We’ve Got A File On You: Santigold

Frank Ockenfels

We’ve Got A File On You: Santigold

Frank Ockenfels

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Popular Gen Z artists are often credited with obliterating the idea of genre, the reasoning being that they grew up with streaming and the internet and had access to everything. But long before “genreless” genres like hyperpop and emo-rap, there was Santigold, who carved out her own sonic lane by uploading music to the then-new social-media platform MySpace and was invited to open for the OG pop experimentalist: Björk.

It’s not that tinkering with genre had never been done in the mainstream sense — it’s that, as FeFe Dobson has also talked about, the music industry made it nearly impossible for Black women to do anything outside of hip-hop and R&B. Santigold — aka Philly-born Santi White — wanted to play everything.

After attending Wesleyan University, White started co-writing songs for other artists such as Philly indie-pop singer Res and Lily Allen. In the early days of her career, White fronted a ska-punk/no-wave band called Stiffed, which eventually launched her solo project, then called Santogold (White changed the name to Santigold in 2009).

White’s 2008 self-titled debut album was not only a genre-rich jubilee of sounds, hooks, and textures, leaping from one influence to the next via singles like “L.E.S. Artistes” to “Say Aha” to “Lights Out,” the album essentially acted as a soundtrack to what we now understand as the indie-sleaze era. As millennials came of age alongside Gossip Girl, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” bloghaus bangers, and Hipster Runoff, there was Santigold laying the groundwork for a future generation of Very Online “artistes.”

Since that time, White has released two more albums — 2012’s Master Of My Make-Believe and 2016’s 99¢. Next week, she’s gearing up to release her fourth, Spirituals, out Sept. 9 and featuring a whole mess of producers and contributors: Rostam, Boys Noize, Dre Skull, P2J, Nick Zinner, SBTRKT, JakeOne, Illangelo, Doc McKinney, Psymun, Ricky Blaze, Lido, Ray Brady, and Ryan Olson.

The handful of singles released ahead of Spirituals‘ — “Shake,” “Nothing,” “Ain’t Ready,” and “High Priestess” — likewise suggest that White is just as disinterested in being boxed in as she was 20 years ago. Below, White opens up about her latest project and looks back at a career packed with collaborations — and even some comedy.

Spirituals (2022)

What did you initially set out to achieve when you started to work on Spirituals?

SANTIGOLD: I set out to get myself through some hard times by creating beauty and creating light for me to move towards in a time where I didn’t really feel there was enough around me and there was no goal of achievement or anything.

It was really just about creating for the sake of creating and getting out when I needed to get out to connect with myself so that I could transcend some things that were really challenging. And sometimes that seemed pretty bleak in the world and it really served its purpose for me.

I’m so lucky to know that creating, just the act of creating, can do that for me, can save me that way, can lift me up. And in the process, it can do the same thing for others who don’t feel like they have figured out that they can do that for themselves. If I can make some beauty and some light for other people to grab onto as well. It’s just amazing.

“Shake” features production from SBTRKT, who also shows up again on “Ain’t Ready” with Illangelo and Dre Skull. How did you originally connect with SBTRKT?

SANTIGOLD: SBTRKT and I met for the first time in LA. He was in town, this must have been February 2020. And he came and he was like, “Hey, do you want to try to do something for my record?” So I went in and I just was blown away by his production. Because I hadn’t really heard that much of his stuff other than some songs that I knew that he put out, and he’s just a brilliant producer. I was like, wow. And I tried to write some stuff for some of the songs he wanted me to be on.

We weren’t getting to the place we wanted to get to. And then I heard this song, which ended up being “Shake.” Honestly, it sounded so not like anything I would ever be able to write to. And it didn’t sound like anything I ever would’ve expected to hear from him. But the song wrote itself in half a second. I literally was like, “huh” and started singing. It just came out. 

I said, “Aaron, I wrote to this one.” And he’s like, “That’s cool, that doesn’t really fit my record.” I was like, “Can I have it?” That was one of the first songs I wrote on this record. 

Then, actually, I never talked to him again through the whole process of making the record until the very end. I was working on “Ain’t Ready.” I had started with Illangelo and then I was working on it with Dre Skull. At the very last minute, SBTRKT reappeared in my texts. I had reached out to him months or maybe a year earlier, and I was like, “Hey, I’m working on stuff. Do you want to work anything?” He’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know if it’s too late but send me [something].” I go, “Well, I’ve got this one song that I’m almost done [with].” He sent it back the same day and basically just killed it.

Performing In First Band Stiffed (2001)

You’ve always been such a genre-fluid performer. Though the press tended to qualify Stiffed as a punk band, I’m sure it was influenced by a range of artists. Who would you say your main influences were that early in your performing career?

SANTIGOLD: I really loved Bad Brains. They were the top of the list. And I even had Darryl Jenifer from Bad Brains produce those records. They were heroes of mine. And then I listened to a lot of Pretenders at the time, Siouxsie And The Banshees. I loved the Smiths and the Clash. I listened to a lot of stuff back then, stuff that wasn’t at all punk in that genre. I was listening to T. Rex for a little while back then. I listened to the Descendents back then for a while. I listened to a band called Pinback.

I always just listened to music. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs came out then — I loved the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I remember listening to Cat Power back then. It was like 2001 or something. All kinds of stuff — and hip-hop.

Singing On GZA’s “Legend Of The Liquid Sword” (2002)

Today, we see popular artists moving between genres all the time. But in 2002, I imagine it must have been much trickier, particularly as a Black musician. Did you face much industry resistance and skepticism in the beginning?

SANTIGOLD: Basically, I was told: “You will never make it as a Black female artist in a rock band.” There were many doors closed, but it didn’t really affect what I was doing or what I was making. I had always been interested in doing music across genres. Before I was in my band Stiffed, I had written a record for a girl named Res. I worked with [producer] Doc McKinney, who also worked on this record and he has done music for the Weeknd. Back then he was in a group called the Stereo. He was also in punk bands and making R&B. The people I was with were all over the place.

GZA was my buddy. He was friends with my friend Angela Yee, who now is one of the hosts of The Breakfast Club, but she used to manage GZA. I had been around GZA for forever. GZA was even in my Santigold video for “The Keepers” years later. 

My first songs that I ever wrote came out for this girl Res’ record in 2001, I think, and GZA asked Res to sing on his record Beneath The Surface. I wrote the part for that. We collaborated before I even was in my band Stiffed. Later, he asked me to do a song. Once I decided I would actually sing in front of people — because I didn’t ever want to perform in front of anyone.

My musical influences were exactly the same as they are now. A lane just hadn’t opened yet for me to do what I ended up doing with Santigold. Like you said, I was trying to choose a lane, even though in my heart I didn’t want to choose a lane. I just wanted to do everything. So I was waiting for time, waiting for that moment in the ether to just open up so I could just jump through this hole.

Do you recall at what point you realized that lane was opening up?

SANTIGOLD: What happened was, MySpace — and the beginning of the internet being an avenue for people to find music in a way that is modern. When I first started Santigold, I was shopping it around, and I met with an A&R guy at Atlantic. He told me that it was all over the place. It seemed like I was very unclear in what it was I was trying to do and all this stuff. And then on MySpace, Björk hit me up and was like, “Hey, you want to come on tour?”

All of a sudden, people were really excited about what I was doing. So I was like, “Fuck what he said, people like it.” And I think with the internet, genre wasn’t really as important. People were finding music in a different way. It didn’t have to be “I went to the record store and I looked into this section, and I identify myself as liking rock. So I’m only going to look in the rock section.” All of a sudden, on the computer, it was all there. It made it easier to exist outside of genres. 

Then, when I actually did get signed to Atlantic, I actually got that same A&R guy as my A&R guy. And I was like, “Hey, you remember when you said this?” He’s like, “I remember and I was totally wrong.” And he was cool. And he actually ended up being a great A&R guy. But it just goes to show: Times had completely changed.

Opening For Björk As Santogold (2007)

You’re predicting all of my follow-up questions! I was going to ask where your head was at when Björk invited you to open for her in 2007. You played Madison Square Garden with, what, just one song officially out?

SANTIGOLD: I was so excited. First of all, Björk was one of my heroes for forever. And just the fact that not only did I play that show with her, I did a little tour with her. I did several shows with her. And so I was just elated that I was even there. That was so early in my career. I didn’t even have a band. I didn’t even really have a show yet. I’m just going to show up. I just pulled some friends up on stage and some people were just dancing. It looked terrible but it was really fun. 

At that point in my career, thank God, I wasn’t very critical of myself in the process. I was just in disbelief that it was happening, and it was happening fast. When I started making the music that I was making for [Santogold], I didn’t know that there would be an audience for it. It was one of those things where I and my friend John [Hill], who used to be in my band Stiffed, were like, “Let’s start making the music that we really want to make.” 

So I was shocked when people started responding the way they did. I was really in the moment at that early time. I wasn’t being very critical. I was still riding the wave. My performance [at MSG] looking back, it wasn’t good, but it didn’t matter because no one had ever heard anything that sounded like that before. So it was exciting because it sounded fucking good.

Adding Vocals To Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard” (Produced By Kanye West) (2008)

How did Jay-Z and Kanye West end up adopting the “Brooklyn We Go Hard” sample from “Shove It”? Did that contribute to your cross-genre appeal?

