Her bio states, "SassyBlack is a space aged singer, songwriter & producer," and that is a great starting point in digging into her career, one that also includes the titles of freelance writer, entrepreneur, and actor. Catherine ("Cat") Harris-White came to many folk's attention as a member of THEESatisfaction, a Seattle-based hip-hop/R&B duo signed to Sub Pop Records. After that band, her solo career as SassyBlack yielded the albums No More Weak Dates and New Black Swing, as well as a plethora of online releases. SassyBlack and I were on a panel together in Seattle for the Upstream Music Fest and met up the next day to talk about making music and staying creative.
I gather that you went to school for voice?
Yeah, jazz vocals.
When did you first start getting into recording?
The first time I actually went to a studio was when my dad took me. I was 13 or 14. When I moved to Seattle from Hawaii, I wrote my first song within the first couple of weeks I was here. A complete song. Verse, chorus, bridge; all complete to the end. I wrote it. Every time I read the lines, I could remember how the melody went. I'd been telling my family I wanted to do music. My dad was trying to get me into acting, because I was doing Shakespeare when I was younger. When I was around 13 or 14, he was doing something with KCTS [public television]. He was one of the producers of this little show that only had a couple of episodes called Dig It. They needed some kid extras, so he found a way for me to be in it. The people who did the song for it had a studio, and my dad wanted to introduce me to them. He thought perhaps I could learn something from them. I was like, "Oh, my god; I'm in a studio. Look at this stuff!" The first time I went to record in the studio, I think I was 16 or something, and it was with my choir in high school. That was weird; I did my first solo, which got cut because they didn't like it. They didn't tell me; I found out when I heard the CD. Really getting into studio was when I was in college. I first started tinkering around with GarageBand and trying to record ideas. Mostly I was vocalizing, because I wasn't really comfortable with instrumentation or how to record it, but I knew I could just sing into my black MacBook.
The little built-in mic?
Yeah. That was the first time I experimented. I tried all these programs until I got to Ableton Live, which was really my comfort zone.
Is that the one that opened up for you, as far as composing?
Before I tried to use Finale, because I was trying to chart songs. That's what they taught me when I was studying as a jazz vocalist. They want you to do charts. That was the only audio workspace that I knew.
Where it's a mock-up of the charts?
Yeah, totally. You play it and it charts everything for you. It's so hard.
It doesn't sound musical, a lot of the time. It plays samples where the notes are.
Yeah. Especially if I'm uncomfortable with some of it. "How long is this note? Is it a quarter note? Eighth note?" That was the first time I even did anything with something similar to a DAW before I got into GarageBand. Ableton was the most challenging, and the most comforting at the same time. I tried working with [Propellerhead Software's] Reason. I liked the drum sequencer, because it felt so simple. "Just tweak this here and here." I loved the way it was formatted. That was really all that I liked though. The songs were complicated, and how to use it was weird. I liked Ableton because I was able to play tracks forever. When I first started using it, I made these weird 10-minute songs where I'd layer over it, and over and over again.
Because it's built to loop, it's like, "When does the song stop?"
Exactly. Before I was using it in Arrangement View, not Session View. Arrangement View is limitless, like Pro Tools. You're just running a track. It took me a couple of years to learn the Session View. It's challenging, but also exciting. Most people I was working with weren't working with Ableton, and when I asked people to teach me how to use programs, they didn't.
They didn't know?
I think they didn't know how to teach me, so they said, "No." My younger brother [Chocolate Chuck] made beats longer than I did. He helped me a lot in the beginning. He's been producing since he was 14. When I was getting into singing a couple of years later, he was focusing on DJing and producing. He was using FL Studio.
Formerly Fruity Loops.
Exactly. I've never tinkered with it.
It's like using an instrument, using one of these DAWs or programs. If I try to learn another one, it's going to take all this time. I want to be creative.
