Prior to the release of her 2008 debut, Santogold, Santi White left her A&R job at Epic Records to pursue her solo music career as Santigold. Now, three albums later, she’s taken the experiences she’s had on both sides of the industry and filtered them into her latest record, 99¢. The album focuses on our culture’s fascination with consumption — a theme that’s become so prevalent in White’s life that she even put a price tag on herself for the 99¢ artwork. “You work so hard, and it’s just interesting to put yourself out there as a product: to put a price on all of your hard work,” says White.
Collaborating with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, ex–Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij and ILoveMakonnen on the album allowed White to realize a fun, funky sound — a deliberate break from the darker themes of her previous records. Before the release of 99¢, White spoke to Rolling Stone about the playful approach she took on the LP, our consumption-driven culture and the changes she’d like to see in the music industry.
It’s been about four years since your last record. It seems like you really took your time on 99¢. Was that intentional?
I don’t know what the answer is — I don’t feel like I take my time, but then it’s always a long time [in between records]. I actually made the record in eight months, which is record time for me, and I had a baby, so I think the time I took was the nine months when I had a baby. I worked on music, but I got like two songs done in that time. After I had him, I sped through the record. To me, I was working and having a baby, so I think it was a quick turnaround.
Congratulations on your baby — that’s a huge life event. Is there any part of the record that’s dedicated to your son?
I think the tone is somewhat a part of the experience of being around him and having him in my life. He’s just so joyful and awesome. I feel like my desire to make a record that felt a little bit lighter and playful was part of the experience of having a new baby around. Then there’s one song called “Big Boss Big Time Business” where I call myself “Mama” the whole time, which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have him. It goes, “Mama says what she wants.”
You said this album is a little bit lighter for you. Which of your records was darker? Why do you think that was?
I don’t consider both of my old albums to be darker. I think this album is more playful than my last record. It’s hard to generalize about the whole record because there’s always really fun songs on my record, humor, and dark songs too, because I like dark songs.
Overall, there’s always a message to my music. I think my approach I took on this record as opposed to the last record was definitely a lighter, more playful approach. For instance, if you listen to a song like “Disparate Youth,” it didn’t sound like a dark song: it sounded like a funny song, but the topic was kind of heavy — “a life worth fighting for” can be dark.
I think we’re living in a strange time, and it can be kind of bleak and dark. I was exploring topics like consumption and narcissism — topics that can be heavy, crazy, weird and dismal. I decided to present it in a way of highlighting the absurd — I played with the absurdity of it all. I engaged in the funny aspects of it and comment on how crazy it is. I didn’t feel like being in a heavy place — I felt like being in a fun place. In this era where so many horrible things are continuously happening, it seems like nobody really feels like feeling it. Most people are distracted, not paying attention to it or pretending they’re not to pay attention to it in that narcissistic consumption. I just decided to play around in that zone, come up with some art and powerful ideas, but take a different approach into it than I did before.
On that note, tell me about the album artwork. I feel like art has always been fused so much with your music.
I know. It’s a really fun part of the process for me. On this record, I was listening to the songs, being like, “What is this record about?” That’s how I do it: I don’t come up with a concept beforehand. I pull out a few songs and start identifying the common themes that keep coming up. This [record] was about hyperconsumption, everything being a product and how this affects me as an artist. So, I just decided to put myself on sale in a bag and just charge the lowest possible amount because I feel like that’s where we’re at.
What do you mean by that?
You work so hard, and it’s just interesting to put yourself out there as a product: to put a price on all of your hard work. Then there’s that fast-fashion industry where everything is $4.99, and you know there are people working on these items in another country; they’re being flown over with jet fuel and ending up in a store. There’s no way that $4.99 should be able to cover all that it costs to make it. It’s that idea of things being undervalued, your work being devalued and people being devalued. It’s really around that expectation that you should be able to get stuff that people have worked really hard on for really cheap or for free.
You worked with a ton of artists and producers on your latest record. Which track was your favorite to collaborate on?
I loved working with Patrik Berger. I’d never worked with him before, and it was such a great surprise how easily we fell into working together and how similar our influences were. It was amazing!
One day I came in and had this idea for song and he basically played me the beat that was “Can’t Get Enough of Myself,” and I’ve never had that moment. For the record, I’m the pickiest person in the world, and it never happens that somebody has a whole beat that’s pretty much done for the most part, plays it, and it’s like, “Yes, that’s what I was thinking.” So “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” was a lot of fun to work on. I ended up bringing in some of Antibalas to play horns on it, and I didn’t bring a lot of musicians to play on this record.
Also, working with Rostam Batmanglij, who I hadn’t worked with before, was great. I think I just met some really great musical kins on this record.
After being on both the label and artist sides of the music business, how do you see the industry differently now? What would you like to see change?
The industry changed so drastically over the last several years — even since my first record came out in 2008. It’s a whole different industry now. This industry is so fast. I could make music faster, but I’d have to be churning out songs all of the time. I’m the type of person who likes to do some other stuff and grow as a person in between.
The pace of the industry now is insane. Part of it is that so many artists, especially in the pop machine, aren’t writing their own songs and a lot of producers are running the show. It’s like a factory line; that’s how so much of pop music is made now. So the expectation is that music can be turned out that quickly, and it can, as long as you do it that way. When it comes to one person sitting around trying to write songs from scratch and working with a producer to come up with a sound, it doesn’t go that fast. The expectation is that you’re supposed to be constantly outputting product and content as well. Actually, my record was done six months ago, but it’s not allowed to come out until I have a shit-ton of content. Until there’s a ton of content saying, like, “I’m here, I’m here. Check out this, this and this,” it doesn’t even make a dent in the billion things out each day.
Do you think the quality of music has suffered as a result?
Totally. Think back to the era of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. Then you can even think about Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna. These people were special. Now, I’m not going to name names, but, are the big pop stars of the world the same caliber of musicians? Are our expectations for anyone to ever be that?
There used to be artist-development departments where you put out a record and you don’t expect it to do anything for 10 years. The artist used to grow, and they became these amazing talents. I don’t think it’s about anything anymore: I think artists are products of these big companies. They’re only as good as their immediate value in the moment, and all of the artists have to move within that realm and adapt ourselves to fit. You’re disposable, you’re only as good as you are at the exact moment. … You have to have content, content, content and you have to move fast. That reality is what this record is about: contending with that and [keeping] your integrity an artist in music. For example, I just shot a couple of videos, and there’s no way I could have enough money to shoot the video without money from branding. That’s what’s so crazy. So, I basically fucking went for it and embraced it. That’s what this project is about: the absurdity of it and also living in this world.
How would you like to see women succeed more in the music industry?
I think we still have a lot of challenges ahead of us, to be honest. It’s not just the industry; it’s the world. Just the fact that we’re still talking about abortion rights in 2016 shows we have a long way to go. [The challenges] are just represented across the board. Almost every performer at a pop level, it’s about showing ass, being hot and looking a certain way. We haven’t really much moved past that. I’d love to see a broader range of options for women who make it at a certain level. I’d like to see a broader range of women represented at the top in music: different aesthetics, different looks and different agendas. It’s pretty much cookie-cutter right now: You’ve gotta show skin and have a certain nose.
There’s room for that style, but I’d like to see some more. I loved growing up in the era of all these female rappers, Salt-N-Pepa, riot grrrl and all these amazing women who were representing these amazing things. There were just cool, strong and amazing women who didn’t give a fuck, and I feel like that’s lacking right now. It might not be lacking in the world, but we’re not being hit over the head with that image in pop culture.