Santigold on fame, Fela, and her surprise ‘summertime record’
It’s been a fertile year for Santi White, in more ways than one. Somewhere between relocating to Los Angeles from her longtime Brooklyn home and finding out she was pregnant with twins, the avant-pop artist known as Santigold managed to record a new project, I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions, in one intensive two-week swoop.
Though she’s known for painstakingly curating her output, from the lyrical content to the cover art — in nearly ten years as a solo performer, she has released only three official studio albums — the heavily Afro-Caribbean-influenced Gold Fire (out now on Downtown Records) finds her working in the looser, sunnier spirit of summer. (And more spontaneously, too; even the last-minute announcement of its existence came as a surprise to fans.)
On the phone from L.A., while her 4-year-old son jammed to LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” in the background, the Philadelphia native talked to EW about prepping for her upcoming dates on Lauryn Hill’s 20th anniversary Miseducation tour; looking back at the ten-year marker of her own breakout debut, Santogold; and the time Fela Kuti blew her pre-adolescent mind.
Your new record definitely has a different vibe than your previous ones. Where did that come from?
I was in the studio with this guy Dre Skull, and we were actually writing for someone else. But we were talking and he was playing me all this stuff he had done, and I was like, “I love that, I love that.” And we just decided, “Let’s do a mixtape!” To me a real mixtape has songs with other people, but this is my version — just shot from the hip, you know? It’s like a half-step.
Afro-Caribbean music hasn’t necessarily been at the center of your sound, but your relationship with it goes a ways back, right?
It’s always been part of my musical DNA. Any record I’ve done since 2010, I’ve made at least part of in Jamaica. And my dad played all kinds of stuff at home when I was growing up, from consciousness reggae like Steel Pulse to, obviously, Bob Marley, but also Fela Kuti and Ali Farka Touré, all that.
He took me to see Fela when I was seven — I talk about this in almost every interview I do, so clearly it was a formative experience for me — and I just remember he had all 27 of his wives with him on that tour, and they were topless and I was just like “Whoa… Where are we?” My mind was blown. So I’ve been listening to him for years, and I love the influence that he’s had across the world — though I guess it’s like the African version of saying I love Bob Marley. [Laughs]
But yeah, even in college when I was a music major, I was a hand drummer — I studied West African music and Haitian and Cuban drumming. I also took a lot of ethnomusicology, and just the whole history of how African culture was retained in Caribbean culture and music and in the drumming. Even the way that the rhythms lock, I find really interesting.
On your last album cover, 99¢, you were trapped under plastic, literally shrink-wrapped. Are you breathing any easier now?
Four months ago I had twins, and I also just moved to L.A., so I’m not really breathing easier. [Laughs] Actually, I’m more under plastic than I was before. And that’s why this was so quick.
The way I’m used to approaching an album is so thought out — a really long process where I overthink everything and come up with a concept and tie it all together with the artwork, and this is 100% opposite of that. I just wanted to make a summertime record, like, boom!
It’s kind of crazy that it’s been 10 years since your debut Santogold. Is it nice to look back or do you cringe, like at a yearbook photo?
No, I really like it! And the thing is that I don’t feel like that about anything. I’m the type of person who doesn’t have any tattoos, because I know that I will not like them later. Even when I listen to [my previous band] Stiffed I feel embarrassed. But I’m really proud of it, I can still listen to it and enjoy it… I mean not often, but like every four years. [Laughs]
There’s been a lot of nostalgia in general lately for the New York rock scene of the 2000s. Do you feel that too?
Yes. Yes! It’s part of why I left New York, and I think I was, like, the last hold out. Around 2008 was a really special time culturally. There were a lot of cool things going on in music, in fashion, politically. It was a really hopeful time and a really creative time.
And then I just feel like between the internet explosion — because back then it was just MySpace — and the speed at which things are consumed, the energy of it all didn’t continue to grow in an organic way. It was all just swallowed up and kind of ingested into the machine.
You’ve worked with artists like Drake and Christina Aguilera and toured with everyone from Coldplay to Kanye and Jay-Z. Do you envy that level of success when you see it up close like that, or not so much?
Well, I don’t really envy the fame. I wouldn’t want to be at the point where I couldn’t walk down the street. But I imagine that it would be a little bit easier if I was a little bit more successful in that way, because it’s really hard. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and after awhile the grind kind of wears you down. But at the same time, all my favorite bands are the one that had to grind. So I’m not saying I love the grind, but I like the music that comes from that, you know?
You have tour dates coming up with Lauryn Hill, who famously stepped away from the industry to raise her family. How does it feel for you to be heading out on the road, with a 4-year-old and two new babies?
It’s really hard juggling, trying to carve out a time to have a family and be a mom and have a career, especially a creative career. I have all these friends now who have similar situations. Like I went to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Hollywood Bowl recently, and I was so proud of Karen [O] because she had a baby a couple years ago, right around when I did, and she’s such a strong badass woman on stage that I almost started crying.
It’s so inspiring to be surrounded by these other women who are so talented and are fighting literally to just make it happen, because there’s not much support. I read somewhere recently that the birth rate in the U.S. has gone done drastically because we don’t really try to help women have families and work.
Aside from these dates and some festival spots, what’s next for you work-wise?
I have an EP in the works — only in my head so far, but I’m really excited about it. It’s another collaboration, similar to the vibe of this one. That’s how I’m approaching music right now, focusing on these smaller, more contained bodies of work for a minute before I go do a deep record, you know? And who knows, maybe I’ll never do that again. It’s all so different now anyway.
So I guess we’ll end on a cliffhanger?
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.