It's stressful. I spent so much time learning Ableton. I know the people at Ableton, and they support me. Ableton has all the functionality. Eventually I want to be able to do visuals triggered by my music. Even the idea of [Propellerhead Software's] ReWire, where you can bring in another DAW; wow, cool. That's why I love Ableton. They're pushing it. I got Pro Tools because it came with my first M-Audio interface. I was like, "Oh, sweet. What's an audio interface? What is Pro Tools?" When I was doing the early engineering for THEESatisfaction, we had a bootleg of Reason and this tiny, cute version of Pro Tools. Stasia ["Stas" Irons] was making all the beats in Reason. Then I'd record it into Pro Tools and mix it down with whatever I knew, which wasn't anything.
Were you two doing all of your own recording, editing, and mixing in that band?
We did for Snow Motion and That's Weird, our first mixtapes. I was mostly like, "Yo, we have to get it out." It's not even about sounding great; it's about trying it out, doing something new, and releasing it. I'm also like a control freak. "Let's just do it here. This sounds decent."
You've grown along the way too, as far as equipment and understanding about different audio interfaces, as well as the quality they bring, right?
Yeah. Right now I use a [Native Instruments] Komplete audio interface that was recommended to me by my friend King Britt. With THEESatisfaction, for a long time we didn't realize that you should have an audio interface if you're running something in a computer.
You'd plug into the 1/8-inch jacks on a computer?
Yes. First we were running it through iTunes. We had no idea, so we didn't even think to ask, "We've got gigs. Let's do it like this." We'd bounce out the tracks and put it in iTunes. Then we realized that iTunes has limiters built in that will disrupt your groove, and it won't make the best quality for a live performance. You only find that out from talking to people. Luckily, I made a lot of friends along the way. I had to put my ego aside and realize they aren't trying to insult me; rather they are truly trying to help me be a better artist. When King Britt recommended that Komplete [setup], we were on tour in Europe and we had a laptop. We kept hearing this "pop." It's because the 1/8-inch cable was jumping out of the jack because the bass was too bangin'. A friend of our agent's at the time was like, "You should use an audio interface." I had him break it down for me, and then I asked King Britt. I use it to record and perform. It's got six inputs. It has everything I need. I love the big knob volume control, because then I know what's going on. Instead of all these tiny ones where you might turn the wrong one.
Were you using that onstage last night?
Yeah. I use it all the time. I love Native Instruments, and I love how Ableton and Native Instruments work together; but it took a while to figure that out.
Did you get your set more flexible where you could hit pause and such?
Well, THEESatisfaction didn't really talk. We mostly danced around or did choreography. We didn't really touch the laptop at all. It was about movement and no talking - just performing. Now, with me, I run everything through Ableton Live. I trigger it, and I have live arrangements that I do. I rarely play anything directly live, because I'm still working on it. Last night I did. It was on my Roland.
Was that the little outboard controller you have going?
Yeah. I have a Roland keyboard on stage, a JD-Xi, and I've been recording songs into that. That was super fun.
What was the mix surface you were using?
I was doing some distortion on my Ableton Push 2; my other controller. I was mostly checking the levels and making sure levels weren't peaking. Some of those songs were so new that I hadn't really mixed them.
They hadn't really been "tracked," right?
Yeah. The backup vocals were so raw. Typically, I sing them one time, or however many times that day, and get the right one. I put on some reverb and delay, and that's good enough. But they're not always equal on both sides, or both sections of the song.
There's the recording and the creation of the song, they appear live on stage. The performing and tweaking of the song is all a flow and a process. It's not like this live show and the studio session are totally separate.
Yeah. I get really excited about songs. I have so many songs I've performed along the way where I just go, "Nah, I'm not feeling this anymore." I take them out, and then they're sitting there unfinished. I record a lot of my sets; I'll make up lyrics and get in the vibe. I see how it changes, and then, "Oh cool, I finally have the right lyrics for that." I need to remember how I sang it, so I can do it in the studio.
The common perception of someone performing solo with a computer on stage is that you hit a button and have to sing along with it. You're still in a flux of creativity. It's awesome to think of it that way.
