The album art for new THEESatisfaction record EarthEE.
Stasia “Stas” Irons and singer Catherine “Cat” Harris-White make up the futuristic and Afrocentric band THEESatisfaction. The hip-hop duo are creating quite a positive stir with their new full-length album, EarthEE, which comes out today on SubPop records. The album is dense with Stas Irons’ layers of sensuous and atmospheric soundscapes warmed with Cat Harris’ carefully woven blanket of jazz-influenced vocals. I talked with THEESatisfaction about their connection, their personal ideals, and their perceptions of female empowerment.
JORDANNAH ELIZABETH: When you two performed for the first time at an open mic night in Seattle, were you instantly aware that you two would connect and bond so strongly?
STAS: It happened over time. Cat was a resident singer at the open mic. She knew the band who played there so every time I would go, I would see her. I wouldn’t always perform when I was there because I was shy. As I kept seeing her over time I was like, “Damn, I need to talk to her.”
Were you actively searching for a singer to collaborate with or do you consider it fate?
STAS: I would say it was fate. I never thought of myself being in an actual band. I did have visions of myself performing in stadiums, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I was not necessarily on that path during that time. Everything lined up when Cat and I met. We both had ambitions but didn’t really know how it was all going to happen.
When you both agreed to become a musical group, what were the first steps you took to compose the music and make it a reality?
CAT: I had been singing in bands for a couple of years before I met Stas. I was a jazz vocalist singing in a bunch of jazz groups. The last group I was in before THEESatisfaction, I asked Stas to come play with us. I thought she would benefit from the experience, so I originally brought Stas in to do harmonies with me. We began to really vibe out because we liked a lot of the same music and she introduced me to a lot of music I didn’t know about. I feel like I did the same for her. I really enjoyed playing with her so we played a couple of shows together without the other band. We realized we could do the music ourselves without having ten other people in the group and we also knew we could do a million different things with that freedom. Stas already had experience making beats in GarageBand, and I was already in school for music and had been involved with it all my life. We didn’t have the money to go into a studio and we didn’t want to pay anyone to make our beats. We wanted to be able to do everything in house.
How did you want to affect people with your art?
CAT: I think we just wanted to perform together. I love to be on the stage. I always have to be on the stage and on the mic, and I’m always thinking about how I can find a way to get to the mic. I was always trying to find a way to be on stage all the time, so when Stas and I decided to do the music, I said to her, “Let’s do this for real.” My goal for the group was to have us perform as much as possible and have fun.
STAS: Basically, we just wanted to jam the fuck out. We wanted to sing and dance around and have fun. Also, a lot of the sounds we were making were sounds we weren’t hearing. We were trying to create something that as unique and exciting. We treat it as art, but it is also about getting together, vibing out, and having a good time.
How did you meet your friend and collaborator Ishmael Butler (of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces)?
CAT: We’ve both been fans of Ish since the days he was in Digable Planets. I used to live in Hawaii, so my big brother would send my other brother and I music videos of current music in the 90s. I specifically remember seeing a lot of Digable Planets music videos on there. I have a really deep connection with his music and it’s something I really aspire to. His music is something that really opened my mind. We ended up meeting him at a gallery at a mutual friend’s event, and it was quite curious because he looked at us with a familiar eye. It was really bizarre.
STAS: Yeah, it was like two fans meeting each other. He was a fan of ours and we were big fans of his music. We knew that somehow we had to come together to see if collaborating would work, but that wasn’t the first thing. We just wanted to hang out and be friends before any of the music was brought up. When we did come together in the studio, it worked out so well because a lot of people said the earlier stuff we put out reminded them of Digable [Planets]. So it was really comfortable and natural for us to put music together.
Now that you’ve gone from being independent to having more resources and access to production, how have things changed for you?
CAT: Well, we still produce our own music. We don’t outsource our production. Erik Blood helped us produce stuff, so we brought someone into the team, but Stas makes most of the beats and is an originator of our sound and I make beats from time to time. We haven’t changed much in terms of production. A lot of [different] things you hear are just us perceiving things differently. I just wanted to make things clear because people get confused and assume, “now you have professional production and other people produce your beats.”
