As she shuns social media and rails against the formulaic nature of modern pop, Santigold is a breath of fresh air, writes Ed Power
SANTI White is what a less wildly successful Beyoncé might look like. As with Queen Bey, the Philadelphia singer makes savvy, accessible pop music. Her circle of collaborators includes Kanye West and sJay Z ; it was White who introduced Beyoncé to producers Major Lazer. Had things worked out just a little different she would be the global superstar, Beyoncé the cult artist knocking on the doors of the big -time.
White who records as Santigold — isn’t bitter about her lack of megastardom. She is doing fine. Critics love her and she is at a point in her career where she is headlining mid-scale festivals such as this weekend’s Body and Soul in Co Westmeath. Nonetheless, because she is not a member of pop’s one per cent she has to wrestle with problems those in Beyoncé’s league do not face. Such as how to provide for her family and pay the mortgage (she lives with her husband and son in a brownstone in Brooklyn).
“In the past artists just had to focus mainly on their art and let their labels and managers do their jobs of handling the business of marketing and promotion which hopefully would lead to record sales,” says White, 39. “By selling records they were able to support themselves and their teams, and continue to focus on making art. Those days are gone.”
The increasingly troubled relationship between art and commerce is a theme running through her playful yet provocative new LP, 99¢. White surveys a musical landscape where performers are expected to monetise every aspect of their existence.
“With minimal actual record sales, except for a very few artists, most are forced to find other means to support their careers. With decreased income from record sales, it’s also harder to keep a record label focused on supporting you as well, so more and more artists are taking on the pressure of marketing themselves to stay afloat in this over-saturated industry.
“Artists are very aware of themselves as brands these days, and the need to keep attention on their brand by any means necessary — social media, scandal, product endorsement — in order for people to even get around to listening to their music. It’s kind of a shit show.”
If White sounds particularly knowledgeable regarding the business of music that’s because, in a previous life, she worked the other side of the fence as a talent scout at Epic Records. Did this help her negotiate the tricky waters of the industry once her own career took off in the mid 2000s when she signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation management company?
“It did for a while in the beginning. At this point things are so different than what they were in the years I worked on the industry side, no-one can really claim they know what’s going on or where things are headed. Or they can claim they do, but they don’t. Technology has just flipped this industry upside down.”
Nor is she optimistic about modern pop, feeling the labels have become obsessed with regurgitating a formula.
“Pop music really does lack diversity at the moment. It sounds very formulaic. I haven’t had much pressure to write songs like that. I think everyone would be pretty disappointed if my music suddenly lost all of its personality. I think my label would like to see one of my songs break through on that level, but pop radio has a very narrow view of what pop music sounds like right now. And that formula sound is it. That’s unfortunate for the listening public. It always nice when something surprising breaks through.”
Santigold grew up listening to great pop songs with a message. Everything from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’. “Things have changed so much in culture since those songs were out, but music is no longer one of the main platforms promoting social change. I won’t give up on that function of music. It’s one of music’s best qualities, and partly why I was drawn to it in the first place.
Despite its often serious subject matter, 99¢ is a lot of fun too. It may, in fact, be the most accessible of White’s three albums. A rotating cast of producers and writers including Nick Zinner of Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and ex Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij have helped the concoct the best kind of pop record, by turns savvy, uplifting and in places revealingly gritty.
“I choose producers who share my love for music across genres, who have good taste in sounds such as drums, synths, guitars, who love reggae, African music, punk rock, and who know how to write great pop songs,” she explains. “All that, and they have to be down to earth and fun to work with. I’ve been super lucky.”
She is anxious the 99¢ not be mistaken for preachy. This not a political project so much as a personal. White has often felt pressurised to remake herself for the Taylor Swift era, living her life via Twitter and Instagram. The thought of building her ‘brand’ by sharing her innermost thoughts does not sit well. At its heart, 99¢ is an articulation of that struggle.
“The social media pressure is pretty serious, especially since record sales can’t be used anymore as an indicator of how many fans you have. I don’t think social media followers are equivalent to the number of fans you have either since it’s based on something totally different, but brands and other people seem to use it to gauge an artist’s mass appeal and relevance. It sucks for me and other artists who aren’t really social media types.
“I find it really unnatural to document my daily life in this way, and am not willing to spend the time it requires to do it well. I’d rather live in the moment rather than simply capture the moment. I’d rather make art or play with my son.”
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