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Santogold - Louder Than They

Author: Nina Bertok
Wednesday, 7 January 2009

It’s been an incredible 12 months for Brooklyn musician Santogold, who delivered her genre-defining debut and took the world by storm. Specially picked for our Christmas issue, 3D’s Nina Bertok spoke to our favourite artist of 2008.

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself – it’s a core value New York’s queen of future pop Santogold has come to live by. Real name Santi White, the Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter, producer and ex-A&R took musical matters into her own hands in 2007 after realising nobody could manifest her vision better than herself.

“I wanted to make music and I wanted to sound the way that only I wanted to sound and I knew that in order to make that happen, I had to do it myself,” White recalls. “If you need to get something done right, you’ve just got to do it yourself.”

Despite having only released her debut self-titled album this year, White’s career in the music industry extends back to the early ’00s during a stint as Epic Records’ A&R.

“I think I definitely had an advantage when I made the switch to performer,” she agrees. “It has given me such good perspective. I know when they’re doing something that’s wrong and I can actually explain why it’s not going to work and what they can to do make it work better. In terms of my experience as a songwriter for other pop artists, it helped me when it came to writing my own music now. I pick genres that are more sub-culture genres, like dub or punk or whatever, and then I put them into a pop structure. So even though they’re kind of obscure they become way more accessible to mainstream audiences when they’re put in that pop structure.”

That’s right – pop. While White admits to applying some hip hop elements to her music, she insists she is not really a hip hop artist per se, and that the media should take note once and for all.

“I think it’s stupid and it’s clearly that stereotype that just because I’m black I’m into hip hop or RNB,” she offers. “It’s obviously very small-minded and prejudiced. It is annoying but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it makes me mad or that I am angry about it all the time. Whatever, it’s kind of just ‘no’. It’s a narrow view of what a black artist is allowed to be, or a black person at that. It’s people’s notion of who they think you are in relation to whether you’re a black person, or a woman, or of a certain age group, they think they know who you should be based on these external facts they know about you. The funny thing is that that’s exactly the opposite of what my music is totally about. It’s about not being so one-dimensional and not fitting into this preconceived little box of someone else’s idea of who you should be.”

And as White notes, it takes a certain kind of woman to be able to kick aside the expectations of others and take the road less travelled.

“Women have the same issues in music as they do in the bigger society. Women aren’t really brought up to step out of these little roles they are given, so you get a lot of female artists who are just RNB singers that sing about love and they’re all about getting pretty. Or you get these really hot girls who are pretty much naked on stage. But things that real people have to say usually aren’t very pretty at all. And real people aren’t always going to be able to be put into some neat little package. Women’s work is measured by how sexy they are. If you want to be a real woman artist and talk about real stuff I think you need to have some guts to be able to kick that aside and say ‘I don’t care, I’m gonna be myself and show you all I have a brain’. Some people may think we’re weird when we step outside of the box but whatever, the art is the most important bit.”

Thanks to White’s determination to let her art rather than body do the talking, Santogold came to be one of the biggest and quirkiest pop sensations of 2008 – but it didn’t happen overnight.

“I was always a confident person but it takes a different kind of confidence to be able to perform on stage in front of people,” she explains. “I didn’t have that specific kind of confidence at first but you just kind of find it. You need to find it if this is what you’re going to be doing. But having the background in music also gave me the confidence when working in the studio and with other people. I now know how to put my foot down without having a tantrum over something, and I’ve learned how to take control and be able to accomplish something calmly.”

However, working within a comfortable space takes priority, White adds. “Most of the time your music ends up being a lot better the more comfortable you are with the producer or the person you’re working with. I know that I come up with my best stuff when I’m the most relaxed. John [Hill, the album’s co-producer] and I have a history because we played in a band together and that made for the most natural, relaxing working environment in the studio. We fought like brother and sister but we were comfortable enough to be able to do that and know that we would still come back to the studio the next day. I feel very lucky that we’ve had this opportunity to try this together and to come up with an album that covers such a wide spectrum.”

Her knack for the unusual and original has earned White the respect of some of the biggest players in the music business – one of which she will play alongside following her Australian run of dates.

“It’s so wonderful to be able to perform with a wide variety of artists like Coldplay. I know at some point I’ll do another US tour and I might do another UK one too, but first up I’m coming to Australia for the first time which I’ve heard is so beautiful. I’ve been on the road for a very long time now, so hopefully at some point I’ll get to work on new music too.”

WHO: Santogold
WHAT: Plays Field Day in The Domain / The Forum / Sydney Festival First Night, Sydney City
WHEN: Thursday 1 January / Tuesday 6 / Saturday 10
MORE: fuzzy.com.au / sydneyfestival.org.au / myspace.com/santogold

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