Ms. White is Listening to Weyes Blood, Julie London, and Beyoncé Deep Cuts

Published December 4, 2019

Photo by Kellen Houde.

This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. In this edition, Megan Pope spoke with the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter-pianist Ms. White shortly after the release of her latest jazz-pop EP, Marina

I first met Ms. White in the fluorescent greenroom of a downtown CBD soda shop. She entered with grace, disrupting a gaggle of nervous comedians, her sheer button-down dress quietly billowing behind her. The infused water-sponsored music and comedy show began. Ms. White thrilled the crowd with two of her cheekier songs, “Arizona” and “Fuck Men.”  “You don’t have to worry ’bout it honey fuck men,” she sings on the latter. I was an instant fan.

Ms. White, or Marina (her off-stage name and eponymous EP title), creates music steeped in elegance and electronic effervescence. Each song on her new album is infused with a bossa nova charm, bubblegum pop humor, and an honesty that will send you into belligerent emotional overdrive. The album manages to touch on an intimate set of personal experiences while nevertheless imploring you to dance, move, and revel in the buoyant synth-world that White and her collaborator Theo [Shier] have so meticulously crafted. On top of the EP, Ms. White has released who is marina?, a short film that details her behind-the-scenes process, songwriting, and coming into her own as a performer. Last week, Marina and I met at God Bless America USA deli in Greenpoint, before walking to her cozy apartment. After greeting her cat, we jumped into her own personal queue, which includes everything from Donny Hathaway to Lana Del Rey.

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MS. WHITE: He’s like a dog-cat. I lay on the couch and he’ll just get on top of me and lay on me. I’m like, “I’m obsessed.”

MEGAN POPE: That’s perfect. That’s almost the ideal cat.

MS. WHITE: Right, but sometimes at 5 AM he decides that he wants to be pet and he’ll head butt me and start licking my hair but also my scalp with his barbed tongue and so it’s painful.

POPE: You’re like, “I really don’t need this right now.” How are you doing in general? I feel like this has been a super personal EP release, so just, like, mentally, where have you been?

MS. WHITE: Yeah, it’s been strange for sure. I feel good mentally and that’s why I was able to get so personal with this record, but it’s also weird because I wrote those songs and I finished the album so long ago. Normally mixing is a month-long process, but for us it was six months. By the time it was done, we were like, “Thank God. Thank God, just get it done, get it out.” But I’ve been good. I’ve been gearing up to play more shows and I have new music. I was kind of just doing random shows here and there, like the CBD soda thing, just me and the piano, but now we have the beats on stage and Theo’s playing guitar.

POPE: How did you and Theo originally meet?

MS. WHITE: My very first show that I ever played in New York when I was in college. Theo happened to be playing with another artist at the show, and the person who asked Theo and me to do the show is now my manager. Crazy. Theo and I met that night and he was tracking me down, like, “I want to work with you,” and I was like, “Who’s this weird straight guy? I don’t understand,” and then slowly he kind of broke me down and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” 

POPE: I love that. What was the last song you listened to?

MS. WHITE: Ooh. “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” by Donny Hathaway. Today I was just like, “I need to hear that song.”

POPE: Were you in a particular mood today that prompted that, or is Hathaway always the go-to choice? 

MS. WHITE: I just really love Donny Hathaway. His voice is fucking crazy. I’m pretty serious about my vocals and trying to get better, and he’s one of those people where… I don’t love talking about trans things in interviews, but when it’s relevant, I do, and it’s relevant here because I usually don’t look to men in terms of how to sing, even though typically my range is that range. I’m like, “I want to listen to women because I want to sound like that, and I want to figure out how to do that,” but Donny Hathaway’s range is crazy. He can sing higher than I can, for sure. Amy Winehouse covered “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” There’s a random YouTube of her doing it. It’s fucking insane. And she sings it in the same key as Donny Hathaway. I’m like, “Oh, Donny Hathaway has major chops,” and it’s so clean. He’s just perfect. It’s soulful, but not boring.

