Santigold’s live show is a trip. Her stone-faced dancers do handstands, rump shake, step, and at one point during a concert last week at La Zona Rosa for a headlining gig in Austin, Texas for South by Southwest, a giant makeshift horse galloped onto the stage. It’s a hell of a party.
Lately, she’s been performing a bunch, promoting her forthcoming sophomore album Master of My Make Believe. “Yeah, I only had a show every day [this week],” she said through laughter just before she checked out of the Intercontinental Austin Hotel. “And I had interviews all day. And I was coming off of two weeks in Europe doing interviews all day. It was intense.” Complex sat down with Santi to talk about her wild shows, making Make Believe, partying (briefly) with A$AP Rocky, and a possible Earl Sweatshirt collab.
Did you get a chance to enjoy SXSW as a regular person, and see anybody’s performance?
No, I was really upset. First of all, I was coming from Europe, so from Europe to Texas. And I’m like, “America, I’m back!” You know what I mean? So I was kind of excited to eat fried food.
Did you at least get to do that?
Oh, yes. That’s the one thing. And then I don’t ever want it again. Yeah, a lot of my friends are here. The weather was nice, so I was excited about that. I’ve been here since like, 2001 probably, or maybe even before that. The festival’s actually changed a bit, it’s just like so much bigger and so much more going on, but also, because I didn’t have so much to do back then. So it was just like, all fun. This time I’m telling everybody, “I’m coming, it’s going to be so much fun.” And I didn’t have a free moment until last night. I was so excited, I was like, “Yeah I’m going to go see A$AP Rocky” and totally missed it. He only did four songs. I rolled up and was like, “What happened?” They were like, “I don’t know. Come on, we’re rolling.” I was like, “Alright.” So then there was like 30 of us. [Laughs.]
You and the whole A$AP Mob?
Yeah, it was pretty intense. We went to some like, hip-hop party, of all boys in the dark. I was like, “Alright, I’m going to leave.” Rocky was like, “It’s too much?” I was like, “Yeah, too much.” He’s really cool.
I saw your first show at La Zona Rosa this week. The choreography and your dancers are pretty intense. How much work goes into putting all those steps together?
A lot. We all choreograph together, and I sort of, I don’t know, I close my eyes and I just see it, you know what I mean? Then it’s like, “Alright, for this song, we have umbrellas, and then y’all are going to come with the pom-poms, and then there’s a horse. You know what I mean?
Yeah when I saw the horse I was like…
I’m telling you, it’s a process. We listen to the song, I close my eyes, I come up with all this crazy shit, and then that’s our framework, and then we choreograph it from there. And it’s the same process with making music. It’s a collage, you know? That’s what I say about my music. And it carries through in all of my work, so we take bits and pieces from so many dance styles, and then we just put them together in our own dance language. So we’ll watch YouTube. We’ll be watching “Signing in the Rain,” and like, getting moves from that. Then we’ll watch a tribe in Africa. We’ll watch that. Then we’ll watch some 16-year-old kids jerking. So it’s really like the same process as making my music.
Your dancers are super stoic. But it also looks like they’re having fun at times. Is that vibe intentional?
Well I think it’s evolved a little bit. Originally when I thought of the idea, I was like, “I want to get two dancers, and I want them to be kind of inspired by the S1Ws, but also a mix of like, maybe Robert Palmer’s girls.” I just wanted it to be all of these things. So there’s a bit of the stoic aspect, you know? The whole thing is I’m really into symmetry in my visual aesthetic. I love, like even movie directors like Kubrick, or Wes Anderson. I love symmetry. Same thing on my record cover, just being flanked by these two stoic figures, but that are bad-ass and just break it down. So that was kind of the image I had when I even thought I want two dancers. When we started, last record, it was a little more standing still. So they would do something, and then stand still. But then, I don’t know, the show just got so into the dancing aspect, that we did a bit more choreography this time.
Yeah, the whole show is one big dance piece.
Yeah, it’s a harder performance. It’s great, too, because when I think about performing, I think about the whole picture. It’s not like, “Oh I’ll just go out there and sing.” I want the audience to feel like they’re coming into our world, and it’s like a different place. I want you to be visually and physically moved. So I really try with the costume design, and with just everything, I try to make it like a spectacle. It’s great, because I can focus on singing. My songs are fucking hard. People don’t realize, because some of it’s so fast, and then I’m switching voices. I do a little bit, and then focus. You know what I mean? It’s hard as shit. Some of the new shit is hard. Because I don’t write music thinking about, “OK, how am I going to sing this?”
It’s been four years since the last album. What were you up to, a bunch of touring? Did you have a solid vacation?
