Today, I'm talking with my dear friend, actually one of my favorite people in the universe, Santi White. Santi is a true iconic class best known as the musical visionary behind Santigold. She appeared on the cover of FADER issue 51 at the beginning of 2008, just before the release of her debut album, Santogold. And in true FADER cover star fashion, she could not have been any hotter at that moment.
Although it was her first album, it felt as if she had dropped down to earth a fully formed genre-spanning superstar. I mean, where'd she come from? How could someone envelop all the most exciting parts of electronic music, punk, new wave, reggae in this effortless way? These amazing melodies, and then make it seem like she hardly batted an eyelid while doing it. She seemed the embodiment of the term future music and the epitome of cool.
Well, like most "overnight sensations" her arrival was a long time in the making. I discovered her nearly a decade before through the brilliant songs she had written for the artist, Res penning most of Res's debut album. And although the record didn't quite hit, songs like "They Say Vision," fully hold up and you can hear the birth of Santi's inimitable style, bratty, but catchy vocals, very clever, personal but eccentric lyrics, and traces of indie ska and trip hop.
Next up Santi channeled her love for all things Bad Brains through her rock band, Stiffed, cutting her teeth in punk clubs all over the country. But frustrated and hitting somewhat of a wall, mainly because most record labels were unable to envision a black woman fronting a punk rock band, she sort of just said, "Fuck it. If I'm not going to make it, I may as well just make interesting music that I love." And then something magic happened. Call it the power of surrender, divine intervention, the luck of a chance meeting with Diplo and Switch in a nightclub, but she started to make music that was exciting to her and sounded like very little that came before it.
I was actually a big fan of Stiffed and went to a lot of their shows, but when I first heard "Creator" off of her upcoming debut solo record, I was gobsmacked. My friend had made something that was so inventive and new, I had no reference point for it. It felt like a new chapter in music and it wasn't just me. The acclaim came pouring in. Suddenly Jay Z, David Byrne, MIA, they were all at the shows side stage. Jay even tagging her for the Kanye produced "Brooklyn We Go Hard."
Santi and I have been great friends for nearly 20 years and it was amazing to watch her rise. One minute, she's watching my dog while I'm heading off to England to play my early shows, and the next she's headlining over me at Lollapalooza. I was so excited for this chat mainly because she's one of the smartest, most interesting people I know, plus her unique combination of world weariness, yet boundless enthusiasm, is so infectious. So here it is, Santi White or Santigold on The FADER Uncovered with me, Mark Ronson. Let's get deep.
Santigold: Hi, how about this?
Mark Ronson: That's really good. Your FADER cover 2008. The FADER has a pretty good batting average of putting people on the cover right at that moment that it's so much hype, and then usually those people really go on to become really important artists because it's always a gamble when you're going on someone that just feels like the next big thing, but I would have to say their batting average is pretty strong. And if I had to really sum up your rise at that point, I think I even said it to somebody, I think I was like, "Well, I mean, last year I remember I was dropping my dog at her house on the way to the airport, and now she's headlining over me at festivals and on the cover of The FADER." That's literally what I would tell people when you hit that.
Because, just to go back a second, obviously you're always making music and had a successful career as a songwriter, but you were doing me a solid because I was going to UK to do those shows when I was dropping my dog, you would very kindly look after, and then in a year or so you were just on top of the world. So what do you remember most about the chaos of that time? The album was about to come out, just all of these plaudits, acclaim, excitement?
I don't know, it's just such a special moment when the universe just aligns and allows you to pop through something like that. You know what I mean?
And it's kind of a whirlwind and so you don't really remember the details.
And so I just remember, like you said, I mean, I'd been doing it for a long time prior to that in different ways, different capacities, different angles. And I remember, I had my band, Stiffed, for a while and we was trying to make this music that wasn't black music enough and nobody was really ready or interested.
I was a true Stiffed devotee.
I know you were.
I came to your shows, those hardcore shows. I'd drag friends and they'd always be like, "They're fucking amazing!" And I liked the EP and you would play, where was it, like Continental Divide or CBs all the downtown bar and clubs.
Yeah, just New York, I don't know.
I remember when we set out to make the Santigold record which is kind of like Stiffed kind of broke up and me and John Hill were like, "Let's do just whatever we want." And I'd had this psychic reading and she's like, "Well, you're going to get where you want to get to, but it's going to take longer because you just got to just let go of wanting to get to a certain place and just make music for the sake of making music."
Right. And what year was that around?
That was probably 2003.
And so by the time we got around to making the first Santigold record, I really didn't think anybody would be interested or getting it because I knew that I wanted to do every influence I had and like...
And I didn't really care. I remember saying to John, I was like, "Maybe somebody in London will like it?"
And they did.
But so did people everywhere, right?
I know. I just thought that London was more open to different things that didn't fit into genres. I had gone into it not really expecting anything. And so when things just started opening up to me, kind of for the first time in that way, it was so exciting and so overwhelming too because it was such a busy time.
You get the sense of that in that article. It's like the chaos, and I'm even surprised and quite pleased to hear you say there's these wonderful moments in the universe where things align and allowed yourself to pop through because I almost see you sometimes being so hard on yourself and so caught up in the chaos that I didn't even know that you'd take a moment to acknowledge something really good happened. But in that article you really get the sense, you're like, "I haven't changed... I haven't done laundry... I'm down to my last pair of corny underwear."
Did I say that?
Yeah, you're like, you bring people into your apartment, and I remember that apartment in the brownstone in Bed-Stuy, and I could just picture the mess that it was. What do you remember about that time? It's such a cliche, but I feel there's so much work and history that goes into looking like an overnight sensation, which is essentially what it probably looked like to the outside. When was the first thing that happened that you were really like, "Oh, shit, things are finally clicking into place for me."?
Oh, it's an interesting question because I have a tendency to not key in to things like that. I just kind of go and go and go, and I'm working on this actually because I sort of go through my life sometimes in front of myself rather than embodying the present. And I think back then I was certainly a little bit just running on adrenaline ahead of myself. I was on tour for two years straight during that time. I used to lose my voice all the time, I didn't know how to regulate, I didn't know how to set up boundaries to take care of that and not do everything that was asked of me and stuff like that.
Also there's something that happens when you've been hustling for so long and then suddenly people get it, and you're so grateful to have it. I had it similar to you, later in life, in my 30s. So you don't know the rules and you do say yes to everything, you are willing to just be like, "What? You need me to fly from Switzerland to Perth, Australia tomorrow? Yeah. I'm going to do it."
Yeah. Also it's exciting because you meet so many people. That's one of the good things about when things start happening and you're playing festivals and you're doing press. We met doing a photo shoot in 2002, maybe?
What was that... I always try to remember how we very first met.
I think, Mark, I'm not 100% sure, but I think I met you doing a Stiffed photo shoot.
A Stiffed photo shoot?
I think so.
Because I can't remember a time that we weren't friends. That's how...
No, I know. And I have this memory of I had my hair in cornrows, I had on this Adidas jacket, and we're sitting on a stoop somewhere...
I remember the stoop now.
I remember that. That was afterwards.
So what was I doing in a... In your band?
No, it was a bunch of different bands for a magazine and you were in it, and I was in, I think, Mark, I think that's how we met. And so at that time too, it's`like you're meeting all these different cool... I mean, that was way before, but you start meeting all these people who are like minded, and honestly... So I was 31, I think.
