Santigold Wants More

Santigold Wants More

The genre-defying musician talks surprise album "I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions."

Words by Jael Goldfine / Photography by Craig Wetherby

Santigold wants you to stop calling her new mixtape, I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions, a dancehall album. While the uncategorizable artist isn't trying to downplay the genre's vibrant influence on her latest creation, she takes issue with the recent tide of clicky "Santigold Drops Surprise Dancehall Mixtape" headlines, both out of frustration at the simplification of her latest project and respect for "people who really know and create dancehall."

In this case it might be a matter of semantics (dancehall-inspired versus dancehall), but applying labels to Santigold has always been a fraught endeavor. Her rule-breaking approach to music — which jumbles sounds and styles that weren't meant to go together, and that don't logically make sense combined until she does it — defies the shorthand of even the most carefully crafted hyphenated genre lists. While she's often (rightfully) situated next to experimental pop iconoclasts like M.I.A., Bjork and Grimes, the comparison is less sonic than about a refusal to make music like any we've ever heard before.

Santigold's singularity stems in part from her one-of-a-kind origin story and tenure in the music industry. She grew up in the 80s and 90s in Philadelphia, worshipping everyone from Nina Simone and Devo to Bad Brains and The Smiths. She was grinding at dancehall and reggae clubs and graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in African-American studies, fronted a post-punk band in the early 2000s, worked in A&R and songwriting at Epic Records while it was redefining "urban" music — all before releasing her first single.

Santigold's expansive influences and sheer creative drive have already given birth to three visionary albums: all distinct in sound, but playfully traversing genre and eschewing pop conventions. On I Don't Want, Santigold has done the damn thing again, delivering a classic Santigold project: musically borderless, fiercely energizing, and as aggressively catchy as it is political.

The whirlwind brainchild of a run-in between Santigold and Mixpak Records-founder and legendary producer Dre Skull, the mixtape was largely created in two weeks of hyper-generative sessions (hence, the Gold Fire Sessions), all while Santigold was pregnant with twins. For Santigold, the project was "all about not being precious with the process."

I Don't Want is a joyful, swaggering and summery collection—and an unapologetic celebration of Afro-Caribbean sounds that includes, besides spliced and electrified dancehall, a flood of reggae offbeats and hints of traditional and contemporary African pop. While dancehall is a life-long love for her, Santigold wants listeners to engage with the diversity of and difference between different Caribbean forms that she employs on the album: "there's dancehall, and then there's reggae, and there's overlap, but it's a totally different sound."

The 42-year-old icon has always been a topical artist: digging into depravities of power and capital, starting with her 2008 breakout single, "L.E.S. Artistes," a thrilling takedown of the phoniness of NYC pseudo-bohemian culture, up to her latest 2016 album, 99¢, which tackled the disturbing commodification of music as musical fodder.

So, although it originated as a fun summer experiment, I Don't Want quickly became imprinted with the political struggles "weighing on her heart." The result is an energy of almost punk rock anti-status quo insubordination, with its title as a war cry. On the title track, she lists off all the aspects of capitalist conformity that she wants no part in, while taunting cat-callers over an upbeat groove on "Coo Coo Coo." "Crashing Your Party" is a feel-good track for your Sunday revolution, on which she urges listeners, "go call the cops, call the paper/ you know you better run, no tellin' our behavior." Her message is clear: she doesn't want what our society is being served and change is coming.

Her musical and political insubordination represents the kind of art we need in 2018: which, instead of distracting or depressing, can empower and energize.

Santigold spoke with PAPER about her love of dancehall and punk rock and how her spontaneous feel-good summer project got political.

Tell me about the story of this record. How did this album came into being and what was inspiring you while you created it?

I met Dre in a writing session for another artist. We were talking about songs we liked because we both are into a lot of reggae and dancehall, and I'm not the most up to date on every new album that's coming out. He was like, "Do you know this?" "Do you know this?" It was so fun and I was like, "Oh, we should do something together." We had said we were going to make a mixtape. So then, we went into the studio and we spent one week where he just made beats and I came in and did melodies, and then did another week where I came in and wrote and recorded everything. It was really fast. There was another chunk after that, but then there was a big break where I found out I was having twins. I had them, and then life got crazy. I recorded the last vocals when I was literally 9 months pregnant.

It seems like it was really organic.

