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Good Vibrations

26 September 2012 | 5:00 am | Anthony Carew

"Sometimes people say that it reminds them of back in the day, but I think that’s more about them – about people in general – than our music.”

Theesatisfaction are routinely called some iteration of 'futuristic soul'. The pair are from Seattle; they're usually delieneated as 'rapper' Stasia Irons and 'singer' Catherine Harris-White, though it's far more complicated than that, given both collaborate on the music, and aren't stuck with the stock roles of spitting verses/singing hooks, and often aren't either exactly singing or spitting. They draw from that Black Power Mixtape era, cribbing from '70s soul and, in the case of Harris-White, wearing an afro so wide it'd make Angela Davis smile. But they're also children of the digital age, and draw just as much from '80s pop, early-'90s new jack swing, late-'90s neo-soul, and all manner of genre-shredding new-millennial sounds; putting them amongst a specific class of casually-experimental afro-futurist sistas – Ursula Rucker, Erykah Badu, Georgia Anne Muldrow – both alive to the past and open to the future.

“Sometimes people say that it reminds them of back in the day, but I think that's more about them – about people in general – than our music,” says Irons. “A lot of people say it sounds like the '70s, but just as many people say it sounds futuristic.”

The duo's love of soul music dates back to their childhoods, growing up in the Seattle area in households filled with records. “Our parents grew up on soul music, and they were playing it in their households, and then when we were kids they played it for us,” says Irons. “It connects us to our ancestors, our family members.”

Harris-White grew up a born performer – acting on stage from a young age, singing in choirs from her adolescence on, writing songs, eventually going to the University Of Washington to study music. Irons went to study theatre, and first encountered Harris-White from the crowd, watching her sing at open-mic performances. A huge crush grew, and eventually the pair met. They started playing in a “hang out” band, a huge six-piece crew of little ambition, and fell in love.

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Theesatisfaction grew out of their relationship; a budding union birthing a budding project, which grew out of their newfound domestic relationship. “When we first started, it was just music for us to jam out to at home,” Irons recalls. “Then, we started playing it for our family and our friends and they enjoyed it. But that just made it more fun – that other people liked it! – and it still is fun. It's always been fun. It's us in our element.”

When Harris-White was asked to present a musical performance for a school recital, Theesatisfaction made their live debut. “It was pretty soon, after we'd made like our first four songs, that we had to perform a 15-minute set at this recital,” she says. “I remember it being so nerve-wracking, having to just be like, 'Alright, let's try this out'. It felt so different being up there, just two of us. We want from this bigger band, with so many people on stage, so many vocalists, to just being me and Stasia. It was a totally different dynamic.”

Though being on stage as a duo took some getting used to – “it was really intense,” Irons laughs, “like, 'Oh, you're just looking at us!'” – but at home, recording themselves, things flowed naturally; and they were soon turning out an array of 'mixtapes' via Bandcamp, introducing a project in equal parts profound and playful; tuneful yet happily experimental; and one forged in their own image, not hewing to the stereotypes of genre.

“I don't think we ever said, 'We want to be outside of what everyone else is doing', we were just inside our own world,” Harris-White offers. “It was just fun, writing these songs together. Then we played that show, and then we got asked to do more shows, and it just went from there. We liked the feeling of performing music as much as creating music, so, I think it's just something that's fun for us.”

They called their project Theesatisfaction (stylised, by them, as THEESatisfaction, thereby annoying sub-editors everywhere), because they saw the project as a way of finding greater satisfaction in their lives, with their joy in making music the first step. The second step? Ditching their shitty McJobs. “We decided to quit our jobs two years ago,” Irons recalls. “We were working at Costco. We were cart-pushers and cashiers. It was one of those things that didn't mean anything to us; if we needed it, we had it. A lot of people would've kept that around, just in case, but we realised that we didn't have to do it, that we didn't have to do anything that we didn't want to do. Sure, maybe we'd be broke for a while, but we could do other things with our life and feel better about ourselves. So, we just decided to quit.”

The pair slowly grew a fervent local following around Seattle, but had their breakout beyond that in 2011, when they appeared on Shabazz Palaces' wildly-acclaimed Black Up LP. From there Theesatisfaction were signed by Sub Pop, and headed into the studio – “a real studio, like, the nicest studio we've ever seen” – to record their debut album. Though well aware that “this thing was going to be out on another level” – especially given their record label, the grunge-era kingpins turned ultimate brand of indie quality – but didn't want to let any sense of expectations crowd their loose, sometimes silly creativity.

