Whitney Mongé is much goofier than you would expect. Her music is soulful and bluesy, anchored by a voice that oscillates between laid-back smoothness and a smokey growl. In person she’s warm, direct, and laughs easily.
Beginning her career as a street performer in Pike Place Market, Mongé has since recorded a solo album, an EP, starred in a documentary about busking (Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary) and is currently one of the most widely-performing artists in the Puget Sound. Talking with Mongé makes it incredibly apparent: this woman works hard. From recording to performing almost constantly to managing herself as a business, you can’t question her commitment to her career and her craft.
I met up with Whitney at a coffee shop in Pike Place to discuss her street performing past and her musical future.
Ok, so I just have to get this out of the way: we’re both from Spokane!
Yeah! So how do you feel about our hometown?
I don’t have hard feelings towards it today, but when I was trying to leave and move over here I didn’t love it. My family has never liked it over there. They always talk shit about it, yet they still live there. So the energy was always very negative. Now I look back and I realize that it was a great town to grow up in. I’ve decided to let go of that negativity about it. I’m actually trying to play their pride! But I haven’t heard a response yet.
Get it together Spokane gays!
I know. They could at least email me right?
What brought you over here?
Well, I went to the Art Institute for audio engineering for a while.
Is that when you started busking?
Yeah. I actually lived about a block from [Pike Place Market] at the Stewart House. It was really small efficiency housing. It’s a great place and just living downtown gave me a lot of inspiration. I had a hard time focusing at school actually, because I turned 21 and was living right there. So I was there for two quarters and then I dropped out. I started busking a few months after that.
Was busking at all on your radar before all of that, or was it more a result of being in that Market environment?
It wasn’t really on my radar before. I didn’t start out saying “oh, I’m gonna street perform because it’s a great platform.” I just knew that I was playing in my room a lot. I heard people down here all the time and I had some friends that just told me I should go try it. It took me a few months to work up the courage, but I did and it was like love at first sight. People really responded to me. I did that for like a month and I realized I was making more money playing on the street for an hour than working all day at Seattle’s Best as a supervisor. It just made sense- quit my job, go sing and go for it.
Was that hard at all?
Oh yeah. It was definitely a struggle but after a few months of falling on my face, and figuring out that I couldn’t waste all my money on booze, realizing that I should probably pay my rent first, it started to work. It took me about a year after I started busking for me to realize I really had something. I got a lot of encouragement from the artists in the arcades. They really took me in, and having them be so open and supportive just worked. Honestly it took me busking to realize that I have talent and people want to hear my play. It made me believe in myself. I still do it every once in a while.
You’re not burned out at all?
I don’t like it as much as I used to. Mostly because of the monetary factor. I enjoy the interactions, but I don’t like having it be all about the end result of whether or not you did well. It’s become a little bit love and hate because you want to make money but it’s not really about the money .
Has coming out of that beginning continued to inform what you write or how you perform?
One thing I learned from busking is persistence–the answer’s always “no” unless you ask. People that come out here expecting their first set to be awesome need to know that that doesn’t always happen. I feel fortunate that the initial reaction to what I was doing was really positive, but I can only imagine what would have happened if it weren’t. It inspires what I write about, but I think more than anything it’s shown me ways of doing things in performances. With busking, you’re always asking yourself what people want to hear, or how they’re feeling. It’s all about moving with the audience and with yourself. People that are really good at it know how to pull people in and know how to let go. It really is a spiritual arena, more so than playing on a stage
How do you describe your music to people who have never heard it?
The genre I’ve been rolling with is alternative soul. It isn’t quite something that’s caught on- it’s a bit of a mystery genre. I’m definitely inspired by a lot of rock so I consider myself a rock singer. But when people hear “rock” they think of something hard, like metal or something. They don’t see a black girl and think “rock.” For me the label “alternative soul” kind of embodies alternative rock music and the emotional heart of soul music. I play really rhythmically so that gives people a percussive feeling. I feel like people also get emotional about my music so I’ve taken that and combined it with the rock artists that I love.
Who’re you listening to right now?
Ray LaMontagne–his new album is incredible. He’s always been a great singer-songwriter, but I love his journey from simple and acoustic to playing like Southern blues rock. Also Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard gives so many people permission–she gives me permission–to be themselves, because it’s good enough. Not just good, fucking amazing. That’s why they won Grammys. I also love tons of classic rock–Led Zepplin, that kind of stuff. I listen to a lot of 90s alternative rock. I love Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl. I love their voices, I feel like I can relate to them vocally a lot.
And you were part of a Bessie Smith tribute [The Empress of the Blues] a few years ago, right?
Yeah! That was actually pretty random, but I did a little tribute. I had never actually heard of Bessie until that project. I had to go listen and when I did I was like…holy shit. Since then I’ve been more interested in women in music than ever before, particularly black women in music. It’s interesting because the entire industry is built off the success of black women…
But so often they’re the last to get credit. As a black female artist I feel like I’m very attracted to their journeys. There’s often a lot of tragedy, but there’s also a real sense of resilience underneath it all that I completely connect with. Although it’s interesting because most of the vocalists I really relate to are white men. I think that’s part of what makes me different. When people think of black female musicians, they think of soul or R&B–these high divas. But I feel like I bring something different than what people expect. Maybe one day I’ll just say I’m a rock singer.
As somebody who works in a format that’s predominantly analog, how do you feel about the current dominance of electronic music in the mainstream? Do you have to contend with that?
Yes! And no. The no is because there are still so many people making this kind of analog, instrument-based music, but yes because it’s not getting the attention or the play. Even in the early 2000s, there were a lot more singer-songwriters getting heavy rotation and suddenly it just stopped. There are so few avenues for my style of music and it’s frustrating, but if anything it just raised the bar. The only way to get heard is to make excellent music.
There’s been a lot of dialogue recently about the lack of diversity on the production side of the music. As a queer woman of color, how do you feel about that?
There is so little. I actually just found a female engineer, which is where I was earlier today. I’ve been looking for more females to work with in the recording process. The lack of diversity is a thing, it’s definitely a thing. I’ve had two outside producers in my life. One experience was positive, one was negative. The first was amazing and he had a vision and made the experience rally great for me. The second just took advantage of me. He could see that I was really green and I didn’t get the sound that I was looking for. In hindsight, in both cases I could’ve had more control of the process. That’s why on my next project, I’m being forceful about saying this is what I want, and if you don’t like it I’ll work with somebody else.
Tell me about the new project.
Well it was originally supposed to be a collection of singles. The past year and a half I’ve been working with a band and I wanted that to be recorded, because my EP doesn’t reflect what we sound like live. It’s not necessarily gonna be this huge thing, but we’re gonna put out a vinyl and it’ll be a cool taste of what we sound like live.
And I know you’re playing The Crocodile pretty soon too.
Yeah! That’s a big deal! An artist that I played with put this show together and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I really want to promote that one. People always ask me when I’m playing shows and honestly I play shows every week, but that’s gonna be one that people need to come to. Saturday, May 28th–if you’re not out camping, come see it.
You seem like you work really hard at all of this.
I do. At the end of the day I’m still an artist, and you have to walk the line between being an artist and being a business person. Some days I think “fuck this,” and some days I feel like i’m killing it. I try to just take it in stride and know that my purpose is to make music that inspires people, and that’s true for me. I want to be proof that if you just go for it, it’s all possible. I want people to know that if you press hard enough and jump of the cliff, you can do whatever you want. You can manifest the life you want to live. I think it’s real. I know it’s real.