Ms. White is summoning the songstresses of 60s and 70s pop in a performance in the lobby of the VICE's Williamsburg office on a Thursday afternoon earlier this summer. Signed to queer progressive pop label Flat Pop Records, the Brooklyn-based songwriter has been rolling out infectious jazz-pop singles in anticipation of her second EP Marina, slated for November. She is determined to write the songs of love and reclamation that she wanted to hear growing up.
Ms. White is comfortable and in her element, belting lyrics of heartbreak and reclaimed confidence on a small stage decorated by a flower in a vase, a single mic, and a baby grand piano. Her fingers float over the keys with poise and precision, but the lyrics she is singing are candid, honest, and full of grit.
"I know your tastebuds are so fucking ordinary, but you got to get used to this different tasting cherry," she sings. Ms. White’s unique brand of jazz exudes confidence and an inherent sense of humor and relatability.
Ms. White's newest single, "Arizona," is out today. She recently talked to VICE about growing up on video game soundtracks and Amy Winehouse, the music of Weyes Blood, the legendary girl groups that pushed history forward, and the trials of heartbreak in the digital age.
How would you describe your entry into music?
Ms. White: I grew up in the suburbs outside of Baltimore and I was a big band kid. I played saxophone and piano, and I played a lot of video games, so I would print out sheet music from the Final Fantasy games and learn to play those songs. They were a lot of orchestral sounds, and I was really serious about marching band.
Marching band kids weren’t "cool," but we thought that marching band was cool, and that we were cool. We’d go to these competitions and everything. Band kids are so horny. Unbelievably horny. It fostered this badass outcast experience; nobody was paying attention to us, so we felt like we could do whatever we wanted.
Have you always been a singer?
I sang a lot when I was a kid. Carrie Underwood was on American Idol at the time, so I wanted to sing those songs. I would sing them in the shower, and then my voice dropped, and I was like, what gives? I hit puberty and I stopped singing. My dad would say "use your diaphragm," but whenever I did that, I would just sound really manly. I knew I would never sound like Adele or Amy Winehouse, but I wanted to. I just didn't know there were vocal exercises to help feminize my voice. I didn't know how to use my voice at that time, because I didn’t hear any trans women's voices on the radio.
Totally. Your song "Arizona" speaks really directly to the trans female experience in love. Can you share the inspiration for that song?
"Arizona" is about my first time being intimate with a straight cis man—it's this quintessential experience of trans women who date men. He was a really hot man. I had been attracted to him for a long time and he was treating me like a normal girl. It was new, but it was very touch and go. He wouldn't be affectionate with me around his friends and roommates. We would only be intimate with each other behind closed doors. He’d say things like "people talk," and I could tell it made him uncomfortable.
I didn't notice, at the time, how I was being mistreated, but I felt very silenced and hidden from view. So, I made "Arizona" as loud and as vulgar as possible. It came out in one sitting. I wrote it, played it, and started singing. The second chorus, I just yelled. It doesn't feel good to sing it. It doesn’t even sound that good sometimes. It didn’t feel good going through it. It wasn't something I had ever heard a song about.
Reclaiming the voice. That's punk.
A lot of what I do is angry. A lot of it is jazz and pop, but I still can't forget the level of weirdness I felt growing up. I am mad. I'm mad that my voice dropped. I'm mad that nobody asked me whether or not puberty was right. I'm annoyed that the question "what do I wear" is often hinged on, "what do I feel like going through?" Sometimes I want to freak out, and I use music to take the power back. I wrote “Arizona” to combat being silenced, to insist that I could not, and cannot, be silenced.
It seems like you’re using humor as a tool in "Arizona" as well, poking fun at his retirement plan. Do you use light-heartedness as a tool, specifically when lyrics are so connected to painful experiences?
Totally. When I get upset, I like to joke about it. If I'm writing something really sad, I try to make it funny by mixing the tone. If I’m writing something really angry, I try to make it sound really happy, in a smiling-through-your-teeth kind of way, with a dreaminess to it. My saddest song has a kind of circus vibe. It's something I wrote, that was really deeply hurtful to write, and when I performed it for the first time, people were laughing at the lines that were the saddest for me. The lines that hurt the most to write were the funniest.
Is that satire and tone mixing why you love Amy Winehouse?
Definitely. Amy is a beacon for me. She always had to have the punchline. "Rehab," for example, is so deeply upsetting, especially in hindsight, but it was still smiley and fun. She always had the punchline. I love that. There is this old song called "Where the Boys Are" by Connie Francis. It’s so forlorn and over-the-top, 60s drama. It's about wondering where the boys are. You can make something really simple sound really serious with the right tone, and you can make [sadness] feel like a joke that everybody is in on.
60s drama is the best drama. Your music has a timelessness to it—you can't place which era it’s from. How do you manifest that nostalgia in your records?
Technology is crazy. You can use a string plug-in, heavily compress and put vinyl sound on a track, and make it sound like it’s a little out of tune. My producer Theo Shier and I love to warp and manipulate sound to make a song sound like it’s from another time. I'm referencing a lot of old music, because I wish it happened. There were no trans women singing about love and sex when I was growing up, but I wish I had heard that. I also wish I had known what I could do with my voice, or had heard a voice like mine. It would have changed things for me. I hope my music changes things for some sixteen year old somewhere.