SXSW Interview: Santigold

Philly pop songstress struggles with change on new disc 99¢

Since releasing her sophomore LP Master of My Make Believe in 2012, a lot has happened to Santi White. The 39-year-old Philadelphia singer had a son, took on acting, and put out a makeup collaboration with Smashbox. Midnight slot scheduled for tonight at Stubb’s, she’s relying on inspiration from Dave Chappelle to get her through these extreme times.

Austin Chronicle: A lot of things went down in your life between albums. Like you’re a mom now!

Santigold: I know, and it’s such an amazing joy. It’s really hard too [laughs]. Well, I mean it’s hard while you’re completing a record. It’s a really hard combo, but there’s nothing like it, honestly. It’s amazing.

AC: And not even just being a mom and completing an album. You made a sock brand and also completed a new makeup line. How do you find the time for all of it?

S: I don’t have time. I don’t know. Honestly, that’s a big question in my life right now, because I feel I’m always behind and there’s never enough time. Even when amazing things happen, I’m not able to focus on that achievement. Once I achieve one goal, I feel like, “Oh my gosh, I’m behind on this [other thing].” I never celebrate it. I think it’s such a challenge to live in the moment.

That’s what “Chasing Shadows” is about. It’s like time is going so fast, and I’ve got all these ideas I want to do, and I’m so ambitious and I’m always looking towards the future, but sometimes it’s really hard to be in the moment and be like, “Wow, this is great.” It doesn’t help that we’re in this environment right now where everything is at your disposal, and everyone is fighting for attention. It’s a weird place to be in for an artist and an ambitious person.

AC: Has being a parent made you more inclined to live in the moment and slow things down?

S: Yes, but I don’t know about the slowing down part. I feel I’m moving even faster. So I’m still releasing a record, being Santi, and obsessively trying to do everything like being in my own videos and editing. It’s ridiculous trying to do that and be really hands on as a mom. My life definitely hasn’t slowed down, but it has forced me to just give myself to the moment like last night.

My son was not going to sleep at all, and it was bad because I just came home from a meeting and I was tired. So I was in his room for about an hour and I just sat down and was thinking to myself, “Ok, you’re not going anywhere until he goes to sleep.” I did some meditation on it, saying, “Isn’t this lovely? I’m in here with this other beautiful spirit.” I guess I’m learning how to do that.

AC: Did you find your experience as a mother seeping into your music or are you very much a private person and separate the two?

S: I don’t think that much. There’s this one song called “Big Boss, Big Time Business,” where I wrote about basically what we were just talking about. It’s about how I have to be that much more focused and that much more on top of it, and on point with my shit and how I am. It’s about how I’m a boss and how I’m doing big time business. It’s very playful and in the song I’m calling myself “mama.”

It’s just this badass, kind of tough song. I’m a mama now and I’m handling my own business and my own baby. That’s pretty much the only mention, but I will say that there’s this sort of lightness and joy in having this new baby around that found its way into the record.

AC: This new album finds you working with a lot of new people.

S: Yeah, Patrik Berger, Hit Boy, Sam Dew, John Hill, [Vampire Weekend’s] Rostam Batmanglij, and Zeds Dead. Honestly, it was great. At first, I was nervous about it, because it’s sort of scary going in with new people – especially when you don’t have a lot of time. If you have a lot of time, it’s different because you get to hang out and actually form relationships before you get into the music. Normally, I don’t have time like that anymore, because there’s so much hustle in the music industry.

We just had to jump in and get into it. I was honestly just really blessed to find some of these guys. I have such weird musical influences and such vast music taste with all different genres, and they do too. We were in the same places. Like Patrik loves African music, reggae, and punk rock, and Rostam loves hip-hop and reggae. It’s great, but they’re also both really into making pop music, which is something I’m also really into. So it was just rare to find people that I fell so easily into sync with. It brought a lot of fresh energy into the mix and it was great.

AC: I remember reading you were somewhat intimidated by working with Makonnen. How so?

S: I always feel like that. Whenever I work with somebody new, I’m always kind of shy. It’s weird because I’m confident deep down inside, but then I have this shyness on top. It takes a minute for me to get over it. It’s funny because sometimes we’ll start and then I’m all, “Can I write this at home?” I’m famous for that. I’ll go into the studio to work and then I’m like, “Cool, I’m going to write my part at home!”

I totally did that with Makonnen. He wrote his part so fast and laid down his verse in like one second. I was thinking, “Right .... I’m going to work on my part and send it to you.” But, I love Makonnen. He’s so great, so full of life, and such a free spirit. He comes up with great melodies, and shooting that video for “Who Be Lovin’ Me” with him was so much fun.

AC: I play guitar myself and it can be hard working with and sharing ideas with people you barely know.

