It’s mid-October in New York and hoodie season has turned into light jacket season. A bundled up Santi White enters Chung King Studios carrying bags filled with miracle potions, nuts and a plastic cylinder of green seedless grapes. She is on day six of Dr Richard Schulze’s 20-day cleanse and detoxification program, though she only plans to finish the first ten. All afternoon White’s been at her place in Bed-Stuy making black anise-flavored tea, concoctions of OJ and garlic and olive oil, and mixes of spirulina and fresh squeezed whatever. Having completed the colon stage, she’s now focusing on her liver, which considering that she doesn’t really drink, is endlessly amusing to John Hill and Switch, her two frequent collaborators who’ve both been waiting to work some more on the Santogold record.
The full 20-day cleanse is a yearly ritual for White, usually done in January in the Canadian mountain home of her boyfriend, professional snowboarder Trevor Andrew. There she has nothing to do except drink juice. But in 2007 the demands of putting together the debut Santogold album, touring as part of Spank Rock’s never ending party and occasionally appearing with the Mark Ronson revue have caught up with her. She’s already been sick three times this year, while she usually makes it through the calendar flu-free. “I’ve been traveling non-stop for months,” says White. “I should bring you to my house. It’s insane. Disgusting. Thrown across the entire floor is a sea of bags full of clothes spilling out. I don’t have any clean anything. I have on my last pair of the corniest underwear you’ve ever seen.”
White is cutting the cleanse short because in a couple of days she leaves for London for more Ronson engagements, and meanwhile the CMJ Festival has also just started bothering New York City. There is a Fool’s Gold showcase later that everyone at the studio knows about, but realizes they probably won’t make it to. MIA is in town for a show and is hoping to scam some of her own time with Switch to record Afrikan Boy over the “Paper Planes” beat. On Friday night Santogold is playing a showcase with Spank Rock, the Noisettes and Earl Greyhound, but that’s a sore subject for White. Right now she’s scheduled at the bottom of the lineup, which means she’ll have to wait around for three hours so she can do her tracks with Spank Rock when he goes on for his post-midnight slot, and the organizers won’t budge about moving things around. It’s enough to make you want to curl up in the bottom of a superfood smoothie.
Santi White is Santogold just as Chan Marshall is Cat Power—a solo project with a band’s name. The collaborators and player may change, the sounds may shift, but at the center is one woman’s indelible vision. Although with Santogold, part of that indelible vision is that it doesn’t always cohere into one direction. And that’s where things get tricky. “When I started Santogold I didn’t really know what it is was,” says White. “I just knew that I wanted to do whatever I wanted, because I hadn’t.” As she made the self-titled Santogold album, two sonic poles emerged. On one end of the spectrum were pure pop rock testaments like “Lights Out,” which sashayed with new wave tones and Joe Strummer swagger. On the other was “Creator,” a marching apocalypse sound where White took on the role of a digital doomsday preacher, delivering a pirate radio sermon from rebel base.
The more traditional songs took form first, as White recorded with writing and producing partner John Hill. The two had played together in Stiffed, a pop punk outfit that White fronted and that had been lumped into the broadly defined black rock movement from the beginning of this decade. Then one night DJ and producer Diplo was in New York at a Turntable Lab party and introduced White to his English cohort Switch, suggesting they work together. A few days later she was in the studio with him and breakbeat mainstay Freq Nasty, neither side knowing what the other did. The producers had a Baltimore club-type thing in mind and asked White if she could rap, something she hadn’t done since she was in her teens. “We chatted about stuff we wanted to do rather than stuff we had done before,” says Switch. As a result, the three created the ready-to-detonate “Creator” and White found a new teammate. “[Switch] comes from a house music background and I hate house music,” says White. “But I respect what he does so much because what I hear is experimental music.” Switch and White then took “Shove It,” a collaboration of theirs that came off like a dubbed out cheerleader chant, to the late producer Disco D, who chopped and dropped it. “Then ‘Creator’ didn’t seem that crazy anymore,” says White. Filling out the sides, she got beats from Diplo and Radioclit to toast over while she and Hill recorded more band-based tracks.
Before the album was finished, songs were posted to MySpace pages and others began to leak. White says most of the messages she gets from fans are about her rock tracks, but the critic community responded more to the programmed approach of “Creator.” Some believed she’d be better off if she abandoned live instrumentation altogether, hoping to transform her into the US response to MIA. Though the two women are friends, it’s a comparison that White bristles at. “I don’t understand when people compare her to MIA,” says Mark Ronson, a longtime friend of White who had her do a bus stop take on The Jam’s “Pretty Green” for his Version album. “I enjoy MIA, but MIA is a rapper/sort of performance artist that has catchy, sing-songy hooks and a really strong message. Santi can do her raps and whatever she does, but she came to London with us and sang ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ with Terry Hall from the Specials. They did a duet with a 52-piece BBC orchestra. She can sing a song properly.”
