Santi White, aka Santogold, is a popstar for our times.
The Philadelphia-hailing, Brooklyn-based renaissance gal formerly made ends meet penning hits for the likes of Lily Allen and Ashley Simpson while trying to get her own band, Stiffed, off the ground.
Stiffed split up, but Santi continued to work on her own songs, safe in the knowledge that they were, you know, pretty good. Following the underground splash made by last year’s debut double A-side ‘LES Artistes’/’Creator’, the self-titled Santogold LP finally arrives this spring, boasting collaborations with the likes of Diplo, Switch, Sinden and Disco D. FACT called Ms White up to see what’s happening…
Tell me about how you came to be Santogold, and how you came to make this album…
Ok, so I had been in another band, Stiffed, for four years, and towards the end of our time together we signed a deal with Lizard King. We were a four-piece band, but it was really my project, and really I had signed the deal with Lizard King. At that point I was really starting to get bored of the band, as was my writing partner, John Hill. He and I started writing stuff on the side and we were just waiting for Stiffed to end, so when it did we were like YAY!
The album was born in a really short period of time. Our deal with Lizard King was an E.P. deal. The label was on this big search for the ultimate pop producer to give mine and John song’s this pop glow, you know, and it was a PAIN IN THE ASS. Martin, the guy at Lizard King, didn’t know what I was or what he was signing. He wanted someone who he could tell what to do, and I was not that person. Then John and I went away and re-did the songs ourselves, and Martin hears them and he’s like, “Wow! Great! OK, guys can produce this yourselves. Oh, and by the way, I want a full album and I want it done and mixed in eight weeks.
The first mix was bad so we re-mixed and re-re-mixed; meanwhile, other things started happening. I put up some songs I’d done on myspace, including a track I’d done with Switch and Freq Nasty, and a remix by Switch and Sinden, and this buzz started building from there.
Now that it’s finished, do you kind of miss working on the record?
Well, as I said, it was written in a really short period of time but after that came a very, very long period of mixing, remixing, waiting. I haven’t worked on anything new in the meantime, because I’m not one of those people who can just go on and on writing and recording. It’s kind of like a well, it can dry up, it’s not just this unlimited flow of ideas and freeform creativity. You’ve got to let that build up.
How did you hook up with Diplo and Switch?
We had so many mutual friends and I guess we knew each other through everybody , though not really. Then at a party one night we were sitting on the same couch and got talking, and then he’s like “There’s someone you’ve got to meet, you’ve got to make music with him!” and he introduces me this other guy, who turns out to be Switch. Then they’re both like, “Do you rap? We want you to do something, this kind of B-more ghetto style thing with you.” I’m like, “Er, no. [laughs] Or yes, but it won’t be like you imagine. Let’s do it, we’ll end up with something really different…”
Did you feel particularly stifled or liberated when in collaboration with different producers?
I’m really particular about who I work with and what they bring to the table. Switch comes from that house background, really strong, twisted house music, twisting sounds into crazy shapes. Wes [Diplo] is kinda more hip-hop, he’s really good at mixing up a lot of different styles, but he’s got this real love of straight-up hip-hop. So, he’ll stick that typical hip-hop “Hey!” in a song where it has NO place at all, which is great [laughs]. And it was a first for both Diplo and Switch to be working with someone like me – a) a bona fide singer, and songwriter, but also someone who had very different and strong ideas about how things should sound, the way I like things to sound. For instance, I’m into digital sounds but I really like them to sound analogue, I guess because I’m really into electronic music from the 70s and 80s, whereas those guys are very much into stuff from now, today. Also we’d fight over samples – they love to use them, and I’m like, “I HATE SAMPLES.”
How has living in New York, more specifically Brooklyn, impacted on the record?
I feel that this album is very much a New York record. The great thing about living in New York is there’s so much stimulus, so many little things. ‘Unstoppable’ is such a song about my experience in my neighbourhood. Getting parking tickets every day, guys hollering at you about your ass, buying knock-off sneakers or whatever, so much going on, so interesting if you respond to it as creative stimulus. I mean, you have to respond to it that way, otherwise you’d be depressed [laughs]. You’d be, “Someone got shot on my street. Again. That sucks.”
The other thing about New York is that you can disappear and still be out, among people. You can lose yourself – a rare thing – in that whole hipster scene. My song ‘LES Artistes’ is about that kind of hipster thing – when I came back to New York and was particularly vulnerable and delicate, I was really aware of these people, everywhere.
You’ve said before that Stiffed floundered partly because people couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a black woman singing rock. Is that something you hold to be true?
I don’t think it was people, it was more the record industry. It was the people who actually signing it, the people who could actually give us a break, they’re the ones that didn’t get it. Meanwhile everyone gets it BUT them. They’re very slow [laughs]. Especially in the US, too; you guys [in the UK] are more open. It’s getting more like that way over here, after the industry people have seen things like Gnarls Barkley or whatever blow up in Europe. There’s definitely a responsiveness to people like MIA, people like Spank Rock, that there wasn’t before. The fact that those guys are selling records in the UK is forcing the US industry to listen. I mean, those guys will listen to anything that’s selling…[laughs]
What did you grow up listening to? What were the artists or records who really made a big impression on you and perhaps influenced your own music?
Funnily enough, a lot of my influences on this record are things that made an impression on me when I was, like, 11 years old. My dad was really into reggae, he was always playing a lot of roots stuff like Burning Spear and Black Uhuru, and then Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye …He took me to see James Brown, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone. I have an older sister who was into rock, you know, classic rock like Hendrix and Led Zep, folk stuff like Joni Mitchell, and then Suicidal Tendencies, Fun Boy Three, The Smiths, Bad Brains. At school there was The Cure, Bad Brains, Lee Perry, Siouxsie & Banshees. All that stuff has influenced me.
Was writing songs for other people a positive experience?
Every time I’ve written for someone I’ve always learned from the experience, sure, but it’s definitely not something that I find really fun. I mean, do you think working out is fun? It’s just like exercise. It’s been good for opening doors, meeting people. It’s really helped me – stuff like learning how to write a big chorus. That’s a good skill, a skill I’m glad to have – to be able to add that pop melody, to bring that to my own music, songs that might otherwise sound strictly for the underground.
There’s a lot of hype attached to you at the moment. Do you feel a lot of pressure to deliver? Are you at all worried or anxious about what lies ahead?
Hell no [laughs]. I’m ready to throw myself into it. Generally I’m an anxious kind of person, but not about this.