The former busker searches for balance, peace and connection in her music and in her outlook on life.
IT’S A WARM, sunny, late afternoon at Seattle Center, the first weekend of summer, and Whitney Mongé wants to run through the fountain SO bad.
She looks enviously at the blissed-out PrideFest crowd sprawled on the lush grass in front of the Mural Amphitheatre stage.
CATCHING UP WITH (Dec. 20, 2018): Whitney Mongé follows her European tour with a new record — and a lot of emotion
“I’m 31,” she says, mustering all the weariness a 31-year-old can muster. “I can’t pass out on the lawn anymore.”
Mongé, a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist, is trying to figure out how to spend the next hour or so before performing Sunday’s closing set on the Main Stage.
For now, she’s happy to simply enjoy the moment, taking in this rainbow-colored pageant of acceptance, beauty, love and the occasional naked person. She’s excited to be here with her people, and her person, girlfriend Talisha Herald.
“This is the best holiday of the year for us,” Mongé says. “It’s a reunion, a connection, a celebration of this thing we all have in common. I can be myself the most at this festival.”
Mongé, who began her professional music career 10 years ago busking on the cobblestones of Pike Place Market, talks about the thrill of playing PrideFest a second time, and about artists’ responsibility to reflect what’s going on in the world, to use their voices.
And, this happened: A young white guy walks briskly to Mongé, excitedly introduces himself and tells her how much he enjoys her music.
As words keep tumbling out of his mouth, however, everyone realizes he thinks he’s talking to a more-famous queer African-American female singer, Janelle Monáe.
Mongé handles it gracefully, as she does most things. She tells him he should check out her set later. As he walks away, she jokes, “All us black people look the same, I guess.” She says she’s not bothered by it, an honest mistake, not that bad. She’s certainly dealt with worse. Besides, it’s almost showtime.
And here’s the deal:
Whitney Mongé — a former busker who started with seven cover songs and a lot of guts, a woman who writes emotional songs for people who listen to the words, a role model for young brown girls who want to play music, a supersmart college dropout, an avid gardener in her neighborhood P-Patch, a weed-smoking collector of vinyl records, a better pool player than you — might just be Seattle’s next big star.
A DECADE AGO, Mongé looked out the window of her 100-square-foot studio apartment at Stewart House to Pike Place Market below and saw balloon twisters, parrot handlers, accordion players and singers.
“I wondered if I could do that,” she says now, laughing. “Every morning I’d wake up and see people singing on the corner, and I was like, ‘What does it take to play?’ I didn’t know at the time if I was good enough to do it.”
Mongé scribbled down an August 2008 date on her front door. That would be her first day as a busker.
She had pawned everything she owned and come to Seattle at age 20, in September 2007, to study audio engineering at The Art Institute of Seattle. (She quit after two quarters.) She also had needed to get out of Spokane. She attended a “crazy-religious” church there for five years, quitting when she was 18, after realizing she was gay. She remembers thinking while she was in church, “Maybe God made a mistake on me.”
She spent her last two years in Spokane “doing mushrooms … and all kinds of odd jobs,” which wasn’t getting her anywhere. Selling cars. Delivering roses. Stocking shelves at Safeway on the graveyard shift. “I was just busting my ass, making ends meet. That’s how I grew up.”
Moving to Seattle, free to start over, discovering herself in a new city, all seemed “serendipitous and magical,” Mongé says.
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Before her first busking experience, she asked Emery Carl — the “Hula-Hoop guy” — for advice. Carl, a 40-year-old former youth pastor who quit busking at the Market in 2016, had been performing there since 2000 (in 2003, he added the ability to Hula-Hoop while he played guitar and sang). Mongé says Carl told her, “ ‘You’ve got a cute face; you could probably do it.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, dude.’ ”
There was a little more to it than that, actually. Among other bits of hard-earned wisdom he passed along, Carl advised Mongé that — while it was true buskers needed to play cover songs to make the most money — as artists, they needed to work on their songwriting craft, too.
