Q&A: Santigold on motherhood, narcissism, and retaining her creative voice

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      Santi White always has something to say—her latest album, 99¢, finds her taking on consumer culture and social-media narcissism—so it was cruelly ironic that she recently found herself unable to say anything at all.

      The Brooklyn-based singer, better known as Santigold, was slated to perform in Vancouver on April 11, but had to postpone the concert when she lost her voice. (The show was rescheduled for this Thursday.)

      Santigold agreed to answer the Straight's questions, but only via email so she could preserve her vocal cords.

      You had to postpone some concerts last month, including your Vancouver one. What happened?

      I lost my voice. I tried to sing to warm up in the morning of my San Fran show and my voice was just gone, no sound came out. It makes me so sad when that happens on tour. The whole tour becomes so much more stressful, because the whole rest of the tour you end up strategizing about when and how to heal and preserve your voice. And the truth is, there really is no time built in the schedule for it to heal properly.

      How has motherhood affected you as an artist? You refer to yourself as “Mama” on “Big Time Big Boss Business”, and anyone who has ever had to deal with a screaming baby at 4 a.m. can probably relate to “Banshee on my shoulder/And I ain’t gon’ get no sleep tonight” (although I’m not certain that’s really what you’re referring to in that song).

      Being a mother has been such a joy, and I think some of that joy found its way into the sound of this record. Even when I'm commenting on problematic aspects of culture, the tone is often joyous. "Big Boss Big Time Business" is about how badass you have to be as a mother working in this business. It almost requires superhuman strength. It is hard, and I was sleep deprived through the whole process of making the record (though "Banshee" isn't about that ☺). But honestly, having him on the road with me was the most enjoyable part of touring. Everything was an adventure to him!

      Does it make being on the road harder?

      No, the hardest part of being on the road was starting the tour right on the tail end of finishing and promoting the record release, and being so run down that I lost my voice right away. It's the physical requirements that make it hard. I have an amazing nanny who comes on the road with me, so thankfully I was able to sleep. But struggling with my voice was the hard part. My son was the comic relief.

      When “Big Mouth” came out, there was plenty of speculation that it was about various people, like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. Has there been similar speculation about “Who I Thought You Were”? Is that even about a specific person, or just a general observation of how fame and success can change someone?

      I haven't heard any public speculation on who this song might be about. I definitely had a few people in mind when I wrote it, but isn't that always the case when you make something up? You draw from what you know. But yeah, it's just about how people act weird, and how it's fucked up. It hurts your feelings.

      Do you feel like you’ve reached that level in your own career, where you would feel like the words “pop star” describe your status? Is that something you have ever striven for or cared about?

      I wouldn't describe myself as a "pop star". I'm not exactly sure what the criteria is for that status, but I don't feel like that term describes me. It seems like nowadays you can be called that and not possess any of the qualities that I care about. So, no, I don't really strive to be called a pop star.

      A lot of the lyrics on this album, especially “Can’t Get Enough of Myself”, take a critical look at the narcissism of our times, which is perpetuated by social media. What do you make of it when someone like Kim Kardashian argues that her nude selfies are an expression of feminist empowerment?

      Yeah, I think that one of the negative byproducts of social media is the narcissism it breeds. I think it's also interesting how people need the attention of strangers and their approval so desperately to feel a sense of worth, and how comparing oneself or ones' real life to the projected images of others' projected selves and lives can cause people so much despair and anxiety. It's twisted. I don't really follow what Kim Kardashian says or does. I think it's strange that so many people do.



      99¢ is the first album of yours to not include production by either Diplo or Switch. Was that a conscious attempt to change things up? How did you choose the people you collaborated with?

      It wasn't a conscious choice not to include any Diplo or Switch production, but it was a conscious choice to work with a lot of new producers. I wanted a fresh experience on this record and I knew I needed to take myself out of my comfort zone to get that. I was really lucky in finding new producers to work with.

      I had a great team who made really good suggestions, and I chose producers who share my enthusiasm for jumping across genres, who have a wonderful pop sensibility, and who are legit cool people and know their shit (no corny guitar, drum, or synth sounds).  I loved working with these guys this time around. Some really great partnerships.

      Each of your records has very much felt like a Santigold record. How do you retain your own distinct voice and style while working with so many other people?

      I think the key to retaining your distinct voice on a record when you're collaborating with a lot of different people, is to know exactly what your voice/style and vision is, and to make sure that everything you do makes sense within your vision. I am really hands-on in my collaborations, so it never falls too far from the mark, just enough to keep it fresh and fun and interesting.

      As a songwriter, do you have any interest in writing songs for other artists, which you did earlier in your career?

      I don't mind writing for other artists, but in recent years the songs people are looking for have become so formulaic and almost like a prefabricated factory-line pop sound, that it's hard for me. I don't approach songwriting in that way.

      We know that your formative influences included everything from Devo to Nina Simone. Fast-forwarding to today, who are some current artists that you listen to and admire?

      I like Grimes, and I just heard a great song by Kilo Kish.

      Santigold plays the Vogue Theatre on Thursday (May 12).