Thanks. It's really interesting. I'm definitely still growing as an artist. I learn so much. I go to so many panels. I watch so many videos. I need to watch more YouTube tutorials. I have what I call my "Ableton gurus." I have people who work with all kinds of gear, and I can tell them, "Hey, I'm trying to loop these vocals. What would you suggest, in terms of gear, with your experience or your knowledge?" That's been awesome. I used to play tracks, but I want something different. I want to be able to do something more interactive. I studied acting; I can command the stage. It's not a big deal.
You seem really comfortable on stage.
I've been on stages since I was a little girl. My parents did that, so it's not far from me. I wanted to do something more interactive, because I wanted to be able to play. Last night was really cool, because it's the second or third time I've jammed on my Roland in front of people. "Look at me. I'm pressing three keys!" Eventually I'll play chords and bring my sustain pedal out. That might lead to a day where I have two keyboards on stage.
Do you ever do live collaborations with other musicians?
I did the Capitol Hill Block Party a couple of years ago. I had a DJ, a live drummer, and a guest rapper come up. In Portland a couple of months ago, I had someone come play upright bass, and I did a cover. It's finding the time to rehearse, at that point.
With all your traveling, are you writing a lot on the road?
I try. Sometimes I go on binges. Right now I'm in the process of building a team so that I don't have to do as much. I just got an assistant. I got an agent, and I'm working on my next album right now. I have to set everything up. Hopefully by the end of the year I'll have my home setup, versus my tour setup. I don't always have lyrics for everything, so I freestyle, or scat, or tell jokes in a sing-songy way.
What's the process for you, once you've tracked at home and fine-tuned them? Are you mixing yourself on the upcoming record, or are you sending out tracks for players to put overdubs on?
For right now, I'm doing a project a month, which is crazy. It's stress I placed on myself. Each project is about four tracks, so it's not crazy. They run about 15-minutes long, max. Most of them have been sample-based projects, which is fun. This year I came out with a brand new one, a Destiny's Child one.
You're sampling Destiny's Child and rebuilding tracks out of it?
Yeah. It's called Pop Treasury.
I saw that. The first one was NSYNC?
Yeah, that's how it started. I don't want to hide the fact that I sampled them. [I want people] to be able to see my inspiration from the artists I love.
Where's the legal ground on something like that?
I don't make enough money. With THEESatisfaction, we had something called THEESatisfaction Loves. So THEESatisfaction Loves Stevie Wonder, THEESatisfaction Loves Erykah Badu. The Erykah Badu one led to us opening for her - she liked it. When I did the NSYNC one, Chris [Kirkpatrick] from NSYNC retweeted it. If I was to get sued, I feel like I'd be pretty successful. I'm not going to lie. "Wow, you actually heard this? This is actually a threat to you? This is something I've made."
There's the Fair Use doctrine that says if you're making social commentary on something like that, you might be okay. You're reconfiguring it to look at it a different way.
That's interesting. I hope that works in my favor.
Have you ever thought about building a dedicated space for creating?
I'm in the process. I have two Rolands, an ARP, and a Yamaha. I try to figure out what I need. I like the "tear it down and pull it up" [process]. It trains my brain, because I'm on tour all the time.
You've gotta be quick when you set up on stage.
Yeah, especially for festivals. Then knowing all the cords that you need and not forgetting anything. I do hope to have a permanent setup. I want to do that. I want to get dual gear. I'll be honest; I don't even know what creating would be like if I had that now.
You don't want to impede creativity. When we find ourselves updating software or plugging cables together, it slows everything down.
Yeah. It definitely does for me. I'm hoping I can get that kind of setup going. It'd also be nice to have my gear stay packed, because I travel so much.
Hey, we both travel a lot. I have a toiletry kit and a bag ready to go. It's the same with music gear. You gotta be ready to hit the road. I can't spend half a day packing anymore. I've got to turn around and go somewhere.
It will be useful to have that kind of setup going on. I'm like many tech people or artists.