POPE: Do you remember what your first concert was?

MS. WHITE: It was Imogen Heap at this theater in DC. I was in high school and my friends had extra tickets to it. It was so good. She’s so cool.

POPE: That’s a very cool first concert.

MS. WHITE: I know. Secretly I’m like, “That makes me hot in some way that that’s my first concert.”

POPE: Who were the earliest musicians to influence you?

MS. WHITE: When I was four, I was obsessed with A-Teens, specifically. It was not ABBA, it was A-Teens. I didn’t know who ABBA was ’til I was 16. That’s embarrassing but it’s the truth. But as a musician, the first album that I heard, when I was like, “Oh, this is it,” was 19 by Adele. She has great albums after that, but 19 is pure Adele. Immediately after was Frank by Amy Winehouse, so it was kind of at the same time. I got both of those and I was like, “What? What is this? This is crazy music.” It was both of them, but I would say Adele hit me harder first. I knew every word. I know how to play all her songs on piano. I literally know that album in and out.

POPE: Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?

MS. WHITE: Oh shit, that’s such a hard question. My favorite movie soundtrack actually—this is so obscure and I actually heard the soundtrack before I watched the movie—but it’s this super weird French movie called Camille 2000. I suggest that everybody look it up. It’s from the ’60s. The music is kind of this mix between bossa and French pop and it’s this very kitschy album. 

POPE: Do you have a dream collaborator of all time? Or right now?

MS.WHITE: Oh fuck. That’s a tough question, but I think in terms of an attainable collaboration, I would say Weyes Blood. She’s just so cool and what she’s saying is so up my alley and kind of where I’m at musically right now. Her or Perfume Genius. I feel like we’d get along really well. Feist is also another one. That’s more of a dream situation. And then my ultimate, like this would never happen, but I’d freaking explode if it did, would be James Blake, for sure. What he does with his music is kind of what I would like to get to at some point in terms of heavy electronic use and technology use, but with something that’s actually very classic. I have so many answers to that question.

POPE: I jumped at every name you said. I hope all of these happen. Is there a song that always puts you in a good mood if you turn it on?

MS. WHITE: Oh, absolutely. “Like A G6.” To this day, I’m like, “That’s the best song.” 

POPE: Do you have a go-to karaoke song?

MS. WHITE: I hate karaoke, but the times that I have done it, I love to just sing a Rihanna song. I love to badly sing “Diamonds.” That’s absolutely what it would be.

POPE: Are there songs or artists that you can think of that you’d put on a playlist for a road trip? 

MS. WHITE: I love guitars and shit. When you’re on a road trip, you’re like, “We’re DIY. We’re fucking indie.” So I feel like I would go for Big Thief. I’d probably put some Phoebe Bridgers on there, for sure. 

POPE: Dinner party songs? 

MS. WHITE: Oh, I love a bossa dinner party. That’s my shit. Some Astrud Gilberto, some Stan Getz. Paul Desmond. But then I also love to add some low-key early Feist and Sade, you know? Things that are influenced by bossa. Then classic jazz. I love an Ella Fitzgerald moment at a dinner party. A little Nina Simone, something like that.

POPE: And then a house party? 

MS. WHITE: House party is just your guilty pleasures, absolutely. It’s Rihanna. The “This Is Rihanna” playlist on Spotify. Beyoncé, but the deep cuts. I’m talking about “Green Light” and “Freakum Dress” and “Kitty Kat.” I like to throw it back during a house party for sure. I love a Kesha, love Gwen Stefani. Britney Spears will go in there for sure. The kind of almost bad pop, but you love it. You actually secretly love it.

POPE: Crying in your bedroom music?

MS. WHITE: That’s also Phoebe Bridgers, for sure. I’ve been on a Phoebe Bridgers kick. I go in and out of that. 

POPE: And breakup music? 

