Santogold: 'I didn't expect this'

Coldplay and Kanye West. Jay-Z and David Byrne. Björk and Pharrell Williams. Not names often bracketed together, but as Santogold tells Gavin Cumine, her eclectism is what made the last year so awesome... and tiring
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The Independent Culture

Curled up on a chair in her hotel room wearing a grey T-shirt and a pair of comfortable trousers, Santogold, aka Philadelphia-born Santi White, nurses a cup of green tea.

She looks tired yet strikingly serene as she prepares to do one of the things she has been doing all last year – talk, about herself and her record.

For the past year White's life has been a cat-and-mouse game between a variety of timezones across the globe as she supported some of pop's most established stars including Coldplay, Jay Z, Kanye West, Björk and The Streets. At the beginning of last year White found herself in the Top 10 of the BBC's Sound of 2008 poll, and now, with a critically acclaimed debut album behind her, she looks a hot tip for a Brit award. White is reflecting on an exciting, if hectic, year.

"I've been thinking about the past year a lot lately. So much has happened and it has been so amazing, but it has happened so fast and the pace has been almost un-do-able. It is so hard. I am tired, grumpy and just getting through it and I don't have time to realise how great everything is. After it has passed I look back on the things and I am, like, 'That was awesome, and I am so glad I got to do that', but in the midst of it all it is a bit much. But I am really grateful and happy about how the past year has gone."

White is an artist who has captured the collective imagination. She attracts hipsters, hip-hoppers and your bog standard music fans normally satisfied with the bi-yearly releases from MOR trio Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol. She has supported Björk at Madison Square Garden, toured the US with Coldplay, supported The Streets at the Electric Proms and has recorded a new track, "Brooklyn Go Hard", with Jay Z. She is working with David Byrne, the Beastie Boys, has already worked with Pharrell Williams and The Strokes' Julian Casablancas for the Converse track "My Drive Thru", and supported Kanye West (who has remixed one of her songs). Such a wide range of collaborations and support slots is a good indication of her potential mass appeal.

"It is hard to support other people in arenas, because it is so impersonal. You get out there and you perform to darkness. It is a big opportunity, but it's sink or swim and takes a little getting used to. Ultimately it is a great way to grow an audience. To keep playing in your own safe audience is a wimpy approach. I think you need to throw yourself out there and be uncomfortable to reach new people that aren't expecting you at all and have no idea what to call the music.

"Some people like it," continues White. "At most of the shows I got great response and a lot of MySpace messages afterwards saying they liked the music. I did get one message that said 'I hate your lesbian techno rap.' When I get stuff like that I know I am doing a good job. Its means I am getting in front of people outside of my zone freaked out by the fact that I don't fit into something they understand. It means I am pushing some boundaries, I guess."

Such a reaction seems to indicate a fear of the unknown. In this case a female artist who doesn't play up to any stereotype. White has stated she is: "A black girl who's not singing R&B or hip-hop", and although electro punk would be more accurate, there is no stereotype that applies to her. She is an artist with her own agenda attempting to define her own meaning of what it is to be female, both musically and socially.

"I don't think there are enough female voices at all, but I am thankful to have artists like M.I.A and Björk around. I think for a long time, even before I was making music, I've felt really isolated. A lot of my girlfriends are married and have kids; then there are the party girls and I don't really identify with either one of those groups. I am trying to do something different, something important and creative that will push me and the boundaries of what is out there culturally. It is nice to have other women to bounce experiences and ideas off and there really aren't very many."

White has an interesting perspective on the record industry having previously been an A&R for Epic Records, a producer and a songwriter with credits on Lily Allen's debut album Alright, Still, and Ashley Simpson's last record Bittersweet World. However, now she has the spotlight shining on her, White admits she never realised how much work she would have to do despite her industry experience.

