Brooklyn’s Golden Child: Santigold

Santigold_ Sean Thomas_ Tom Tom Magazine_ female drummers

Santigold’s got so much style. Born Santi White, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter/producer fiercely mixes dub, punk, ska and Hip-Hop into a collage of danceable sound that brings depth to a pop genre that is seriously lacking in creative innovation.  Nearly five years after her first genre-defying singles “Creator” and “L.E.S.” Artistes” hit the scene, Santigold is set to reemerge with the new album Master of My Make-Believe on Downtown/Atlantic records. The album’s raw sound is filled out with feverish taiko drum rhythms and catchy choruses, while her lyrics confront issues of personal control in a changing world. With some heavy-hitting collaborators, including the guitarist from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Major Lazer’s producer, and her singles “Bad Mouth” and “Disparate Youth” already making waves, Make-Believe promises to be the follow-up album we’ve all been waiting for. Tom Tom sat down with the artist to talk about the new album, her creative process and how she stays true to her vision.

Sean Thomas_ Santigold_ drummer_ Tom Tom Magazine

Tom Tom Magazine: What was the impetus behind recording in Jamaica?

Santigold: Sometimes there’s just too much going on at home, and it’s nice to get away when you’re trying to be creative and super productive. It gives you a chance to focus, and Jamaica in particular is such a rich environment for me. I stay and work at Geejam in Port Antonio, where there’s a studio, a tiny private beach with little kayaks, and it’s a 5-minute drive from the Blue Lagoon. I had been having a hard time writing lyrics, and as soon as I got there, the words just started flowing. Also, I’m a very visual writer (for both music and lyrics), and so many of the images I saw or experienced during that trip influenced this album in so many ways. So much so, that I even went back there to shoot one of my videos.

What were the best and worst parts of recording there?

The best part was the Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish, callaloo, fruit, and plantains every morning, and the ability to go down to the beach and kayak during half-hour studio breaks.

How was working with Dave Sitek?

I love Dave Sitek. He is such a special person and we have become great friends over the past couple years. The first time we worked together, I think we both had so much anxiety we ended up deciding to bake a blueberry pie instead. Really Dave did the baking. I just wrote down the recipe and baking instructions in an attempt to fool him and myself into believing that I would actually be baking my own pie one day. But that day was important, because we both were observing each other, and making mental notes on each other’s way of working.

When working with another producer, how do you make sure your unique voice/vision is realized?

I’m lucky that all of the producers I work with have had faith in my vision. They are so great at deciphering the madness that comes out of my mouth and making sense of it. I am the most meticulous person that most people have ever met, so I often have an exact idea of what instruments I want to use, how I want each instrument to sound, and what I want the part to be. With each producer it’s different though, each of them has a different specialty as far as I’m concerned. I work with each producer for her/his different strengths. So on many of my songs, the production process ends up being a sort of musical factory line, though there’s nothing predictable about it.  The songs are put together differently every time. And I am the conductor of all the moving parts, sometimes to my own dismay. I really do think that the collaborative element is what’s really special about my music.

Which producers do you feel do that really well and why?

I feel that way about so many of the producers that I work with, but I really enjoyed working with Greg Kurstin this time around. He understood the way I liked to work. He had a room full of instruments ready to go, so I could jump up at any moment and just play my idea on the drums, keys, whatever, and he’d jump right in. A lot of times, when I work with producers who mostly work on the computer, it’s harder for me because I like to play out my ideas, and if its just one person sitting in front of Logic it’s kind of limiting to me

What is your process for producing/writing a song?

My process varies from song to song. I usually create the music first before vocal melody, and melody almost always before lyrics, but there are exceptions. On this record, I wrote a song called “Riot’s Gone” just sitting at the piano and singing, which I’ve never really done before, and as soon as I was done recording a scratch vocal (through garage band with my computer sitting on top of the piano), I took a loop of Taiko drums that Switch (Major Lazer) had made from a previous session we’d done and put it on top of what I’d just played and it fit perfectly.

How do you know when a song of yours is going to be a hit?

I never claim to know that. All I really know is how to make art. I try not to concern myself too much with what happens to it after I’m done making it. Thinking about that part gets in the way of the process, and when that happens, you’re left with nothing.

How do you think your involvement in punk bands made you a stronger musician?

It taught me how to let loose, especially when I’m singing. I learned to really play and experiment with my voice in my old band. Especially studying my heroes, like HR (Bad Brains), or even Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols). I also love the raw power in punk, and I like to keep that quality in any music I make. But mostly I learned how to bring my songs to life on stage from performing punk songs. Playing punk rock is rapture in itself.

What gear or instruments helped you to realize your identity as a producer/songwriter?

Starting way back when I first started making music, I took guitar lessons. I loved the guitars in the music I listened to, bands ranging from Hendrix to The Smiths and Devo. I was never one for practicing though, so I’ve been at the same level since I was 15 years old. I prefer writing on the bass, mostly because you can be better on bass than guitar without practicing! But also because most of my melodies and cadence are influenced by the relationship between the bass and the drums. I like the fender Mustang bass because it’s small and my fingers can move around more easily.  As for beat making, I got an SP-1200 back in the 90s when I first started trying to make my own music. I was really into Hip-Hop and it was a great simple machine to start on. It had nice grimy drum sounds that I really loved playing around with. In college, I studied traditional West African, Haitian, and Cuban drumming, which I think had a strong influence on my musical style. To this day, I love polyrhythmic and syncopated rhythms and many of my vocal rhythms mimic these types of drums patterns.

Do you feel that there is a significant lack of female producers out there? Or even more particularly, female artists who don’t get production credit? 

There are far too few female producers. I think the business of making music can be intimidating for women. It is such a man’s world, and any time a woman tries to put her foot down in the way men do all the time, we’re called “difficult”.  I had to learn early on, that I have to be willing to be “difficult”, a “bitch”, “crazy”, or anything else the boys want to call me, if it means staying true and holding tight to my creative vision.

What words of advice would you give to the aspiring young female producer?

I would say that to get something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done. You have to go for what you want. Be original, be creative, and always challenge yourself to be better. You also can’t be lazy with your art. Put in the work, do the research, be influenced by your influences, but take the time to find your own voice in anything you do.

Santigold_ Sean Thomas_ Tom Tom Magazine_ lady drummers

Choose one of these artists/bands to do each activity with:

Karen O, Bjork, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, Kanye

Write their wedding song: Beastie Boys

Be blood-related to: Bjork

Eat lunch with every day for the rest of your life: Karen O

Compose a Symphony with: Kanye

Do a crossword with: Coldplay

Go to a waterpark with: Red Hot Chili Peppers

What is your favorite food?

Popcorn with milk duds in it.

Which was your favorite tour and why?

I really had fun on our Parklife tour in Australia this fall. A bunch of my friends in other bands like Lykke Li, Diplo, and A-Trak were on the tour as well, and I met amazing women like Beth Ditto (The Gossip), and Yukimi (Little Dragon). It was like a 2-week band camp.


By Mindy Abovitz and Nick Zurko

Photos by Sean Thomas

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