But the thing is, for my life, up until then, I had not really found my tribe because I was always so other in every different situation. Because I'm a little bit of a lot of things. And so I fit in many places, but never the whole of me until around then. But that's because I think that's when culture started to open up to allow a Black woman to be more than just this or that. And so it was like people started coming out of the woodwork as all these other people that didn't fit in the box and sort of we kind of found each other. And that was actually one of the most special things about that time.
And I think it wasn't just the time where I'm starting to come out, but I think it was culturally the time. We had Obama that year, we had fashion, which was going crazy that year, and music was going crazy. It was a real moment culturally, and I think that's what was one of the most exciting things is feeling the freedom to actually embody all the things that you always wanted to and nobody was ever willing to hear or feel all at the same time.
Yeah. I mean, you're such a good arbiter of culture, even if it's just instinctually, you're not chasing trends but you just seem to embody or people look to you. So I'm more of the person, when you talk about all the influences and all the different things in one, my brain goes to music. So to talk about your first record, you took all these disparate influences that you had, or maybe not so disparate, of the punk, Bad Brains, all the more guitar music that you were doing, and then you talk about it in the article a little bit, it was a little bit of an eye-opener, you'd always liked hip hop so you had always been down with electronic music, but not so much house and the worlds that Switch and Diplo came from. So can you just revisit how you kind of hooked up with them and ended up doing the more electronic side of that record?
Yeah, this is a funny story. So I met Diplo the same night I met Switch, at some party that I went to with Spank Rock. It was 30 people there, it was really nobody there, and somebody was DJing, and then it was kind of empty. And I had met Diplo just briefly at Joe's Pub or something years before I was in Stiffed. And we didn't really know each other. He might've come to a show, we didn't know each other like that. And so I was sitting on this bench next to Naeem and then Naeem got up and then Diplo slides in, and he's like...
Naeem is Spank Rock by the way, just for our listeners.
Yes. And so he slides off and he's like, "Do you have any lip gloss I can borrow?"
Wow. Is that his line?
I don't know.
But that was it, yeah. And so I actually had a Chapstick, I used to use cherry Chapstick and I'm the biggest germaphobe in the world, but I was like, I wanted to give him it, so I was like, "Sure." And I gave it to him and then I took it back and threw it away immediately. So that was that. And then five minutes later, which is how he is, he's been the connector who we already know each other. So he says "Here, I want you to meet somebody." And he brings me over to Switch, who was in town trying to make a Baltimore bass record with some girl rapper. So he brings me over and he's like, "You guys have to work together." And then he's like, "Do you rap?" And I was like, "Sure." And he's like, "Can you do Baltimore bass rap?" And I was like, "Sure."
Yeah. Meanwhile, you probably hadn't rapped since the high school talent show that we've talked about a couple of times, we'll get to that. Right.
Not really. No, I mean, I've always written... I don't know. But no, I certainly wasn't rapping.
Yeah. Did you just sense that this felt like a good opportunity or were you just in a silly, playful mood? Like, "Yeah, whatever. Sure, I can rap."
I knew what he had worked on before.
Okay. And what had he worked on? Was it MIA?
It was MIA but I didn't know the details of what he did, but I think that's what Diplo framed it like.
You just knew he was interesting and probably might have some cool shit.
Yeah, exactly. So we go to this... He'd rented one of those rooms, the little sound rooms, like a box.
And I went there that week and they played the beat for "Creator" and it was like nothing that I ever heard and I just was like, I loved it, but I had no idea what to do on it.
So he's like, "Go ahead." And I was like, "Right now?" Because what I like to do is take a beat home and just... Especially back then because I was super shy if I didn't know people, I didn't feel free to sound terrible. And so I literally went in the booth and I go, "(singing) can I take this home?"
Oh my goodness.
And then they're like, "Okay." And then I planned on never going back because I listened to, I was like, "I don't know how to write to this crazy beat." So they kept calling me and kept being like, "We're leaving soon, can you please come back and finish, we really want to do it?" And I was like, "All right." So that night, I think I had like... Do you remember the Roland, what's it called, a VS-80 or something like that, it was this weird, almost like a multi-track recorder?
I think so. A digital multi-track recorder?
Yeah. I was just messing around and I kind of wrote "Creator," but I had no confidence in it and I just was like, "I don't know what I'm doing." But that's what I wrote. But I didn't really have a melody, I just kind of had all the words and the flow. And I went in and I felt so not confident, and I think at this point we were at the studio that I was working at near Williamsburg.
And they were like, "Okay." And I was like, "I got something. I don't know." And I was like, "I just can't figure out a melody." And they were like, "Well, let's just put in a melody and we'll take it out." So I think they put like The Police in the background, something like that. And I started and they fucking flipped out. He's like standing up, doing the finger thing, you know what I mean? And I fed off of their energy and it ended up being this amazing moment with Switch and this guy, Freak Nasty, who he had just barely met up with as well. And it was really great and it was really fun. And so I had this record...
Fair play to Switch for keeping bugging you, having a sense, even if it was just a sixth sense that you on that track was going to be something special.
I know and he didn't even know me, he didn't know anything about me. Yeah. So he did, and it was amazing. So I had this song that didn't fit my record. I was like, "But I like this song." Because John Hill and I were doing... We did "L.E.S" and we had like, "Say Aha," or not "Say Aha," we hadn't done that yet.
"Lights Out," you mean?
"Lights Out," yeah. And so we had these sort of the other side. So then I started doing something that ended up sort of making the brand of what Santigold became was figuring out how to merge all the elements and being this weird patchwork builder. And so I...
And what was that? Was that by making the rock songs a little bit more electronic in the mix and adding this?
Yeah. I just started pulling... I mean, I left some as they were like. I don't think "L.E.S." and "Lights Out" I touched really, but I started building other songs like "Say Aha," we ended up pulling in Disco D at the time to work on that.
We should talk about Disco D because he's really, really influential, a lot of huge producers and people like... I mean, Benny Blanco, people who have gone on to become like lords of pop all point back to Disco D. I don't know that much about him. Can you tell a little bit, just shed a little light on him?
I mean, I'm one of those people, I never know much about anybody, I just stumble into people. But I met him, he was the nemesis and arch rival of Diplo at the time.
Okay. And what city was... Disco D was in Baltimore or was he... He was somewhere else.
No, he was living in Brooklyn when I met him.
Oh, he was? Okay.
But I know he spent a lot of time in the Brazil baile funk world, and so did Wes. And so they were like... So he had a real cool sense of that whole... That was very up and coming at the time, the whole baile funk, mixing sort of African influence stuff with electronic music. So with the sort of African and reggae elements of "Say Aha," I was trying to make it... Was it "Say Aha"? I'm sorry.
I think it was "Shove It."
It was "Shove It."
"Shove It," yeah.
Yes, it was "Shove It". And that was really interesting because I was trying to do something was rap, but I didn't want it to feel like a rap song. In fact, I so much didn't want it to feel like a rap song that I put a completely other voice and tucked it underneath that no one was supposed to hear, which it was kind of British.
Wait, is that in the song? I'm trying to remember that.
Well you can't hear it in the mix. But I didn't want it to sound like a Philly girl, I want it to just sound like Tom Tom Club.
So I didn't want it to sound like how I would say it so I was very straight in my delivery. But I put this underlying thing. So then when Kanye, Diplo sent the tracks to Kanye without telling me, for the Jay Z song.
"Brooklyn We Go Hard."
"Brooklyn We Go Har," and he takes out the English one, the English that was tucked in.
It was terrible.
That's what that is? That's from the thing?
Yes. And it was like, "Oh no." But it was really funny. So that's yeah.
