Santigold on School, Songwriting and Not Selling Out

GFS graduate Santi White ’93 has been making it big in the music world after leaving high school. Her signature musical style is an eclectic amalgamation of punk, funk, reggae, rock and pop that has reached a worldwide audience. She is also an expert who has learnt the art of how to play congas. Writing and singing under the name Santigold, she released her most recent critically acclaimed album 99¢ in February 2016. White sat down with Earthquake to relive her path into music business from Mt. Airy, Philadelphia to Brooklyn, NY.

When you left high school, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do? When you went to college did you say “I want to be a performer” or “I want to write music”?

S: I had an idea of what I wanted to do and I knew it involved music. For my junior project I did an internship at the college radio station WKDU and at National Records. After I graduated I interned at Ruffhouse records, at that time the Fugees were just coming out on Ruffhouse and [so was] Cypress Hill, a subsidiary of Columbia Records in New York. I got to see what it was like in a record company environment. And that was what I thought I wanted to do — I thought I wanted to own a record company.

I went to Wesleyan, and I was going to double major in music and economics. I quickly got rid of the economics. Then I was going to be an art and music double major, because I was a painter at the time. Junior year I realized that I already had so many credits in African American studies — enough to be a double major. Senior year, I was a music and African American studies major, mostly ethnomusicology.

I went to intern at Sony again the summer after Junior year, and they offered me a full-time job. I only had two credits left in school, so I ended up working out a deal where I could go finish my two credits at Wesleyan two days a week and intern at Sony. Mid-way through my senior year I was officially full-time at Sony — I left school a semester early.

At Sony, my boss let me sign a girl to a demo reel. I wanted her to sound different than everything else. So I wrote the songs for Res — her album was called “How I Do.” It came out in 2001 on MCA records. I wrote that and I was like ‘wow, I like writing songs.” I quit working at Sony and became the executive producer and writer on her record, and I wrote pretty much the whole record. And that’s how I started the different trajectory of my career.

So what that suddenly you went from just wanting to write to wanting to perform as well?

S: The record that I did for Res came out not sounding exactly like I heard it in my head. I had such a clear vision of what the art was supposed to be and sound like that there was no other option — if I wanted that art to exist I had to make it myself. I went to the studio and I taught myself how to sing in the way that I wanted to sing. It was kind of painful, and then I started performing. The first performance was at the Fire, in Philadelphia on Fourth and Girard, and I stacked the room with all my friends, . I had this night where I performed every time, and basically I learned how to perform in a dark club in Philly. By the time I got back to New York it was loaded with A&R and press people and all that stuff, and by then I liked performing.

You ended up coming back to Philly and then you left again. So do you think that the place you’re creating in, the city, really influences your work?

S: I really loved growing up in Philadelphia. Because I felt really a sense of freedom there, especially in Mt. Airy. It’s small enough that it felt really safe and nurturing in a way. But at the same time, for a kid it felt big enough that I could go on adventures and discover new pockets. New York is a really wonderful place because there is so much going on at all times, there is so much stimulus and there is endlessly something to discover. But in Philadelphia there is not endlessly something to discover. By the time I was 17 I felt like if I saw a new guy I knew he was not from town. Also, there was no music industry there. So I went off to find that and then when I needed to disappear to create a new identity as an artist, it was great to come back to Philly. Once again — that sort of freedom and no pressure. The cost of living is lower. There is also such a great musical community in Philadelphia.

But then again when it’s time to take that out into the world, Philly is too small, or it was too small for me. I didn’t feel like people were ready for what I was doing. Like as a black female performer I was trying to do punk-based music in 2001, and everyone was like ‘what are you doing.’ Now genres are a little looser and you can do any kind of music and people are more open to it. Back then it was like ‘you’re black, what do you do? Rap or R&B? I found audiences more ready to think outside of the box in New York.

Were you surprised when your cross-genre music really blew up in the 2010s?

S: Yeah I was. Really my record came out 2008. That was the biggest moment, my biggest single then was in 2012 with Disparate Youth. I had gotten a record deal when I was in my band Stiffed, but Stiffed was really just me, so then when Stiffed broke up I just switched to Santigold as my independent project. We were on an indie label so we didn’t expect anything of it. We were just like ‘oh, we have the record deal, let’s just make the same record that we want to make.’ And it was all over the place. We were just genre hopping.

I grew up listening to all kinds of music. By the time I was eleven I was listening to Steel Pulse, Nina Simone, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Suzanne Vega, and Bananarama. I grew up not just listening to one genre so it made sense that my music would not just be in one genre. So we just made a record. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was a really great moment for art, for fashion, for music. It was a special window of time. And it was received by a way wider audience than I thought at the time.

After you really blew up in 2008, did you feel any pressure to more music or more music faster?

S: Yes. It’s the worst! The music industry since 2008 has changed drastically. When I came out in 2008 the only social media really was MySpace. Since then it’s just gone crazy. So much of being an artist now is all about how much social media you do and also, now people put out records like once a year.

Huge artists, they’re like their own corporations. They have these insane teams and collect music from all songwriters and all producers, they pick which ones they want, and they go and sing the songs and put out records.

The kind of artist I am, where I write my songs, it doesn’t work that fast! I believe that once you make a record and you tour, you need some time to come up with even what you want to say in your next music. So it’s crazy to keep on pumping out music. The quality of the music has gone down because of this new speed. But that’s kind of where the music industry has gone, for sure. Audiences now expect to get music that fast, and nobody really cares about albums anymore, it’s definitely more about singles.

And streaming really helps that culture of fast music.

S: Exactly. And also what all streaming does is make it so that it’s really hard for artists to support themselves. Now artists end up doing so much more stuff with corporations and commercials and stuff like that to support ourselves, so most of our money is not made from making music, it’s made from putting your songs in commercials or doing like private shows for brands.

Have you done anything like that?

S: Yeah!

Does that feel like selling out to you?

S: No! It feels like enabling yourself to make a living and make music. See, in the 90s, and even into right before 2008, it was considered selling out. Artists didn’t have to do that because people bought records. But when people stopped buying records, you have to figure out ways to support making music and the main way to do that is putting our songs in commercials, and movies, and TV shows, and branding events.

I have a new song that I’ve been working on a video for! It’s the only song… it’s the song I did with Diplo and Lil’ Yachty that’s going to come out soon. And I’m working on a video for that.

S: Thank you so much for wanting to do an interview. I’m glad that somebody from GFS was interested. I think it’s such a great school.

Santigold mustard by Christelle de Castro