Whether it’s climbing a mountain to unwind, or ditching the label behind her debut album, it’s best to expect the unexpected from Santigold, writes JIM CARROLL
THERE ARE some great yarns told by musicians about what happens when they come off tour and try to adjust to normal life again. Some go off the rails, some continue to live in hotels and some swear they’ll never go on tour again. If you’re Santi White and you’ve just finished a lengthy tour plugging your brilliant Santigold debut album, however, you go off to climb a mountain.
“I really wanted a break after two years’ touring,” she says, “so I went off and climbed Kilimanjaro. That was my break. A friend of mine organised the climb to raise awareness for the clean water campaign. Then we visited a Masai village which had just got in clean water technology and I went to Ethiopia to visit a UN refugee camp where a lot of refugees had come from Somalia.” She sits back in her chair, folds her hands and smiles. She knows the interviewer wasn’t expecting that. That could be the White mantra: you weren’t expecting that. Her releases to date have been full of the unexpected as she spins infectious pop music with strangely alluring and brilliantly pitched odd hooks in the mix.
White is in London today to talk about her new album Master of My Make-Believe. When she’s not talking about it, she’s overseeing the nitty-gritty when it comes to the album’s artwork, tour dates, musicians, release schedules and all the rest.
White is a hands-on operator and learned the hard way that this is how it has to be. “I learned a lot with the first album. I learned what kind of support I needed from people around me and realised I didn’t have it. When I was recording the new album, I was really getting no support from my label. There was nobody at Downtown , there was no money, it was just me. People were relying on me and I felt I was doing everyone’s job. So I switched management and labels, which was a lot of stress. But those changes were deliberate and necessary.”
That wasn’t the only stress involved with the new album. White’s debut album was aided and abetted by producers Dave ‘Switch’ Taylor, John Hill and Diplo and she thought she could get the old gang together again.
“When we tried to do it that way, it just wasn’t happening,” she says. “Because I’d all these expectations, I started to feel down on myself about it and got in a rut. A friend of mine, Amanda Blank, suggested that I should work with Nick Zimmer [Yeah Yeah Yeahs]. She said he was just home from touring and we should get together. I called Nick and we started writing and that was when the second record started coming together. It was light, it was fun, it was fresh, it was a new person.”
White believes that too much had changed between albums for her and the original producers for them to work together again. “With the first album, it was the only thing we had going so everyone invested so much into it,” she says. “This time, I got the sense that everyone was really scattered. I couldn’t get the focus I wanted from people.
“I suppose they felt such a part of the first record as well so they had their own anxiety about what was going to happen, which was too much. I’ve got my own anxiety, I don’t want to deal with yours as well. I felt like I had three or four husbands to deal with and I have my own real husband anyway. I think it was good for me to step away from them and work with new people. Bar Switch, they weren’t as involved this time.”
It was a new experience for White to be so anxious about her music. “I had nothing when I started and that panicked me. It’s quite paralysing and I ended up doing meditation to get rid of the anxieties and get my confidence back.
“For the music to evolve, you have to evolve. It took me a while to realise that the reason why there was nothing there in the beginning was because I was trying to start in the same place as before. But that place doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t go back, you can’t start from some place in your past.”
Between albums, she’s seen others cogging that Santigold sound from the first album. “In the beginning, I was: ‘hold on a minute here, that’s my sound,’” she says. “I remember talking to Pharrell Williams once about it and he was like ‘just keep on doing something new’. He was right and I’ve never thought about it since. If you’re going to do something cool and original and creative, you want people to be influenced by it. If people want to copy it, so be it. The first record did influence a lot of people and I’m proud of it now.
“With this one, I tried not to pay attention to what was going on outside the bubble. The only way to make something fresh is to go inside and not look too much at what’s going on. You’ll end up with a mess if you go ‘OK, all the hits right now sound like this so I should do the same.’”
What inspires White is DJ culture, especially in the UK and Europe. “DJ culture here is far more inspiring than DJ culture at home. Here, you have an underground scene which is five years ahead of everywhere else. The scene in the States doesn’t have that and it feeds off what happens over here.
“Five years ago, I remember hearing all the dubstep in London and now, that’s come over to the States, where it’s not really the same thing at all. It’s what do they call it? I know, brostep!”
She believes that club culture has also changed what audiences want from an album and live show. “The track-driven market means you don’t get albums which are worth listening to all the way through. Artists are not even artists – someone else is writing the songs – and some artists are just there because they know how to look sexy. They don’t produce shows which leave you shaking.
“We had people like Nina Simone and James Brown and Prince, but how many people are like that in the present? With a lot of music, there is a lack of that iconic performance and there’s no point in going to the show. It’s just as much fun to watch a DJ and hear him play all the tunes you love than going to a show by an artist who has only one song that you like. Why put up with a boring show for just that one song?”
No such problems with White’s shows. Anyone who caught her at last year’s Electric Picnic will have been left shaken and breathless by her colourful, energetic performance.
“I can be the most outgoing person you’d ever meet but I can also be painfully shy,” she says. “The stage is the one place where I don’t have that. I get on and it’s like wow. I love creating a show that feels like the music, that has that energy and physicality. The show needs to be worth coming to because so many shows aren’t, which is why people go to watch DJs.
“When people come to my show, I want to leave them shaken.”
Master of My Make-Believe is released on April 20