Burgeoning Brooklyn pop phenom Santi White would rather not talk about her age. It’s a tidbit that’s surprisingly hard to track down online, and, as it turns out, it’s also one of the few questions that can make White—now better known to clued-in fans as Santogold—a bit cross.
“I’m really against providing information that will help people put me in some kind of box. I don’t lie, but I’m just … I’m not gonna help. I’ve been watching people clamber over themselves to try to place some sort of label on me. Whether it’s ‘the new M.I.A.!’” (that would be the London–Sri Lankan emcee who burned up the blogs in 2004) “or ‘girl of a particular age,’ or”—and here she’s referring to a particularly hypey Times piece—“part of the new movement of black, female emcees.”
She’d also like you to know that it’s pronounced Sahn-to-gold. “So it sounds like Monty, not”—she says with a trace of derision—“Santy.”
Still, if there are misconceptions to be cleared up, at least it means people are talking. It’s been a long while since a local up-and-comer generated the kind of buzz that White is enjoying—and though it’s very possible you might not even know her name, you may be familiar with her work. She’s written tracks for Ashlee Simpson; had her music piped over scenes in Grey’s Anatomy; and done commercials for Bud Light Lime and Converse (that one was with Julian Casablancas of the Strokes). And when she spoke to me, she said she might do a project with Ford (a deal her publicist later said never materialized). It’s the kind of market-savvy, Me-generation career trajectory that would likely make anyone who still frequents record stores recoil in disgust—and White couldn’t care less.
“It’s a little weird, but at the same time, let’s say I make a deal with Target—knowing how many people shop at Target? It’s not like I’m writing a song about Target. It’s more like—Target’s onboard to help me sell records? That’s great.”
And as she points out, it’s just the way the industry works these days. “Everybody wants you to sell a lot of records, but it’s not considered a failure if you don’t. The record labels know that most of the money nowadays is made in licensing. On MTV, their whole approach is to put your songs in their programming now—they’re even [looking into] some new technology, like TiVo, that will record the music played on a show and then give you the option to purchase it. So where before it might have been, ‘Oh, you’re gonna sell out?,’ now it’s how we make our money.”
Much of the credit for Santogold’s percolating success must go to Downtown Records, the label that first signed Gnarls Barkley and that also recognized White’s phenom potential early on. Trend-watchers could tell that Santogold—with her frosted hair and love of knockoff luxury (as she puts it, “you know, Chanel stuff that Chanel never made that you can buy for ten bucks”)—might be the latest in a line of edgy hipster-homegirls like Lady Sovereign, Lily Allen, and, yes, M.I.A.
She, however, had humbler goals: “When I was making my record, I was like, well, at least they’ll like it in London.” White laughs. “I knew I wasn’t making a record for Hot 97, that’s for sure.”
It’s easy to believe her, since from a stylistic viewpoint, the album is all over the place. But White’s approach was anything but haphazard. “I really do love minimalist, grimy music, and I wanted to keep that element consistent. So even when I did have the more electronic sounds, I wanted them to sound more analog. You know, like late seventies–early eighties sort of grimy electronic?” Then there’s “the dub theme that kind of ties everything together. Even on ‘Lights Out’”—a song that seems to come straight out of the nineties alt-rock playbook—“you go into the bridge and it’s got a little bit of the reggae element, too.”
Here’s why it all works—and why you won’t find many reviews bemoaning the incoherent flow of Santogold’s debut. In this overstimulating iTunes age, our shuffle settings regularly expose weird, incongruous musical pairings (did you ever notice that Feist is a suitable, if somewhat blasphemous, follow-up to Django Reinhardt?). So what’s a singer to do if she loves dub, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Pixies, plus a few sings each by Amy Winehouse, Cyndi Lauper, and Lush? Well, she pretty much makes an album like this one.
The evolution of Sahn-to-gold started back when White was an A&R rep at Epic and also found herself searching in vain for good material for a rising R&B singer named Res. “I was looking for a certain type of music and I couldn’t find it, so I wrote some of the songs myself. And it was easy. But then my boss was like, ‘You wrote it yourself? Red flag!’”
“I was young,” recalls White, “and I didn’t understand how much you really had to remove yourself from the creative part. You know, to have the song go from my head, filter through another artist, and then go through other producers. I was like, ‘I hate writing for other people!’”
After she lost a bunch of cash investing in a dot-com disaster, White moved back to her hometown of Philly and started a ska-punk band called Stiffed. The city was “my cocoon,” she says. But when the band called it quits in 2005, White knew that for her next, solo project, she had to come back to New York: “I kind of wanted to be invisible, to start slowly and be an observer. This is one of the only places in the world where you can be in the middle of everything and have nobody pay attention to you.”
Maybe that’s because all the kids are too busy checking out themselves. On her infectious, hand-clap-punctuated anthem “L.E.S. Artistes,” White posits herself as a postmillennial urban warrior at odds with the hipster masses. “For me, being back here was about finding my artistic self again. So then it was running up against the scenester artists who were all about being seen. In London, they’re always like, ‘But why do you hate the Lower East Side?’ I don’t hate the Lower East Side! It’s a metaphor for that type of environment.”
Where will Santogold’s whims take her next? “As a kid, I never stuck to anything,” she says. “I took gymnastics, tap dance, ice-skating, karate, violin … I think I tried to open a beauty salon in my house when I was like 7. But I found something in my journal that I wrote when I was 15 or 16. I was like”—she adopts a self-mocking tone, but a certain embarrassed pride seeps through—“I know there’s music in me, I just haven’t found it yet. Maybe the kind that it is doesn’t even exist yet.”
Oh, and by the way, she’s 32, so there’s ample time for future self-exploration.