“There are some words I think of in regards to Whitney, and they’re not the ones that you know right away,” says Carl, who ran into Mongé recently, hung out with her and Herald at their Queen Anne apartment, and considers her a friend. “They’re the ones that kind of come out over time. Dedication. Courage. Heart. Heart’s a big one.”
Mongé was a hit from the beginning.
“I’ll never forget that first set, not only financially — how much more money I made than working all day long at Starbucks — but the energy,” says Mongé, who had noticed the couple who played before her made “a dollar in a whole hour.” During Mongé’s set, “People were just super into it. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is something I can do.’ ”
Mongé used her first day’s earnings to pay more than $60 for tickets to the Capitol Hill Block Party that weekend.
A week and a half later, Mongé quit her job at Starbucks. Actually, she just stopped showing up. “So I have no good references,” Mongé says. “I kind of had to do this.”
MONGÉ QUICKLY established herself as one of the best buskers at the Market.
“I felt like I was on top of the world,” she says. “I started to find my songwriting when I moved here. That’s when I started to live life and be able to write about something.”
She calls her music “alternative soul” and says she tries to “evoke emotion, and whatever that emotion is, is completely up to the listener.” Her goal, she says, is to “try to get people to think … and be present.”
Mongé says she learned as a busker how to make money from music. She has a focus, a resilience, a work ethic that serve her well now as an independent artist.
“I wasn’t afraid of it not working, because it worked right away,” she says. “Even on the days it was bad, I still made money.”
She says she never sat around then (or now, for that matter) thinking, “Oh; somebody’s going to discover me. That went away a long time ago.”
Mongé screenprinted her own T-shirts, booked gigs around town, and hand-pressed her CDs and sold them from her open guitar case as she performed.
She has watched other local musicians — including some not as talented — perform on TV.
“My industry is literally having to go on talent shows,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s never been my style. I’ve just got to work it out on my own; that’s how I’ve always seen it. I don’t need to go on TV for my 15 minutes of fame. That will come if I make great music.”
People started to notice Mongé, and not just the thousands of tourists passing through Pike Place Market each day.
Mongé appeared on local radio and TV shows, and her songs were played on Seattle radio stations. Her second real record, “Steadfast,” a six-song EP recorded with a band, was released at SIFF Cinema Uptown at the screening for the excellent 2014 movie, “Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary.” Mongé is featured prominently in the film.
She says the favorite show she has played is still the record-release party for her most recent EP, “Stone,” a sold-out performance (a first for her) at the Triple Door on Jan. 16, 2017. It was her 30th birthday, MLK Day and four days before Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“I wanted it to be around people of color performers,” Mongé says. “It’s MLK Day; it’s our day. But also, I just remember a lot of people saying they’d been feeling down in the dumps after the election, and that show really helped them out. Like things were going to be OK. It was really powerful.”
She had quit busking by the end of 2015, after she felt she had enough songs to put on strong shows of all-original material at local clubs.
“If there were ever any dues to pay, she’s paid them,” Carl says. “You could practice for thousands of hours and still not necessarily have it. But it’s who she is, and what she’s got. It’s her heart, and her spark and her determination to shine, and shine on.”
Mongé is planning a tour of Europe in October, followed by a homecoming show in November to release a stripped-down solo record she finished July 1 at Studio Litho in Fremont.
“It’s just her time right now,” Jones says. “And I think she’s ready for it.”
A FEW WEEKS before PrideFest, Mongé is playing at Nectar Lounge in Fremont with her current band — bassist Christian Liebig (who has been with her for four years), guitarist Woody Frank (three years) and drummer Jens Gunnoe (nine months).
After a sound check, Mongé takes a break to go outside for a smoke. She quit for a couple of years a while back, but that didn’t last. She’s made a few runs at eating vegetarian. She went two or three years once but, well … bacon. After that, it wasn’t a long way to, “ooh, burgers.” A three-week stretch this summer of not eating meat recently ended, although she’s “mostly” eating vegetarian.
“I’m trying to create balance rather than do the extremes I tend to fail at,” she says.
