“I’m going to correct you,” Santi White tells me, her tone stiffening. “It’s SAHN-tee-gold.”
I have mispronounced White’s stage name, Santigold, and even though this gaffe exists in the vacuum of a phone call between the two of us, she wants me to know that I have screwed it up. She’s not angry or offended, but she’s speaking with the authority of someone who’s used to giving pointed feedback.
“It’s alright,” she says a moment later with a softened demeanor. “Everyone – everyone – says it wrong, so I’m making it my mission to correct it.”
It’s a telling exchange: White has a distinct vision for herself as a musician, an artist, a “brand,” and the rest of us would be well-served to fall in line.
The credits to her sophomore effort, the aerodynamic grab bag Master of My Make-Believe, read like a who’s who of in demand producers, but perusing that list of collaborators – some of whom are new to White (Dave Sitek, Greg Kurston, Q-Tip), others more familiar (Diplo, Switch, John Hill) – only tells half the story. Yes, some very creative and talented people are lining up to work with White, but what’s more interesting is what she’s doing with their contributions: cherry picking the best parts and weaving them into something very much her own. She likened her role to that of an art curator in our conversation with her last week, and if that’s the case, then her taste speaks for itself.
One more thing she did make abundantly clear during our talk: even though she’s faced substantial challenges on her way to massive headlining tours and a spot on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, she’s no underdog.
Santigold plays Rams Head Live with Theophilus London tonight.
BYT: You’ve been on the road for most of the past few months. How has it been taking Master of My Make-Believe to the masses?
Santigold: It’s been great, honestly. It’s been kind of exciting that people seem to already know the new lyrics. We’re playing some secondary markets that I’ve never played before, and so I’m always happy and surprised to see people there. [Laughs] And we just did Bonnaroo, and that was excellent.
BYT: In the past year, you signed with Roc Nation and made the jump from Downtown Records to Atlantic proper. How have those moves changed how you get to present your music?
Santigold: I don’t know to calculate the effects in a tangible way yet. I know in terms of moving to Atlantic, I know that I have more a push behind me, which is great. And as far as Roc Nation, I think they have really great understanding of the changing marketplace for music. For a lot of people, it’s still “make a record, tour, make a record, tour” and it doesn’t really go off that. Roc Nation really understand building a brand across a lot of platforms, which is something that I’m really interested in, because I love making music, but I’m equally into designing costuming, and choreography, and just building the whole big picture. I think Roc Nation is a great partner for helping me develop that.
BYT: With so many people getting behind you, do you feel greater expectations for the new record?
Santigold: No, honestly, I think that people who are experienced right now don’t even know what to expect anymore. In the music industry, everything is changing so quickly. From what I know, there’s not yet a record to sell a million copies this year, like, including everyone. I think that expectations for record sales aren’t really the same [anymore]. Even with touring, there are all these festivals now. I feel really gracious to have a team that’s being creative about the whole process, and not putting a lot pressure on any one thing, and are just letting things unfold and trying to identify opportunities and make the most of them.
BYT: You mentioned the idea of building a brand. What is the Santigold brand?
Santigold: I don’t know – my brand is one that’s commercially innovative, and has a certain level of quality, and kind of pushes boundaries a little bit. It’s always taking an artful approach. The one thing I can really say is different about my brand is that it’s always a bit of mash-up, a collage of all different styles and influences, put together in a special way.
BYT: The new record gets a little more adventurous without going back to the drawing board. Where do you think it differs most from Santogold?
Santigold: Songs like “Riots Song” are definitely a departure from things I did on the last record. It’s more of a ballad. I wrote it on a piano, which is something that I almost never do. Songs like “God from the Machine” or even “The Keepers” are a bit grander in scale than anything else on the other record. I was attempting to make songs that I felt really big and epic and really multilayered.
BYT: You worked with a bigger team of producers on this record. Did that present any challenges in communicating your vision for Master of My Make-Believe?
Santigold: I didn’t think it was challenge to communicate my vision. The biggest challenge with working with some many people is collecting so many parts on your timeline. And everyone works in different programs. The actual grunt work of pulling everything together and getting it all compiled was challenging. But other than that, when it comes down to my vision, that part was easy because all of the parts come back to me and I can bring in whoever I need to finish. It’s kind of like curating, you know?
BYT: Are there any other producers out there who would want to work with?
Santigold: I don’t know – not that come to mind immediately. I’m sure there are many, many people who I would love to work with. I don’t have any names right in the front of my head.
BYT: You’re certainly active in terms of collaborating with other musicians. As of late, it’s been reported that you’ve worked with with A$AP Rocky and Earl Sweatshirt. What the can you tell us about those collaborations?
Santigold: Some of the collaborations are in earlier phases than others, but I think both of them are really great new artists. I like their approach to hip-hop and broadening the scope of what they do. Earl is really interesting. He’s into so many different types of music. He’s so young, and it’s really cool – it speaks really well to the next generation of upcoming musicians.
BYT: Anyone else you’ve worked with lately, or does being on the road effectively put a pause to that.?
Santigold: Yeah, being on the road, I haven’t worked on anything except for my show. [Laughs] And getting my team right.
BYT: You toured with some big names in past years: Bjork, M.I.A., Kanye and Jay-Z, Coldplay, to name a few. Did any of those tours have an impact on how you approach your live show?
Santigold: If anything, Bjork, how she took care of herself and her voice prior to shows, had an influence on me. That was something I learned from. But as far as a vision for my own show, I don’t think I drew from anybody else. I think it was something that I had to put my own stage style into, and try to come up with something resonates with what I was trying to do.
BYT: On your debut, you often sang from the perspective of an underdog or outcast. Do you still consider yourself to be an underdog?
Santigold: When did I portray myself as an underdog?
BYT: Well, “Shove It”/”Brooklyn Go Hard”, for one.
BYT: You can obviously disagree – they’re your words.
Santigold: Sorry, I’m going through the lyrics in my head. [Pause] I don’t think that’s an underdog song! That’s all about Brooklyn taking it and being built to last. If you can make in Brooklyn, then you can make it anywhere!
BYT: But that’s what an underdog does – starts at a disadvantage, but goes out and takes it.
Santigold: Ok. But do I see myself now as an underdog? Well, underdog is not my word, so I wouldn’t describe myself as an underdog. I would say it’s more like the process of creating a diamond. What is it that turns into a diamond – is it coal or something like that? It’s like that process of creating a diamond: The rough gets turned to beauty at the end of the day. I think, as a person in general, if you have to work hard and you have overcome challenges, then you’re more likely to be able to sustain it and last long in any kind of environment.
I think that’s very true of any artist – they have work hard and pay their dues and learn on different levels, and I really think that I have been in it for a long time and I’ve faced a lot of challenges. I don’t think that makes me an underdog. I think that for all of us, once you’ve been in anything for long enough, you’re going to experience things that are difficult, and I think that you have the right attitude and the right approach, then you’re going to learn from everything, use it to your benefit, and be stronger for it. I definitely think I’m stronger and have more insight and more patience and understanding of the process this time around.
BYT: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Santigold: I mean, there’s just a billion. One of them is that nowadays everything is DIY. No one is going to give you anything until you pretty much get the point where you don’t need it. You have to make something out of nothing every time. It’s just like one of the lyrics from “God from the Machine”: “They’ll never see your fire til’ you make it out.” So it’s like, they won’t have the faith in what you’re trying to do until you already do it, or til’ you get to the point where you don’t need them to have faith in it. [Laughs] That’s just been the experience [for me] all the way through. You have to show and prove it every time, and you kind of have to figure it out with nothing every time – that’s the biggest challenge.