“The way we make music is just trying to have fun, to just do things that feel good to us, that has the right vibe,” says Irons. “When you add worries from other people, that alters the way your music sounds. We wanted to be as free as possible, and give ourselves to our music completely without worrying about other people's worries.”

The resulting LP, AwE NaturalE, was released early in 2012, and its first single, Queens, served as introduction – and entreaty – into Theesatisfaction's soundworld. “Leave your face at the door/turn off your swag/and check your bag,” Irons says, on its opening; and the song is a simple, heartfelt shrine to the liberation of the dancefloor; a shrine to freedom dressed in hypnotic robo-funk grooves. It's one of the most straightforward jams on the album, which can be as complex as the cultural survey Earthseeds – a portrait of political tumult and changing social values told in abstracted poetry – and as wacky as Crash, an incidental piano lament whose lyrics are binary-code; this seemingly an ode sung by a hung computer.

“I feel like all of our projects have different stories to them,” says Harris-White. “All of our songs are different stories. Within each verse, Stasia and I are trying to create a different experience; to put you in a different place, a different situation, to put you somewhere that you're not used to; and when you're there, then we can sit you down and tell you a story.”

Do Theesatisfaction, with the afro-futurist sensibilities and black power wardrobe, consider themselves as storytellers, upholders of a black tradition? “I definitely feel like we're continuing this black tradition of storytelling,” Harris-White says. “We're trying to continue on this legacy, within our families, and within a greater ancestry. I don't think it's conscious that we do that, I think it's just within us. There's a natural aspect to it; it just flows out.”

Yet, their afro-futurism couldn't be more wide-open. Theesatisfaction are doing anything but preaching to the converted; their positivity party is all-inclusive, open to any comers. “Our music is more of a vibration than a cultural thing, or a gender-based thing, or a sexuality-based thing,” says Harris-White. “I think it's bigger than that. Our message that we try to express, it's deep within our souls, what we're speaking on. If someone does connect with our music, it's like an energy-based connection.”

And what is Theesatisfaction's 'message'? “It's a matter of self-awareness,” Harris-White offers. “To love yourself, to be yourself, to do things that are good for yourself, to better yourself in a positive fashion. You can take care of yourself and love yourself and achieving your own goals without hurting someone else or bringing someone else down. Our music is about that; about spreading this good, loving energy out there, and just like a chill vibe. There's so much stress in the world; everything is so hectic, we're all going through our own craziness. So, we're all about trying to think the most positive thoughts you can in a negative world.”

REST OF THE FEST

Theesatisfaction are one of a carefully-curated handful of acts in the country to play at the 2012 Melbourne Festival, which has a small but interesting musical program. The duo will play alongside Big Freedia, the genderqueer queen of New Orleans bounce, at a party thrown by local dyke-driven dance night Grouse. Other playing the Melbourne Festival include…

ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS
The warbling transgender troubadour returns to Australia to perform his LP Swanlights as a singular work, with visual projections based on the vast reams of associated artwork, and a 44-piece orchestra as backing. The album is a song-cycle beginning Antony's recent artistic obsession with chronicling this dying planet and the patriarchal pollution of the essentially feminine cycles of nature.

BILLY BRAGG
The longtime provocateur and raconteur brings his fascist-slaying guitar and croaky vocal back to Australia for three shows; one a solo-show celebration of his sprawling career, another a tribute to Bragg hero – and all-time American folk music icon – Woody Guthrie, and the third a combination of the previous two shows.

LEE RANALDO AND THURSTON MOORE
Though they're not touring together, it's hardly coincidental that the longtime Sonic Youth bandmates were booked alongside each other. Following their band going on hiatus after more than 30 years of constant touring and recording, each put out a solo record on Matador; and will be drawing from it at their solo shows, with Ranaldo moving away from his usual avant-gardist noise-guitar scapes towards songform, and Moore in an acoustic mode that contrasts with his suitably-Sonic-Youthy (and not touring) new band, Chelsea Light Moving.

PURO INSTINCT
The very blonde Los Angeleno sisters – siblings Piper and Skylar Kapan, the latter of whom is still only 17 – make music that runs a love of Fleetwood Mac and yacht-rock through a smeared, lo-fi filter used as Ariel Pink-esque commentary on cultural nostalgia; inspired by bootleg cassettes of early-'80s Eastern Bloc rock.