SANTIGOLD: My [self-titled] record was out, so “Shove It” was already out. And then I think Kanye got the stems for the song “Shove It” from Diplo, which — I don’t know if Wes even worked on that song. Maybe he did? I don’t think he did. But somehow he gave the stems to Kanye without me even knowing. So one day, I might not be remembering correctly, but I think Jay-Z hit me up and was like, “Will you get on this track?” And I was like, “Wow.” They already made the track.

I remember I was on tour and I remember writing in a hotel room and trying really hard and be like, “Okay, I have to do this right now.” It was cool and it was exciting. it was unexpected. It was cool to see the range of people who were responding to the songs — from Björk to David Byrne to the Beastie Boys to Jay-Z and Kanye. It was really cool that I had made something that could resonate with so many different people in so many different styles of music, which is kind of, I guess what I had dreamed of doing.

Co-Writing Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” with Mark Ronson (2006)

Lily Allen was such a defining voice in British pop in the mid-’00s. Do you recall how familiar you were with her when you co-wrote “Littlest Things”? How did you end up working on the track?

SANTIGOLD: Mark [Ronson] was a good friend of mine at that time. I had done songwriting for pop artists a little bit. Way before that, I had written a song for Ashlee Simpson. I had written something for Christina Aguilera. It wasn’t something I loved doing, but Mark called me. I had written something with Mark, even for Samantha [Ronson] before. Mark knew that I sometimes did songwriting. He’s like, “Hey, I’m working with Lily Allen, will you come in?” And it was easy. It was like, one night. 

I like working with Mark. I had spent a lot of time with Mark that year. I think my record was almost done. I went on tour with Mark in the UK a bunch that year singing “Pretty Green.” I’d done a song called “Pretty Green” with him on his record Version.

Singing The Converse Campaign Song “My Drive Thru” With Pharrell & Julian Casablancas (2008)

One of my first post-college-years-in-New York memories is seeing the Converse campaign you did with Pharrell and Julian Casablancas. I even remember it being painted across the walls at a Terminal 5 show. Please tell me you got a lifetime supply of Chucks from that job?

SANTIGOLD: [Laughs.] I did not get Converse sneakers for life. I’m trying to remember how that happened. I think Pharrell hit me up. I don’t know if Pharrell asked me to do it first or if it was directly from Converse, but I think it may have been Pharrell. 

We filmed that video in Brooklyn. I think it was Brooklyn Navy Yard — we weren’t there all together. We did it separately. But I feel like that was Pharrell. I ended up being good friends with Pharrell for a few years and he really was a great person. He was really helpful for me in the early part of my career because I remember he was experienced and he had a good perspective and he was really encouraging. That was around when I met Pharrell, and that ended up being a nice relationship.

Changing Stage Name From Santogold To Santigold Due To A Potential Lawsuit (2009)

In 2009, the media portrayed your stage name change as basically being the result of an infomercial jeweler Santo Gold threatening legal action. It also sounded like there was some harassment coming from him at the time. Were you OK at the time, and was the transition relatively seamless?

SANTIGOLD: Yes. It was relatively seamless because I was having so much momentum at that moment, and there was so much good stuff happening. Then there was this one stupid, really silly situation where that was coming up and he wanted me to change my name and I just refused to put any energy whatsoever towards it. I really never engaged. I let my lawyers and my label handle it and just kept right on moving. It was inconsequential to me. You can’t give energy to where you don’t want it to grow.

Guesting On The Beastie Boys’ Final Song, “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” (2011)

I didn’t realize that you worked with the Beastie Boys on what would become their last song before Adam Yauch’s passing. What are your memories around being in the studio with them? Were you aware to any degree of what “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” would go on to represent?

SANTIGOLD: No, it just breaks my heart even thinking about that. Just the fact that that was the last song and we had so much fun working together and becoming friends.

‎Yauch was so amazing. I had loved those guys since I was a kid. I even loved the punk version of the Beastie Boys when I was 11. We were talking about doing a punk EP even at that time. It was just really fun. I just remember so well being in their studio in New York, working on that song. And then when the video came out, I was just like, this is the best video ever.

And then when Yauch got sick, I don’t think that anybody really expected it would go how it went. So it was just devastating. Honestly, devastating.

Collaborating With The Lonely Island (2011)

You’ve done some comedy work in your career, between appearing on a Lonely Island track (“After Party”) and an Adult Swim parody series NTSF:SD:SUV::. Had you given much thought to exploring your comedic side before these opportunities showed up?

SANTIGOLD: I just love funny stuff. I love comedy when it’s really funny. I love funny people. I love laughing. I love jokes. I remember at some point going to my agent being like, “I want to do funny stuff.” I never really wanted to do acting [before]. I never tried, really. But I remember saying, “I want to be in comedies.” So I went on an audition for Anchorman 2 or something. It was my first audition ever. And the casting agent, she was like, “That was really good.” Then she came back and said the director doesn’t want to go with someone who’s never done anything, but do you want to be in The Office? And I was like, “Yeah, that’s my favorite show ever.”

