The Return of Santigold: Pop's Big Boss Is Back

On the cusp of the Philadelphia singer's third album '99¢,' we had an illuminating conversation that touched on the wild new record, commodification of artists, and audience expectations.
February 23, 2016, 3:00pm

Photo by Christelle de Castro

After two years of touring behind her groundbreaking eponymous 2008 debut album, Santi White felt an immense pressure to get her second album right. “You’re so dumb because you think it’s going to be the exact same process as the first record and then you’re hit with a brick,” she recalls of the grueling and sometimes confusing process that went into her ambitious albeit mildly received 2012 album, Master of My Make-Believe. “And then you freak out and you’ve got all this weird pressure you put on yourself. It’s really hard.” For her third album, the genre-bending singer, multimedia visionary, and pop music-blurring provocateur decided she simply needed to have fun again. And for an artist who sometimes felt like she was trying on a plethora of musical hats without one defining one on which to stake claim, Santigold now says she knows “that if I want to make music it should be accessible.”

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For 99¢, the Philadelphia singer’s third album due on Friday (February 26), Santigold enlisted a crop of wildly varied producers and collaborators including former Vampire Weekend band member Rostam Batmanglij, Hit-Boy, iLoveMakonnen, Zed’s Dead, as well as longtime collaborator, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. The result is arguably the singer’s most pop-centric release yet—though in the rainbow-hued, Tumblr-fied world of Santigold there is only so far she’s willing to push towards the center.

Invigorated by the birth of her first child, son Radek, Santigold entered the studio early last year with newfound energy and a dose of sleep deprivation. The songs exhibit this newfound fire. “Big Boss Big Time Business,” produced by Batmanglij and Hit-Boy, bubbles with dancehall rhythm and is crossed delicately with hip-hop production. It’s also a declaration of authority from the singer. “I’m a Big Boss Big Time Business/ make me your mark and I’ll take you one by one,” she sings with venom. On the Sitek-produced “Before The Fire,” all gurgling tension and minor-key keyboard delicacy, Santigold eases back on the bravado: “Sometimes I just need a little touch/A little color on a greyscale.”

“On this record there was a little bit of letting go of what people expect,” Santigold tells Noisey in a illuminating conversation that touches on her wild new album, the contemporary commodification of artists, and the realization she’s made about a modern audience’s lowly expectations.

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Noisey: You took four years between your first and second album and nearly as long again for your forthcoming LP. Is it safe to assume you need inspiration to strike before beginning work on a new album?
Santigold: Honestly I don’t take that much time between working on music. I think it just takes longer for me to finish everything. I made this record in eight months. That’s really fast. But nowadays there’s so much content you have to make. I’m really into the visuals of the whole project too. I’m spending almost as much time on that as making the record [laughs]. And they kept pushing my record release date back. Before you’d make a record and that was the main thing. You’d release it and maybe do two videos after it’s out, you know? But now they are like. “You have to release five songs before the record comes out. And you have to do videos for all those songs. And we’ve got to do your Tumblr. And we’ve got to do all this stuff.” I’m the OCD crazy perfectionist person so I’m like. “OK!” So then I’m sitting in on the editing and the coloring sessions. It’s just so much work.

So there was a major part of you anxious to release the album sooner?
Yah. Definitely. Between the first and second record I toured two years, which is an extra year longer than most people tour. And then I went right in on the next record and I took like a year or maybe a year-and-a-half from start to finish on that one. By the time it came out it had been four years between albums.

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What was different for you this go-round?
On this record—and this might be different than a lot of artists—I focused so much on the mixing. It’s a whole intense process in itself. It’s really important for my records because there are so many different styles in any one song that the mix is the gel that holds it together. And then I usually go right into the show: I do all the choreography and all the theatrics and costumes, which is a whole other thing. And then you tour it. After that you need a fucking break! [laughs] After my second record and tour I was like, “I need to do not music for a minute!” Luckily during that fallow period this time I had a baby. Which is a whole other creative project.

I’d say so.
I actually recorded two of the songs on my album when I was like nine-and-a-half months pregnant. But then I was back in the studio two months after I had the baby. So it wasn’t like I wasn’t working on music. I really was.

How did it feel to be back making music following your pregnancy?
After I had a baby, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t really like a baby person; I never babysat. So it was like a crash course. It was pretty scary. I think one day I was like “I haven’t left the house in a month.” I really hadn’t. So to go the studio, I mean, even to just go to dinner was like the biggest thing. “Oh my god! I’m out!” But then to go to the studio, it’s like being in your own playroom. I’m having this visual of a funhouse that’s shaped like myself and my brain and I’m jumping around in my own head. It was like my own private space. Basically when you have a baby you don’t get that precious time anymore. My brain hours are nights now. I still go to bed at like 2 AM but I’m at up at like 6:30. And sometimes I’m up a couple times in-between. It’s crazy trying to do all that it takes for a record rollout—which is insane anyway—on so little sleep.