Before the show at Nectar Lounge, she says, she was five days into an effort to not drink alcohol for a week. (She came up a little short, the streak ending after the show later that night. Damn you, craft beers; why do you taste so good?)
Mongé says she’s “really social,” and goes out a lot, often to watch other musicians, but doesn’t have a lot of close friends. Before the show, she wanders around the room, which is starting to fill up, talking with fans and friends.
Just before going on, Mongé walks next door to get a fancy coffee shot (the no-alcohol rule still in effect at this point).
She talks guitars (she’s not a guitar nerd) and guitar-playing (she has focused recently on becoming a better player). She’s already pretty good, according to Jones, who ought to know. He drew comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan when he and his band won the 2012 Hard Rock Rising battle of the bands contest in Seattle. (Mongé, performing solo, made it to the final round).
Jones uses words like “stunning” and “amazing” when asked to describe Mongé. He says he expects her to be playing nationally soon.
“She’s already an incredible guitar player,” Jones says. “She doesn’t realize it because she’s so naturally gifted. Whitney Mongé is probably one of the better guitar players in Seattle right now, but people don’t know about it.”
Jones says it’s up to Mongé to make sure they do.
“You have to make the claim,” he says. “You need to stay humble, but you need to claim your glory, claim what’s yours.”
Fame is fine, Mongé says, if it comes with artistic integrity, and by continuing to do good work and produce great music.
She’s not too worried about money, but is quick to point out that she has made a living the past 10 years playing music. There’s no rich uncle. She says sometimes when people hear she’s a musician, they look at her like she’s broke, or homeless. “I have a Subaru!” she says.
When she’s asked what success looks like, Mongé focuses on more than music. She talks about building community, of not following the crowd, living life to the best of her ability. She wants to continue to be a professional musician, to do it more confidently, to play all over the world.
OK, and this:
“I want to win a Grammy someday.”
“I don’t need to sell out a KeyArena-size room. The Paramount would be cool, though.”
AFTER RESISTING the urge to run through the fountain or snooze in the lawn, Whitney Mongé takes the stage for her performance at PrideFest.
Introducing her song “Crash,” Mongé dedicates it to musicians and artists who do what they do, for us. “It’s hard, and sometimes you want to give up, but I’m glad I never have, and I just keep going, and you guys keep coming.”
The song, one of Mongé’s best, gets the crowd moving, as it always does.
Mongé tells her fans she’s overwhelmed with gratitude, surely feeling their love and the joyous vibe as PrideFest winds down. The next song, “Chemical Reaction,” is for her girlfriend Herald, a 38-year-old full spectrum doula who has been swaying to the music from her spot in the grass not far from center stage.
“This festival is about love,” Mongé says. “The party’s cool and everything. It’s one of my favorite parts, but it’s really about love and connection and being our free selves with the people that we love the most … I want to dedicate this to my boo, right there.”
Herald saw Mongé perform at the Market six years ago, bought one of her CDs and asked her to sign it, but says Mongé “was a little too cool for school.”
There was no connection for a while, until Herald heard about Mongé playing at a Seattle show with D’Vonne Lewis, a drummer Herald knew. She invited herself and met Mongé, and a week later they were eating vegan Thai food on their first date.
They’ve been together since, living for the past 3½ years in their apartment on Queen Anne with a killer view of Lake Union, just a block away from the P-Patch.
“Whitney knows what she wants to do,” Herald says. “She has a very strong vision for her music and her life. It’s just about loving her, being her friend and supporting her emotionally.
“She’s the most magical human.”
Herald says Mongé is a natural leader who has thought a lot recently about her dual roles as activist and artist. What is her place in the discussion of social justice?
“I feel very strongly that she’ll figure that out very soon,” Herald says.
For now, Herald says, “Her music is her protest.”
Mongé just says, “I’ve always been really attracted to trying to inspire people and to add something to the world. I think the way I’ve been going about it is pretty authentic.”
Clouds move in and the wind picks up, and what had been a warm afternoon turns into a cool evening as Mongé plays her final song.
She thanks the Pride crowd and says good night.
“Keep loving. Keep living.”