Then my agent started giving me all this real acting stuff to try to do. It was fun, actually. I took acting lessons and I tried to do some stuff. But that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Then I was like, “Actually, I want to direct.” Now I’m like, “I just want to produce.” This is this who I am, I want to come up with all the ideas and get them made. I don’t to be the actor. I don’t need to necessarily be the director. Maybe sometimes I will, but all I do is come up with ideas. I just want to make them get them made.

So that’s where I landed. I’m working on this film I did now, this comedy. But even the Lonely Island, I love those guys. We all used to hang out when we were younger and had less going on and lived in New York. We used to have 3-D movie watching parties together. We’d be sitting around with 3-D glasses watching movies in someone’s house.

I just really appreciate people with a great sense of humor. I’m a silly person, and it’s refreshing to be around people that make me laugh.

When you say 3-D movies, what’s an example? What’s a movie that you guys watched?

SANTIGOLD: I think it was a really bad one. It was the one that somebody got for free that had old technology. This is not VR. This is some obsolete 3-D glasses where they have to make a 3-D version of a DVD. I feel like it was a Christmas movie or something. I don’t know. I have to ask them what we watched. We were eating Milk Duds, I remember I really wanted Milk Duds. So somebody got some Milk Duds and we were watching a really terrible movie.

I’m just picturing archived footage from the 1950s with the little paper 3-D glasses.

SANTIGOLD: These were high-tech 3D glasses that were actually some fancy shit back then.

Playing An American Idol-Like Judge On The Second-To-Last Episode Of The Office (2013)

I’d love it if you could expand on what it was like for you that day on The Office set. Did you realize it was the penultimate episode at the time?

SANTIGOLD: I don’t think I knew. Maybe I did. I don’t know. But I was excited because the thing that happened in the scene I was in played again on the [final] episode. So I was like, this is important moment. I got in there just in time. I was so happy.

Yeah, you mentioned you were a fan of the show. Do you recall fanning out on any of the comedians in the cast? I guess Steve Carrell had already left by that point…

SANTIGOLD: No, he wasn’t on anymore. It was just Ed Helms. I recently just saw him at a kid’s birthday party and I was like, “Hey, it’s you. Do you remember?” But no, the funniest thing is that the other people who were playing the judges were Clay Aiken and the biggest quarterback, what’s his name… Aaron Rodgers.

I don’t know about sports. And so I was like, “What do you do?” And he’s like, “I’m the biggest quarterback in the world.” [Laughs.] He didn’t say that. He’s like, “My name is Aaron Rodgers.” I was like, what team do you play for? He was like, “Green Bay Packers.” And I was like, “Where is that?” He was like… wherever that’s from. Because honestly, I don’t even remember. This is so embarrassing for me. I don’t even know Green Bay Packers. [Asks publicist: Where is the Green Bay Packers?]

I should know. I’d have to Google it. But I actually don’t know either.

SANTIGOLD: Well, anyway. He told me where it’s from, and I go, “No, it’s not.” He goes, “Yes it is.” And I go, “No, it’s not. Seriously, tell me where you play for it.” It was funny. He was so cool. And he was my favorite person that day, because he was cool and funny and really down to earth. My friend was on set and he was probably 12 at the time. He was just like, “You’re doing a scene with Aaron Rodgers?!” Anyway, that was my biggest fan [moment]. Someone I’ve never heard of.

Contributing Vocals To Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR (2019)

What was your experience working with Tyler, The Creator on IGOR?

SANTIGOLD: I feel like Tyler is another person who draws from many different genres and incorporates a lot of different stuff in his music. He raps a lot, but I think he’s a very broad and creative. I remember being in the studio with him and he starts playing me this random girl punk group from Germany and he’s like, “Isn’t this dope?”

I think that Tyler is one of the few people out there now in the pop world putting out music that refuses to fit neatly into a box that he’s too big for. I think he’s super creative. I think he’s brilliant. I love his visuals. I think he’s an innovator. I also love hanging out with Tyler. He’s funny and he’s a straight shooter, which I really appreciate. We also did a song for his Grinch project together, which I love Christmas songs. That was super fun too.

Right, I remember the “urban” category controversy when IGOR won the Best Rap Album at the Grammys in 2020.

SANTIGOLD: It’s super wack. It’s beyond — honestly, I have a real problem with people’s take on what Black music is and what’s allowed to be considered pop. The Grammys has been so narrow and not a reflection of what’s happening in music, creativity, or art. When they’ve given awards to people, I don’t really know what they’re measuring. To me, it’s kind of a lost cause. But Tyler called [them out], he was just basically was like, “Don’t try to put me in this box. I’m bigger than this.”

Spirituals is out 9/9 via Little Jerk.

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