Pop Singer Santigold Takes a Playful Approach on Eclectic New Album

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Pop/R&B/hip-hop singer Santigold (Santi White) developed her eclectic approach way back in college. White, who studied music at Wesleyan, learned to play traditional hand drums while taking ethnomusicology classes that exposed her to a wide range of music.

“I would take classes on the music of Jamaica and on experimental music like John Cage and Phillip Glass,” she says via phone from a Colorado tour stop. “I took classical and jazz theory and composition and all that stuff. Mostly, what I learned was about how to think about experimental music and how do we go about making it. I think the idea of challenging how we put music together informed my approach to making music. I listen to all these different types of music. Now, people always ask me, 'Do you rap?' I’m like, 'No. Well, sort of.'”

She says she listened to different types of music since she was 11. And she says she even knew then that whatever music she ended up making would be an amalgamation of things.

“There was a journal entry that I wrote when I was 17 years old that I recently found,” she says. “It’s so cute. I wrote that I had no desire to be a performer or singer. That didn’t happen until my twenties. It was just something that I wrote. I wrote that I wanted to make the type of music that didn’t exist yet. It was something that I wasn’t hearing and when I tried to write for other people, it still didn’t sound like what was in my head. I just wanted to follow the art of the process. Eventually, it came to life.”

While still in high school, she got a gig doing A&R at Epic Records. She worked for the company until she was 21.

“I was learning about the industry and by the time I ended up in the A&R department, I kept trying to sign cool stuff but they wanted [rapper] Puff [Daddy] and all this stuff that was already out,” she says. “It was a perfect transition into what I wanted to do next. I learned so much when I was there, but it wasn’t a creative job, and it’s still not a creative job.”

A short stint in the punk band Stiffed made her realize she could perform on stage. She says she loved the visceral nature of the experience.

“It made me realize what’s it should be like to be on stage,” she says when asked about the experience. “There’s just bass, guitar and drums and vocals. You can’t really fuck that up. I think that’s where I learned what it should be like to be on stage. It’s raw energy. It’s just free. You can’t fuck that up. The songs are so fast. It was just wonderful. I got to come into myself as a performer through that band, but it was limited. It was only one type of music that I liked, and I wanted to play all the types of music that I liked.”

White made her solo debut as Santogold (which she later rechristened Santigold) in 2008 with a self-titled album that featured singles “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator.” Her follow-up, 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe, which featured the post-punk anthem “Disparate Youth,” secured her status as an underground star.

With her latest album, 99¢, Santigold again combines musical genres in a playful manner as she offers up a satire on postmodern life. The album cover art offers a statement in and of itself; it features the shrink-wrapped among a cluttered mess of things, portraying her life in a bag. Producers Patrick Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop) and John Hill (Florence and the Machine, Charlie XCX) alongside Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek helped out with recording, which took place primarily in New York City and Los Angeles. The opening track "Can't Get Enough of Myself" features chirping backing vocals and a funky bass groove while White delivers soulful vocals. "Walking in Circles" alternates between rap and pop; percolating electronic noises turn into something that verges on Electronic Dance Music. 

“I started writing the songs and half way through I decided to take a look at what I what was writing about,” she says when asked about the writing process. “I realized I was writing about the conflict I see within artists and musicians in this era of consumption and being a product and narcissistic time. It’s a crazy place. As an artist, you become more aware of yourself as a brand and product. You put more into that than into the art you’re making. I was really conflicted about it.”

For the sake of the album, she decided to embrace the branding process and write songs that deal with its contradictions.

“I decided that I had to embrace that [side of the music business] because that’s the way to make a living in music these days,” she says. “No one buys music. You can take yourself out of the game or participle in the game. I was thinking about how I could do it in a way that made sense to me. I decided to turn the absurdity into the art and highlight all the things that are crazy about it. I made it a playful satire and just lay it out in an honest way so people can see it physically. I made these songs that are really playful but are talking about real stuff and real dangers. It’s about how people are creating different software versions of themselves. It’s a really strange time, even with the presidential race. These are the issues I’m talking about.”

She says branding has become such a preoccupation for bands and labels, that quality control has gone by the wayside.

“Nobody cares about good music anymore,” she says. “Well, some people do, obviously. The labels and corporations don’t care about the music. The music business now is all about marketing. It’s not about music. In the past, you had people who were so excited about finding the new best music. Now, it’s about finding an artist with a built-in following and that’s it. The consumer values are very different. People who have come up in this new era, I don’t think they know they difference between real music and manufactured music.”

The album has been called an homage to New York underground of the '70s and '80s.

“Oh my God, that’s one of my favorite eras of music,” says White. “I love the late ’70s and early ’80s. I think all my favorite bands come out of that era. All the guitar sounds and drum sound that I love come from that era. I love Blondie and the Pretenders. I love Siouxsie and the Banshees. I love Devo. I love Talking Heads. I love Kraut rock. I love all that stuff.”

She promises the current live show will be a colorful affair.

“I think my shows are always pretty theatrical but on the level of the school play,” she says. “There are lots of props. It’s really fun. Lots of great visuals. It’s really conceptual. It’s high energy and enjoyable and engaging on so many different levels, which is what I think a show should be. I think the art of showmanship has fallen by the wayside. I don’t agree with that. I think the show should make you feel like you’re part of something really special.”

Santigold, DonMonique, 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $22.50, houseofblues.com

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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