The US pop star on the tumultuous times that fuelled her new record, the women that inspire her and the art of performing live.
The classic Detroit bounce of an 808 is shaking Heaven in London. Sirens, ducking between deep subs and crisp snares, vie for airspace, while strobes chop a moving crowd into weirdly ecstatic, jump-cut freeze-frames. “You can’t fight the beat,” screams a man next to me, pint glass in air, face covered in sweat, pupils dilated. This is the home straight of Santigold’s live return, the encore the audience demanded, and we’re in the midst of a booty bass meltdown.
It’s been four years since Santi White emerged astride a black stallion as Santigold. Riding a wave of buzz generated by the double A-side pairing of Creator and L.E.S Artistes, Santigold’s self-titled debut album carried a stylistic reach that set her apart from initial comparisons to M.I.A. and Karen O.
A lot has happened since 2008 though. The pop world has pushed leftfield centre stage, for one, with Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and the vacantly positive Katy Perry all peddling their own brand of kook, and there’s a worry Santigold’s sharpness may have been dulled by the passage of time. Not that out-there eccentricity was ever Santi’s sole stock-in-trade; it was the depth of her first record – the lineage of alternative music stretching back to Bad Brains, synth-pop and dub – that surprised listeners and critics alike back then.
Thankfully ‘Master Of My Make-Believe’, Santigold’s second album released in April, is a more muscular and politicised incarnation of the territory explored on the first record. The batucada stomp of first single Big Mouth indicated that things hadn’t shifted to downtempo atmospherics or ramped up to the mollied heights of US dubstep. Much of the guitar-led work makes way for expansive electronics, with the dancehall jerk of Freak Like Me and b-girl diss track Look At These Hoes offsetting the panoramic feel of Disparate Youth, God From My Machine and Pirate In The Water.
Back at Heaven the sold-out crowd greet cuts from ‘Santigold’ like old friends, but the largest cheers of the night go to Big Mouth and a version of Hold The Line that sees a pantomime horse clop around centre stage. “I’m gonna try a new song that I’ve actually never played live before, so be very nice to me,” she says, before launching into the tropical lilt of This Isn’t Our Parade. It’s this endearing mix of openness and fragility that draws Heaven in, letting an audience eager to be a part of things follow the twists and turns of Santigold’s dynamics.
It’s the afternoon following the night before and I’m making my way to meet Santigold at Atlantic Record’s headquarters, past the front desk’s flat screen TVs up to the fourth floor where floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the plush converted rooftops of Kensington’s rich residents. After a brief wait I’m taken through to Santi. It’s her last interview of the day and I’m greeted with an open and enthusiastic smile.
How’s it going?
Santigold: Good, how are you?
Good. Thanks for hanging around till the end.
Santigold: [laughs] No problem.
Let’s talk about ‘Master Of My Make Believe’. In some ways it feels not less personal than ‘Santigold’ but wider in scope. Like you’re not talking about relationships between two people in the city, but are instead focusing on groups of different people and the conditions they are finding themselves in. Is that right?
Santigold: You mean less personal as far as pertaining to myself?
In a way, yes.
Santigold: That’s not right [laughs], it was really personal. The way that I write is almost like I’m writing in my journal. When I was writing the first record I’d just come out of this crazy experience of losing my father and all the stuff that happened around that situation. I had this urgent need to just get it out. So there was a lot of stuff pertaining to me and how I saw everything. But what was going on in my head this time was to do with watching the world. I mean, this was during the time when dead birds were falling out of the sky for no reason, there were nuclear explosions in Japan, and oil spills in the Gulf. That was part of my experience in the world and so that was what I was writing about.
But then Pirate In The Water is about a friend of mine who died from a drug overdose. This Isn’t Our Parade is about a really close relationship with someone who I’ve just not been able to get through to for years. So it actually is really personal. I mean, you know the way that I write is always really open. So you can interpret things in different ways. The Riot’s Gone was about me getting over the anger that I had in me after my dad died. So it’s really personal. But I wrote a lot of the songs in 2010, and in 2011 things just started erupting, so I think a lot of that energy was coming out in the music during recording.
Were you recording in Jamaica during that siege with Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke? You know, the drug smuggler who was extradited to the US?
Santigold: I wasn’t there during that time. I think I just missed it. But every time I leave Jamaica something crazy happens.
No way, like what?
Santigold: Well, there was the time I couldn’t leave because they raised the price of gas. There was rioting and they were dismantling bridges so nobody could leave the country. Around four or five years ago, with Major Lazer, I barely made it out before a hurricane. And then on another Major Lazer trip we were staying in this house in Kingston. It was just me and Diplo, as Switch had missed his flight. All of a sudden we heard this pap, pap, pap. A month later we found out these Haitian drug dealers had got murdered right outside the house, and just washed up on the beach.
Oh my God!
Santigold: I know. I mean I love Jamaica, but it’s crazy.
So there’s a lot of producers on this record, but it doesn’t feel like you can cherry pick and say, that’s by so-and-so. Is it because there’s now a Santigold sound, or something that’s recognisable as the Santigold sound as opposed to a series of references people might point to?
Santigold: Definitely. I mean, I worked on the record for about a year and a half, and I don’t think I worked with any one producer for more than a month. So that means there’s a lot of me in the middle, picking this and picking that, and figuring out how it’s all going to go together. Even if I do pick a track that’s just fully done by a producer, I’ll pick something that totally matches the direction of the record.
One of the things I’ve always felt is that you and Peaches have two of the most powerful voices in electronic music. I guess it’s something that people have to experience live, because on record everyone is right up there in the mix. I was wondering where your voice came from. Did it just pop out of nowhere?
Santigold: I think so [laughs], because I didn’t really start singing until late. I did sing in school, but you know everyone had to; there wasn’t a choice. You know, holiday concerts and stuff like that. I didn’t even really like singing in front of people. I remember they made me sing a solo when I was fifteen and it was a disaster. But then when I started writing for other people I’d always have to sing a little bit. I think in my old band Stiffed, that was really when I learned to use my voice like another instrument. I think one of my biggest vocal influences was HR from Bad Brains. Then Nina Simone, she was somebody who had this voice that didn’t seem to come from her. She always chose melodies you would never expect, and you can never tell where she’s going. So those were two things that I wanted to incorporate into my style.
Then also I love the nasal voices of African and Jamaican singers like Sister Nancy, Sister Carol, or Shelly Thunder especially in that song Kuff. I feel like Jamaican singers always use their voices in really playful ways: it’s always really nasal, and really rhythmic, the same with African women singers. I didn’t have an R&B voice; mine was more nasal like the people I mentioned. So I just kinda figured out what I could do with it, and really just tried to use it as an instrument.
I wanted to ask a final question about your female dancers. I saw you play last night and some of what they were doing made me think of a feminist version of Public Enemy’s S1W unit. Was Professor Griff’s security force an influence?
Santigold: [Laughs] That was definitely an inspiration; at least that was one of the inspirations. I mean the S1Ws were amazing, and I really like how they came in and had that powerful presence. But also back in the 80s and 90s hip hop acts had matching dancers, or even the Robert Palmer girls, there’s just been so many iconic dancer singer combos and I wanted to do something like that.
It’s like a collage. We’ll watch African tribal dancing and try to work that out, and then we’ll watch Singing In The Rain, then we’ll watch Fosse, or some kids doing the jerk, or some dancehall queens. We just take it all and put it together. That’s what we do that’s really unique, using collage in the choreography, in the same way that I do in my music. I think what it also does is it really helps to translate the music into a physical space. I think that’s really important visually: communicating to people how the music should be taken in physically.