It's funny because actually now to hear you say it, it does make sense. It is kind of enunciated, it almost reminds you of in the Motown era when they would... Diana Ross would be like, "Don't just sing like you're in church, sing proper, annunciate everywhere." There was a style of doing that.
Because that is important. That little detail makes it a whole different sounding song.
Do you know what I mean? What they were doing in Motown, it sounded completely different. It didn't sound like church music, it sounded like a new genre. Similarly, like the Tom Tom Club, on a beat like "Shove It," was a completely different idea.
Yeah. It's funny, though, because now, when I think about that, that's so you, that just sounds so much like Santigold, that it's impossible to think that you were like fixing yourself to sound like that. That's wild to me. So when you gave it to Disco D?
Yeah, so he came in, and he basically came in, and did a lot of the beat stuff on that song for us.
And what has he done before? I know he was known for stuff. Was it mainly the Baltimore and the baile funk stuff?
He did that, he did some rap stuff. I remember, he had me come and sing on something, I don't even remember. I have to ask Trevor, because he remembers, because it was some really random rapper, and I sing some super R&B thing on something. Because, I mean, he did stuff like that, too.
But yeah, he died super terribly early, and right in the height of everything.
It's funny when I speak to singers, because I when I'm working with a singer in the middle of the record, there'll be, "I don't know, because I got this song that sounds like this, and this song that sounds like that."
But I think singers always forget, especially if you have a really unique, special voice, that your voice is always the unifying instrument. So, as much as it was really groundbreaking, because no one had put together, maybe those influences the way you did on the first record, I don't hear them being especially different.
I don't hear "LES Artistes" into "Shove It," into "Creator," doesn't strike me as being odd, because your voice is such the dominant color, that it doesn't. But did it feel odd to you, or you just so happy to be liberated and doing just whatever the fuck you wanted?
I agree with you. I identify my voice as the unifying thing. In that, I felt totally free to do anything I wanted to do, because I was like, "It sounds like me." Also, within one song, I was singing like four different voices.
So I was, "This is what it is." But the main thing is, when I say that it has to fit, it's exactly like when you do a painting, and you've got a little bit of, so you have red up here, you can't just have only red up there.
It's got to be a little touch here and a little hint of orange or something, to just draw your eye around the whole painting. It's the same thing when you're making a record. You just have to have balance.
That's what I was focused on. I wasn't, "Okay." When you're curating a project, it has to tie together, that's all. It doesn't have to be the same, something can totally stick out. But it just has to make sense within that whole context.
Yes. Sometimes I do think, "Do my socks bring out the color of this tie?" I know that sounds fairly ridiculous, but that's-
Mark, I know what you're thinking. But I thought you were trying to pretend you were joking.
And I was, "Mark, you know you were 100% certain."
No. I was 100% certain. I haven't done it in a while, but ...
Like most meaningful debuts, Santogold sounded like nothing that preceded it.
It had a lot of influences, sure. But all those influences were digested through Santi's unique filter, Devo, Bad Brains, '80s Philly hip-hop like Schoolly D, etc etc. I mean, in the age of Spotify and YouTube, those influences don't sound as disparate, because now you can find countless great playlists that curate across decade and genre.
But back in the early 2000s, this was certainly not the norm. The main reasons Santi gave herself the freedom to experiment in all these areas was because she had resigned herself to the fact that her time might've passed, and she wasn't going to make it, so she might as well make what was exciting to her. And I can completely relate to this.
In 2005, I was cold as cold could be. My debut album, Here Comes The Fuzz, had bombed, causing Elektra to drop me like a scalding hot, mold-encrusted potato, and I had no other projects going on.
So I started using my free time to just make covers of songs I adored, songs by Radiohead, The Smiths, and The Jam. I loved the music of these bands, but there was no chance to play them in the hip-hop and R&B clubs I DJ'ed at.
So I thought, I'd redo them in a style that I could get away with in my DJ sets. I never imagined there would be interest in this music beyond the club. I never expected any label to want to put this out. And that music became the album Version. It's still my most successful to date, with over a million copies sold.
When you're not thinking of the pop charts, you're free to create in this unfiltered way. It's like accessing the direct creative cortex of the brain without all the negative self-talk that goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. But no one's going to fuck with this."
This freedom enabled the album Santogold to be the mix that it is, the Pixies, the Waitresses, Sister Nancy, grimy, East London club beats and all, and the main glue was Santi's unmistakable vocals. She could be as brash and badgering as she wanted on tracks like "Creator," and then, syrupy indie sweet on earworms like "Lights Out," or a mixture of both, on bangers like "LES Artistes." By exploring these different voices and soundscapes, the music benefited from her freedom of thought, and her distinct sound was born.
I remember also, it was so cool, you had these gnarly records, the kind of more, beat heavy ones that would just be playing in grotty underground clubs. And then I would go to Urban Outfitters, Topshop, every one, and you would just hear "LES Artistes" in every store. It was kind of amazing, because you really did have this reach. I don't think it was like splitting an audience, but you covered all this ground.
Were you aware that looking out at your shows for the first time, that you could almost look at a fan and be, "Oh, I know what song they like, what they're here for." Did it feel like the audience was just there for you, or ...
It was just such a cool audience, because was so mixed up, and I was shocked, honestly. I mean, there was a lot of 50-year-old white men in my audience who really liked the sort of New Wave stuff, I think.
I mean, it was just everybody. In some cities, there were no black people.
And I didn't like that. There began to be more, and it became really mixed up. But in the beginning, when it was very indie, I don't really know what indie is anymore.
But it changed. My audience changed, and it's-
Yeah. It just means you're not on hip-hop or R&B radio playlists. It's just anything that's like slightly uncategorizable, right?
Now, I think it means that.
But before, it was, hipster.
That's kind of different now.
Yeah, of course. But a lot of people listening to this will be already fans of yours, and be familiar with Spank Rock. But sometimes, when I'm explaining to people, that before Spank Rock, there was no hipster blog rappers.
The trickle down from what he did, whether they're fans of him or not, I don't know. But from the Odd Futures to the Theopholis, to anything going on now, Spank Rock was the first hipster rap. I don't mean hipster in the derogative way that we think, just somebody who was so-
Yes, a rapper that did not ...
Yeah, he was absolutely left field, but also, I mean, they brought the show. They brought the Baltimore club, they brought it out of the club. I remember going to see him, and David Byrne was in the audience, you know what I mean?
It was just, the energy onstage influenced my show, hugely. I was like, "I want to feel like that onstage."
Yeah, it was incredible. And how did you actually hook up with Spank Rock Naeem?
So it's funny, because Roxy ...
Of course. Roxy Cottontail.
Cottontail, I'm actually having an interview with her, because she's doing something about that era.
Yeah, for her thing.
Yes, that's right. So she introduced us at one of her, Sway or something, I don't know. She's like, "You two need to know each other. He lives in Philly, whatever." So I was, "Hey," and he's like, "I love the Res record." And I was like, "Really?"
That was like, I mean, it really took it back. I don't know who knows that record, and stuff. And so, I've ...
I still have "They Say Vision," by Res, a song you wrote. Santi wrote an incredible record for this artist, Res, How I Do. And there's a song called "They Say Vision," which is on every workout playlist.
It's the one in the morning, when I really don't want to work out, and I need one thing that's just going to throw me up right away. Yeah, the Res thing, I think, for heads and people who checked it out, it was an important record.
It was early, and that was the first time I worked with Doc, who then went on to do The Weekend, and is always doing something interesting and progressive.
So Naeem was a fan of Res.
Yeah, yeah. And then, I don't know, I must have gone to see him, and then just been mindblown, and also ...
