Santigold Gets Playful with Playing the Game
With 99¢, Santigold again combines musical genres in a playful manner as she offers up a satire on postmodern life. Producers Patrik Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop) and John Hill (Florence and the Machine, Charlie XCX) alongside Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek helped out with this latest album, which was recorded primarily in New York City and Los Angeles. The pop/R&B/hip-hop singer called us from her tour bus.
You studied at Wesleyan University?
I studied music at Wesleyan. I was a music major. My instrument was hand drums. I played traditional West African hand drums, which I absolutely loved. I studied guitar as well, but I was terrible at guitar. My focus was on ethnomusicology and culture. I would take classes on the music of Jamaica and on experimental music like John Cage and Philip Glass. I took classical and jazz theory and composition and all that stuff. Mostly I learned how to think about experimental music. I think the idea of challenging how we put music together informed my approach to making music. I listen to all these different types of music. Now, people always ask me, “Do you rap?” I’m like, “No. Well, sort of.” Back then, those were the only types of music a black women would do. I didn’t want to just do that. I listened to so many different types of music from age 11. I knew whatever music I made was going to be something different. There was a journal entry that I wrote when I was 17 years old that I recently found. It’s so cute. I wrote that I had no desire to be a performer or singer. That didn’t happen until my twenties. I wrote that I wanted to make the type of music that didn’t exist yet. It was something that I wasn’t hearing and when I tried to write for other people, it still didn’t sound like what was in my head. I just wanted to follow the art of the process. Eventually, it came to life.
How did you wind up getting a gig at Epic Records? That was thinking outside of the box.
I worked there when I was a teenager and until I was 21. I started working there when I was 17, I was learning about the industry. By the time I ended up in the A&R department I kept trying to sign cool stuff but they wanted Puffy and all this stuff that was already out. I was like, “Okay, cool.” It was a perfect transition into what I wanted to do next. I learned so much when I was there. It wasn’t a creative job and it’s still not a creative job.
You played in a punk rock band for a short time. What was that experience like?
Great. It made me realize what it should be like to be on stage. There’s just bass, guitar, drums and vocals. You can’t really fuck that up. It’s raw energy. It’s just free. The songs are so fast. It was just wonderful. I got to come into myself as a performer through that band, but it was limited. It was only one type of music that I liked. I wanted to play all the types of music that I liked. At the end of that four years, John Hill, who I had been writing songs with, ended up being the bass player in my band. Then I got a record deal which was just for me. They didn’t care what I did just as long as I made a Santigold record.
When did you start writing songs for 99¢ and did you find that the songs started to go in a specific direction?
I started writing songs and halfway through I decided to take a look at what I what was writing about. I realized I was writing about the conflict I see within artists and musicians in this era of consumption and being a product in a narcissistic time. It’s a crazy place. As an artist, you become more aware of yourself as a brand and product. You put more into that than into the art you’re making. I was really conflicted about it. I decided that I had to embrace that because that’s the way to make a living in music these days. No one buys music. You can take yourself out of the game or participate in the game. I was thinking about how I could do it in a way that made sense to me. I decided to turn the absurdity into the art and highlight all the things that are crazy about it. I made it a playful satire and just put it out in an honest way so people could see it physically.
It does seem like branding is even more of a concern now than it’s ever been.
It’s such a real part of things. Many musicians made huge careers out of it. It’s real. And it’s very strange. Nobody cares about good music anymore. Well, some people do, obviously. The labels and corporations don’t care about the music. The music business now is all about marketing. In the past, you had people who were so excited about finding the new best music. Now, it’s about finding an artist with a built-in following and that’s it. The consumer values are very different. People who have come up in this new era, I don’t think they know they difference between real music and manufactured music.
The album has been called an homage to New York underground of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Is that accurate?
Oh my God, that’s one of my favorite eras of music. I think all my favorite bands come out of that era. All the guitar sounds and drum sound that I love come from that era.
Do you think of Debbie Harry and Blondie as an inspiration?
I love Blondie and the Pretenders. I love Siouxsie and the Banshees. I love Devo. I love Talking Heads. I love Kraut rock. I love all that stuff.
Do you incorporate anything theatrical into the current show?
I think my shows are always pretty theatrical but on the level of the school play. There are lots of props. It’s really fun. Lots of great visuals. It’s really conceptual. It’s high energy and enjoyable and engaging on so many different levels, which is what I think a show should be. I think the art of showmanship has fallen by the wayside. I don’t agree with that. I think the show should make you feel like you’re part of something really special.