S: Yeah, it’s really vulnerable, you know? You’re sharing your art with someone and that can be a scary thing. And I don’t know about you, but I’m the worst guitar player in the world. Even though I’m bad at it, I still write on guitar and I can make up songs. Yet I’m so bad that I actually like the sound of my own guitar playing because it sounds really sloppy and different. Sometimes I want to play on stuff, but it usually has to be looped because it’s really bad. If I go in with new people, you would think I’ve never held a guitar before. It’s unbelievable because, you know, I have to be comfortable with my surroundings.

AC: Your video, “Chasing Shadows,” there’s one part that really struck me. At the end, the tables are turned and instead of us being the audience, you’re the person turning off the TV.

S: Hmmm [laughs]. I honestly don’t know if I put that much thought into that. Yeah, that’s interesting. Let me see if I can come up with an answer for that [laughs]. I guess that when I do videos, I’m just trying to come up with something that’s visually appealing. That’s kind of the fun of art, right? Sometimes I do things and I don’t even know why I’m doing them. It’s only at the end where I realize that it made total sense. I mean the video to me was this notion that you have to be – as an artist, celebrity, or public figure – you always have to be this perfect version of yourself.

In today’s culture, it’s about creating this façade, or perfection where, “Oh my life is so fun and great.” Then it’s funny because since that’s what you show or portray, people put that on you too. They put this thing on a celebrity where, “Oh, this person is living like this, and this is what it’s like.” It goes into sharing your life on social media, but it begs the question of how much are you really getting that’s true. When you think about the lines between virtual and reality, everything is blurred at this point where people don’t really even know the difference.

And the video is also about a lot of the things I grapple with as an artist, which is like being ambitious, and always thinking of the next goal. You’re always striving for something and chasing something that you can never quite hold in your hand. Therefore, sometimes you’re never in the moment, and it’s hard. You’re chasing something at an endless rate. Everything is at your disposal and you can’t keep up with what people are interested in because the second you reach one thing, there’s always the next thing.

Keeping up this façade makes you perpetually ready to be observed and to be seen. That reality can lead you to feel empty and alone. That’s what that video is kind of about. You’re all dressed up, but there’s no place to go and no one to be with. In the video, you can tell it’s the holidays because of the decorations, but I have this empty expression on. I’m all done up, but what’s really there? You’re just there for viewing and I’m at your disposal, but nobody knows what the story is inside.

I’m always struggling with that, and I’m always trying to keep the integrity of art. That song is very much a journal entry for myself. I’m always questioning what is it that I’m striving for. And in the video, it’s about making this façade. It’s interesting because when I turn off the TV, I turn you off from viewing me at the same time. It’s now privacy.

AC: There’s so much narcissism in art. You’re a fan of Jon Rafman’s artwork, where he kind of poses questions about narcissism. You do that in your song “Can’t Get Enough of Myself.”

S: Mhmm. Definitely. That song is a total satire about this obsession we all have about seeing ourselves and capturing ourselves. It’s more about capturing yourself in an environment than actually experiencing the environment. You go to a concert or a club and you turn your back to what’s happening and take a picture of yourself. Or, I have moments where I bring my fans up onstage and they literally will stick their camera in my face as I’m performing. It’s just so strange.

You look up people’s social media pages and they’re all pictures of themselves. And it’s weird, because I’m not good at social media, so I’m not going to pretend that I am. It’s weird because I’ll put up a picture of something that I find really interesting and get no likes, but when I put up a picture of myself, it blows up. For me, I find that so strange. So I just play with that in the song. It highlights the really crazy and absurd place that we are at. It sounds really fun and on the surface it sounds really self-empowering.

AC: You also got a lot of inspiration from Dave Chappelle.

S: Well, not just Dave Chappelle. It’s comedians in general, like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. I admire how they manage to talk about really tough and personal issues, but they get people laughing and the audience doesn’t even know what hit them. I went to see Dave Chappelle recently and it was the weirdest thing because I was laughing because I was afraid. In my head I was, “I can’t believe he’s saying this,” but I was laughing at the same time. It’s such a genius way of getting people to listen and think about things they may not be thinking about or feel like thinking about – especially when things are heavy, tough, or challenging or dark.

Nobody wants to go there and that’s what it’s all about right now: distraction. It’s all about selfies and things. In the grand scheme of things, that really doesn’t matter. It’s a way to not pay attention to all the really, really crazy stuff that’s going on in the world right now.

So the tone of this record is really light, really playful and bright, but I’m trying to talk about some of the things that are pretty heavy and not so bright. It’s all about how absurd and crazy it all is, about perpetual hyper-consumption and how everything is a product. It’s such a weird and empty space.

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Santigold, SXSW Music 2016, Patrik Berger, Hit Boy, Sam Dew, John Hill, Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij, Zeds Dead

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