The shows were incredible. It's like, if you didn't see it, it's hard to imagine that it was the closest thing to a weird, James Brown meets Talking Heads, and meets, just like, it was just the most energetic thing ever.
Do you remember, when he did James Brown at your party? Do you remember, and he was all over the table?
He jumped. It was a very fancy party for the opening of Topshop in New York. And it was like at Balthazar, the really fancy restaurant in New York.
And Jimmy Fallon had done "Englishman in New York."
Jimmy Fallon had just done "Englishman in New York."
We were the house band, and I forgot that Spank Rock Naeem did James Brown. But I remember him dancing, and jumping from four top table to four top table, like crazy.
That was unbelievable.
Exactly. It's fucking amazing. And people were kind of terrified, and then it's like, "Is he going to land," as he's shaking his tail, but also ... Yeah, that was incredible.
I remember that party for a different reason, when you asked me what it felt like in the beginning. That was the first time that the paparazzi thing, I just had a conscious moment where I was, "I will never do this." Do you know what I mean?
Because I got out of the car, and they came over, and I was just, "This is not me. It's not who I am. I'm so awkward in this, I hate it."
And I was like, "Never." From then on, any time I got out, I would be, "Nope." But it was that party.
And I was, "Oh, no, no, no. No."
I know. You're not somebody who's ever courted that kind of thing. But you were so embraced by the fashion world, just basically, because you did embody this new, as you said, mixing of all these things, Alexander Wang, all these houses.
You care about fashion, you're an aesthetic, you think about that shit, too. Did you dig that attention?
I mean, all that stuff is so funny, because I love fashion, just like I love art, and I love music. And I will always, right? But I learned very quickly. I mean, I was learning a lot of stuff during that time, and I don't like those scenes.
I don't like the, you're up, you're down, you're hot, you're not. You buy all this stuff, and then, the next season, throw it away. It's just, I'm the type of person, I'll have stuff in my closet for 10, 15 years, and I will wear it almost the whole time. Or, you put it away for 10 years, you bring it back, you know what I mean?
There's so much stuff that I don't like about the fashion scene, and it's changed so drastically since back then. Like back then, Jeremy Scott was doing amazing stuff, but it was still so underground.
And also, so was Alex, Alexander Wang. Then also, there was Castelbajac, who was-
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, yeah.
Yes. He was the forefather of what Jeremy was doing.
So I met him, and I remember, I liked it.
Really bright prints on sweaters, and bringing back the Peanuts, and the COOGI stuff, with ...
I mean, just, he was doing like sculpture on dresses with 3-D, hair coming out of the dress, stuffed animals, all this cool stuff. And he had been doing it for years.
So yeah, fashion, it was really great, meeting people and learning all about that. But it was also like, the whole first row, this, that, is that thing you're not invited, then you are, you know what I mean?
It was just, okay, all that stuff helped me to where I am now. I mean, I had been in the industry for years before all that stuff, whether it's from working in the record labels, or whatever. You see people go up and down, up and down. Same with fashion. It's just the perspective that you get when you're like, "Okay, now I can see this whole trajectory. So I see through the middle, and I see where I want to be, and I'm going to ride this one."
... Yeah. And what was it, what was where you wanted to be, kind of?
Well, that's a very deep question.
I don't mean, through the whole thing, but just, even in that world, your place in that world?
Well, clearly, I wanted to be authentic to myself.
I wanted to be true to myself, and that's actually way harder to do than it sounds, especially as social media and all this stuff comes out. And then, as a woman, having to is kind of bullshit. Because it's like, I put it on myself.
There's lots of women who don't do all that stuff, and just go out just like men, with no makeup and no hair, or whatever. And I love that, but I also am so into all the different hairstyles, and fun makeup, and all this stuff.
So it was all this additional pressure that you put on yourself. Then you get stuck. I built this whole thing into my shows where I'm like, "I love my costumes," and I love it. I love doing the whole thing with these crazy costumes.
You had some big gowns, I remember, on some of those shows.
I mean, I had so many different things. I would change three times to show, at least. And you make it hard on yourself, but also, it became the art of the show, because then I realized, that the show is a whole different opportunity to create. It's a whole physical manifestation of what you did in the music, but then you can make it visual and physical.
I spent so much time, but then, that's pressure. So it's finding the line. that's an ongoing process. How do you consistently stay true to who you want to be in your art, despite whatever's going on around you, and despite whatever the trends, whatever the pressure?
I think that's been my saving grace, because it's not like I've ever had rocket ship stardom. I've never had a major radio hit.
But yet, all these years later, I still have respect and relevance, because I kind of don't follow the trends.
You never put a foot wrong. When you don't follow trends, and you're really true to yourself, and you have to have a pretty good inherent sense of what's good. You can't just be an idiot and just be, "I stay true to myself." Because then you can just make idiot music.
No, totally. I agree.
But yeah, you can look back at everything, and you have this long career. And it's crazy to think, that record and the era we're talking about is almost 15 years ago now. And in that FADER article, I didn't realize there were so many quotes from me.
Because I guess I was a little bit, blowing up at the time? I always joke on this podcast that I'm allowed to host the FADER thing, but I've never been cool enough to be in The FADER, literally. But I'm cool enough to be interviewed for an article for you.
Or maybe you were too big immediately. You got to be a little bit-
Don't even try. It took me forever. So, talking about this thing, and I really remember it quite clearly. I was in your car, and you were playing me Stiffed stuff, and there was so much promise, and you were like, "What do you think of this?"
And I thought, as your friend, just being slightly more commercial-minded, sure, I listened. I was, "These are really great," and from seeing the shows, and knowing what you could be, I think I was like, "But maybe the sound's coming out there."
And I said, "If a label told you to fix a couple of songs, or like fix a hook here, 'Then we would sign you, and put this big money behind you, would you do it?'"
You were like, "No, because that's what I wrote." I always thought that that was A, ballsy, and I wish I had the nerve to do it, and it reminded me a little bit of ... I remember when the first day that I worked with Amy Winehouse, and she came in with the lyrics to "Back to Black," and they were really great.
But me, like an idiot, the chorus didn't rhyme. It was, "We only said goodbye in words, I died a thousand times," and my producer by the book thing goes off, and goes, "Well, those should rhyme."
And I was like, "Do you think maybe that could change, that line, just to rhyme?" She was like, she looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. Because she was, "Why? It already came out like that. That is a true expression of my feelings." And I think, more than any other artists that I know, I think that you've really stayed on that thing, for sure. You know what I mean?
No, I do. But I also understand, this isn't even the point, but I actually understand how your brain works, too. And I think that any really good artist is going to have both sides of that brain. So it's not like, "No." It's like, "Well, could I, and it still makes sense, another thing." But really, funny thing is that my A&R at Atlantic was the person who told me no, when I went out on my own. He was like, "This will never work."
When you went out on your own with what?
When I went out shopping my demo.
Oh. But you got signed to Atlantic.
Because I got upstreamed.
It had nothing to do with me. Then I got the A&R who told me no. Later, I was like, "You know you told me that."
And he's like, "I was wrong." Then I got it from the other side. So, some of my other friends, who were way more like, "Listen to less pop stuff." They're like, "This is really poppy." And then I felt-
Right, about what stuff? The electronic stuff, or the rapper stuff?
Oh yes, and stuff like that. I was like, "Hmm," and I felt bad about it. But then I was, "You know what? I like pop, and I like that it can be pop too." Because Devo, which I always say is one of my favorite bands, I have a lot of favorite bands, but I say that all the time.