Have you done much work producing others?
I'm working on it. I've been asked by a couple of people. I'm working with this one artist, Thalma de Freitas. She's from Brazil and lives in L.A. right now. We've been working on something. She was like, "Let's work and produce something." I want to produce for people, and songwrite for people. I like thinking about separate streams of income. I'm not going to be on tour forever. I'm tired right now!
On your home setup, what vocal mic are you using?
I just use a Shure SM58. I like how it sounds, like I'm having a live show. I've also recorded into my phone and mixed it, and made it sound okay. I use reverb and delay to make the tone that I have shine and give me the sci-fi effect.
Mic control too, like where you're holding the mic relative to your mouth.
I'm so comfortable with it. I'll be honest. I'm not too comfortable with the studio mics. I'm always getting too close. I'll close my eyes and bump right into it. When I'm recording my album, I'll let an engineer mix in the studio, but when I'm recording my EPs or beat tapes, I'll mix and master them myself. I mix them all in Ableton and master through LANDR right now, which has been a wonderful discovery.
I'm curious about that.
I pay a monthly fee for it, but it's nice. LANDR has been good, because I want to learn how to be the best to create my sound. Getting better at mixing is important. Having LANDR enables me to say, "Oh, this doesn't sound right. I missed this. Here's why it's popping like this."
It checks your mixes?
Exactly. Every time, I'm like, "Oh, this sounds crazy. That snare is crazy loud." My mixing engineer suggested it because he started using it. It's actually the cheapest teacher that I can use all the time. The desktop app is interesting too. I want to be better at mixing, so that's a good way.
Who's the mix engineer you mentioned that you've been working with?
I've been working with Sam [Arthur] Anderson at Mead St. Studio. He worked on my last two records. I was doing my first album and looking for someone. What happened is we worked on one song together. He asked me to do a song for him, and was like, "Oh, I do engineering too." It's a trust process, as you know. I need to be able to go through all my mood swings and be myself to the fullest in order to really get the point across for this record. I was still trying to piece everything together for the first solo record [No More Weak Dates]. I was still molding the songs, because I gave myself a crazy timeline. The second record [New Black Swing] was more chill, and this next record is going to be way easier.
You don't want to lose sight of the emotions and the core of it. The process can sometimes steal bits of that.
Yeah. I think I'm really lucky. With the process of those other records, I learned a lot of what it takes to be your own distribution, label, and all this. I use Bandcamp and CD Baby. I had to do everything though. I had to do album art for my last two records. This is a lot of work. I appreciate learning it. But for me to learn it now means I can give better insight to someone else. I can have someone else do it, and I can also respect their time in a different way once I've had the experience of the hell that it is to do it yourself. I interviewed Syd tha Kyd for Tom Tom Magazine, because I'm also a journalist. We were talking about what DIY means. Sometimes it means being in control of what you do, as well as being able to delegate that to make your actual decisions, because you're the one who's picking who works with you. It doesn't mean you're losing your mind, and running around, and doing too much. I think because I'm a woman, people are like, "You should go work with other people." I can make all the beats, all the vibes, and all the sounds. Prince went back and re-recorded all of his players' parts all the time. He'd still pay them and let them have the credit. Nobody said, "Oh, Prince! Why didn't you collaborate more?" He's like, "I did, but I want to do what I do."
You said yesterday that people didn't believe you, as a woman, had made your own beats.
All the time. It's insane. It's really crazy.
That put me in shock. Really? What would your inspiration be to tell anyone to record as an artist, a singer, or a writer?
I always tell people that I'm a hippy-dippy chick. Born in San Francisco, raised in Hawaii, and living in the Pacific Northwest. Music and creating anything is important, whether you're knitting a hat, or you're drawing, or writing. It's worth a try to feel the process, and to learn about your frustrations. It gives perspective on the people in your life: how real you're being with them, how real they're being with you, and if they should stick around. I say it's cathartic and spiritual. It's beyond us.