Sarah White has a great track record for generating buzz. She’s now four-for-four when it comes to starting new music projects that people quickly latch onto.
Problem is, she’s zero-for-three in keeping her acts together more than a couple of years.
“This one’s gonna stick,” White promised with a laugh, “because it’s me.”
Known from the fondly remembered bands Traditional Methods, Black Blondie and Shiro Dame — all of which ended too quickly — White is stepping out under her own, birth-certificated moniker. She dropped her debut solo EP on March 2, the day she also played a captivating coming-out set opening for Poliça at the Turf Club. Now, she’s taking over Icehouse next Thursday for the EP’s official release party.
Along with Lizzo, Dessa and her release party’s opening acts Dizzy Fae and Lady Midnight, White’s five-song collection, “Laughing at Ghosts,” marks an exciting new era in Twin Cities music. She and her peers are all blending and expanding the realms of hip-hop, R&B, electronic dance music and neo-soul in a tender, personalized way that strips out the machismo of those first three genres.
Trying to fit White’s EP into just one of those categories is like calling the Midtown Global Market on her native South Side simply a great taco joint. There’s so much more to bite into here.
"Laughing at Ghosts" by Sarah White
In an interview last week between a gym session, business meeting and school pickup, White raised another music term to apply to her new songs: Afro-punk, which is also the name of the New York-based music blog that posted an exclusive stream of “Laughing at Ghosts” (afropunk.com).
“Afro-punk, to me, simply means music that radical black people are making,” she said, pointing to the ’80s punk band to which the term was first widely applied. “I was really influenced by Bad Brains, but I was also into the Deftones, Björk, Portishead, Lenny Kravitz. I didn’t just sit in my room listening to India.Arie all the time, in other words.”
White, 35, actually did not get to listen to a lot of music until her late teens because her parents are conservative Christians.
“No cussing, no alcohol in the house, no sleepovers, no dances — nothing that wasn’t connected to church,” she recounted, explaining why she ran away from home at 17. “I wanted to hang out with the cool kids, and just do things like watch ‘The Simpsons.’ ”
She first came to the attention of local music fans in the early ’00s as a rapper with Traditional Methods, a playful yet topical band that also featured members of Heiruspecs and Kanser. She quit that group, however, when she became pregnant with the first of two daughters, Iza, now 11.
She continued rapping but with more of a soulful, cosmic, jazzy vibe in Black Blondie, an all-woman quartet whose success partly led to its undoing: White fell in love with the East Coast when the group played gigs there, and she abruptly picked up and moved with her daughter to start anew in 2007.
White regrets quitting Black Blondie but has no remorse about her five years in New York, where she issued some of her first solo tracks and worked as a photographer.
“I never felt so alive than when I moved there. To grow as a woman — especially as a woman of color — I needed to be exposed to other cultures. It felt like I was stuck here. [Minneapolis] is a lot more diverse now, and a lot more open to the different ways we express ourselves, but back then I felt stuck.”
With the birth of their second daughter, Mica, White and her longtime partner, Rico Mendez, moved back to Minneapolis in 2012 and soon formed the futuristic electronic soul/funk band Shiro Dame. She and Mendez split up, however, just as the group was about to record an album — a scenario that explains both the musical and the lyrical makeup of “Laughing at Ghosts.”
Musically, the EP picks up where Shiro Dame left off, using the same rhythm section, bassist Ry Dill and drummer Blayr Alexander. Lyrically, songs like the buoyant, melodic rouser “Huesos” and the climactic final track “August” sound like the work of a woman fighting to carry on and maintain her identity, while the funkier “Sweet Song” is a clear ode to fallen romance.
Evasive when asked, White offered this simple explanation of the EP’s meaning: “When I was writing these songs, I had to find ways to laugh and still love myself.”
One way she upped the laughter quotient was to reunite with former Black Blondie bandmate and ex-Heiruspecs keyboardist Tasha Baron, who also plays on “Laughing at Ghosts.” Said White: “Tasha hated me for the way I left Black Blondie. We were not cool. But now we’re close as can be.”
White has also long since patched things up with her parents, a change she credited to “the fact that my babies are so damn cute, they couldn’t resist them.” She’s even now thankful for the way she was raised, although she said “music is more my religion now.”
“Their faith in me and in God made it so that the hard things really don’t keep me down,” she said. “They gave me the ability to withstand a lot of stuff, and to believe in myself.”
Let’s all pray she keeps believing in this latest of her musical endeavors.