It was. It was light and fun and almost effortless. It was really a spontaneous process, and felt very natural. In a lot of the press, people have been calling it a dancehall record, but that's not exactly what it is. Me and Dre are both very particular about what we call this kind of music, and by no means do I think I've made a dancehall mixtape. It definitely draws from reggae, dancehall, and all the other things that I like. It does have heavy Caribbean and African influences, but I don't want to insult people who really know and create dancehall. There might be one song that's kind of dancehall on it!

All the headlines are like "Santigold drops new dancehall album" and like "Is Santigold a dancehall artist now?"

I know! I thought that was weird.

I think maybe there's a tendency to, especially with artists of color, to collapse them into certain genre. It's a good headline, you know?

Exactly, exactly. It's a catchy title. We were laughing for a couple weeks, and knew people were going to be like "this is not dancehall!"

So it is a big part of this record. What is your relationship to dancehall? Is it something you grew up listening to, or something you discovered later in life?

I grew up listening to all kinds of music — all different eras of reggae, and then, dancehall I guess was part of that. But also growing up in the 90's, dancehall was huge. I worked actually at Epic Records when Vivian Scott was there, and she was signing people like Patra and Shabba Ranks. I was just obsessed with it. Vivian Scott was one of the first people signing that music to major labels in the U.S., which was a really big and smart move, so you had collaborations where it was like Patra and Tupac and Yo-Yo. It showed how dancehall could cross over into mainstream.

So that was kind of the first time dancehall crossed over into the mainstream. Who else do you look up to in dancehall?

There's just so many. But it's the women, who are my favorite favorites. Like Sister Nancy's always the one I say, but Sister Carol, and like I love those voices. Like Shelly Thunder. Those are some of my favorite voices and vocalists in general, across all genres. Actually because I think they sing kind of in a similar voice to me, like it's kind of nasal and tonal. A lot of African music is like that as well, that's why I like Amadou and Mariam so much, just I think like Mariam is such a big voice and it's so tonal, and very like... just the way that I sing! So, if I listen to you know, Whitney Houston, I love her but I'm not — I can't sing like that! [Laughs] When I would hear the dancehall women, I was like "I can sing like this! This is how I sing!" I've always gravitated towards that. But yeah, just going to the club, back in the 90's, with Sister Nancy songs on and like, those are like the hugest songs I can remember ever being in the club, you know?

"I don't have a problem with people being influenced by dancehall in their music. I just think it's weird when people do a fake accent."

It's such an interesting moment for this album, because it feels like dancehall is having another moment. It's all over pop music from Justin Bieber and Sia to Drake. How you feel about dancehall and Caribbean sounds proliferating in music right now? Are you among those who would call white American pop artists and producers "culture vultures?" Or are you happy to see these forms being explored and loved in pop music again?

Well I think that people have always loved this kind of music, across all different pop genres. I think we've heard it in music from... as early as I can remember! Whether it's UB40 or even Blondie's "The Tide Is High" or Toto, Lionel Ritchie, pop in the 80's — I loved all that shit. `

Dancehall has sort of always been a part of music in some way or another.

Yeah, it's always been there, but I'm glad to see it making this big resurgence. I don't have a problem with people being influenced by dancehall in their music. I just think it's weird when people do a fake accent.

Yeah, that's gross.

Yeah, I think that's just weird and not cool. But I think that the beauty of music is that you can draw from influences across the world and be influenced by them. I just don't like to see when people rip stuff. Like it's one thing to be influenced by it, and sort of do your own interpretation, but it's another thing when [someone] doesn't give credit for it. But you know, as far as pop finding interesting ways to put it into pop, that's good! But I want to make clear about this record, there's dancehall, and then there's reggae. And there's overlap but there's a totally different sound of reggae which is like roots reggae and all kind of stuff that's not dancehall, because it's more like old school reggae, and there's so much. There's a lot of African influences on this album, African music has influenced me a lot in my life as well. So those are, I would say the three pillars of this record, it's not just dancehall.

It also felt like there were a lot of moments where contemporary politics that seeped into this record, sometimes subtly, sometimes very loudly. Tell me a little bit about "Crashing Your Party" and the political scope of this record.