You say that in the article, actually, that Devo is your favorite band, which makes sense to me. But I actually, in all our years of working together and being friends, I didn't know that.
Really? Well, the thing about them is, they make pop songs. Their songs are so poppy. But then, they just tweak them, so that they're so off-kilter, and so strange, that you miss that they're pop songs. It's a blessing and a curse, because I think I have that same thing, where I take a pop song, take the pop out of it, even as a pop song.
Yeah, yeah. But you have the voice, and you have hooks, and you don't know how to sell out, I don't think.
No, I don't think ...
I don't think you have that part in your brain that would know how to fix it, to cater for people.
I just think that ruins the whole point of what I do. And if I had to do that, then I would do something else. I feel the same way about social media. I'm like, "If I have to do that to be a musician, then I quit."
I suck at social media, and it's become such a huge part of being a successful musician. And I'm like, "Well, I'll probably just keep doing music, and find something else to do for money, then, because I can't do social media like that."
Yeah, I'm so bad at it. I hate it.
I just don't like it. It does not resonate with who I am.
I just find myself sometimes waking up, either stressed about, "What am I going to post today?"
Or like, "Oh no, X person had their record come out yesterday, and I forgot to post," so now I've probably got to upgrade it from a story to a grid, so they're not angry, or like it's somebody's birthday. And I'm really bad at it, too. I'm the only person who seems to be slowly losing followers.
I look at Diplo, just going from two million, to three to four to five million. And I'm like, looked at my followers, actually, this morning, I was, "How'd I drop down ..." Did they do a cull of bots?
I don't know, but I just feel with all that I want to do in the world, I don't want to be looking at my phone worried about followers.
What do you post when you have to? Or do you just let somebody handle it and is it just promotional only?
Well, actually during this past pandemic year, I didn't post anything almost. I literally was like, I refuse to do this this year. This is not where I want to focus my energy. And there's so many things going on, whether it was trying to save myself from drowning because I was deep in with motherhood. I had two year old twins just as we hit the pandemic with no help coming in the house and trying to... I made a record.
And your oldest who's eight?
Just turned seven. Yeah. So I mean, it was a lot just trying to keep afloat and then also just do functional stuff in my house. It's all I could do. And I felt like I was slowly dying in this role of just motherhood. That's not me. Yes, I am many things. A mother is one of them. But like I can't just be cleaning and cooking and doing laundry and wiping butts. You know what I mean? I just can't do that all the time, 24/7. I was seriously suffocating. And so I just, I broke out and the house looked insane and I made a record. And I was just like, this is what I'm going to do, but I'm certainly not doing social media.
And then when the world started going crazy and it was protests and the riots and the fires. And I actually had to pull myself off of it all. No news, no nothing, because I'm a total empath. And it's actually not helpful to me if I get as down as I'll get from taking... So I had to protective shield myself and then just create. Because creating you're building a rope or a bridge to pull you and whoever else out. But if I'm just going to take it all in too much, I won't even be able to make anything.
Santi and I are alike in that we came up in the era before social media. The frequent posting isn't particularly innate to us or often even very interesting. I do have a lot of admiration for our mutual friends who have made the transition smoothly. People like Diplo and Questlove. Diplo with his brand of humor, fun tour pics, and a lot of smoking hot dad pics. He's turned that into instant TikTok gold. And Questlove, statesmen, ambassador of all things musical, cultural, political plus his great appreciation posts. I mean, they have their own brand, but you have to be particularly good at it and you have to want it because it takes a lot of time. And if you look like you're trying too hard or you want it real bad, Lord help you because it is some cringey shit.
I still shudder when I think of the three weeks I tried to be relevant on TikTok. And Santi is way more visually iconic than me. She has a distinct style, a worldview. It would be very easy for her to turn that into some kind of great Instabrand, but it just doesn't interest her whatsoever. It seems to be even a little depressing to her. I hate to sound like that old guy, but surfing TikTok for more than five minutes, kind of makes me depressed, too. But I also know it's not for me.
There are artists like Frank Ocean and Kendrick whose mystique is actually quite refreshing. What you know about them you know from the music and your imagination is free to run wild and fill in the blanks on the rest. We've all sat with a friend dissecting the imagined subject matter of a song. I mean, if Carly Simon was on social media in the 70s, I don't think we'd still be trying to guess who "You're So Vain" was about. We'd know it from looking at her Insta stories. There's certainly something refreshing about not knowing everything about an artist you admire, but also a few artists have the courage to step out of that spotlight. Santi, however, has never felt the need or desire to play any part of a game, which doesn't feel genuine to her.
And how was the music that you made? This is for your record that you're kind of finishing up right now.
Yeah. Yeah. I'm mixing it. I love it. It's called Spirituals, the record. And it's in no way traditional spirituals, but it was my spirituals. It was my way through. And I'm really excited about it.
Is it once again a mixture of sort of all those influences and stuff or because you're making it in the pandemic, were you more beat-focused because that was the kind of stuff or everything?
Now it was everything. There's a lot of beats. I definitely made it in a room by myself, virtually with everyone, which was hard and also very... I ended up being in Canada for five months in a cabin in the woods really by myself, which was interesting because then the whole nature thing really opened up and became another element that found its way into the music.
Is there a bit of a peaceful record, or uplifting record?
No, it's just all over the place.
Okay. True to form.
It's got some punk, it's got some punk. It's got some rap. It's got everything. It's...
I just meant because you said that you were kind of shunning the horrific and the more negative aspects of what was going on in the outside world to just make sure that you kept the positive right.
It's all in the music. I was keeping it a little bit at bay so that I could create within it rather than just be so down I couldn't do anything. But it's all in the music.
The last time that I saw you live, we were doing a festival together in San Francisco, this really cool festival. And I was doing a show with Diplo as Silk City. And you were doing the live show. I mean, your live shows are phenomenal and the dancers you have with you and the choreo and everything. Are you looking forward to going back to live? Do you still like live?
I love live performing, but I don't love live performing five days a week for a long time straight. But of course not being able to travel, I love the idea of being able to go out and do shows. And I love coming up with the show as much pressure as it is. And but especially for this one, because I've already got some just, oh, I just... Some themes are easier than others. And this one I really see and I'm working on some really great art ideas. Actually this morning I had a call about it. And so yeah, I'm excited to take it out. Touring has been different now that I have kids and stuff. I try to do only three weeks at a time and just kind of... But I have a lot of places to get to now because I haven't been to Mexico in years. I haven't been to London. I had to pull out of Glastonbury last time that I was supposed to do it. And I haven't been there in four years, five.
I remember it was so much fun because in the brief minute that Version, my record was blowing up just before your thing exploded just before this FADER cover story and you would come and do festivals with us and that was so much fun. And I always remember you definitely weren't one for the grotty, bus life and all these boys and definitely some drinking, maybe some drugs. But I always just remember being so gracious for you showing up and always having this fear in the back of my head, this is definitely the last one she's going to do. She's definitely not going to come back. I think there was one festival even where I'm not angry about this, but maybe it was Coachella. I'm not even angry. I mean, literally I just mean I'm saying it's definitely as a joke. It's not a passive aggressive joke that I think you told me that you weren't able to perform because you weren't getting in until the morning. And I ran into you at the juice stand. I was like...
Because I wasn't getting what to the morning?
You weren't playing until the next day. And you're like, "I just don't think I'm going to be there in time for your show on Saturday." I think you were playing Sunday. And I was like, "Do you want to still come? The band knows the song. You could just hop up." But I think honestly, I could never be mad at you because you did so many of those early shows with us in the Radio 1 Big Weekend. And it was you, Lily Allen, Daniel Merriweather. Were you at any of the ones where Amy, the couple where Amy got up?
