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Santigold and Her Complicated Relationship With Pop Music

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Santigold's latest album is both her most pop-oriented and also one of her most cutting and incisive, a critique of the corporate pop world her music strives to infiltrate.

When she answered her phone for an interview recently, Santigold was emerging from a tour bus that had been stranded on a Colorado roadside for a day by a snowstorm. But she sounded no worse for the experience, in keeping with a career that has weathered every challenge.

Her latest album, “99 Cents” (Interscope), is both her most pop-oriented and also one of her most cutting and incisive, a critique of the corporate pop world her music strives to infiltrate. Many of the lyrics address the eternal conflict between art and commerce, which could be construed as biting the hand that feeds.

“I should be able to write pop songs that are also commentaries,” she says. “Pop songs used to have messages — Marvin Gaye, the Beatles and lots of artists before 2000. I grew up with that. Songwriting is an opportunity to connect with people, speak to them on a metaphysical level of music and soundwaves, and also reflect on something in a different way. It’s a huge opportunity. I was fascinated with lyrics as kid. I would read lyrics and sing the songs when I was listening to albums at age 11, and you realize as a kid that music can contribute to your understanding of culture in a meaningful way.”

Santigold was born Santi White in Philadelphia, and began working in the music industry as a talent scout and then a songwriter in the ‘90s. She co-wrote and produced the excellent debut album by a promising Philadelphia artist named Res in 2001, but then shifted into performing. She sang in a punk band, Stiffed, whose albums were produced by Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer, and then began recording solo albums.

“I never wanted to be a singer or front person,” she says. “First I wanted to be A&R (a talent scout) because I wanted to sign and develop a certain kind of artist. Then I wrote songs because I couldn’t find good songs for those artists. Then the songs didn’t sound like they sounded in my hands when other people did them, so I thought I’ll sing them myself. That’s what led me into this place. It’s such a backward path.”

Under the moniker Santogold, her self-titled solo debut in 2008 brought acclaim for its genre-mixing sound and the indelible single “L.E.S. Artistes.” As Santigold, she followed up with “Master of My Make-Believe” in 2012, and its mix of new wave and reggae expands even further on “99 Cents” with touches of goth and EDM. The adventurous music makes her a tough fit on tight commercial radio formats.

“99 Cents” includes not only collaborations with kindred spirits from TV on the Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend, but also Swedish pop maestro Patrik Berger, who played a key role in some of her strongest new songs, including “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” and “Banshee.”

“It was a surprise to me,” she says of her productive sessions with Berger. “I definitely wanted to work with a wide range of people, and it turned out he had a lot of the same musical interests as me — African music, punk, reggae — and also happened to be a wonderful pop songwriter. We were both interested in using these unusual elements to make pop songs.”

What’s daunting is the pace required to stay on the cultural radar screen. Her last album came out nearly four years ago, and in the interim she toured, gave birth to her first child, and began assembling the songs and producers for “99 Cents” while churning out several singles and videos.

“People are used to this factory-line pace from artists,” she says. “Producers make arsenals of premade songs with songwriters, the managers and A&R people pick the songs, and these big corporate artists sing them. That sets standards that are undoable for artists like me who are hands on, doing it the old-school way. That’s where the art is, and it takes longer.”

Given the downturn in recording revenue in the streaming era, is making records even worth it for a middle-tier artist like Santigold?

“It’s a very good question that I think about a lot,” she says. “I love making music so I love making records. But the business of music is a mess, and it’s challenging to navigate as an artist, especially if you’re not an artist at the level of Rihanna or Beyonce with a team to help negotiate all this. There is so much content you have to put out to meet fan expectations and make yourself available across all these formats. The best artists have always been business people too, but your branding and marketing shouldn’t be 75 percent to 80 percent of what you do.

“We’re in a weird place where technology is advancing so fast, it’s driving the ship culturally. Our values are getting lost, and sooner or later we need to slow down to see where we’re going.”

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