Well, I think you know, even though I was like originally kind of like, "ooh, a summer record, feel good" the reality is that... I always write about topical stuff, like I always write about things that are going on or things that are weighing on my heart. It just comes out without much thought. Which is awesome, that's why I like writing music. You know, I guess it's my way of weighing in. But, there is so much, so many heavy, dark things going on in the world right now. And I think art and music is my way of fighting back and inspiring other people to do the same, or to think about these issues in different ways. So, "Crashing Your Party" is a classic rise-up song. Which — reggae has always been a platform for music about rising up and revolution. You know what I mean? And so, that's what the songs about, it's like "check out the deal Mr. Statesman / nobody up in arms, we ain't shakin." I think that's the second verse: "go call the cops, call the paper/you know you better run, no tellin' our behavior." It's basically warning, "like look out because the people are speaking, the people are speaking out, the people are ready to fight back, we're ready to stand up for ourselves." And that's what's going on, across the world. Whether it's feminist movements, or whether it's Black Lives Matter or Pride, everybody is like "fuck this, we're not going to lay low and let this happen." You know? That's the energy I want to speak to with that song.

"I think art and music is my way of fighting back and inspiring other people to do the same, or to think about these issues in different ways."

So there was a tension on this project between playfulness and summer feel-good sounds. It feels almost impossible to just write a feel-good record right now.

Yeah, exactly. But also, what's interesting is that it feels good to me to feel empowered, to express anger. You know what I mean? That is what feels good right now. And like, if you can merge energy with music that feels good, then you've good whole package right now, and "feel-good" music doesn't have to be empty music.

Right, "feel-good" music doesn't have to be apolitical.

This music, it can be like, "Oh my god, this sounds so light and fun," but it can still make you feel empowered. They can go hand in hand. Why not?

The album is titled I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions. The Gold Fire session was this really generative session that you had early on in the creation of this project. But tell us about what you don't want.

I don't want — well, it's a song on the record — I don't want lots of things. I think the song will list a lot of the things I don't want. But there's many more things that I don't want. But it's like basically, "I don't want to be the best. I don't want to be a fast talkin' millionaire / I don't want no regrets / wasting my time not saying what I meant / I don't want to be a lie." That song is basically saying, I don't necessarily want what mass culture is throwing in my face, what everybody wants. I don't want to necessarily go about my life in some formulaic way that's like, "We all want the same things, we all want riches and fame and la di da." I want to feel good about who I am, and I want to feel good about what I'm doing. I want to be a good influence and I want to feel like I work and create with integrity and I want to feel that. So, that's what that was saying in the title. I don't want to get stuck in the rat race that everyone is in. I want more.

That song and the phrase feel so punk rock to me. It reminded me of a punk song, like an Iggy Pop song.

Yeah, like The Ramones, like every Ramones song! [Laughs]

Like "I don't wanna go to school today."

Yeah! They don't want anything!

But you are talking about what you want, and what you don't want at the same time. Maybe you solved the punk problem. But I loved that sentiment of negation and rebellion on this album.

It is, it's a punk sentiment. And you know, and I love that. I deeply love The Ramones and punk rock.

Yeah, I wanted to ask about growing up in Philly and the punk and DIY scenes. What was that time and like, and how did that entry to music shape you?

Well, I don't necessarily feel like I grew up in the punk scene to be honest. I listened to it always. But, it wasn't like I was a young kid out at punk rock shows. I was more LL Cool J [Laughs]. But, my sister was all about Bad Brains. I was like 12, you know, when she was going to the real Bad Brains shows. And so, I was hanging around her. I did go see Fishbone one time. But, I mean, I've always loved punk music and punk ideas, from the first time, I think I was maybe 11 when I first heard like real punk rock music. But I've always liked the stuff that was more melodic a bit, I don't know, I love Bad Brains, they're one of my favorite punk groups. But I also like the Descendents and I like the Ramones a lot, and I like the Dead Kennedys and I like... not like the hardcore, Minor Threat type stuff.

Your music definitely carries a punk undercurrent, but remains quite melodic.

I was really more, especially into where the punk energy merged with more new wave stuff. I'm a melody person [Laughs] I remember hearing The Cure, which would have a punk rock bass line, but then, it's The Cure. Devo I love so much because they were so punk, but it was like modern electronic, and they had the most incredible sarcastic and punk lyrics, but the best pop melodies ever. You know? That's where I was like, "Okay, this is where I want to be."

Photography: Craig Wetherby