Yeah, I think there was a couple of where she came. It was a lot of people.
"Pretty Green" was, I would go so far as to maybe say it might be the only song she liked on my album Version, the song that you did. Because I think Amy, even though maybe genre-wise, you guys were quite different. She was just very cool. And cool is regardless of genre, as we know. And in the same way you are, there's some people that just have an instinct for what is cool. And I don't mean it's gauging what other people might think is cool. It's just you just can't put a fucking... It's just uncoachable, and you and her both had that. And so it makes sense that "Pretty Green" was her favorite song because you just hear it and it just fucking sounds cool because of your voice and all that shit.
I remember recording that with you in your studio in New York and just moving all around the room screaming and you're like, "Double dutch plus." And I was like, "Okay." And so I was doing a billion different voices. That was really fun. I liked that song.
I didn't know how to do a gang vocal. So I was like, "Well, how can we make it sound like a group? I'll just keep asking you to move to different places in the room because maybe spacially that would... "
I do that all the time. No, that totally-
Does it work?
Yeah. It totally changes. Or just a little bit from the mic, but changing your voice each time slightly.
You're so good at changing your voice. You really are a master of that. You just can make all these different personalities.
I've been doing a little bit of animation voiceovers just a little bit. I just... But the cool thing is the ones I've been doing involve comedy singing, which is the funnest thing. And you're just yelling at people. I'm on this one called Centaurworld.
Okay. Is this Adult Swim or cartoons for kids or cartoons for grownups?
I think it's Netflix. I think it's for teenagers or grownups, this one. But I'm the moltaur judge. So I'm a mole, but a taur. So everybody's a centaur. And I had sexy, disgusting, but not sexy. It's so fun because it's all about your voice and being able to change and do all this fun stuff with your voice. And I think that's always been something that, because I've never thought of myself as a singer really.
That's crazy to me because I know what you mean. You're not going to get up and probably sing the National Anthem at the playoffs. But you definitely are singing, you have great pitch. You have really a unique tone, but sure, I kind of get it.
But it's just more about being an instrument player of your voice. Because I can't play any other instruments very well at all. I can write on any instrument, but I'm terrible at playing instruments. But I can play my voice. And that's kind of it. I've taken a little bit of vocal lessons over the years just to try to figure out how to retain my voice on tour and stuff like that. But I don't know how to do all kinds of stuff. But it's just what I do know how to do is make cool, funny sounds with my voice and on demand.
Yeah. But it's funny because when you went in on the first time to do "Creator" with Switch, there's something that probably has grown in the confidence a little bit of doing that a few times, everyone going, "That's the shit." Because you probably maybe the way you told that story, you weren't quite ready, but then you're like, "Oh fuck. Oh and if I do a little funny voice on this one, shove it. Then Jay-Z and Kanye are going to sample it."
Are you talking about that little bit in the beginning of Creator? What we did at the very end where I was like *makes squeaking noise.*
I've always done little squeaks as I'm... Especially from Stiffed. I think I started doing that probably influenced by Missing Persons. And it just became a thing I couldn't stop doing. It just became something. And he probably heard me doing that and he's like, "Do some cool thing." I remember he said, "Do some," this made no sense. He goes, "Do some Kate Bush sound in the beginning." And that's what I did. It made no sense. And then it's also completely not in pitch or anything, cracking. And he's like, "That's great." And he used it in the beginning of "Creator" and it's so funny because every time I hear it, I'm cringing because it's like I know I could do it right. But it's kind of awesome that it's so crazy.
Also when you said it like that, it made me think of do you remember that classic dancehall song, "Kuff?"
Well see, you know, Mark, those are my hugest influences. All that stuff, Sister Nancy, Sister Carol. I forget who that is, but I've actually like-
Shirley something, isn't it? "Kuff."
I remember talking about it on social media and her relative hit me up and was like, "You know that's my aunt?"
Yeah, that's one of the best.
That's amazing. Yeah.
But I just had a song come out that I did with U-Roy.
I know. I saw and he just kind of really sadly passed away earlier this year.
Did you make it before he passed away or was this-
I did, yeah, but I didn't meet him. I wasn't in studio with him unfortunately. I did it in LA. It was just amazing to just be able to be on a track with him and...
Yeah, he's one of the most kind of influential toaster MCs.
He kind of helped start rap music. I mean, Jamaican toasting was pre-rap. And the idea of being the MC, but making that a rhythmic delivery interaction and over records.
Yeah. What were some of his super kind of iconic recordings and stuff that people should check out? Is there one? Just Google U-Roy everybody. And what's the name of the song you guys did together?
"Man Next Door," which had been one of my favorite songs because there was... I think I liked the Dennis Brown version. But I knew that song so much with all the harmonies and everything. So when they were like, "You want to sing it?" I was like, "Oh my God. Yes." But anyway, in that song I did this one *laughs* or something and they just sampled it and did it over and over. But that's totally like, those women are my heroes.
We are outside recording this in COVID-safe kind of environment. So we do have some friends. Do you think that these birds like reggae? No. Do you think that-
I think they just heard that coo, coo, coo and then they were like, yeah.
Oh yeah, totally. They heard you toasting and they're like... Growing up in Philly, I know you listened to a lot of hip hop and you've talked about, what was the thing? The school dance where you wrote the rap where you told me you once did for me. I'm not going to make you do it here. Your first ever verse. And it had this kind of amazing like sort of...
No, I didn't perform one of my raps at a school dance. I did many things at school-
You had a verse that you spit for me one time that definitely sounded like it was written in peak high school.
Oh was it that was "The Last Party?"
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
I can't believe these birds are just jumping off like that.
Because we started doing the toast thing. Okay so tell me about "The Last Party."
I don't know. I had this party and I'm telling you, I used to write raps. That's how I started writing songs. I used to write raps. My first song I think I wrote when I was nine after watching one of Breakin' or Beat Street or something and it was called "City Streets" because I always wanted to talk about people, the culture. It was like "City Streets. City streets. People need our help out there and no one's there to listen."
When you were nine?
That's really good. I mean especially of the time. That is a hit.
But anyway, I had a billion raps. I used to write raps. I used to write raps and poems all the time throughout my teenage years. I don't know if I remember any more. Do you want me to try?
I mean, I do love it. It was hot fire when you spit it to me.
Let's see. I just remember when it went that, that, that, that was. Oh, here it goes, it comes back. "It all started the week of my birthday. Called some friends to come over and stay for awhile. Only people with style because my parents were home. Didn't want it to be wild so I went to school and tried to keep it a secret. Despite my efforts, everyone seemed to hear it." And it's like, totally didn't match here. It goes, "Then the night finally came and I won't be the same because that night is the night I got the fame of my name, which remains to be widely known. All these people call me up on the phone to tell me that they were still coming. But I didn't know anyone by the name of Chris Money." That was "The Last Party."
Wow. So it was based on true experience, but also had this kind of like...
Mark, you might have to delete things.
Dana Dane "Nightmares" meets kind of like a "Parents Just Don't Understand" vibe.
And actually both those rappers are from Philly. So that's kind of weird. So I mean, obviously you're not aware of it when you're 10 or 11, but was there a feeling that Philly that there's hip hop happening. Obviously you're not in New York.
No. Philly was fucking amazing. And so it was when I was 13. And 1988 was the year. It was one of the most exciting years of my life, honestly, because the fly girl thing was off the hook in Philly. So all the girls had asymmetrical haircuts and gold and leather trench coats. And this was the era of like Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte.
