wax Poetics
Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons. Photo by David Belisle.

THEESatisfaction

Seattle duo blends rhyme and melody to twist old-school vibes into the future

published online
Originally published in Issue 51
By Marisa Aveling

THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White and bandmate and partner Stasia Irons met in 2006 during their time at college and discovered a number of parallels—both were originally from small towns, both moved to Seattle around the same time, and both were into the same things. What added to the initial attraction between them was music. The two would try and out–Michael Jackson each other, searching for rare footage or songs to trump the previous item unveiled. They researched and listened to cuts obsessively, going from neo-soul and tracing the lineage backwards to soul and jazz. 

The overlap in their preference for sounds organically led to the two making music in tandem. “When we got together, it was just something that we had to do,” says Irons. A jazz-trained vocalist, Harris-White had already been a member in previous groups, while Irons was doing spoken word and still getting comfortable with the idea of singing. It didn’t take long, and in 2008, THEESatisfaction released their debut EP, That’s Weird, which played with the boundaries of hip-hop and idled at the intersection of spoken word, rap, and melody. It paid respects to elders in both name (“Hella Fitzgerald”) and sound, sampling Ahmad Jamal; Earth, Wind & Fire; Bernard Wright; and, of course, Michael Jackson. 

Harris-White and Irons’s relentless interest in researching and devouring music from past generations gives THEESatisfaction a framework of understanding that informs this new, otherworldly electric hip-hop sound of their own. It colors the duo’s discography, which spans a slew of self-released EPs available on Bandcamp, and most recently pops on their debut long player. AwE naturalE is THEESatisfaction’s first record released with the help of a label. The two chose the venerable Sub Pop—once home to Nirvana and now host to an expanse of heterogeneous acts—as a weighty starting point.

In particular, THEESatisfaction’s wildly fanciful and at times obscure approach slots them next to fellow Seattle hip-hop act and labelmate Shabazz Palaces, the project of former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler and percussionist Tendai Maraire. The connection between the two women in their mid-twenties and their fellow older (and equally as wise) peers—one of whose music they listened to while growing up—amounts to a special kinship. Both are shaped by an inclination toward Black science fiction and outer space via love for the likes of Sun Ra and author Octavia Butler (“We didn’t know Black people were involved in the future!” Irons laughs), giving the groups a complementary Afrofuturistic hue. In an interview with the Seattle Times, Ishmael Butler, under the pseudonym Palaceer Lazaro, describes Harris-White and Irons as possessing “a very intense and unique black nostalgia,” acknowledging the younger duo’s deep understanding of their musical lineage. The natural convergence of Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction has also led each group to lend their sound to the other, as Harris-White and Irons appeared on 2011’s well-received Black Up, and Butler appears on two of awE naturalE’s thirteen tracks.

THEESatisfaction dove into a songbook that included sketches of songs that they’d been working on as far back as 2008, and used an additional few years of experience to give them light and shade. In that sense, awE naturalE leans toward the abstractly autobiographical, as Harris-White and Irons reflect that their LP is anchored more by experiences than genre. “When we were making our album…there were so many changes happening—we moved into our first apartment, we were a little further into our relationship, but still figuring each other out and stuff,” Irons says. “You’ll hear all of that.”

All of THEESatisfaction’s releases touch on the personal and political, while the pair continue to digest musical and literary reference points. Harris-White and Irons have always spoken overtly and abstractly on topics like sexuality and race; 2010’s THEESatisfaction Loves Stevie Wonder: Why We Celebrate Colonialism (released on July 4) comprises of tracks named after American presidents; Transitions, released in the same year, houses “On What It Means to Be Black” and “I Nigress”; the pair’s 2011 EP is titled Sandra Bullock's Black Baby

The messages aren’t so pronounced on awE naturalE, perhaps to give the listener more room to breathe their own meanings into songs, and perhaps to be cautious about what kind of signifiers they’re being associated with. A perceived preoccupation with these themes could pin THEESatisfaction as a feminist duo (especially when teamed with the unconcealed detail that Harris-White and Irons are gay), which some have already done. “I don’t like the word ‘feminism.’ I think there’s aspects that we agree with, but I just don’t like being boxed in by that word,” Irons says. “That’s the life we lead, so these topics are gonna come up in songs,” Harris-White explains. “Bisexual, or what it means to be Black, those are situational conversations, really.” “Yeah,” Irons says. “We wouldn’t use that word—but ‘girl power,’ y’know?”

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