“A lady, a creator, an ex-A&R and a one-person pop hit factory. Santogold’s debut album tells us to ‘shove it’ for good reason.
With a new kink-free schnoz, and a bonkers promo video that zings as if concocted by Gwen Stefani in the surrealist of moods, Ashlee Simpson has undergone something of an inspired makeover recently. Her sister may have been happy soaping up Willy Nelson’s Mustang in a string bikini to shift units of her previous single but Simpson Jnr is taking a ‘credible pop’ route into the mainstream these days.
‘Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)’ is, by all intent and purpose, a Santogold off-cut that didn’t make it onto the Brooklynite’s self-titled debut album. Or at least so it seems. Finger-snapping and gibbering with an angelic loose tongue, it’s Cindi Lauper sings Stefani’s ‘What You Waiting For?’ with Timberland providing the clasping beats.
“I don’t really enjoy writing for other people,” says Santogold (real name Santi White) “but I think for as long as the opportunities are there I should take some of them.”
Not solely referring to ‘Outta My Head‚”‘ but rather her past song-writing commissions also, Santi is aboard a train, heading back to her hometown of Philadelphia, away from her home city of 8 years, New York.
“Writing the pop songs is so much different from the stuff that I do,” continues White, reasoning why she’ll continue to occasionally scribe for others, despite her ownership of a solo career that’s got those with tongues talking. “Working with producers like Timberland and Chad from The Neptunes, who are pretty much song factories, these environments are so foreign and so far from what I usually do that it’s actually very uncomfortable and difficult for me. But it’s like going to the gym – you go to exercise to keep your muscles good – and that’s what I do. I go, and can be objective, and am told ‘write a pop chorus, you have to write a pop hook, and quickly’. And that’s a great skill to have, so when I come back to my music, which I’m emotionally connected to and is totally an artistic process for me, I can be connected but also step back, use my A&R judgement, and think, will this get on the radio? Is this a pop hook?”
The A&R judgement that Santi refers to is a skill that she learned in her very first music biz job; one that she juggled with her college studies and “really hated”, due to its lack of creativity.
On paper, the position at major-of-major labels, Epic Records, was a dream money-earner, especially for a young music fan who knew she wanted to work in the industry from the moment she was a teenager. The reality that she was faced with unfortunately reeked of any other desk job.
“You think it’s going to be a creative job and it ended up being a completely administrative one,” she recounts. “I was also working in the urban department, which was all R’n’B and Hip Hop, which at that time started to be really bad – it was all Puffy, at a time when music stopped being good. And I was never a fan of R’n’B anyway, except for old R’n’B like Aretha and Marvin Gaye. Anything that was cool that I wanted to sign, they’d be like, ‘Wow! You’re weird!'”
Before realising that the music business is just that, a business, and not as ideological as any a young buck hopes it to be, Santi White spent the early part of her life cycling around the leafy suburbs of Philly, a city that the singer speaks of fondly, bragging about how it has one of the biggest central parks in the country.
New York called for her when she was at college in Connecticut, where a majority of her friends were from The Big Apple – “Every summer my friends would go home and have fun there, and that’s when I got, like, ‘I wanna be in New York too’.”
Now, years after ditching her post at Epic to first of all write and produce an album for R’n’B songstress Res – a second industry job that, although more creative, was almost as disappointing, due to the lack of control given – before helping Lily Allen complete ‘Littlest Things’ and appearing on Mark Ronson’s ‘Version’ album, singing The Jam’s ‘Pretty Green’, Santi still resides in her adopted city, a block away from MIA. And when you live in Brooklyn, it’s more or less impossible for New York to not seep into your music.
“I think my music is a product of all my experiences and environments I’ve lived in,” says Santi, pondering the importance of a city that has coughed up as many influential US artists as it has “but New York is very present on [my album]. The energy of New York, the inspiration of the city, and Brooklyn, and even ‘Unstoppable’ is about my neighbourhood and being on the grind. It’s definitely a part of who I am and the way I see life at this point.”
Once you hear it, ‘Unstoppable’ might just be your favourite track on Santogold’s debut. A prowling hustle, it’s all M.I.A. vocals and slow, gloopy synths. But then you’ll hear the Pixies guitar of ‘I’m A Lady’, the popcorn pips of ‘Anne’, the self-assured reggae bounce of ‘Shove It’s’ “We think you’re a joke, shove your hope where it don’t shine” chorus, the cruising summer pop of ‘Lights Out’ and the rest of Santi’s album that can’t say ‘no’ to letting in just one more musical influence. She says that writing the pop stuff for others is a different experience all together, but you’d never guess it. Everything on ‘Santogold’ is as instant as a Girls Aloud ‘Greatest Hits’ disc.
A record that was as enjoyable to create as it is for its creator to listen back to then?