And eight-ball jackets.
Yeah. And Starter jackets and so I was at an all girls private school, all white private school and then started seeing all this. I worked downtown that summer, I was 12, for my dad at his law office. And I saw all these people and I was like, "Oh, I want to be that." So that next year in the beginning of eighth grade, I went to school with my hair cut, my big gold-plate earrings, my leather trench which I got illegally from participating in... I was in the pyramid scam. So I got some money and I bought myself all this stuff and I went back to school and I talked different. And everybody's like, "Santi, is that you?" And I was like, "Yeah, I'm saying I just went I went real quick and... "
And I left after that year. I was just like, I went to public school for a year because I was wanting more. I mean it was whack. I mean, also, at that time, that was when you start liking boys and the boys were like, "I would like Santi, but she's black." You know what I mean? It was like, it was just why?
So after ninth grade you kind of switched schools.
I went to public school for one year and then I ended up going to Quaker School.
As a New York DJ in the early 90s, it was easy to feel like the sun rose and set in the east. We were the seeming hub of the music universe, Biggie, Nas, Wu Tang. Even D'Angelo and Erica had made it their home. But then Philly happened in a big way. I was always so fascinated with what was going on in Philadelphia at that time, the Roots, the Neo soul movement that followed, Jill Scott music, Soul Child, Bilal. I remember driving to Philly for the first time to record strings with Larry Gold, the go-to arranger for everyone from Justin Timberlake to the OJs. I actually felt stupid when I hit the turnpike and realized it was only 90 minutes from my apartment. A place whose music scene seems so exotic to me was less than 100 miles away. I got to Larry Gold's studio and I found that it was also where the Roots recorded and the rapper Dice Raw had just been in the night before. I asked a hundred questions about it. I found it all so exciting.
During breaks in recording, I would stop in and visit Santi in her loft apartment around the corner and she told me that she had a friend Wes, AKA Diplo, who lived down the street. She told me about Spank Rock. Again, all this felt so thrilling. The fact all this cool shit was happening, but it wasn't New York, made it seem all the more interesting.
I'm always so fascinated with scenes and how they pop up. Obviously, this is nothing new. Certainly more jazz greats came from the Midwest than New York; Seattle, Liverpool. All these cities have created as much great music as a London or LA, certainly pound for pound. Philly has been legendary from the beginning; Gamble and Huff, Todd Rundgren, LaBelle, Hall & Oats. Darryl Hall once told me it's the toughness of the city, the slight chip that you're not from New York, the need to make it, and the chance to take in all these disparate influences and form your own thing. And with all her styles and this incredible new sound, Santi definitely formed her own thing in a way that might not have happened had she come from anywhere else.
And the other thing you talk about in The FADER article, which I didn't even know in our years of talking about everything, you had a stint as an assistant A&R at Epic and you brought in Mos Def, now Yasiin Bey, to be signed, and they were like, "Nah, thanks."
Yeah. I brought in a lot of things and they were like, "Nah, thanks." But yeah, I brought his demo. It was really good.
What was on the demo? Anything that kind of ended up being on those records?
I don't remember. I remember there was a song, "Got," that didn't end up because it was his most poppy thing, and I loved it. I was you. I was trying to push him to do this. I was like, "Everyone will love this song." And he's like, "No."
I remember his first group on Payday, UTD (Urban Thermo Dynamics), and I loved that. They had this record called "My Kung Fu" that I remember really loving as well. So you brought in Mos to the Powers That Be.
I did. And even with Res, that's why I signed Res. Because I ended up being an A&R assistant, but I left because by the time it got to the point where I had done the Res demo, I started writing the songs myself because I wanted it to be different, and everybody I tried to get to write songs, I was getting the same thing, and I was like, "But I want this to be something different." So I was like, "Well, I'll just write it." And that was the first time I ever wrote songs other than my little raps.
Yeah. And you hooked up with Doc [McKinney], who we've said went onto, obviously, The Weeknd's early stuff. Brilliant producer.
Yeah. Yeah. And at that point he had only done Esthero, which I liked. And I brought it into Epic and they were like, "This is great. Maybe we could put her in Groove Theory."
Ooft. Yeah. of course.
And I was like, "That's totally not it."
That's chalk and cheese, as the English say.
Yeah. Yeah. But you know, everything was about Diddy at the time.
And signing anybody who had anything to do with him. It was interesting. It was the Black music department, which they don't call it that anymore, but it was interesting because the Black music department was like, you know, anything that was very specifically rap or R&B, and anything that was black that was not that was huge, like Michael Jackson and Sade, they were pop.
So it was interesting. It was so unfair and so crazy. And also, anything that I brought that didn't fit into rap and R&B, they were like, "Oh, Santi." I remember I brought in "Pony," Ginuwine - "Pony."
No, no, no, no, no. It was already out.
But I brought it in because I had spent a summer in London and they were, you know ... What do they call it? Was it jungle? Was that what it was called?
Oh yeah. Well, there was jungle and there was 2-step, and there was the different tempos.
But back then, Jungle, it was only over ragga and R&B at the time.
So it was this amazing music that none of us had ever heard. Now jungle means whatever else, but at the time, it was, this is in the late nineties, Jungle was people doing crazy beat mixes. And it was amazing. And so I was trying to tell them about it, and I was like, "We need to do this. We need to do this." And then "Pony" came out.
Oh, and they did it.
And they did it. And I was like, "Look." And he was like, "Oh, well, I guess you did tell me." And I was just like, "Man." But it got to the point where I would come in the big Sony building and I would just immediately feel sick to my stomach every day. And I was like, "This is not for me," and I left. Then I went and I did the Res record, which was hard because I really had a vision in my head and to have it go through somebody else's mouth and somebody else ... I didn't want to be an artist, you couldn't even pay me to be an artist at that time, but I was so connected to the art and when it wasn't coming out the way that I want it, after that, I was like, "Well ... "
"I better do it."
Not to take anything away from Res, I don't know her that well, but I hear you so much now when I listen to "They Say Vision." I can hear you in it almost as if your ghost vocal is in there. And with "Golden Boys." So she was a great vehicle, but you're saying sometimes you guys would get into artistic differences over the songs?
You know, between her and Doc anyway, it was way more R&B than I wanted to be. It wasn't me. And it had to feel like her because she was singing it. When I listen to that record ... I mean, I'm like this anyway. When I listen to old stuff, I cringe a lot anyway. Not with Santigold, not with the first record. But whether it's pictures of me or anything, I look back and cringe. But I definitely do that when I hear that record because it was like ... I mean, it was such a push and pull of trying to get somewhere that I never really got to, you know?
You say something funny in that FADER article as well. You're kind of like, "I had to get out of there because I realized that I needed to be a business lady." You said business lady like I imagine Tina Fey saying it, like, "I'm a business lady." And you kind of hinted that things didn't ...
I mean, you know. You learn a lot. I was like 21 when I was working on this stuff. So you learn a lot about relationships or learn about boundaries and contracts, and all kinds of stuff. I mean, I've had so much years and perspective of being a woman working in this business with loads of men and how to navigate that. I mean, so many times where people come in and try to talk to you a certain way. And I'm funny because I come across a little bit ... I don't want to say ditzy, but a little bit tuned out sometimes.
And then my dancers and my band mates who know me so, so well in so many different ways, they've got two things they say. One is, my dancers say I have truth Tourettes.
Okay. You do. I'm going to remind you of something that you said to me right after this. I'm going to remember that.
