Risky business

Santogold finds her own way
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  July 29, 2008

VIDEO: Santogold, "L.E.S. Artistes"

I know I can’t be the only person whose ears perked up earlier this year on hearing the chorus of the then-new Ashlee Simpson single “Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya).” In retrospect, even though Bittersweet World bombed with little more than a collective shrug from the public, the song’s commanding chorus, with its soaring yet sing-song melody and its vaguely ’80s stomp, bore the stamp of songwriter Santi White — a/k/a Santogold.

If Ms. White’s gig working on this song (and Bittersweet World’s “Ragdoll”) gets played down in her bio in favor of subsequent gigs opening for Björk and Coldplay and her friendship/collaboration with M.I.A. and DJ Switch, consider that an act of misdirection. Although those artists are much “cooler” and have more cultural currency, Ms. White’s work on “Outta My Head” and “Ragdoll” bespeaks the pop-savvy combination of huge choruses and offbeat sing-songy chantitude that now make up her willfully diverse major-label debut, Santogold (Downtown/Atlantic).

So what’s her current game plan? Santi (responding via e-mail to reserve a strained voice for her tour with Coldplay) is coy: “My methodology seems to be sink or swim.” At once an out-of-the-blue ingénue and an interdisciplinary music-biz vet who’s dipped her feet into the deep end of major-label A&R and songwriting, Santogold has crafted an odd and off-kilter pop record. If it’s the work of a crazy outsider, it’s also created with the sheen of someone who knows what she’s doing. “The key [to this record] was having a strong vision of how it should sound in my head. That way when I worked with different producers, I made sure that their style merged with my vision rather than overpowered it.”

Even if “Santogold” the music-biz phenomenon seems to have come out of nowhere, Santi White the savvy vet has been prepping this debut for the better part of a decade. Has it all gone according to plan? “Well, I’ve pretty much been unprepared for each part as I’ve stepped into it. And as much stress as it causes me, there’s always so much more to learn.”

One thing Ms. White has had to learn is that the media don’t always know what to do with an artist whose genre straddling challenges racial assumptions — she caused a small uproar when she accused those who would label her music as R&B and hip-hop of being “racist.” “Hip-hop, particularly old-school, is one of the genres that has influenced me as an artist, as well as punk, dub, new wave, indie rock, and electronic music. I just am disappointed when journalists belittle the broad scope of my music by shoving it in a little genre box, especially one that’s the least accurate.”

“Don’t reach too far/You will fall over/Don’t be surprised what you discover,” from “You’ll Find a Way,” is an enigmatic chorus on an album as ambitious as this, yet it makes sense. There’s a rationale to the CD’s sensible mix of electro-clash, rock, pop, dub, and indie flavors — it’s less like a big mash-up and more like a distillation of a greater phenomenon.

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