Santi White, who performs under the name Santigold, is exhausted — which makes perfect sense.
When we spoke with her, she was overseeing the release of 99¢, her audacious, eclectic and audaciously clever new album, in addition to creating social media platforms such as a Tumblr that plays off the recording's observations about 21st century consumerism, prepping a tour that stops at the Ogden Theatre on March 24 and — oh yeah — wrangling her baby, an adorable jolt of energy named Radek.
Our conversation started with Radek and his inspirational effect on 99¢ before moving on to the album's energetic blend of elements, White's work with producers such as TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek and Vampire Weekend co-founder Rostam Batmanglij (who left the band earlier this year), lyrics that invite multiple interpretations, taking lessons from comedians, the risks of satire and how to sell without selling out.
White remains on the right side of this dynamic — one reason why her music is both substantial and irresistible.
Check out the conversation below, followed by a bonus: a clip from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in which White talks about how she wrote one of the album's best songs, "Can't Get Enough of Myself."
Westword: How has Radek changed your life so far?
Santi White: I get a lot less sleep [laughs]. I didn't really even know what to expect. People always say what it's like, but he brings so much joy to my life, and he's so grounding. In the midst of everything I'm doing, there's something so real and so wonderful that he can pull me right out of it. Completely 100 percent out of it. And that's great, because your career can be so consuming. Especially when you're rolling out a record, it's so hectic and so crazy. So just to be able to step out of it and read some silly book about peeing in a toilet.... [Laughs.]
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I don't get a lot of sleep and I don't have all the time I need to have to get things done, so I have to do probably more work than I always have. Because nowadays it's so crazy putting out a record. There's so much content, and it takes so much to grab people's attention. There's so much over-saturation of things. You have to do so much more, and I have way less time to get it all done than I used to. So I'm way more focused than I used to be. I've always been focused, but now I'm insanely focused.
As far as how he affected this record, he was part of the light — he helped inspire a more playful, lighter approach. The brightness of the music is partially due to having this bundle of joy at home. And also, as far as the process, it being my third record, I was determined to make it an enjoyable process. I just thought, 'If I'm going to keep doing this, I'm going to make sure it's fun.'
It can be easy for an artist to get lost in her own head. When he pulls you out of it, do you find that you have more energy when you go back to work on your music?
It can go both ways. Sometimes when you're an artist, you need to be in your own head; you need to stay in it to be able to get to a good place. And that can be really hard, because I'm really not well rested....
[Here's a video of Santigold's current single, "Who Be Lovin' Me," featuring ILOVEMAKONNEN.]
I sense that's a theme....
It is, especially right now, when I'm getting my show together and all this stuff. I'm going to bed at two or three in the morning, and then I'm getting up once at five and once at 6:20, and then up by 7:30. And then I'm doing photo shoots where I'm supposed to look nice and I'm coming up with all these ideas where I need to be functioning. So reality-wise, it's sometimes harder to function.
But other times, it's almost like meditation, where he touches something so much deeper and different from what you're doing. When there's this really instinctive and natural connection, it reminds you what's really important. That's a nice touchdown — and then you can go back to what you were doing.
When my son was little, we had one of those jumpers that you attach to a doorway, and he would react to different types of music — and we could always tell when he really liked something. Can you tell based on his reactions when he's really liking one of your songs?
Oh my gosh. My guy is going to be two soon, and I started making my record when he was two months old. And he's been living this record. Now he has song requests. He sings along, he dances wildly. We did a lot of the mixing at my house, and he was present during the mixing process — and he has his own headphones, noise-canceling headphones. So he thinks you have to wear them to listen to music. Whenever we're listening to music, he's like, 'My headphones! My headphones!"
He's even been on little tours already, too. He comes on stage when all the people are dancing, and he comes out and starts dancing behind them with his headphones on. He's so into dancing, so into music, it's just amazing. There's no question what songs he likes. And he's bossy. He'll tell you what song to play. And he definitely has his favorites, where he can't control his movements. He's the wildest dancer.
The new album is very danceable, but it's also got a great mix of textures and elements. Did you consciously set out to use so many influences, or did the blend that you wound up with happen more organically?
It definitely happened organically. I think that's one of the trademarks of my music, of Santigold — that it's a collage of all these different influences and music styles that were inside me growing up. I can't even separate one from the other. When music forms in my head, it's a mixture of all these different things. To me, I don't think a song's complete unless it's got a great variety of different textures.
One of the exciting parts of the process for me is to be able to get all these different elements to work together and create something special and fresh-sounding.
[Another highlight from the album is "Chasing Shadows," heard here.]
On the album, you used producers with a wide variety of approaches too, including Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend fame and Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, plus Patrik Berger and John Hill. Was it a challenge for you to get all of their styles to play well together? Or did you know that having you at the center of everything would make it all work?
This has been my process since the beginning. I feel like my music has so many different things going on. I've always worked with many different producers. And a lot of times, each of them has a different thing that I really love about what they do. So I'll know one person will bring this element and another person will bring that element, even on the same song. It's like getting specialties from these different people.
