The diversity of White’s celebrity admirers, as well as the crowds she’s been drawing to her live shows, won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard her debut release.
The album runs the gamut, from the new wave sounds of “L.E.S. Artistes” to the ska-influenced “You’ll Find a Way” to “Creator,” which flirts with reggaeton and electro-clash. The variety is understandable, considering the singer credits a wide array of influences, including Nina Simone, Devo, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, The B-52’s and Lee Perry. The disc also features an impressive lineup of guests like M.I.A., Diplo and Spank Rock’s Naeem Juwan and XXXchange.
White’s rise on the music scene is almost certainly helped by the fact she’s seen the business from the other side of the glass, having done a stint as an A&R rep for Epic Records before she was persuaded to quit in 2001 to write and executive produce an album for R&B rocker Res.
But that experience, coupled with her next musical venture – fronting the punk band Stiffed, which released two albums – and co-writing with wunderkind producer Mark Ronson for Lily Allen, left her feeling she had more to offer.
“The band really just broke up,” White told Pollstar. “I had been feeling a bit stifled by that point though, so it was a welcome change.
“After my first time writing for another artist I knew that it wasn’t something I’d be happy making a full career out of. When you’re working on someone else’s art, you don’t get to express yourself. I feel like writing for other people is a job that I’m good at, but writing for myself is my art.”
Her background also helped her assemble a team that features some industry heavyweights, like Paradigm’s Jonathan Adelman, who was introduced to her by Marty Diamond, and manager Jayson Jackson of Seven Days Entertainment, who’s worked with Mos Def and Lauryn Hill.
Jackson’s association with White began in 2001, when he met her through A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. The two remained friends over the years, even though Jackson left the music business. When it came time to pick a manager for Santogold, she convinced him to come back, although he readily admits she could probably make it without him.
“She has a distinct vision and really knows what she will do and what she won’t do,” Jackson told Pollstar. “I don’t really tell her what to do. I give her a couple of options, tell her the upside and downside, and she makes the decision from there. She makes it look easy but it’s a lot of hard work.
“I’ve been in this business since ’93 and worked with a bunch of artists, and I can say Santi is the real deal. She’ll be around for a long time; this is just the beginning.”
Diamond, whom White sought out upon recommendations from friends, said working with her provides some unique opportunities.
“It doesn’t hurt for an artist to know the other side of [the business],” Diamond told Pollstar. “So the cool thing is my discussions with her and my involvement on a day-to-day basis have purely been creative. She has a real acuity for the business, so my involvement can be on the creative side. It’s fun for me that way.
“She also has a fair amount of width as far as what she can do as a live performer, which in the grand scheme of things has made it very, very interesting. Her width as an artist is dramatic, from small club dates to big festival dates; I don’t think it’s limited in any context.”
That flexibility extends to Santogold’s touring needs as well.
“So far, I’ve had two different live setups,” White said. “Early on I did several shows opening for Björk with a full band. That was before the record was even finished. And then once I started the first round of touring – a U.K. tour with M.I.A. last December – I went out with two dancers and a DJ.
“Ultimately, to really get the full experience of the record I would need to have both elements. And I plan to have both the band and the DJ setup to tour later this summer.”
Jackson believes adding a band to Santogold shows will really make things take off.
“I think the band is going to give her a lot more room to do what she’s accustomed to doing,” he said. “She’s really trained to do it in a live band situation. I think that’s going to allow the people who dig what she does to be able to really appreciate her.”
And while White acknowledges the experience she gained as support, she’s glad to be stepping into the top spot.
“At first I thought the shows weren’t so great because people just stand kind of quietly and watch,” she said. “But then I realized they’re just taking it all in – and there’s a lot to take in.
“It’s more fun to headline because there are actual fans there that know my music and can sing along; I feed off their excitement. At the same time, some of the shows where I was an opening act were the most important, because that’s where I got to win over new fans. The response has been great though and great opportunities have come from all of those shows.”
Santogold will be a fixture on the festival scene in the U.S. and abroad this summer, and, although White was coy about it, Diamond and Jackson said there are plans for a big package tour with her as the headliner in the fall. –