my anxieties and that voice that [tells me] I can't do stuff and helps to remind me I’m still capable. It allows [my creative time] to be the most positive funky time.
You’re playing two shows at this year’s Geek Girl Con — which isn’t a gig every hip-hop artist gets. Is this a first for you?
Yes, it’s my first Geek Girl Con. I did Comic Con like a year ago. I just made up stuff at the show, a Star Trek deep space jam for nine minutes and just me talking about all the seasons. And, of course, I performed some songs from my Wakanda Funk Lounge EP.
What appeals to you about playing a show for “geeky” women? How is your music a good fit for this crowd?
I’ve been tapping into more of my sci-fi influence. I used to be ashamed of it. I just felt teased. I didn’t feel secure in it, so Comic Con was a big step. I’m really excited for Geek Girl Con and glad they recognized me as a geek girl. It’s going to get hella weird, it’s going to be super soulful and funky. I don’t think people would associate Cons with R&B or jazz or hip-hop, but I’m also like, why not? We have assumptions about everything — that sci-fi isn’t hip-hop and hip-hop isn’t sci-fi. I love to see that connection and support it so they can help expand their mind around music in general. I hate when people are like, “I hate jazz.” Why? You haven’t heard all the jazz. If you’re only in one realm, you’re missing out on a lot of different opportunities to express yourself and heal.
Ancient Mahogany Gold is SassyBlack's third full-length album. (Photo by Texas Isaiah, Courtesy of SassyBlack)