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Master of My Make-Believe: a great sonic adventure

On her critically acclaimed new album, Santigold defies categorisation, drawing from dancehall, dub, industrial, new wave, techno, electronica, tropical pop and even African kuduru dance music.
Santi White, also known as Santigold. Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images
Santi White, also known as Santigold. Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Santogold's first album wasn't a chart-topper, but it got her noticed. Released in April 2008, the self-titled record drew rave reviews for its pick-and-mix approach towards musical genres. Choice ingredients from rap, reggae, 1980s new wave, indie rock and electronica were all tossed into Santogold's pot - often in the same song.

However, this Philadelphia-born singer-songwriter - real name Santi White - knew how to flavour her broth with a tasty pop chorus. The album's lead single, L.E.S. Artistes, was one of the year's most ingratiating tunes; it also became an instant hipster favourite.

Cool and critically acclaimed, Santogold was soon in high demand. She opened shows for an array of A-list artists: Björk, Coldplay, Jay-Z and Kanye West. She also toured as the support act for M.I.A., the fellow genre-hopper to whom she was often compared.

Meanwhile, sneaker manufacturers Converse teamed her with Pharrell Williams from N.E.R.D. and Julian Casablancas, frontman for The Strokes, to record a special single for their 100th anniversary. She was even recruited by Christina Aguilera as a songwriting partner.

There was just one glitch. In February 2009, White had to modify her stage name from Sant-o-gold to Sant-i-gold following a reported lawsuit from one Santo Gold, an obscure US film-maker. This was a minor inconvenience though, and White declined to turn mudslinger. A press release announcing the change simply explained: "Santogold is now Santigold. She's not telling you why - that's just how it is."

But surprisingly, Santigold is only now preparing to release her follow-up album, which she has named Master of My Make-Believe. In the notoriously fickle music industry, most artists strike while the iron's hot - give the people what they want, the adage goes, while they still want it. Why the four-year wait?

The answer isn't straightforward, but it's partly explained by her gruelling tour schedule. Santigold opted to promote her first album the old-fashioned way, by hitting the road. She gigged pretty solidly all through 2008 and 2009 because she wanted to build a "solid fan-base".

When she finally fulfilled her tour commitments, White was spent. "I was feeling beat down, my body was falling apart, I was getting sick all the time," she recalled in a recent interview.

She credits her recovery to transcendental meditation, the technique of achieving a state of "restful alertness" popularised by The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. This gave White her confidence back, but it wasn't enough to solve her next problem: "Really bad writer's block."

While writing her first album, White's creative fire had been fuelled by the recent death of her father. Second time out, she had nothing similar to draw upon. As White put it, "I hadn't figured out the answers that I needed to write the songs."

The turning point was a trip to Jamaica - and a speedboat ride that's destined to become White's stock anecdote when discussing Master of My Make-Believe.

She recalls: "We were just flying over the water ... and the guys were playing a song through the speakers, and it's distorting like crazy, and the water's rushing past, and it sounded so awesome. I was like, 'I want my record to feel like this'."

So White channelled the exhilaration of that moment when making the album, a creative process that eventually involved 10 different producers.

White's description of the creative seed may sound esoteric, but listening to the record, it starts to make sense. It's a tremendously vital collection that takes you on an even greater sonic adventure than her debut.

Drawing from dancehall, dub, industrial, new wave, techno, electronica, tropical pop and even African kuduru dance music, Master of My Make-Believe is a unique musical fusion. White recently described her sound as "genreless", which is an exaggeration, but not by much.

Given its difficult beginnings, that grab-bag of genres, and her troupe of producers, Master of My Make-Believe should be a mess. Remarkably, it's not. It's held together by Santigold's clarity of vision, one presumably derived from that speedboat ride in Jamaica.

A memorable description of its mood comes from the head of Santigold's management company, none other than Jay-Z. The iconic rapper/impresario told White that Master of My Make-Believe "sounds like a revolution".

Of course, it's his business to talk it up. But what he says holds true as soon as the album begins. Opening track Go! features military-style beats and a reference to the Russian revolution: "[They] stormed my Winter Palace, but they couldn't take it." The next song, Disparate Youth, has guitar sounds that mimic machine gun fire and White singing about "a life worth fighting for".

And there's an anthemic feel to midtempo ballads like The Riot's Gone, This Isn't Our Parade and The Keepers. That last track has the catchiest and most thought-provoking chorus on the album: "We're the keepers - while we sleep in America, our house is burning down."

Admittedly, Santigold's message here is pretty open-ended, and that's a criticism that could be levelled at the album generally. However, White does sometimes line up a specific target. Fame attacks society for treating celebrity as an end in itself. Freak Like Me is a celebration of individuality in a world where "everyone has plastic surgery". Listen out for White's snide line: "You look good in Photoshop."

And Look At These Hoes is just full of bravado, as White takes aim at her less substantial musical rivals. "I got class, I can tell they don't / Built to last, I can tell they won't," she raps over a menacing neo-tribal groove.

This raises an interesting question: what sort of artist does Santigold ultimately want to be? Earlier this year, she sparked controversy with a single called Big Mouth, which is now the album's closing track. Says White: "[It's] about being able to have a vision, stand behind it and then actually deliver."

Big Mouth features the ambiguous and provocative lyric "Ga-ga-ga all slightly off". Its accompanying video contains satirical cartoon depictions of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Is Santigold dissing her more commercially successful peers?

She says not. Seeking to snuff out the flames of conflict, she told the music website Pitchfork: "I am not that familiar with Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, I swear to God. I missed that. I can't say the director missed that, though. It might have been his brilliant interpretation of my song, but we never discussed it."

Yet in the same interview, White admitted she was "disappointed" with the state of the music industry, saying: "You don't have to make good music to be f*****g huge". She also revealed that her label teamed her with a "big pop writer" while recording Master of My Make-Believe. But she abandoned the collaboration because it made her uncomfortable.

However, this doesn't mean Santigold is against the idea of crossover success. Quite the opposite; she wants "as many people as possible" to hear her music - and to use it as a kind of Trojan Horse.

She told Pitchfork: "I would love to sort of push some boundaries and knock down some doors with the type of music I make - and open up people's minds, and open up the lanes in mainstream music."

The stars will need to align favourably for this to happen; Santigold's music sounds nothing like the honking club pop that's topping the download charts at the moment. But Master of My Make-Believe - one of the albums of the year so far - is certainly up to the task.

Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.

Updated: April 6, 2012 04:00 AM