Pop Art

Despite success, Santigold remains a restless artist determined to keep pushing limits


t’s been four years since Santi White (aka Santigold) dropped her stellar, genre-juggling debut. Some might think that is a long layoff between albums, especially in a fickle contemporary cultural landscape that moves quickly and without concern for those who don’t try to keep up.

Not for White, whose need for quality control and to live a life that will fuel compelling art trumps any urge to be a slave to the perpetually changing cultural rat race. Besides, it’s all about context. 

“The first record took two years to write, and people didn’t know that because people didn’t know who the fuck I was,” she says, laughing, by phone from her home in Brooklyn. “After the first record I also had been on the road for two years straight, and then climbed (Mount) Kilimanjaro, literally. I had to let myself get to the other side of this experience and give myself a second to reflect on things that have happened over the past couple of years before I went back to work.”

That first record, dubbed Santogold (she was forced to change her stage name to Santigold after a legal dispute), featured a dozen ear-pleasing songs that drew from its creator’s eclectic taste in sonics — from Dub, Punk and Reggae to Electro Pop, New Wave and Hip Hop. Teeming with tasty hooks and White’s sassy, impressively elastic vocal delivery, the album was the culmination of a life-long love of music and its limitless creative possibilities. Throw in White’s playful visual aesthetic — a colorful multicultural approach that draws on everything from avant-garde filmmakers and painters to old-school Hip Hop and Devo — and you had a fully formed artist working at the top of her game.

Now comes the anticipated follow-up Master of My Make-Believe, another strong blast of slanted Pop music kick-started by the album-opening one-two of “Go!,” a punky, slightly menacing dance track featuring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and Nick Zinner, and “Disparate Youth,” a dubby, propulsive gem marked by an edgy guitar lick from Zinner and lyrics that seem inspired by the recent uprisings in the Middle East. 

White, 35, grew up in Philadelphia during a time when there was, according to her, “great Pop music on the radio.” She earned a degree in music and African-American studies from Wesleyan University before moving into the music industry as an A&R rep, producer and writer of songs for high-profile Pop acts, most notably Ashlee Simpson and Lily Allen. 

Her first foray into performing, as lead singer for Philly-based Punk outfit Stiffed from 2002-2006, resulted in a pair of albums produced by former Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer and the notice of Lizard King Records’ Martin Heath, who offered White a solo contract. 

White admits that her varied musical background and relatively late-blooming solo career have been big factors in her ability to present her own unique identity. (It’s no coincidence that the new album is titled Master of My Make-Believe.)

“I think it’s really important for anybody to have time to mature, but it’s especially important for an artist or anybody who gets thrown into the public eye and gets scrutinized,” she says. “It’s really important to have strong idea of who you are and what it is you’re trying to do. I had a chance to do that, and a lot of people don’t.”

She’s also had the chance to work with a host of talented collaborators. Besides contributions from the aforementioned Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Master features production work from Switch, Q-Tip, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and Diplo, among others. White sees herself as a sort of master of ceremonies, a curator who knows what she wants from each collaborator.

“I’m driving the process, so it’s not like I’m an artist who’s bouncing around from producer to producer and doing what it is that a producer does,” she says. “What I’m doing is inviting a bunch of different producers into my creative world to add in what their strength is and kind of inviting them to step outside of what they’re normally doing and to do something special in the context of my vision. 

“My role is that I’m sort of a curator, and I pick a producer for what is needed on each song,” she continues. “That’s why there are often three different producers on a track — they’re coming in to do a very specific thing.”

Yet don’t think things come too easily for White, a restless artist who is determined to keep pushing the limits of Pop music in a current landscape that doesn’t necessarily reward those with distinctive visions.

“I want Pop music to be good music, and I don’t think that it should be a conflict, so I’m trying to make good music that still has a Pop sensibility,” she says. “Unfortunately a lot of Pop music isn’t artful right now. Quality in general across the board in our culture has gone down, especially in anything art-related — it’s always industry over artistry right now. The economy is really bad. Everybody’s really focused on the bottom line, and they don’t take many risks as far as the record industry.”

White cites the 1980s as a high-water mark in Pop music and as a big influence on what she’s trying to do today.

“There was so much different kind of music that was considered Pop,” she says. “It was an ideal situation when you have good music that’s considered mainstream Pop music but it’s so varied as well, and they played it all on the radio. That’s how I remember the ’80s. I was a kid, so if I were a musician during that time I might have a different picture of it, but I know that I heard everything from Prince to The Police to Devo to The Clash to Blondie to Peter Gabriel. There was just great music on the radio.”

While White’s kaleidoscopic cultural acumen and diverse background have no doubt informed everything she does as Santigold, her approach to music is actually more organic than it might seem.

“My most creative time is right when I wake up; I get my ideas through all my senses, expect for taste — I don’t taste my ideas,” she says, laughing. “I write melodies first, and the melodies sound like words. I write the lyrics off what it sounds like and the meaning comes through as I’m listening. So it’s not like, ‘I want to write a song about this.’ It’s a really intuitive process in the way it comes to me.”

SANTIGOLD performs Friday at Bogart's with Theophilus London.

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