Brooklyn-based musician Santigold got her start as a songwriter, writing hits for artists like Lily Allen and Ashlee Simpson. She used to work in A&R too, so when she finally released her debut album in 2008 she had this wise-woman, “bitch, pleeease...” air about her that made her seem really intimidating and awe-inspiring at the same time.
Working with producers Diplo and Switch, the album blended hip hop, dub and new-wave, and was full of intelligent pop anthems that earned her a position somewhere between indie idol and commercial pop star. Both Rolling Stone and NME named it a Top 10 album of 2008. Since then Santigold has been genre-hopping, collaborating with everyone from the Beastie Boys and Major Lazer to Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Her follow-up will be released later this year.
Dazed & Confused: ‘GO’ (featuring Karen O) is the first song premiered off of your new album, and it’s about your concept of the ‘New American Dream’. Can you explain?
Santigold: Nowadays, if something isn’t accessible, it’s boring. We’ve become a society obsessed with instant gratification, and it’s created a warped mentality. The New American Dream is to become rich and famous by happenstance, and to get there with as little work or talent as possible. Everything is about the external – materialism, status, celebrity.
D&C: And you believe art is suffering as a result?
Santigold: I feel that real art, and people who are trying to do something interesting, original and thoughtful, are not valued as much now as they were in the past. And yeah, the quality of everything is low right now. Some of the lyrics to ‘GO’ are: ‘The quo is so low. Everybody’s itching for a thrown to throw. Better sell your status while the quo’s so low.’ So basically, I’m saying you should get in while you can, while it takes nothing to be considered good.
D&C: Dazed launched 20 years ago. Do you think pop culture was in a better place back then?
Santigold: I like mystery. In the 90s you didn’t get to know everything about everybody, and that’s what was intriguing about most artists and pop stars. Kurt Cobain was my hero. I remember being delusional, and really believing we were going to meet and become best friends.
D&C: You weren’t the only one...
Santigold: And the 90s was such a great time for girls! Women are in a weird place right now. I don’t get it. Everything you see on TV – Married To The Mob, the fucking Kardashians – is full of girls fighting, like, getting into physical fights. Everybody has a plastic face, full-on make-up. And that’s what is considered beauty. I like make-up for fun – I like colours – but when you actually have to put your face on? That’s when you know you’ve gone too far. But we’re at a point now where it’s unacceptable not to be that way.
D&C: Celebrities are expected to be beyond human, aren’t they?
Santigold: Well, more women than men. Like, did you see that picture of Katy Perry in the morning that her husband Tweeted recently? It became this huge thing and everyone was like, ‘Uuuugghh! Look at her!’, just because she looked like a real person. But like, are we being that dishonest with ourselves that we can’t admit that morning-face exists?
D&C: Do you think this obsession with perfection is a recent thing?
Santigold: Well, in the 90s it wasn’t like that. It was grunge and riot grrrl, it was about looking real and messy, and feeling comfortable. Girls looked like they could actually do something, not like they were going to trip on their heels and break their nails. They looked like functioning humans. Take Drew Barrymore. In the 90s, she was a fucking badass – she’d go on Letterman without a bra, she didn’t care. Now? Never. Even Madonna cleaned up. Everyone is under the pressure. People on the red carpet look crazy. It’s a bunch of freeze-faces. But things will come back around. It’s the pendulum effect. In the I Ching it says – and I’m paraphrasing – when shit gets so fucking bad that you can’t take it, that’s when it’s about to swing back the other way.
D&C: 20 years ago you were 15. What were you like in high school?
Santigold: I was similar to how I am now, actually.
Santigold: (Laughs) Well, I was super-social and a connector of people. I grew up in Philadelphia and I slid easily in and out of different scenes. I was a point person, so I’d be the one to tell people about cool parties happening on the weekends. I played basketball, field hockey and lacrosse… I was a painter, I took guitar lessons. Jay-Z actually texted me something cool last week. He said, ‘You’re a master of all...’ Wait, what the fuck did he say? Damn, I wish I had my phone with me, I dropped it in a puddle. Oh yeah, he said, ‘You’re a jack of many trades, master of all.’ I was like ‘Cool, I’m going to run with that!’
D&C: Okay but like, what lunch table did you sit at?
Santigold: Well, my high school wasn’t really like that. I went to a Quaker school. My family wasn’t Quaker, but in Pennsylvania half of the private schools are Quaker. We had to sit in meeting for worship once a week for 45 minutes. We would sit in the meeting house in silence and if you were moved to say something you would stand up and say whatever was on your mind, and then everyone would reflect on it. Basically, the idea is that God exists in everyone, so if you are moved to say something then it must be something that was meant to be said. That really helped me to develop a sense of individuality, and the feeling that what I had to say was valuable.
D&C: That sounds like an atypical American high school experience.
Santigold: Yeah, but, actually, before that I went to an all girls private school for one year. My experience there was like Heathers, and I was a Heather.
D&C: Did you dress as cool as the Heathers?
Santigold:No, because we had a uniform – plaid skirt with our shirt tucked-in, matching socks and black or brown shoes. But clearly, there was a cool way to wear it. My crew dressed cool. We would have our shirts bagged-out, slouched-down socks, and those wing-tipped brown boots that Molly Ringwald wore in Pretty In Pink.
D&C: Were you as mean as the Heathers?
Santigold: Oh my god, we were so cruel! I’m embarrassed about it now.
D&C: What kind of stuff would you do?
Santigold: I remember this one time a bunch of students were lined up outside the auditorium, and I walked up and down the line and was like ‘Okay, who is not wearing their uniform cool?’ And then I singled people out and said things like, ‘Ugh, you need to pull down your socks,’ or ‘Undo that barrette, it’s corny.’ Stuff like that.
D&C: You were mean girls...
Santigold: Yes. And we all ended up hating each other for a minute, and eventually I was like, ‘I’m outta here’, and then I turned into a fly-girl and got these big gold earrings that said ‘Santi’ and cut my hair short. I was super-inspired by Salt’n’ Pepper.
D&C: What is your fashpiration now?
Santigold: I recently saw Coco Before Chanel. The clothes in that film are awesome. Conan The Destroyer is great, and Coming To America – the 80s film with Eddie Murphy – is amazing for fashion for me right now. And Grace Jones – almost naked with just some killer head-piece on, looking incredible. That inspires me.
D&C: So your follow-up album is about to come out. Is it any good?
Santigold: I’m really happy with it musically. Finally. It’s a blend of all sorts of things that don’t necessarily go together. That’s who I am – there’s no one way. It’s produced by a bunch of different people and I’m the only constant this time. Last time John Hill was a producer who came along with me with everyone I worked with, but this time it was just me hopping around. I worked with Switch again on a nice amount of songs, Dave Sitek and this 21-year-old producer from Brooklyn called Ricky Blaze. He did that song ‘Hold Yuh’ with Gyptian. And I did a lot of writing with Nick Zinner.
D&C: 20 years ago, did you imagine you’d be where you are today?
Santigold: Well, I never wanted to be a singer or a performer, but I still had this need to create. So I started writing songs for other people, but they never ended up how I originally heard them in my head. So I was like, ‘Well, if no one else can get it right I’m just going to do it myself!’ So no, I didn’t foresee myself here, but I always knew I’d be making music. It’s just something I have to do; it’s my spirit.
Karley Sciortino the author of cult sex blog Slutever. Photography Colin Dodgson
Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue