Disparate Youth: Santigold

"I would love to re-vitalise pop..."

Santigold is a star.

Seated in her London hotel, batting away questions from probing journalists it’s the away she holds herself, the way each perfectly formed answer tumbles from her lips that makes you reflect: this isn’t some ordinary singer.

Sure, the sales aren’t there to match (not yet, at least), but Santigold has a presence few can match. Pop literate – our conversation is peppered with cross-genre references – the New York-based artist can fuse her knowledge with something emotional, something which resonates beyond the increasingly narrow critical sphere.

New album ‘Master Of My Make-Believe’ finally arrives today (April 23rd) almost four years after her debut. Emerging from turbulent sessions in which Santigold was increasingly forced to look inward, the record mixes her tendencies towards classic pop – think Golden Age Hip Hop, Blondie, the Second British Invasion – with an awareness of youth dissent undermining the global political sphere.

As I said: she’s a star.

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You said recently: “I think there’s a lack of true art and fanfare is valued over actual substance”. Do you think that’s true of all pop acts?
No, no. Pop is such a broad term; pop includes almost any successful music out there right now. It’s not a blanket statement about pop in general. It’s about some pop and especially the prefabricated kind, where it’s like insert any artist. It used to be that pop was really broad. There was so many great pop artists when I was growing up and even through the ‘90s. There’s been obviously some great artists in the 2000s, even now there’s some really great artists, but it’s also become so narrow, like what is deemed playable on radio has gotten so narrow. Seriously, I had a writing session where someone was like “you have to use these chords.” I was like really, is that the rule?! I think that’s stupid, I don’t think it should be that now; I don’t think there should be a tight formula, I don’t think that the same producers should be producing every song on the radio, I don’t think the same writers should be the same writers should be writing for every single song for every artist. It makes it boring; what a boring landscape.

Also, I do think because it’s insert artist in a lot of these songs. The talent; the skill set, is becoming very different than…I mean, it is music, so you would hope that someone would be able to do something musical, but sometimes it’s more about how crazy they can be. Dancing’s great, we all love dancing, but then everyone’s like so you have a great dancer and then their not really singing while their dancing, because you can’t really. I think people are really naive about what is humanly possible, so sometimes if you have someone dancing crazy all over the stage they’re going to lip sync. And people are like “they’re lip syncing”, and it’s like OK if you really want to know what they sound like right now you’d hear heavy breathing. Which do you want: do you want someone who’s a real singer and can write songs, or do you want someone who can dance? We’ve created such a weird platform for people to exist as musicians or artists. It’s just a weird time and I don’t really like where we are. That’s what I was trying to say. It really has put people who want to make real music in an awkward position.

Do you feel in an awkward position?
No. Only because I’ve blocked it out. I could feel in an awkward position, but i decided not to really pay attention to it, as far as when it comes to making my music. That conversation that I’m having now that I’ve done the record, does not enter into the process of me making my record, because it’s paralyzing. So yes, I would feel it if I let myself, but when I’m making my music I just make the music, because all that other stuff…you can’t worry about what everyone else is doing when you’re making your music. You can’t be worried about how it’s going to be received or if there’s space for you. You will make the worst music ever if you think of those things. So you make the music, then afterwards you’re like hmm what’s going on out there? You’re like, this sucks.

Each artist has a radio plugger, how do you deal with those conversations?
I want to get on radio but I’m not using those chords, unless they happen to come in. I’m not going to do the formula; I don’t want to make a formula song; I don’t want to make something predictable where people know what’s going to come next. What’s the point in making music? If that’s the case I’ll do something else. If that’s the case, computers can make the music. Why don’t people do something else if it’s that much of a predictable formula? Computers do make music, but I mean without human involvement…like robotic.

Is it your own identity, is that what you’re seeking?
Even if you think about hip-hop, for example. Hip-hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s, every hip-hop group had their own DJ, which was pretty much the producer, so everyone sounded different, everyone had their own sound. That’s why it was so amazing, say Wu Tang comes out and their sound’s so crazy, and then you had Pharcyde, then you had Helter Skelter, everyone sounded totally different. And then, it’s the super producer…it’s killing music, kind of. You have one producer, one songwriter that’s doing everything. What does that really do for variety? And how do they have the time to come up with something really cool if their just banging out song after song. When do you have time to actually grow and really experiment? There’s none of that really going on. There’s so many artists that are doing that as well.

Santigold – Big Mouth

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You talked about how you had John Hill on the first record, but this is a lot more focused on you… I was wondering how that felt?
The first record was focused on me too, it’s not that, it’s just as far on the production side I felt like I really had to carry a lot more weight and really drive the ship by myself, where as before I felt like I had more of a partner. Obviously I work with so many producers, so there’s loads of people that worked on this record. But it’s literally carrying each song from person to person and then having to piece everything together. It was me and it was hard, but I think I grew tremendously as an artist and a producer through the process of doing that.