That does leave the chore of gluing it all together to me. But I think that's what I do well. I curate what a song needs. Sometimes after the song is done and the producers are gone, I'll feel it still needs something, and I'll go, "Bring in some horn players" or do this or that until it's done. I'm pretty hands-on, and I actually produce a lot of this stuff. So I feel confident that no matter what different styles there are, I'm driving the ship, and it's all going to hold together really well. And the more different influences and approaches I can get, the fresher it is and the more fun it is to put it all together.
But at the same time, I have to say that the producers I worked with this time, I was just so lucky to fall in with them. They are such kindred spirits in their love of music across the board. To get into a room with someone who loves African music and loves Jamaican music and loves punk rock as much as I do — and who loves the idea of making a pop song out of all these elements — is rare. For someone to jump across genres that way is amazing. And also, I'm so specific about guitar sounds and drum sounds, and those guys are right there with me, even if it's for a different song. Like, "Hey, Rostam, I need this on this track," or "Hey, Rostam, I need this on that track." One would be a hip-hop element and one would be a punk-rock element, and he would just bring it. It was great to have such talented producers who I really jelled with. And it was great, because a lot of these people I hadn't worked with before. It was really special.
Is that something all your collaborators had in common this time around — a willingness to go wherever a song needed to go, even if it was in an unexpected direction?
You've talked about the concept of this album being consumerism and the ways everything is for sale. But I didn't get the sense that the album was a total condemnation of the system. It was more just an observation. Am I on the right track with that?
Yeah, you are. I'm definitely ambivalent about it. As an artist, I have to live in this world, and if I don't, I'm pretty much writing myself out of the equation. I could just stand on the sidelines and say, "This is pretty wack. We're not going in the right direction. I wish it wasn't like this. This isn't fair." I could stand there and say that and get basically left behind and be unheard. Or I can continue to make music, which is what I love, and try to influence culture and progress it in a way I think we should be going. And the only way to do that sometimes is to really join in and play the game and do it well and get your message heard.
Songs on the record like "Run the Races" is about that conflict. And other songs are about how hard it is to exist in this cultural environment, where it's all about selling, selling, selling. You spend more time on the marketing than you do on the art sometimes — and you have to put out this false version of yourself on social media. Like, "My life is so great. I'm great. My life is perfect." You know what I mean?
[Here's "Run the Races."]
I've always been an artist who's about being real and about telling the truth and making music with integrity and talking about something. So it's partially about the struggle of existing in this new reality. But it's also a little bit satirical, making fun of it, and incorporating these elements — ridiculous, in-your-face branding moments and stuff like that — into the art, in a true pop-art form. Basically, you hold up a mirror to society and say, "Look at yourself. Look at what we're doing right now. This is absolutely absurd. Is this okay?"
It's not, like, preachy, and it's not me saying, "I have a solution." It's more me saying, "This is where we are. It's a really absurd place. Maybe we should take a moment to reflect on it and see if this is where we want to be headed."
A song that touches on some of the elements you're talking about is "Can't Get Enough of Myself." The lyrics have a tongue-in-cheek quality for me, but they also strike me as something that could be done totally straight, like in a Demi Lovato anthem. Was that what you were going for?
I worked so hard on writing those lines and making them so it's multi-layered, where on the one hand, it sounds like the most self-empowering song, and on the other hand, the message is still there in your face. It may feel the other way and you might not want to look at it, but it's so right there.
I was influenced by how comedians can sometimes tackle difficult subjects and have you laughing so hard and enjoying it so much that you're being forced to look at something important. I really worked hard on those lyrics so they would walk that line.
At the same time, satire is a risk. There's an old show business quote by George S. Kaufman, who said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night" — the implication being that not enough people like it or get it. So by delving into satire, did you recognize that you were taking a risk? And if so, was that a challenge you enjoyed — to try to make the satire work on one level and the music work on another?
That was the challenge for me, and that was what I was up for. I thought, "This is what I'm doing on this record, and I'm going to make it work."
All I can control is the making part. I can control the writing; I can control the production. I can't control how it's received and whether people get it or not. And I don't really care about that part. What I care about is people connecting with the music. And if they connect with it — if they're like, "This song is so empowering! I feel so empowered!" — well, that's where they are, and that's great for them. But maybe one day, who knows how far down the line, they'll hear it differently. It's there to be heard in that way, and I think that's the most important thing. The art is what it is, and how ready people are to hear the message is up to the individual. I just hope it makes its way to the most people possible so it has the ability to filter in.
Has the feedback you've gotten so far been more in the direction of people getting it?
So far, most of the people I've been talking to are press people, and they all get it [laughs]. But it's not just the music. I get to spell it out with all of the artwork and the other content I'm putting out as well. If you go on my Tumblr page, there are these infomercials that are popping up, popping up, popping up in your face as you're trying to go to the next thing. It's all satire, it's all fake, but it's funny. It's fun and it's light, it's not dark.
It's like when you go on to YouTube and you're trying to watch something, and every single video has a commercial on the front of it now.
I just created that experience within the art, so you get to have fun with that frustration. Even my press photos — there's a beautiful portrait of me, but I've got a bottle of mustard in my hair. There's always something being sold.
When you make art, there's a part of you that wants to make sure it's accessible.
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But there's another part of you that's more concerned with the integrity of what you're trying to do.