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It’s fitting you describe the studio as a playroom because your new album seems so lively and fun.
I think I went into it with that idea in mind. This is my third record. My first record was what it was: We weren’t even making it with the idea that it was ever even going to come out. We took like two years on the record. So the second record you’re so dumb because you think it’s going to be the exact same process as the first record and then you’re hit with a brick. And then you freak out and you’ve got all this weird pressure you put on yourself. It’s really hard, the second record. Third record I was like, “If I’m going to continue to do this with my life I can never feel like it’s not fun ever again.” So I made a very conscious decision that I was going to have fun making this record and the music was going to be fun. And then I worked with all these new producers that I’ve never worked with before which normally is very scary for me because it’s such a vulnerable place and you have to be so open to create. But I told them all: “We’re going to have fun!”

I’d imagine a lot of the pressure behind the second record is because by that point Santigold had become this exciting entity for which people had specific expectations.
Totally. And then sometimes you think that one part of what you’re trying to do is more important than another part of what you do more naturally. I know that’s a really vague statement but your own perspective of what you do or who you are as an artist is always a little bit skewed. Because you might think something you do is hugely important but to the outside world they might barely notice that part. But I think you’re right: on this record there was a little bit of letting go of what people expect. That’s for sure. But the times have changed so drastically from when I put my first record out to now. And the music that people are listening to is so different. And I’m not going to pretend that I don’t pay attention to what people are listening to.

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As a seasoned artist should.
At the time that my first album came out there was such an interesting electronic music movement going on. And I really tapped into that and that was a huge part of what I was playing around with as well with the more pop-leaning songs that I write in such a sort of strange melting-pot way. Both were a big part of what I do. So having a progressive sound was super important to me. But now it’s not.

It just feels like you’re into more comfortable moving a bit more towards the center.
Now I’m into creating great songs that I really love that I feel are big, accessible songs that push boundaries in a way that comes really natural to me. I’m also very aware of my tendency to write myself out of a pop song. I do that a lot. I love to hear things that I haven’t heard before and weird things that shouldn’t go next to each other and things that are slightly off. But I also know that if I want to make music it should be accessible.

Does it help working with more pop-inclined producers?
I think I just realized the affect of when I do that what happens. Do I want to permanently reach this smaller group of indie people who appreciate this stuff? Because sometimes the stuff you think is so great people won’t get it. I don’t care to a certain degree. I’m always going to do stuff I feel is cool, but if you want people to get it maybe you do a little less or put something out that’s a little easier to understand. Maybe I had a different agenda before. I created this album then in a different way than I would have created my last one.

​Photo by Christelle de Castro

99¢, and, more specifically, the cover art of you shrink-wrapped like a product, show you to be quite self-aware of the way artists are often viewed as a commodity.
I’m so aware of it because it’s so unnatural to me to step into that position and role. Even the amount of social-media presence that you’re supposed to have as an artist and how active you’re supposed to be is not natural to me. I don’t even remember to take pictures of my best moments. I’ll do the best thing and then I’ll be like, “Ahh! I totally forgot to take out my camera!” But that’s me. That’s who I am. That’s how I grew up. You live. You experience. Nowadays it’s more about capturing something than experiencing it. You create this Photoshopped version of your life and then you sell it. As an artist inside of this cultural climate it feels odd, it feels absurd and it feels uncomfortable to me. So I started writing about that without even having a name for the record. I was writing about that in all different ways: from my song “Run the Races” where I can stand on the sidelines and be like “This is stupid!” or I can jump in and sing along and play and drop little secret gems to make people reflect on what we’re doing. The message gets through better when you do it that way. When I was trying to come up with the album title and the artwork and the overall theme of the record I was listening to these lyrics and I was like “This is what I’m talking about. I’m talking about feeling like a product. Feeling like I’m just selling, selling, selling.” We’re in this world of narcissism where people are more interested in getting a picture of themselves at a show than watching the show. What better way to do that than literally climb inside of a bag and shrink-wrapping myself and stamping a value price of 99¢, on it.

Perhaps you’re selling yourself a bit short there.
That’s more than you can get my record for! You can get it for free. It’s crazy and fucked up.

You’re about to head out on tour. Your live shows are so lively. Have you given thought yet to how your new tracks will play out on stage?
A lot of how you decide to perform is budgetary. But I always say, and it’s true, that the more restrictions you have the more creative you have to be. My show has always been so theatrical and visual. It will continue to be. I’ve been doing shows since last summer just slowly playing with these themes. My dancers go out and start the shows and sit in these blow-up chairs just eating Cheetos. That was their choreography. [laughs] But it’s really fun to come up with these on-theme ideas for a show. That part’s really exciting. As far as how to play the music, this is a really sad thing to say, but I don’t think people give a shit anymore. You go out and you do a fun show. If the energy’s good and you’re really performing then people will like it.

Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.