But yeah, I do, right? If I think it and it's true, just say it. And that's something I get from my old southern upbringing and my family, where, you know, you could also take the time to think of a way that it would be well-received, I never learned that. I'm working on that now.
And the other thing is, my band, they call me "the cheetah", and sometimes they just go, like if somebody comes in and they don't know me and they start and somebody's about to jump in, they'll be like, "Let the cheetah run." Because I'll snap off. But it's a very utilitarian ... It's not going to come out only when it's needed. Do you know what I mean?
But I learned that, as a woman in this business, you take, take, take, and then you're like, "Hold up. Oh shit." And you just cut it really fast and let people know who you really are. Because it's so interesting, the things that you run up against as a woman in the music industry, especially a woman not doing the typical style and music that women like to do in this industry.
The truth Tourette's thing just gave me this ... I remember this. And I think that you always had big trucks. I loved it when you would come by and pick me up, whether it was in the studio or whatever, even before you kind of hit it, you would always have like a Yukon or a Denali or something crazy.
A Land Rover.
And I remember playing you ... I had the demos of Version, I think, the rest of the songs. In your car, I played it.
And you kind of just gave me a polite start. And I knew it wasn't really your type of music, so I wasn't taking anything too hard, but you were like, "I don't really get all the horns. It's a little elevator-y." Because there were some songs on there that were just instrumental. It's not like you're not a fan of jazz, because there's a very different thing where jazz can be avant-garde and cool and amazing. I listen back, don't worry, and cringe at quite a few of those things, but yeah, I just remember you had truth Tourettes. And I even remember, probably never saying this out loud, but working on my next, Record Collection with "Somebody To Love Me" and "Bang Bang Bang," and songs with Spank Rock, and being like ... I remember there was a tiny compartment in my brain that was thinking, "I'm going to make something that Santi and Naeem are going to have to say that they like this time." It's terrible to be driven by that kind of thing, but sometimes it can also be a good thing, where I'm like ...
No, it's good. It's good. Because we all have that, and we all have ... Listen, Mark. You have something that we don't have, right? You've got this pop ear that's so ... You're like, "Okay, I know what to do.
Not for a couple of years, but thank you.
Shut up. But I can't do that. My ears don't work like that. And when I hear something sometimes that sounds like a pop hit, I want to change it. I'm like, "nu-huh." And it's not because I'm like, "It's a pop hit," but there is something that I don't like about ... It's almost like too straightforward, and I'm like, "It's not interesting enough."
But also, back on the horns thing, I do have a thing with horns and brassy things. Symbols. I'm really funny about them. But when we went on tour and you had the horn section, I loved it.
Oh, you did?
I loved it.
I was amazed. When horns are done right, they're so powerful and so interesting. Did you see the Fela! Broadway show?
Yeah. And the horn section. I have horns on several of my records. I had them come in and play. But I always have to take all the bright out and make them sound almost ... You know what I mean? It's just a thing.
Of course horns can be cool. Miles Davis is the birth of cool. I was also so green, and you know when you just discover a new color and musically you just throw it over everything? It's a little gaudy, but ...
We could all look back over records and do this.
I also remember, when you said the thing coming and playing with us and enjoying the horns, I remember you coming to that show that we did with the BBC Concert Orchestra at The Roundhouse and you did that duet with Terry Hall of "Our Lips Are Sealed." That was so cool.
I remember that, but I don't remember the song.
Well, Terry Hall...
No, I know. I know what you're saying, but I don't remember singing it.
Because he wrote it originally with Jane Wiedlin, I guess, from The Go-Go's, and it was their thing when they had a little tryst when The Go-Go's and The Specials went on tour together in America. I guess it's more known as The Go-Go's song, but yeah ... So I guess I wanted somebody ... I had met Terry Hall, he was a hero and he was almost an English national treasure, and I was like, "Yeah, maybe Santi'll want to sing that song."
It came out good?
Yeah. Yeah. It came out great.
I told everyone, I have a visual of that day, but I don't remember what the song sounded like. I must have learned it really fast.
I get really nervous about singing songs that aren't mine, that I have to learn really fast, because I'll mess up. So I don't get to actually perform them good. So then I'll have a block and then I don't remember. I did the David Byrne tribute at Carnegie Hall. And I got to do my favorite song, but I didn't take enough time to learn it. I thought I knew it.
Yeah, of course.
I bought the Columbia tape for a penny, you know? So I was like, "Oh yeah, I know this song." But then there were so many lyrics and there were so many verses.
Oh, fuck yeah. Yeah.
And I was like, "I don't know these." So I literally had like a day. What happens is, if I have to think on stage, I go blank. It happens to me with my own songs. So the whole performance I literally was pointing my finger in the air. And they were like, "Don't worry, we have a teleprompter." I can't perform with a teleprompter because then you're just reading. You're not ... Oh, I felt like I just bombed it so bad. And I was so mad because I love David Byrne. He's one of my favorites.
He loves you. He's one of the first people I interviewed for this. You and I had just spoken the night before on FaceTime from Canada. And I was like, "Oh, I was just with Santigold. She says hi." And he's like, "I love Santigold." He really loves you. You can see it.
Well, it's mutual.
I did a little performance, like a really impromptu thing, when I was working with Lady Gaga on her album. She was doing a show at the big Met Ball thing and after party, and we performed. We were like, "What's a simple song we can just perform with a boom box like in Stop Making Sense, just hit play on the beat and then just play on top?" And we did "Burning Down the House." And the same thing; she had to swallow, cram those lyrics. And I swear-
Because there's a lot.
There's so many lyrics. You don't realize how ... And I swear, I can't tell because she's just such a pro and she kills the performance, but I feel like there were a couple times she was backing off the mic to look down at the guitair, like ...
Is that because maybe just the last word ... ? Maybe just the last word. But she's fucking ... That was so much fun. I mean, that's just one of the greatest songs ever.
It's one of the greatest songs. And I remember also there was some conga drummers and I went for a conga drum. It was like ... "Really? Wow." But it was amazing. I mean, he's amazing. It was such a great event.
At the end of that show, this is the crazy thing, once again, you know, not cool enough to be in the show, but cool enough to be covered at the end, I think they ended with "Uptown Funk." He led a marching band through Carnegie Hall all behind him on that tribute show.
He did. Because I was going to say, he walked around with a marching band. But I didn't remember it was "Uptown Funk." That's amazing.
What you said in the very beginning of this was that the thing that enabled you to make your first album was being able to say, like, "You know what? Probably no one's going to listen to this anyway, except probably some kind of niche people in England. So I'm just going to make whatever the fuck I want." And that is the power of surrender in some way. I mean, my first success really was with Version, that album, because I was like, "No one's going to listen to this anyway. So I might as well kind of make the elevator jazz that I like."
No. And that's what happened. I was like, "I want to make these covers that I can play in my DJ sets. Fuck it."
But I think that's it. I think when we put too much on stuff, we push it away.
And I think when we just relax into our lives in general and stop trying to drive so much is when kind of magical stuff happens that's not really expected. Even me having twins. I really wanted twins.
I did. And I didn't even say it that much. I just ... Because I was really late having kids, and I was like, "What if I could just have a boy and a girl?" Seriously thought that, right? But I was like, "I'm not doing all that stuff that people do." You know? And I literally said it to my doctor as a joke. I was like, "Maybe I should just blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And she had twins. She was like, "Yo, my God, man. It's crazy." And I'm going to to LA, I called her, I was like, "Guess what?" She's like, "No!"
But it's intention.
But then it's like, no weight on it. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. Cool. Well, that was fucking awesome.
Thank you, Santi.