Santigold Has Learned That Less Is More

Santigold Has Learned That Less Is More

The genre-bending artist on her new mixtape 'I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions', the power of moms, and reflecting on her illustrious career ten years after her debut record.

The genre-bending artist on her new mixtape 'I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions', the power of moms, and reflecting on her illustrious career ten years after her debut record.

Text: Jake Viswanath

Santigold doesn’t have time to fuck around. The multi-genre artist just released a new mixtape, I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions, a spontaneous summer record that meshes lifelong Afro-Caribbean influences with dancehall, new wave, and reggae-pop sounds. When we connect to talk about how the project came to life, she’s in the studio, already working on her next one. “It’s some new music. That’s all I can flaunt,” she says with a teasing laugh. While some artists tend to take longer breaks when they start families, Santi White is bucking down and making the most out of what little time she has to be creative.

“I’ve gotta be like, ‘No fucking around’,” she says about recording after becoming a mother. “I used to go to the studio and it would take me like four hours to settle in and start working, just because you’ve gotta slowly get into that headspace.” She’s since learned how to speed it up, which is one of the factors that led to the surprise release of I Don’t Want. The majority of the ten songs were recorded in a two-week period shortly after meeting and quickly vibing with producer Dre Skull, with whom she was encouraged to ditch her usual creative process. “Sometimes I work from scratch,” she explains. “I go in and we build the music together. I love doing it that way. [But] on I Don’t Want, I didn’t do it that way. Dre was like, ‘I made the beat. Do you like that?’ The special thing about Dre is, I was like ‘Yes, I love that’, whereas with other people, if I’m just going to write to somebody’s beat, it will take me so long to find someone that I like. With Dre, it was a magical pairing because I seriously loved almost everything he played me.”

For her previous studio albums, Santigold had crafted elaborate concepts that bled across the music, imagery, and live performances. For her 99¢ cover, she was wrapped in plastic with bright consumer items, and filmed fake commercials as interludes for its accompanying tour. With I Don’t Want, she let go of everything and decided to let the music live on simply as it was created.

“Sometimes I feel like I do so much work and I don’t feel like it’s appreciated enough, but then I tell myself, ‘Well, why are you doing it? Is this something you would need to do regardless of if anyone is hearing it?’ And the answer is yes,” she explains. “But I’m a believer in balance because that’s what’s important. Like, is it getting enough for what I put in? And sometimes it’s not. So my thought was, maybe I’ve got to put in less and then figure out how to do it. And that’s what this project is. This felt better. This felt like I wasn’t breaking myself. This felt nice and fun. So maybe I need to reevaluate how much time I spend on stuff and be a little lighter about it. And let go a little bit more, you know what I’m saying?”

Simplicity works on Santi. I Don’t Want is her most cohesive project yet, a continuous playlist that flows into one another without losing any of the genre-bending mayhem or elaborate lyricism of her previous records. “Run the Road” and “Crashing Your Party” are effortlessly catchy dancehall-pop tunes about taking over (you decide what’s being conquered), while tracks like “Coo Coo Coo” remind us of the unfortunately reality of catcalling for women all over the world. The mixtape is her first release since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in November 2016, and whether intentional or not, the album was undeniably inspired by the events and movements that have risen in its wake, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. While she’s never shied away from directly addressing the political, it’s admittedly a bit more subtle this time around, masked by the bright sunshine-y soundscape.

“It’s like when mothers want to get their children to eat vegetables, they blend their vegetables and put it in pasta sauce so you can’t taste it blended in there. That’s what I do with my career,” she says with a laugh. “People don’t really want to think about these things sometimes. They don’t want to hear it. They want to pretend that everything is great and be all apathetic, so I try to sneak it in. It’s just a natural thing that I do. One of my favorite songwriters of all time is Morrissey. He sings these beautiful melodies and they’re like, ‘I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death’. These concepts are dark and challenging and there’s some tough issues that I’m addressing.”

Writing about these tough issues and the experiences within her community comes natural to her, given her cultural upbringing . “My dad was playing roots and reggae nonstop, like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’. I grew up in the era of Public Enemy and N.W.A. Everybody’s singing about something to do something, and expressing their experience. That’s how I have come to understand music. So how I’ve always approached my music is, ‘What do I need to say?’ And it’s also because I’ve always written out of necessity in a cathartic way, so when I finally get to write a song, I’ll flush things out that I get off my heart.” But don’t mistake her socially conscious lyrics for heavy material—it feels just as good as your average upbeat party jam. “Something that’s interesting to me is people think when you say a feel-good song that it’s a light song. But a feel-good song for me is also a song that makes you feel empowered and strong.”

A preconceived, sexist assumption often made about female artists is that they lose creativity and become more sappy, bland singers after motherhood. For Santigold, it only further ignited her passion and fury, giving herself yet another motivation to help raise awareness about global problems. In “Crashing Your Party”, you can even hear a very direct nod to the strength of moms ("Here come the momma with her babies / If you look right in her eyes know she courageous / Call in the hazmat, it's contagious oh / She can see right through you, the future's hers, she'll take it").

“It’s all about how dangerously, infectiously, ferociously powerful motherhood can make you, in terms of not taking no mess from anybody and being ready to tear shit down in order to protect your children, and how that energy is so needed and compelling in some of these challenging issues that we have. And how women are going to be such a huge force because of the responsibility of life and the future that’s on our shoulders. I mean, it should be on all of our shoulders, men and women thinking about the future generation. I reposted a video on Instagram, and it’s literally just the ocean full of plastic right off the Dominican Republic. It’s like a wave of plastic and it’s just horrifying to look at. And the first thing I thought of is, ‘Oh my God, are my kids going to be living through the terminator environment?’”

It's a prospect that's just as scary today as it was ten years ago, when she released her self-titled debut album as Santigold, which launched her to hipster stardom. Although she doesn't reflect much, there doesn't seem to be a more opportune time than now. "I really feel proud of that work that I’ve done, and I like it. I don’t feel embarrassed. I don’t have any tattoos because I’m the type of person that’d be like, ‘Oh, why did I put this on me?' So it means a lot that I can go back and still like something." That doesn't mean that she loves everything she's ever done. "I have a lot of music I’ve done before Santigold even existed, whether it’s writing for other people or my band Stiffed. And there’s some things that I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s awful’. Sometimes I cringe. Even like the way you look at photos of yourself when you’re a teenager and you’re like, ‘Oh, what was I wearing?’ I feel that way sometimes if I listen to music that I’ve made."

I Don't Want doesn't seem like it will fall into that category in another decade's time. Rather, it feels apt that it comes as she starts a new chapter in her music career, one where lightness and letting go of complete control become a larger priority. "I’m genuinely such a perfectionist, and I want everything to be exactly like it is in my head. To let go more and more, that’s the ongoing lesson I’ve learned. And this project in particular is the most I’ve ever let go," she said. "For me, [what] I release, in my head, is stuff that’s not finished, because that’s how I am. I’m never finished." She may be looking to shed her perfectionist ways, but her work ethic proves this to be true: she's never finished.

Credits: Photo: Craig Wetherby

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