"The way the industry has changed puts more stress on the artist. When you tour you do everything at once, which isn't conducive to maintaining a voice. It isn't just me, it's everybody; Katie [White] from the Ting Tings, Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend.

"Björk sent me a list of all the things I need to do because they were things she struggled with. She said after one show take four days' rest. Four days' rest! That is not in anybody's budget. These days artists need to be multi-taskers. God forbid I didn't know how to style myself or do my own hair. My whole stage show with the dancers is something I came up with in a week. I found the girls and choreographed them because nobody does that for you.

"I do my own MySpace page, so you need to know about computers. You have to know how to do everything."

However, such stresses have allowed an artistic freedom, something White views as essential. "Some people are just entertainers and can have people define their style and write their songs, but I think if you are an artist who really cares about your art and has something to say, you want to portray yourself accurately. People try to do their own interpretation of who you are. I have had people try to style me with the ugliest stuff. People just simplify it; they go: 'I get it... you're wacky.' It is just a big brushstroke when there needs to be careful attention to detail."

Far from being a corporate construction of cool, White's music brims with personality, something that translates onto her self-titled debut album, a record that only takes notice of a zeitgeist when it tears it apart. A densely layered patchwork of songs with a vast array of influences from Portishead and Siouxsie Sioux to Lil Wayne and The Pixies, it is a record reliant on collaborations with various producers.

"Looking back on my album it actually wasn't that much of collaboration. I am very protective of my vision and I don't let people in until I feel comfortable that it is at a place that is ready for other people to add their ideas. Most of the record I worked with John Hill, who is someone that just gets me.

"The main thing for me when collaborating is to be comfortable," continues White. "That way you are uninhibited, which is important when you are making music. I get nervous when I make music with people I don't know. When I went to do 'Creator' I didn't know Switch or Freq Nasty – I just met them at a club and went to the studio. When they played me the beat I was like, 'this beat is so good', and all of a sudden they were like, 'get in the booth'. I was like: 'uh... no'. When I went in I just stood there humming, trying to get it in my head because I didn't feel comfortable doing it out loud. I didn't want to go back and they were calling me and I just kept saying no."

An interesting aspect of White is her refreshing approach to getting her music heard. She is an artist aware of the changes in the music industry, confronting such times by making her music available in a variety of ways through licensing; whether it is soundtracks (her Jay-Z collaboration "Brooklyn We Go Hard" appears on the soundtrack for the upcoming Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious), TV shows (Gossip Girl, Entourage, Grey's Anatomy, CSI: NY and the new Beverly Hills 90210) or commercials ("Creator" was in the VO5 hairstyling adverts, and songs for Ford and Bud in the USA).

Some have criticised her for sacrificing her music for too many commercial link-ups, but White disagrees. "Some people would be happier if you curled up in a corner and did nothing. Then you would be a real artist. I get two negative emails to the 50 emails saying: 'I found you on this TV show.'

"The whole point of doing this is for people to hear my music and connect with it. People are so self-righteous and don't see the big picture. There are a lot of things we can do to fix things with the world, but you need to put yourself in a position where you have influence and we all make different decisions about how we can get to a place where we can do that. You have to be smart and choose the ways that you think best and will reach people.

"As an artist who doesn't really fit into radio formats you can't depend on that for introducing yourself to new audiences, so for me, especially in the States, it has been amazing the amount of exposure I have gained from licensing, whether it be to commercials or the Converse ads.

"It's a new way in the absence of radio support to get new people to hear your music. MTV doesn't play videos anymore. So for me it has been the best way to get my music exposed."

And with that it's all over. White is whisked away. She's a pop icon in the making. The range of White's music indicates she has only scratched the surface. What is clear is that she is not an artist who will disappear into the ether over the coming years. Indeed, her curiosity about music and her progressive approach to reaching out to different audiences is something that will keep her in the public consciousness for a long time yet and for the sake of music that can be only a good thing.

Santogold's self-titled debut album is out now on Atlantic