Interview: Santigold Discusses Life Inside the Shrinkwrapped Pop Machine and Her New Album, '99¢'

Santi talks state of pop music, being shrinkwrapped in plastic for her album cover and how to combat the new ways to market yourself in the industry.

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Complex Original

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For Philly-based artist Santi White, best known as Santigold, something's gotta give. Since her solo debut in 2008, the eclectic musician has consistently gifted us with some of the sharpest pop songs in recent memory, always with a healthy dose of social commentary. But following the release of her sophomore record Master of My Make-Believe, she needed a serious break from the industry.

After a four-year hiatus, she returned to music to find an entirely different landscape; one where bureaucracy dominates the radio waves, and free consumption holds precedent over artist compensation. Rather than shrouding her dissatisfaction, on her third LP 99¢, she inflates it to cartoonish "absurdity." The buoyant and brash pop songs are bigger than ever before, but so are the questions she asks her listeners—what's the real price we're paying for our rampant societal narcissism? 

We caught up with Santi to talk the state of pop music, being shrinkwrapped in plastic for her album cover and how to combat the new ways to market yourself in the industry. Read the interview below and check out her brand new, interactive video for "Can't Get Enough of Myself" here. 99¢ is out today, via Atlantic Records.

What was your headspace like coming off of the tour for your last record, Master of My Make-Believe?
I really needed a break from music. It’s not just the tour, it’s all that goes into the music before it comes out: the writing, recording, mixing, mastering and then the planning of the show, the choreography, the costumes. You tour it for like a year, and then you’re like, “I need a break!” I need to have a fallow period in my brain where I’m not focused on music, so I have a chance to process what I’ve just experienced and grow a little bit to can bring something new for the next album. 

When did you start writing 99¢ originally?
There’s two songs on there that I was writing while I was pregnant in 2013, but it really started coming together in summer of 2014. I was mostly done by July of 2015... I had the first version  done, and since then I’ve been finishing the mix and getting all this content that you have to do nowadays. Before it was like, you make the record, release the record, and do a couple of videos after it comes out. Now it’s like, shoot five videos before it comes out, release five songs before it comes out, plan all this stuff! I’ve been spending almost as much time on the content rollout as I did on the music.

I found myself writing a lot about how conflicted I was about being an artist in this environment where it’s all about marketing yourself.

Thematically, this record seems to be dealing a lot with packaging and how we attempt to brand ourselves. This is something you’ve dealt with before in your music, but it’s really at the forefront this time.
I’m not a big concept person in the beginning of my creative process. I started just writing songs and I found myself writing a lot about how conflicted I was about being an artist in this environment where it’s all about marketing yourself and being a product with every facet of yourself on display with a false perfection facade placed over it. Having to live in that place felt very unnatural and weird to me. When I was halfway through the record, I asked myself, "What’s this record about?” because it was time to start thinking about the artwork and overlying themes, and I recognized that it’s about this climate of narcissism where people are more interested in capturing moments than experiencing them, and where the lines between virtual and reality have become so blurred that people can’t tell the difference.

I had decided going into the record that I wanted to have a fun experience making it, because I’ve seen it not be fun for myself and I didn’t want to do it like that anymore. I was approaching making the songs with this outlook, and then I had a baby. I wanted to continue his pure, joyous energy from home into the music. In the world there’s so much seriousness going on right now that I felt like if I was gonna connect with anyone, it couldn’t feel so heavy. I decided to talk about all these things in a really playful, fun way and highlight the absurdity of it all.

Nowadays for artists there’s not as much money out there, so you have to go out and do these brand deals to even make a video or do anything. You have to perform these private gigs to make money because you’re not selling your records because people are streaming, and so you go out there and you’re performing in front of these auto executives at a car party instead of your fans. I’m not even hating on it because that’s how I make a living a lot of the time, but I wanted to really put that experience into my music and into my art. If I do a deal for a video, I’m gonna put it right blatantly into the video and turn it into the absurdist art that it is.

Let's talk about the album cover.
I had to hold my breath, and it was so much fun. The photographer, who goes by Photographer Hal, is Japanese and he had never been to New York or the States before. He came and he was so pro like, “This is how it works, I’m gonna count to 10 and by 10 there will be air back in the bag.” He snapped one photo each time. So, there’s not that many shots. I was collecting the objects for like a week in my house, going through all my stuff like, “What should be represented in my life in a bag?” It was really planned, and it went so smoothly.

In no other industry are people expected to make a product, work full time making this product, give it away for free, not be compensated for it and hustle up the money to keep making a living. 

What are some of the objects you chose, and why?
Most of it is stuff around my house. I represented my life in a bag, which was the idea. All my hard work and my life on sale for 99¢—which we all know is not true and you can get the record for less than 99¢, for free! People don’t fucking pay for music, so it’s not even 99¢. The idea is, it’s a ridiculously undervalued price. The only thing that says my name on it is this license plate that I got in Brazil. Then there’s my son’s toy piano, there’s a bunch of music equipment. There’s my old two-way pager. I tried to put some technology in there. There’s nail polish. Some of the things are exaggerated—like there’s a remote control, but I bought the biggest remote control that I could find and it’s actually real. 

This album takes things in a decidedly pop direction. What's your thought on the state of pop music?
I love pop music, and I love when music is accessible. My problem with pop is that it’s turned completely cookie cutter and there’s not a broad enough spectrum of different kinds of music. There’s so many different kinds of songs that could be pop songs, I don’t think pop songs should sound the same. But we’re at a place where radio will only play stuff that sounds just like this, or is made by this producer or written by this writer. It’s boring! I set out to make a pop record that incorporates all the things Santigold records always incorporate, which is elements of African music, punk rock, hip-hop and everything that I would want to put into a song but still under the umbrella of a pop song where there’s a chorus you can sing along with. I like when pop is still good music, that’s what I like.

We’re hearing fewer and fewer names on the radio. In reality, the music universe is expanding, but it seems like what we see as popular is contracting.
You’re so right. You’re getting less and less people at a certain level because they’re not really interested. That’s business at work, that has nothing to do with art. People are still making great music, but I’ll tell you one thing: there’s gonna be less great artists because people aren’t supporting them. It’s so hard to make a living as a musician right now. It’s a beyond full time job making a record, but you don’t make money selling your record. Can you imagine if you were a designer and you made all these clothes, and then you took them to the store and they’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna sell these for free. Go make some money and get your next season in on time.” In no other industry are people expected to make a product, work full time making this product, give it away for free, not be compensated for it and hustle up the money to keep making a living. The rate of consumption is insane, everything is disposable and goes so fast. I’ve spent so much more time marketing this record than I have making the record. Then you’re supposed to turn around and do it again in five days. God forbid you decide to have a life and have a kid or something—when are you gonna do that?

When your fans listen to this record, what do you hope that they’ll take from it?
I always hope that people feel inspired by my music, in whatever way that works for them.  A lot of my songs are about, from a psychological standpoint, questioning yourself and what things mean and why people do things a certain way. This record talks about a lot of stuff, and they’re issues I think are important that we need to reflect on. I’m not necessarily offering the answer- I’m not saying “this is wrong.” But this is what we’re doing, take a look at this picture right now. Is this looking okay to you or is this looking crazy? ‘Cause it looks crazy to me.

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