Did you start off with a central idea of what you wanted?
Well I started off thinking it was going to be the same process as last time and I was like I know what I’m going to be doing, it’s going to be so easy! It totally didn’t work that way. Everybody was in a different place and you don’t have the same chemistry every time with the same person. So, I think I realised early on that I had to widen the gates and start working with a bunch of new people. That’s when it really felt fresh and that’s when it felt exciting. It was fun for me to work with new people this time, like Greg Herston, Nicholas Zinner, Ricky Blaze and a bunch of people I never worked with before and we came up with some great stuff. Put new energy into the whole thing.

Throughout the album it seems like you’ve been very much inspired by the global protests that have happened across the past 18 months. Is that the case?
I mean it’s just everything, it’s just the climbing of everything that’s going in in the world. From all the protests to the strange weather we’ve been having to the fact there was an earthquake in New York and a hurricane. The world seems like…something crazy’s happening right now. It’s almost like there is an awakening, everything’s getting shaken up. It’s like bringing things to the surface that have been right underneath for a while, literally. I felt that in myself, like a rumbling. I even put that in a lyric at the end of ‘Dispirate Youth’, it’s just something that’s unsettled. Things aren’t right and there’s this rumbling like fix it, fix it, fix it. That’s the sort of energy I thought came out in my music.

Music’s an extremely universal form. Do you think music is the perfect format for expressing those feelings?
Music has always been one of the most, sort of communal, universal, but also communally cathartic thing, where as it’s an opportunity to let it all out or to share in letting it all out together, or inciting groups of people to let it all out. Music is obviously one of the most powerful forces that we have. You can listen to something with no words and just be moved to tears, the words are just a whole over dimension of how it can ignite a spark. When I hear the best music that’s what it does, it lights something inside. Sometimes you feel like a flutter, or your hair stands up on your arm, and I think that’s when it’s really doing its job.

Can you see this record having an impact, is that what you want?
I would love for most people to hear my music and I would love to revitalise pop. I don’t want to…I haven’t said anything positive about pop. I think Adele is great, I think her voice is so real; so soulful. There’s so much of her vulnerability coming out in her voice. I think people like Kanye, I think the ‘Watch The Throne’ record was pushing production wise. I think Kanye is a great producer too and he always really…even on his record alone, some of the production stuff was really interesting. I like the new face of hip-hop, I think it’s going into an interesting direction. It’s finally starting to catch up what happened four years ago. It just shows a little bit of thought, I mean some of it’s like copycat, but it shows some thought is going on. I like that Frank Ocean is the twist on R&B, or The Weeknd or something like that. There is movement. I’d like to see it going way more into that direction, where it’s just fresh sounds. Obviously some people want to hear the same thing over and over again. I don’t and I don’t want people to want that and I really do believe that if you give people something good then they’ll react to it, I don’t think you have to keep giving them watered down stuff. When I was young, people were really into all kinds of amazing music, because it was out there and now it’s like whatever you give people are going to like it. So why not give them something good?

You forget how out there a lot of 90’s hip-hop was, like De La Soul – such a weird band!
Yeah! There were so many weird bands that were huge. When Red Hot Chilli Peppers first came out, it was like what are they doing, is that funk rap? Then Nirvana came out and brought punk back. There was amazing hip-hop. You had like Smashing Pumpkins and Pixies, there was just so much you had to have your own style, or else what was the point? Now it’s like if you have your own style they’re like: errrr, I don’t know how this will work. So I do, I want to change that, I’ve even see from the beginning when we first started doing stuff like this, people were doing more underground stuff like me and my musical peers, and now that type of thing is in the mainstream. So, I do believe it has an impact and it is a harder path to take. You have to be uncompromising, I’m doing it on my own terms, and whatever happens it takes a lot of courage. But i do think that it is impacting, I feel like people do respond to it and I would love for more people to hear the music and to hear some thoughtful lyrics and to see someone trying to do something different. More of it, it does exist, but more of it would be great.

From what I’ve read it does seem like you entered the second album with writer’s block and you struggled. Did you ever reach a point where you doubted if you could complete it?
I’m really like a confident person, deep down. I really believe I can do anything. That comes from when you were a kid and you’re either taught that or you’re not. I really thought the world was in my head, I was like whatever, I might be an astronaut, I might be a martial arts expert. Every week, as a kid, I wanted to do something else, and i still think that. My only concern is time, like do I have time to be the next Bruce Lee? I’m sure I could, but…I think every artist…it’s just deeply personal work. If you hit a writer’s block, then you’re like I don’t have it in me anymore. There’s always the doubt, it’s so weird because at different phases in your life it’s not the same every time, so it’s hard to no expect that you know the process.

So, last record, I was writing lyrics like boom, they were just pouring out of me. This record, it was taking me like 3 months sometimes to finish a song lyrically and I wasn’t used to that, that never happened before. So it’s like when something new is happening it’s like why is it taking me so long. But, I figured it out, it was because I kind of felt what I wanted to say, but sometimes you have to wait for the words, because you have to go through the experiences and it’s almost like you’ve got to grow as a person before you know what you’re trying to say. If you haven’t all the way learned the lesson, but it’s in you and you’re figuring it out, you have to wait till it’s figured out so you know how to say it. It’s not going to come unless you’ve got the resolution of the feeling and you can’t rush that sometimes.

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‘Master Of My Make-Believe’ is out now.

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