“No,” laughs Santi, a little awkwardly. “It started out that way but it became a nightmare. [The label] were just annoying all the way through. First they tried to make me work with pop producers and then nobody was liking what was coming out, and I wasn’t, and I was about to walk away from the deal. I was like, ‘I’m not doing this, it isn’t me’. They wouldn’t let John [Hills – former bassist in Santi’s ex-punk outfit, Stiffed] and I produce the songs ourselves but finally we just did it anyway and then people started liking the songs. And we were like, ‘Duh!'”
What followed the ‘suit’s’ belated epiphany was a time that Santi describes as “super creative” – 8 weeks of writing, producing and mixing the album from scratch. And with Baile Funk supremos Diplo and Switch playing guest producers from time to time, it was no surprise that Santi soon started to get tagged as ‘America’s answer to MIA’. A lazy comparison perhaps, but one that is not too unjustified; Santi’s highly pitched raps and squeals on ‘Creator’, especially, sounding like they could have been lifted from last year’s highlight of album releases, ‘Kala’.
On her birthday last year, a sold out Madison Square Gardens sang Happy Birthday to Santogold. It was at the request of Bjork who, having heard her double ‘A’ side single, ‘Creator’/’L.E.S. Artistes’, had asked for Santi to support her for three dates. As you’d expect, the whole evening was “totally an honour and reaffirming”, even if Santi White never planned to be a performer in the slightest.
“I totally didn’t want to be a performer, because I had a solo at school and it totally sucked,” she laughs “and my parents were like, ‘how did you get the solo?’ I never even wanted it but I ended up with about 3 solos in school. I wasn’t the type of kid who was into being a performer at all. But at the same time I used to do talent shows with my friends but we’d do funny stuff. I like funny performing. So I wasn’t afraid of standing in front of people, I just didn’t think of myself in that way. I always thought that my artistic thing was more private. I was a writer. And I was writing for me. So I just wanted to write my songs and sing them as they were in my head. I thought, ‘I’ll just make a record but never perform.’ But as you get into it and you get good, you want to share it and you want it to be relevant to other people.”
The moment that she realised singing her songs to an audience was as rewarding as penning them was when she performed for the first time in Stiffed. Disillusioned by the position at Epic and the amount of interference she’d dealt with whilst working with Res, Santi returned to Philly where her and John Hills’ band would form around them, almost accidentally. Before returning to New York to work on Santogold, Stiffed ploughed on to critical acclaim, releasing an album and opening for their heroes, Bad Brains. But, as the world wasn’t ready to see a black female front a punk band (yes, seriously) and as Stiffed’s lineup constantly changed, Santi and John headed back to New York to begin work on their new project. It’s the town that Public Enemy sprung from after all; a band that Santi often mentions in interviews. And as we begin to discuss the importance of a band so politically and socially minded, Santi’s monotonous train journey is interrupted by an excited willingness to talk about the current state of music.
“When I was writing [the album] I was definitely in a certain space in my life,” she begins “and there were issues that were weighing very heavily on me, and a lot of them were to do with frustration at the current state of things; society, the war that we’re in, the crap musical landscape where there’s a lack of creativity. Nobody stands for anything, speaks up about anything, or thinks for themselves. I just wanted to be like, ‘What’s going on? Where is the heart? Where’s the passion? Where’s the courage?'”
So musicians are cowering from their responsibility to speak up these days?
“This is the thing‚” I’m not a preachy kind of person. And I’m not actively involved in politics but I am a very conscious person. And I don’t think that art always has to be about something political, or have a message, but it does need to be honest. Whether it’s emotionally honest, politically honest, psychologically honest, there should be some sort of substance there. And at the moment there’s almost a book of words that you’re allowed to use in songs, especially R’n’B and hip-hop, and it’s horrible. There’s a lot of trash that isn’t about anything now. As a kid I used to lay on the floor and listen to music and just read lyrics but there’s not that much music that you’d wanna do that to anymore.”
We’d love to be forever the optimists in response, reasoning how My Chemical Romance’s lyric of “Teenagers scare the living shit outta me” is in fact a credible and clever social observation about the prejudice the youth face today, but we can’t. Santi is right. As she goes on to enthuse about the lyrics of Joni Mitchell, and how they’re tantamount to literature, we definitely can’t counter with the consolation that we have Kate Nash these days.
If we were talking to another, we could of course mention Santogold; a solo star that we tipped as one of our ‘Ones To Watch’ in 2008, last December. We’re reminding you of this fact so you’re not alarmed when we claim our bragging rights as you hear ‘Santogold’ later this month. A genre-dodging pop/hip-hop/funk/punk album for keeps; it’s the work of a lady who refused to let the cogs of the music industry crush her. A lady fuelled by heart, passion and courage.
Photography: Guy Eppel“