Switch is only in town for a couple of days, so White and Hill are using this window to have him develop mixing ideas for songs he didn’t have a hand in. The Santogold record was originally supposed to be released on Lizard King, a label best known for breaking The Killers in the UK, but now it’s looking like it will be Downtown Records, which has lately signed Justice and much of the Spank Rock circle. The folks at Downtown are looking for a little more unity to the project than the overarching influence of vintage Jamaican music, but White is mostly satisfied with it as it is. “I’m a girl and people assume sometimes when you listen to what they’re saying, they’ve got you in this position,” she says. “Then they try to do what they want and you have to calmly be like, ‘No, this is what we’re going to do.’” Having Switch, who’s been getting notice for his work on MIA’s Kala, become more involved was a welcome option for everybody.
In a Mexican restaurant a few blocks from the studio at table covered with plates of enchiladas and burritos that White can barely look at, Switch and engineer Vaughan Merrick pitch ideas about tracks they’d like to work on. White burned a CD of selections from the Cocteau Twins, the first Smiths album and the Pixies as a reference of how far she’s willing to push the songs away from their rock foundations. The answer is not very far. “My job right now is to say what I feel strongly about,” she says when the list of proposed alternations starts getting too long.
White has taken her lumps during her wind through the music industry. When she was growing up in Philadelphia, she wanted to be a rapper, but in high school she put her interests in performing aside and instead focused on starting a record label. After a summer internship at Sony in the mid-’90s following her freshman year at Wesleyan University, White began working for the label and graduated early to be an assistant A&R at Epic. She found the experience defeating. “The black music department was the ghetto of Epic. Not in a rough way, but in the way that you never get tickets to any of the good shows,” says White. “The whole thing was about whoever was the hot name right then, and they just threw money at people. I tried to bring Mos Def in there. I tried to bring good shit in there early. And they were like, ‘This is weird. You’re weird.’”
One day she got a call from the singer Res (pronounced “Reese”), asking if she knew any producers in Philadelphia. “Our families were friends, and she said, ‘Hi, my name’s Res, I don’t know if you remember me,’ which was weird because we’d just had Thanksgiving together,” White recalls. She got permission from her boss to do a demo deal with Res, but while looking for collaborators she couldn’t find anyone who could match what she had in her mind for the project, so she decided to write it herself. White calls the making of what became How I Do “an awful, awful process” where everyone had strong opinions about what the album should be and no one had much experience. “I didn’t know how to be removed from it and handle my shit like a businesslady,” says White. “I was all young and emotional and artistic in there.”
She came away from How I Do as an executive producer with song-writing credits on ten of its 11 tracks. She also promised to not write for anyone else again, something she stuck to until recently, when she co-authored Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” and contributed to the next Ashlee Simpson album. Despite her mixed feeling about How I Do, it was her work on it that eventually led to her friendships and projects with Mark Ronson and Naeem Juwan of Spank Rock, both of whom are fans of the album’s woozy soul sung by a woman who sounds like life has just given her a firm kick in the ass. “It was like my journal,” says White. “I think that was the exciting part for the people that like the record.”
With Stiffed, White went through more bullshit—getting screwed over by collaborators and watching her label fold just as it was finally going to put out the band’s debut—all of it making her more resolute about what she was doing. “I remember when we were in the car listening to the Stiffed record,” says Ronson. “I was thinking more with my A&R hat on, which doesn’t really suit me that well anyway, and I said, ‘If a major label came along and offered you a deal but said you might have to rewrite two songs and maybe add one more, would you do it?’ And she said, ‘No. These are the songs. This is what came out of me. This is what it is.’”
These decisions aren’t necessarily stubborn; they can also be savvy. Throughout her career White has shown a talent for knowing what people are going to want to hear long before they have heard it. “She’s really aware of what’s going on with music at the moment and how she wants to fit into that,” says Switch. “I think she’s really got the ability to reach a lot of different musical pockets in a genuine way, which is super fucking rare.”
Weeks later, Switch has gone back England with audio files and a direction that both he and White agree upon. “The material’s so strong that we don’t really need to drown it in stupid beats and fancy tricks,” he says. Downtown has been appeased and the cleanse has ended. CMJ has been forgotten until next fall and White explains what eventually went down with her show. “I ended up pulling some gangster shit and being like, I’m not playing that slot. Then I bumrushed Naeem’s slot and played when I wanted to play,” she says. “They didn’t pay me, but it was awesome.”