The Future is Here and It’s Paved in Gold
Musical savant Santi White, who records as Santigold, is currently one of the hottest and most inventive artists in the music world. A self-taught singer, writer and producer, she has collaborated and toured with a prolific list of the music industry’s major heavyweights: Pharrell, Diplo, Beastie Boys, Kanye West, MIA, Björk, Coldplay and most recently the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The respected talents she has worked with are as diverse as the infectious tunes she creates. To say Santigold is ahead of the curve would be an understatement. Four years have passed since her self-titled debut and Santi has returned at last, and returned with a synchronized vengeance.
Santigold’s sophomore album, “Master of My Make-Believe”, was recorded on Jay-Z’s label Roc-Nation and its collaged melodies are a smash and grab of hip-hop, Robo-dance, electropop, New-wave reggae, 80’s synth, Jamaican beats, Indian rhythms, and Afro drums. Santi puts things together in a way that cross-pollinates so many genres that it’s a genreless sound that hodgepodges soft ballad blues and protest songs with faraway vocals. The work is an invigorating bucket of worms, writhing together to create a completely different genre, the post-internet, post-everything, gloriously saturated new.
Brooklyn-based Santi White, 35-years-old, spent her childhood in Northwest Philadelphia, where she hop scotched from an all-black kindergarten to a primarily all-white school grade-school to an exclusive Quaker high-school [Germantown Friends School] and then later attended college at the elite Wesleyan University. Her mixed education lent a hand to her being whomever she dared to be.
“I was kind of a jack of all trades as a kid,” Santigold says. “I was into everything under the sun for about five minutes: ice skating, karate, violin, guitar, field hockey, lacrosse, gymnastics, tap dance, etc. Music was the only thing that has been constant all the way through.”
Repeated listening to “Master Of My Make-Believe” can leave you feeling like you’ve come into another world—Santi’s world: a handmade, perfectly cooked feast of beats not just to dance to, but also to feel to, stomp to, march to or simply to walk to. “Master of My Make-Believe” is masterful because it is both reptilian and cerebral. It bounces back and forth between melodies that appeal to your mind and beats that stick to your bones.
Santigold describes the album as being about knowing that whatever you dare to see for yourself or for the world, you can create. About being the ruler of your reality. It’s like being on the edge of something dangerous but peaceful, on the brink with the madness briefly paused. It’s a genre-bending ode to youthful defiance, independence and illusion. There’s an elemental feel of edginess mixed with calm stoicism throughout. The yin and yang of the album work together towards a greater whole, an uncharted tour of its ringmaster’s multicultural musical language.
The songs are untethered to any thematic or conceptual whole, allowing Santigold to do what she does best: invent. “My songs are always really personal, even though the way I write lyrics, the meaning is sometimes vague. So the songs are left open enough for the listeners to interpret in a way that has personal meaning to them,” she says. “My songs almost always start with melody rather than lyrics. The lyrics actually usually come out of the melody. They are all personal [inventions] in their own way.”
Santi’s unwillingness to adhere to preconception led to the decision to steer the horse herself this time. “Making this album was a challenge for me. I was at the helm of the project by myself this time around,” she explains. “Though I worked with many producers, I was the only constant, so there was no one else to share in any doubt I felt, or the struggles I ran into trying to pull things together on any given day. I had to dig really deep and find the confidence needed to have faith in my vision, and see it through to the end. It was definitely a growth process for me, and a testament to the power of creativity. It will lead you if you let it.”
Her sound retains an enticing roughness – mirrored in the visual world that accompanies it – and her attitude, a welcome simplicity. Unlike her first album, “Make-Believe” evolved organically without a roadmap. “[I had] no blueprint at all. I just jumped in with absolutely no game plan. I was actually unusually clear when I first started the writing process because I had just come back from climbing Kilimanjaro, and I flew straight from Ethiopia (where we had gone after Tanzania, to visit a UN Refugee camp that supplied water in a region where it was scarce) to Los Angeles to work with Switch,” Santi says. “It was pretty ambitious to think that I’d actually get anything done. I guess I felt invigorated and thought I would explode with new life experience. Instead, I mostly slept on his couch and we cooked on the grill. But we did come up with the drums that would later be used on the song ‘The Riot’s Gone,’ so it was well worth it in the end,” she says.