It’s inspiring to learn that you are doing it on your own, and sets a great example for future female producers.
CAT: Sub Pop is super awesome with letting us decide how we want our music to sound.
How did your musical collaboration with the legendary musician, Meshell Ndegeocello, come about?
CAT: She was sitting on a panel in Seattle and we were both out of town, but a friend of ours was there. She [Meshell Ndegeocello] was asked who was her favorite group was at the time and she said, “THEESatisfaction.” Our friend tweeted us and let us know, then we went back and forth on Twitter with Meshell and exchanged information. She said, “I love you guys, maybe we should work together.” And we said “Yeah!” [laughs] She’s a legend and has been in this industry for quite some time. We’ve learned a lot from her and its wonderful to have her on our album.
It’s understood that you two really wanted to collaborate and have fun with your music, but was there ever a time where you experienced trials and tribulations that caused you to feel like you weren’t sure the music was going to work out?
CAT: Tons! [laughs] When we started out people were weird about it. They would say, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I get it.” There were people who were supporters, but there were definitely naysayers who said, “I don’t know if that kind of hip-hop is going to make it. That’s not what’s popular. That’s not what people want to hear.” People thought the music was weird, and we’ve had a lot of crazy things happen over the years in regards to people and their perception of us. People have called us feminists, which is cool, but we don’t cling to too many labels. We’re openly queer and we like women and we want women to know that we like them. We’ve had our highs and lows but we don’t focus on it a lot. We spent our time working and hustling to even make it this far. We took every opportunity we were trying to perform at an open mic, or went to see shows and connected with anyone we knew. I feel like Stas and I are very lucky and blessed because we were very involved in the Seattle scene within our families as we grew up. Stas had a scene and I had a scene. We were involved in different communities, so when the time came we started reaching out to folks who we knew supported us. But again, there were people saying, “Two queer hip-hop girls doing this? I don’t know” or “You guys make your own beats, maybe you should get someone else to make your beats.”
What do you think about modern feminism and do you connect with it in any way?
CAT: My dad is a feminist. I feel like I am a strong woman so I don’t really need to use the term. I want the best for women around the world. I’m not familiar with many of the feminist issues going on right now, but I know that there are a lot of strong and amazing women who are acting, making music, and leading right now. Queer and trans woman are doing amazing and groundbreaking work in the world of art. There’s more of a place for women in the arts now, especially for women of color and Black women to be free and to express themselves. I guess that would feed into what modern feminism is, even with the return of Sleater-Kinney and what they’re going on Sub Pop. And Broad City, everything they do on stage is so extreme and they are super open about being themselves. I think it is a new time. I don’t feel like there will ever be a time where feminism won’t be needed. It is a proclamation of female empowerment. I think it’s a really amazing time to be a woman.
Your music is reminiscent of Black experimental art-house music and hip-hop like Gil Scott Heron, Sun Ra, Afrikka Bumbatta, ect. Do these kinds of artists from the past influence you?
STAS: Yeah, all day. That’s the kind of music we vibe out to naturally. The fact that you picked up on that in our music is great. We listened to a lot of Sun Ra during the creation of this record along with a lot of P-Funk Parliament. We also watched the “Cosmos” series with Neil deGrasse Tyson and he talked a lot about climate change and how vast the universe is. I think that’s how we wanted our album to feel. We wanted to take you away from this planet to make your realize how small, and at the same time, how big we are.
What would you like for your fans and listeners to know about this album?
STAS: One thing a lot of people don’t know is that this album is our break up album. We haven’t broken up as THEESatisfaction, but Cat and I were a couple and now we’re not. This album was therapeutic and healing, It was also very hard to put together because of the head spaces that we were in. The fact that is came together means a lot to me and I love it because of that. I know it is going to touch a lot of people in that way as well.
CAT: Yeah, it was definitely a healing process and a self-assurance project for sure. We were reflecting and looking back and it was a relaxing and rejuvenating project.
Jordannah Elizabeth is a professional arts and culture journalist, feminist, music editor, and musician.