By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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Despite spending the previous evening performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and hosting a celebratory afterparty at downtown Manhattan hot spot Le Baron, Santi White, aka Santigold, is surprisingly fresh-faced and cheerful the morning after the release of her second album, Master of My Make-Believe (Atlantic/Downtown). Her demeanor might be light, but that's not to say she doesn't have weighty things on her mind.
"The earth is going crazy," she proclaims.
She continues, gazing out the window of her label's midtown offices: "It's insane. There are birds falling out of the sky, oil spills, nuclear explosions. There are earthquakes and tornadoes here in New York City. I mean, come on. What the hell is going on?"
In person, the 36-year-old is just as playfully engaging as she is on stage, where she champions social and musical revolution. She's also remarkably enthusiastic for someone who has seen the seedy inner workings of almost every facet of the music industry. In her 20s, she served as an A&R rep at Epic Records and fronted the punk band Stiffed; she has helped write songs for Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen and Ashlee Simpson. And thanks to songs like "L.E.S. Artistes" and "Creator" becoming music-blog and commercial staples, she has toured with Björk, Coldplay, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Kanye West and Jay-Z. The Roc-a-Fella mogul and Nets co-owner even sampled her heady dub chant "Shove It" on his song "Brooklyn We Go Hard."
But with that out-of-the-gate success came creative confusion, which led to a long period of time between her first and second albums. "When you're out giving, giving, giving, you put a seal on the emotional part of you, and it hardens," she says. "I really had to do a lot of work to get back to the private, personal part of myself to write. And when I got there, I had to re-evaluate." She mentions TV on the Radio's David Sitek, who contributed production to Master, as her savior; he recommended that she try transcendental meditation and yoga, and she credits those practices with helping her gain creative clarity.
Later in our conversation, White jokingly blames her constant inner angst on artists' tendencies toward being overly sensitive to their surroundings. It's a gentle, personal reconstructing of the in-your-face, revolutionary tone that made her debut's collage of rock, punk, dub and hooks translate so well. On Master, dancehall, kuduro and synth rock enter the mix.
"I really like when pop music had world-music influences, like Peter Gabriel or Talking Heads," she says. "I think I did more of that style this time." Lyrically, she balances the roles of all-powerful femme-warrior ("GO!"), cultural theorist ("Fame"), challenging provocateur ("Freak Like Me") and soothsaying romantic ("The Riot's Gone").
The lumping together of hard and sweet, sassy and sentimental, and a grab bag of musical tastes puts Santigold in a particularly powerful position. Her brand of music is purposefully off-kilter and masterfully constructed in a way that separates her from a growing pack of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink pop stars. But her pop-sheened weirdness might ultimately make her one of the most endearing, relatable and authoritative bridges between the cutting edge and the mainstream.
That fact is most apparent to White herself, and Santigold is a stylish, savvy project as a result. "What I do well is curating to make my vision come together," she notes. A resident of Bed-Stuy, where she lives with her one-time Olympic snowboarder and musician husband Trouble Andrew, the singer's self-mined, hands-on approach is key to her method. She went crate-digging with Q-Tip to find the sample for the choppy battle cry "GO!" and her choreographed stage routines are inspired by Kid-N-Play and Public Enemy shows she saw when she was young. Even the strappy golden swimsuit she dons on the cover of Master was custom designed for her by Alexander Wang.
White has approached the release of her second album with a mix of excitement and trepidation. On "Fame," a track that calls out the paparazzi-fiending masses, the singer lyrically and openly struggles with her own public image. For her, the world is out of whack in more ways than one. She notes that the pop icons of her youth were different from the Real Housewives of today and maintains that fame is a double-edged sword. As a result, it's her belief that fame only belongs to those who want to use it for good.
"Celebdom is weird and really fucked up," she says earnestly. "I'm definitely not in it for that. At the same time, I want my music to be famous. I feel like there's an insane amount of power in music, and it's a positive power."