“What I’m doing is apparently a lot more important than I thought it was — or expected it to be.”
For singer-songwriter Ms. White, music for a long time offered a release from the stresses of everyday life. After a while, she realized that it was a cathartic form of expression, and now acts as a half-personal, half-public diary of her transition.
In advance of the release of her new video for “Fuck Men” — a playful jazz-pop romp from her EP Jade — Ms. White spoke with Billboard about her burgeoning young career, the intricacies of being a visible trans artist, and the influences that have helped mold her style.
Ms. White — real name Mattie White — remembers getting a small keyboard from her aunt when she was about five years old, sparking a longtime love for the instrument that eventually led her to her career today: “I was a weirdo who would come home and play piano for four hours a day just because it was fun, and then do my homework. Rather than drinking or doing drugs, I was always playing keyboard and stuff like that.” She began writing her own music, collaborating with other people and producing her own music in college, and eventually found herself making music as Ms. White after someone asked her why she wasn’t pursuing music seriously. “It was this organic process of seeing what was right for me; it was never a moment where I was like ‘This is what I wanna do’ or ‘This is what I am’; I just think I always was.”
Her recently-released EP Jade pays homage — both nominally and musically — to White’s longtime idol, Amy Jade Winehouse. The song “Ms. Jade” sounds like something the late, great crooner would sing, and her carefree jazzy spirit courses through the entire project. This EP is White’s tribute to her, and is her way of “putting [her]self as close as possible to her as an artist.” White also says that Winehouse was one of the first women she drew her femininity from, as well as her no-fucks attitude that helped Winehouse cement her spot in music history. “Ms. Jade” was the first song White brought to her producer that she considered releasing, which sparked the creation of the rest of the EP from there. “Full Grown” — another jazz-filled synthpop track — came next, and divulges some of White’s thoughts from before she began her transition. The song acted as her debut single, and she released a classically kitschy video for it earlier this year.
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The process behind the creation of “Fuck Men,” however, was more lighthearted: White says the idea randomly came to her one night, and she decided to run with it and see where it led. After scrapping a slower version that leaned more towards the stylings of Sam Smith, White — with the constructive criticism of her roommate Madison — crafted a version of the song that she says contains flavorings of Motown, ragtime, and Lake Street Dive. Once the song was mastered, Madison commended her for “managing to write a song called ‘Fuck Men’ that didn’t sound corny.” When it came to the video, White’s vision was clear: she wanted a video with genderqueer elements and an empowering feminist undertone that communicated that feminism is about all women, and not just cis women.
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When it comes to specifically being a trans musician, Ms. White is surprisingly nonchalant about it. She didn’t know she would find herself in the position of reading fan mail from trans people she both knew and didn’t know about her visibility in the musical sphere, and was surprised that she would receive so much recognition just for “trying to put forth an image of a trans person that is as normalized as possible.” She acknowledges that she isn’t as cis-passing as notable trans women like Janet Mock and Trace Lysette, but by actively existing in the public consciousness, she communicates that not every trans woman passes as a beautiful cis woman, nor should they feel like they have to. “I just hope trans people can feel more comfortable being themselves and not the cis-passing version of themselves that they see in the media… That’s my goal: to help trans people not feel like they need to conform to what society is telling trans people they need to do.” She also prioritizes how she’s perceived by the public eye: “I’m constantly curating my image as a part of my artistry; if I don’t do that, then it’s gonna be done for me, which I don’t want, because nobody knows what to do with trans people.” She speaks highly of trans artists like Anohni who’ve come before her, but is still finding her footing as the sole visible trans artist in her genre: “As far as pop-jazz vocals go, there’s really no one, so I’m sort of in this territory where I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
When Amy Winehouse passed away in 2011, Ms. White was heartbroken over never having worked with her musical idol. Being that her career since then has been rooted in collaboration with other artists and producers, Ms. White dreams of working with people that she feels can elevate her music to new places. One person she’s especially excited about the prospect of working with is Kaytranada: “I think that my songwriting with his production could be really funky and really cool; I think we can make something that’s really fun.” She also dreams of writing music with Lorde; she isn’t interested in being featured on a song with her, but says she’s underrated because of her ability to craft such deep music at such a young age. Some other artists she counts among her dream collaborators: James Blake, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Janelle Monáe, Kimbra, Erykah Badu, Arca, and Nai Palm.
As for the near future, Ms. White is looking forward to releasing her second EP, which originally was the second half of a larger album where the songs on Jade composed the first half. “We ended up splitting it into two because the second half is a lot darker and a lot more broody. The next EP is a lot darker, a lot more introspective, less about Amy, and more about sex, drama, and emotions.”
But for now, there’s only one simple thing she cares about saying: “fuck men.”