“It wasn’t until several months later that I started to get anywhere. I guess I just needed some time to process all the living and experiences that I’d had over the past few years. There had been no real down time since putting out the first record to process anything. I went straight from touring the first album for two years, to training for and then climbing Kilimanjaro, straight into working on the new record. I didn’t know what I had learned yet or what new I had to say.”
On “Master of Make-Believe,” recorded in New York, LA, and Jamaica, Santigold returned to the producers who worked on her debut like Switch, Diplo and John Hill, But she found that writing wasn’t so easy this time around. “It was a challenge, mostly because I went there with expectations. I thought I knew exactly what to expect, exactly what the process would be like, etc. That’s the worst way to go into creating something new.”
She labored for a year on the album, traveling to Jamaica with Diplo and Switch and calling in new collaborators Nick Zinner [of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] and Dave Sitek [of TV on the Radio]. “We were all at a different place in our lives, and different places as artists, and everyone brought their own baggage to the table. I had an amazing time all the same. At the end of the day, being in Jamaica with friends is never bad. And it gave me the break that I needed to actually hear the noise inside my head and sort through it. Which led to me getting a lot of writing done there, which was a real breakthrough. It was productive, just different than what I expected. I realized when I was there that I needed to go work with some new people and put some fresh energy in the mix. It’s always great working with new people because you get different things out of yourself. And then later, I ended working with my old crew again with less pressure on it, and it went way better.”
Santigold is in the rarified crop of socially conscious artists who make true, homebrewed art and are somehow allowed on the main platform even if their sales aren’t guaranteed. For these artists, actual substance is valued over fanfare. Tracks like her majestically mashed up “Disparate Youth” have the blithe buoyancy of a faraway place. The electro-balladry of “The Riot’s Gone” feels like a haunted inward address to the instability of loss and uncertainty, both facilitator and personification of an uncertain world with lyrics like: “I’ve been looking for a fight/All the trouble that I know/Trying to lose the world inside/But it’s got no place to go.”
“‘The Riot’s Gone’ was about feeling like myself again after having felt uncharacteristically angry after my Dad’s death,” Santi confides. “I actually wrote most of these songs in 2010 before all of the shit hit the fan, but I think it was drawing from that same undercurrent, those feelings of restlessness and frustration, and a sense that we had better start paying attention or else. I mean so many things were happening, just to the Earth alone, from birds falling dead from the sky, to oil spills, nuclear explosions. I’d just come back from Africa where people don’t even have clean water to drink, which is said to be the next thing we’ll be fighting over after oil. On the other side, just turn on the TV and you’ve got a celebrity-crazed, false-reality obsessed world, that is a bit concerning. That’s the reality I was writing about.”
The tight-lipped Santigold fiercely guards her privacy successfully while still thriving in the public eye. She seems to straddle the line between loathing material excess and embracing it. She’s not yet accustomed to the trappings of mega-fame. Is it tough for her to balance the desire for success with wariness toward fame? “It’s not so tough yet,” she answers. “I don’t think about fame too much. I mean, it’s definitely weird when you’re somewhere just minding your own business and you realize someone’s been watching you and you’re like, I hope I wasn’t talking to myself or picking my nose or something. But I just focus on getting my art right, and hope the rest will follow. I want to be successful. But I believe success is different to each individual.”
Money and sales are such huge driving forces in the music industry, but Santigold makes her own unique art while navigating within those parameters, which only lends more cred to her craft. On the cusp of international stardom with a would-be breakthrough hit album, a lot more people will be hearing what Santigold is saying. Santi is not about to simply submit to the agony of the scrutiny they demand. “I don’t like being put under a microscope. That’s one thing about ‘fame’ that’s really weird and dangerous to the individual,” she says. “As a person in the public eye, I learned last time around, you really need to protect yourself from other people trying to scrutinize or dissect you. It’s no good.”
“I want to live more gracefully, like to try to be more like the calm at the center of the storm,” Santigold says. About the change she wishes to see in the world: “I want us to live more harmoniously.”
Read the extended Santigold cover story in its entirety in Ladygunn’s current issue.
photography / MICHAEL DONOVAN
stylist / ALLISON ST.GERMAIN
makeup / DEVRA KINERY @THE ART-DEPARTMENT
writer / HEATHER SEIDLER