MS.WHITE: Breakup is angrier, so crying in your bedroom is like Lana Del Rey, particularly Honeymoon, which is actually my favorite album of hers and that’s an opinion that nobody else has. That’s the most crying in your bedroom kind of one to me—or Ultraviolence. Oh shit, Jeff Buckley. I actually can’t listen to Jeff Buckley without sobbing my brains out.

POPE: Do you have songs that you want to be played at your funeral?

MS. WHITE: I wouldn’t want it to actually be sad. That’s not really it. I do feel like it would be something that’s more classic. Not a sad song, but a really genuine song, almost like a Donny Hathaway situation. Or some Nat King Cole. It definitely changes. Even month to month, if you asked me that question, it’d be different every time.

POPE: Is there an instrument that you want to learn how to play?

MS. WHITE: Not actively because my brain is not plastic enough for that shit. But if I could learn an instrument, like, you told me I could learn it, I would just really love to know how to play guitar. I tried when I was 19 to learn, and I played a show with a guitar once. It was so hard, and it was so bad. Guitar or cello. I played alto saxophone in middle school and high school and the whole time I was like, “I should have played cello too. Cello’s so cool.” But really, it’s guitar.

POPE: That’s such a sexy instrument. Both of them. I feel like strings in general…

MS. WHITE: Being a girl who plays guitar, it’s just hot. I actually tweeted this recently. I was like, “When you’re a girl and you play guitar, it’s like ‘I’m hot and I’m cool.’ When you’re a girl who plays piano, you’re a virgin.”

POPE: That’s so true. Oh my god. 

MS. WHITE: Right? I feel so uncool when I’m like, “Here’s my keyboard, everyone. Here we go.” But I’m banking on one person who is going to find that really sexy and that’s who I have to be with because there’s nobody else who does. It’s one person.

POPE: I failed to learn either one. I can kind of half-play piano and half-play guitar, so I’m… half-virgin, half-cool?

MS. WHITE: [Laughs]

POPE: Is your alarm clock a song?

MS. WHITE: No. It’s not, because I think that I would end up hating whatever song that was.

POPE: If your life were a TV show, what would the theme song be?

MS. WHITE: It would never be one of my songs. I would hate that. There’s something really fucked up but really funny if it was “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.” I thought about covering that song a couple of times. How funny would that be? Because I am synthetically a woman, but that can’t be the real answer. It has to be funny. It has to be funny but in a way that is serious. It might be an Amy Winehouse song. I think that ideally, that would be it, but not like “Fuck Me Pumps.”

POPE: We can come back to it.

MS. WHITE: Yeah, my brain’s going to work on it.

POPE: Another hard question: What’s a song or album that you think if everyone heard it, would change the world?

MS. WHITE: Oh. Fuck. Honestly, it’s Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood. That was the first album I’d heard in a really long time where I was like, “That is speaking to the state of things right now and why it’s fucked up and scary and weird.” It was the first time I’d heard somebody do that, at least in a modern sense, in a way that I think was digestible and enjoyable and had something beyond one or two emotions. I mean, it’s about climate change and it’s also about the fast-paced change that’s been happening lately, and how it’s going to be fine probably, but also we have no way of knowing that. And Titanic Rising is the feeling of the water getting too high. That’s what she was trying to do sound-wise, and the album cover is her underwater. I don’t know if you’ve heard the album, but I really think that if people heard that album and genuinely studied what it is and what it’s saying, it’d be so impactful. It had a big impact on me creatively, where I was like, “Right. I need to be writing albums that are about the world and me in it rather than just me.”  

POPE: I love that album. Any new thoughts on the TV show theme? 

MS. WHITE: Oh! Oh, I got it! My subconscious was working on it! It’s a song by Julie London called “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast.”

POPE: Amazing.

MS. WHITE: 100%, it’s really saucy. I used to cover it. Yeah, it’s very cheeky. You know, “nice girls don’t stay for breakfast and I’m a nice girl.” It’s what I wish my life was. I’m not even sort of saucy in the slightest, but I wish that I sounded like Julie London and looked like that and had a life like that. In the TV show, I am that woman. I am Julie London.