No, I toured for all of 2008 and 2009, which I guess is long. That’s I think why I took so long. I guess most people tour for about a year, a year and half. But since it was my first record, and since the demand was there, gratefully, I went and built a solid fan base. Because I think that nowadays people’s tastes are so fickle and trendy. So that’s really important to me. If you want to be an impactful, lasting artist, then you have to have a real fan base, in a very old-school way. Because some people come out, and have this big hit on the radio—their one hit, and they go and can’t sell out a fucking 1,200-person venue. You’ve got to be on the road. So I did that from 2008 to 2009. I started my record in 2010 and I was pretty much done 2011.
How do you feel about your place in the pop spectrum? You’re not an artist that’s selling a boatload of records, but you’re music is a favorite among tastemakers and used in ads and movies. Would you like to be bigger?
Yeah. I think that’s the goal. I don’t know if that’s everybody’s goal. In fact I know that’s not everybody’s goal, but for me, I think the point is for as many people to be able to hear and connect with the music. I think that when I make the music, aside from the fact that I make it for myself because I need to make the music, I think that it’s wonderful when you can inspire other people and they can feel as touched by your music as you do. I’m not one of those people that are like, “Yeah, I’m going to stay in the underground! I don’t want people to hear my music.” No. I make the music and I would love for as many people as possible to hear the music. And I would love to sort of push some boundaries and knock down some doors with the type of music I make. And open up people’s minds, and open up the lanes in mainstream music, and all kinds of stuff.
What headspace where you in when you made this album? What’s this album’s message, if there is even a unified message at all?
Yeah, the theme is the title, Master of My Make Believe. So it’s really about just claiming that you’re the ruler of your reality. Preparing to see yourself in a different light, and seeing the world through a different light, like the fucked-up state that the world’s in, and not being like, “Oh well.” But being like, “This isn’t right. This isn’t what I say for myself, this isn’t what I see for the world,” and then changing it. Whether it’s on a personal level in your own life, you know, you’re like, “This isn’t what I want for myself, and I don’t want to be this way,” then you have the power to change it. Or, on a bigger scale, like, the song “The Keepers,” it’s like, “While we sleep in America our house is burning down.” It’s like, taking responsibility, and then using your power to change things.
You recorded some of this album with Diplo in Jamaica, right? But I hear that things didn’t turn out how you planned.
Yeah, I recorded in Jamaica for about three or four weeks. We got there with the old crew, who I worked on the old record—Switch, and Jon Hill, and Diplo. It didn’t go the way that I thought it would go. I thought we would jump in and do exactly what we did last time. I didn’t work like that. I needed a different process, I needed to work with different people. But it was a really special trip anyway, and I got so much writing done. Like, I got a lot of lyrics, and I wrote different than I had ever written. Like, I sat at the piano and wrote the song “The Riot’s Gone.” I never do that. And I went on this boat, and had this… You know, sometimes you just have a moment and it just stays with you? We were on this boat, like flying, and the waters crashing, the speakers were distorted, and it just felt dangerous, and aggressive, and beautiful. And I was just like, “This is what my record should feel like.” Even once I left Jamaica, I kept going back to that moment and being like, “I want that energy in my songs.”
So Master of My Make Believe sounds like cruising around on a speedboat feels?
It’s like being on the edge of like, danger, but excited, with a real sense of peace underneath it—like we’re on the brink of something really new.
That’s the best description of an album I’ve heard from an artist in the longest.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist? Time has passed. Do you pull from personal experiences? You’ve lived a lot and been so many places. How does that show itself in the new project?
Everything that I wrote about is from where I am right now. You know what I mean? It’s like, I write totally about my experience, and it’s through my growth that I’m even able to write what I write. So, for some of these songs it took me like three months to write them, and I was just like, “Jesus!” Normally I don’t take that long to write. I think it was because I was in the middle of figuring something out. Sometimes if you’re in the middle of an experience, you can’t write about it until you’re on the other side of it. So I had to like, literally grow, learn, and figure some shit out.
You’re not forcing anything. When it’s done it’s done.
Nah, when it’s done it’s done. You can’t force it. I mean you can, but that’s when your lyrics are not going to be good. So really, the growth is in the lyrics. All of the things that I learned and all of the introspection that I did is there. That’s the thing with my music. I do the work. I have to do the personal work. And that’s why I’m sort of always wanting everybody else to do that work.
There’s been rumors about you working with Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt. Is that just hearsay?
It is at the moment. It was a Twitter conversation that has been insanely written about. But, I mean, it’s true. We did talk about it. And we do want to do it. So hopefully it will happen.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)