Santi White hasn’t just transformed her stage name. After mastering meditation and mountaineering, she’s breaking the mould of mainstream pop, she tells Aidan Smith
THE first thing to be said about the artist formerly known as Santogold is that she’s now called Santigold. “There was a legal issue,” says Santi White, “so I had to change, kiss goodbye to the old nickname a schoolfriend gave me when I liked to wear cheap gold hooped earrings. That would have been a real insane pain in the ass if I’d been further on with my career, but Santigold is more true to my real name so it’s cool.”
The second thing to be said is that, in the flesh, she looks like she could walk straight into the Supremes, or has walked straight out of Destiny’s Child. I’d come to her London hotel for our rendezvous with an unflattering image fixed in my mind. On the cover of her 2008 debut album she appears to be throwing up. It may be gold that’s coming out of her mouth but this is never a good look on anyone.
And the third thing is that her new album, Master Of My Make-Believe, builds impressively on the promise of the first. Four years ago she was fond of terming herself “the black girl who’s not singing R’n’B or hip-hop” and if anything Master is even more eclectic. But where’s she been?
You name it: Kilimanjaro, Jamaica and a strange place in her head that caused her writer’s block. She only found her way out with the help of transcendental meditation. It’s an interesting story, to add to equally fascinating earlier chapters, and she tells them well.
“I toured the Santogold album for two whole years which for a new act is kinda unusual, then at the beginning of 2010, I decided to climb Kilimanjaro with a buncha other guys to raise awareness of the clean water crisis,” explains White, 36. The “buncha” included actors Jessica Biel and Emile Hirsch and her musician friend Kenna, who organised the effort. Beforehand, they visited a Masai village in Kenya which had just benefited from clean water. “That was amazing. The technology is literally pouring a chlorine packet into the supply and stirring. The impact that has is fantastic.”
White knows we can be cynical about celebrity climbs, suspecting that creature comforts, maybe even sedan chairs, are always just out of shot. “But everyone did it, all 19,341ft. We slept in tents. It was freezing the whole time, lots of us were sick and some had to be carried. But I’ll admit that at the summit we were like: ‘OK, we made it. When does the rescue helicopter get here?’” Safely back down under her own steam, White headed straight for a Los Angeles studio to begin work on Master and, in musical terms, fell off the mountain.
“I had nothing. When you spend two years on the road you lock off the most vulnerable part of you, the part you need to write your songs. I went to Jamaica with the producer guys I’d used for the first album – Switch, Diplo and John Hill – thinking: ‘We’re gonna kill it.’ But we didn’t do shit.” White was chosen for the shortlist for the Sound of 2008 poll. Others were Adele, the Ting Tings, Duffy, Glasvegas and MGMT and four of these acts have suffered difficult second album syndrome.
Previously, White was a gun-for-hire songwriter and her clients included Christina Aguilera and Lily Allen. “On a good day a song for someone else could be all done in 15 minutes. Writing for yourself just takes longer. You know, making art is hard. You’re emotional and there can be all these different relationships swirling around. I always say that working with producers is like having multiple partners. Now I’m married, I have a husband, but this was like I had four husbands. Too much!”
So she started to stray, from her three musical hubbies at any rate. “The old guys are still on the new album but working with someone like Nick Zinner was real fun because there was no pressure.” But the job wasn’t yet done. “Now I had the responsibility, with so many different people, of being the only constant. It was a difficult role. I had to summon up this confidence from nowhere.”
It was another collaborator, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, who suggested she try transcendental meditation. “All of a sudden I was the most confident person in the world.” She was tutored in TM by Nancy Cooke de Herrera, who was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s publicist and introduced him to the Beatles. “You get given a mantra, one word, which you repeat to yourself. I can’t tell you what mine is, I don’t think it actually has a meaning, but saying it over and over brought me confidence, clarity and calm and made me think: ‘I can do this.’”
The Santigold sound is just like the Santogold one: a mash-up of punk, reggae, rock and 1980s electro-pop. The delay between albums was also down to her switching labels and management and now she’s under the wing of Jay Z. “He’s been very supportive,” says White. “When he heard the new tracks he said: ‘This record sound like a revolution!’ He’s right, I think, but I have to say I wasn’t consciously tapping into the Arab Spring or anything. I hardly watch the news. Possibly the influence of these events was an intuitive thing; I was drawing from the energy of the world.”
White’s scattergun approach can be traced all the way back to Philadelphia, where she grew up, and the radically opposed record collections of her lawyer-father Ron and big sister Simone. “Dad loved every kind of black music and took me to see Nina Simone, Fela Kuti and James Brown. Through Simone I got into Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Gary Numan and the Smiths.” Her father was good friends with veteran tunesmith Kenny Gamble, who got White an intern job at a record company which led to A&R. Ron died in 2004 as he was about to stand trial for bribery so never had the chance to clear his name. White was singing in a new wave band at the time and his death devastated her. “My first album was definitely cathartic,” she says.
Mum Aruby has been just as important to her story. “She’s from Mississippi, an old-school southern belle who during a crazy time was trying to integrate schools. That brought the [Ku Klux] Klan at her door. They shot my great-aunt in the arm and burned a cross in the yard. With Dad coming from the projects in north Philly, they both wanted the best for their kids. I went to private school run by Quakers where I was the only black kid. I stood facing the corner until a teacher said: ‘Go play.’”
White reckons she learned good networking skills back then and they proved useful in the talent-spotting game. More recently, they’ve probably helped her get hook-ups with the likes of Kanye West, David Byrne, the Beastie Boys, Pharrell Williams, MIA (who she can sound like) and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes – but so has natural talent.
Staying in the shadows to find stars or write for them sounds easier but White says she doesn’t miss her previous lives. “There are so many rules for mainstream pop now. The tempo has to be one thing, the lift has to happen in the same place. A friend told me there’s a computer programme which can check songs for top hit potential. Why not just remove people from the equation and have done with it? Pop’s gotten so narrow that it’s crazy.”
Thankfully some continue to try and keep it nice and wide.
• Master Of My Make-Believe is out tomorrow on Atlantic. www.santigold.com