WHAT THE hell is going on in Seattle? You might well associate the city with its grunge back pages and its recent run of folky-pop, but its hip-hop has been more noteworthy lately.
Last year, it was Shabazz Palaces who entered the arena to a chorus of wows, Ishmael Butler and friends’ Black Up album pulling in people with some wonderful arty, avant-garde head music and deep, wide and exotic sounds.
This year, it’s the turn of fellow Seattle residents THEESatisfaction to take a bow. Those who read the sleeve notes will know that the typography fans had a part in the Shabazz Palaces’ story, but that’s just the beginning of things. Their own debut album, awE naturalE, is rich, playful and warm, a record that proudly wears influences from old-school hip-hop and r’n’b to jazz and soul on its sleeve.
When Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White first met, music was destined to be on the cards. “We met up in college,” recalls Irons. “I went to the local university and Cat went to a performing arts school. I was doing spoken-word poetry and Cat was singing at an open mic and we began to meet up at various places.
“We were in a neo-soul and hip-hop band together first of all called Question. There was six people in the group, so a lot of personalities, and it didn’t work out. Luckily, no recordings survived. After that, we formed THEEsatisfation and that was just the two of us vibing off each other, doing different things and creating new sounds.”
Harris-White says there was a connection between the pair from the start, and a musical partnership (as well as a relationship) quickly followed. “We traded music with one another, we played each other music we thought the other person would like, we tipped each other off to new stuff.
“After our experiences in the other group, we saw that we both liked doing music together and decided to do that and see where it took us. It was the connection we had through music which encouraged us to keep going.”
Their sound came together organically and effortlessly. “We definitely had no plan about how we wanted to sound. It wasn’t a case of ‘we’re going to be like Erykah Badu’,” says Irons.
“We were listening to a lot of jazz, funk and old-school hip-hop when we started out doing THEEsatisfaction, and that rubbed off on us. When we come together to make music, it’s about combining our minds and the sounds we’re into.”
There’s an interesting nostalgic slant to their sound, a reminder of a time when black music – and especially hip-hop – was more innocent and less commercial.
“Yeah, I’d go with that,” says Harris-White, “but that doesn’t make us retro. I think there are great things to come because the world moves in cycles. It’s just how it is. Everything repeats itself, but it also morphs into something new in that repetition.
“Of course, we have a very rich history to dig into when it comes to music, and one which goes beyond America, but there is more to come, especially when you apply the influence of technology and the internet to creativity.
“We have a lot more access, we have bigger libraries to draw from, you can access music and media from wherever and whenever, and I think that will lead to great things. I’d say that nostalgia or a sense of better times in our music comes partly from that access, because you’re reminded now so much of how things used to be.”
Both feel that their Seattle base has had a lot to do with their sound. “I think we embrace our space and our environment that comes from living here in Seattle and in northwest America,” says Harris-White. “That sense of space you get from living here is really important to us. Where we live, we have a really amazing sky view at night, and that’s had an effect on our music for sure, in encouraging us to reach for places we’ve never been.
“Seattle is a very vibrant city for artists, because there’s so much going on and so much diverse stuff to do and experience and so many interesting people,” adds Irons. “What I like about the city is that the seasons change differently out here. Summer is like a spring, so we get two springs, and the fall and winter are very different, but fall is one of the best times to be here, because the colours are so amazing because of the leaves and sunsets. The mountains and fresh air give it such an interesting vibe.”
Living in Seattle also meant opportunities to bump into other artists, such as Shabazz Palaces leader Ishmael Butler. “We were running in the same circles and we saw him and we didn’t know who he was at first,” says Irons.
“When we heard he was part of Digable Planets we were really excited, because his music was something that resonated with us forever.
“Seattle is very small and black Seattle is even smaller, so we kept bumping into Ishmael through friends and at art events. It started with the music and long conversations about art and went on from there and led to collaborations. It was definitely a Seattle thing.”
Another Seattle thing is local label Sub Pop, which has long been a strong and supportive chronicler of the city’s music and has released THEESatisfaction’s album.
“When we first thought about Sub Pop, we automatically knew they had great taste in music, regardless of the kind of music they were associated with,” says Irons. “We’re big fans of Fleet Foxes, and we listened to Nirvana and Soundgarden when we were kids. When you’re in the northwest, you grew up with that scene and Sub Pop, so it made wonderful sense to us to go with them. They’ve got a great ear for music and the fact that we could be part of their legacy is crazy.”
* awE naturalE is out now on Sub Pop. THEESatisfaction play Dublin’s Twisted Pepper on April 19