Halfway through writing and recording her third album 99¢, out today, February 26, Santigold came to the realization that the record was becoming centered on a singular theme: the notion that everything in modern culture is a finely curated, assembled package. Instead of fighting against it, the Philadelphia native embraced that ethos, crafting a buoyant, exuberant pop album that criticizes the look-at-me generation by participating in it. (She took a literal approach with the album art, which features her likeness shrink-wrapped alongside a mess of sneakers, rings, and license plates.)
Working with a new team of producers including Rostam Batmanglij, Hit-Boy, and Patrik Berger, as well as familiar collaborators like Dave Sitek and John Hill, the 39-year-old crafted a sound much brighter than past records (2008’s Santigold, 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe), in part thanks to the birth of her first child, Radek, who came into the world a few songs into the recording process. The resulting project is erratic and challenging, one chain-linked together by an optimistic tone that celebrates the superficial state of society, even while reprimanding it.
Was there a specific moment that made you realize that everything is a sort of package and is "marketing," in a way?
It wasn't a moment. It was my experience of being an artist that didn't really start out in this era of constant self-promotion. The rate of consumption now is ridiculous. Grappling with a lot of those issues, I started writing songs about it. My songs are always cathartic. I need to pour out anything I'm feeling. Then halfway through, when it was time to figure out what the record was about, I realized I was writing a lot about feeling like a product and this weird absurdity of hyper-consumption and narcissism and everyone being so into the buying and selling of images. On social media, it's the fake inversion of everything, the Photoshopped version of reality, and as an artist, you're supposed to be constantly putting up that version of yourself, but it covers every facet of your life. Then I had my son and had this pure, joyous energy at home, and when I had to leave to go work on music, I wanted to stay in that energy. Really, the things that I'm talking about are so absurd that you can actually laugh. That's the approach I took. Even with the album cover, literally me climbing into a bag and shrink-wrapping myself – it's extreme.
Self-promotion has sort of become the de facto form of marketing these days. Does that turn you off?
It turns me off, but it's also par for the course. You can be turned off — and that's what "Run from the Races" is about — and you can stand on the sidelines like, "This is whack!" and watch it all go right by you. Or you can figure out a way to talk about it. It seems that that's the most effective way right now, is to play in it. Like back in the '90s, artists would get a lot of shit if they put their songs in a commercial. Now, it’s the new way because music on the radio is so cookie-cutter and they're playing the same songs back-to-back of hardly any artists. Then as an artist of my kind, the main way that you're going to get your music heard by a broader audience is through commercials, movies, video games ...
The other realities are that people aren't buying music anymore, they're streaming. We aren't getting the fair deal on the streams. You have a full-time job making music, and in addition to doing that and touring and making it successful, you have to figure out how to make a living on the side. Even if you get enough money to do your content, I've been scrambling to get the money to get videos out. So you end up getting these brand partnerships, and they want you to put their products in the video. I've turned that into part of the art. Usually in the past, you do it in the most subtle way possible. I've been doing it in the most blatant way possible, because that to me is part of the conversation I'm trying to have. To me, art is about revealing exactly what's going on, in your face, so people can have a chance to look at it and reflect.
Have you been worried at all that by holding up a mirror to this hyper-consumptive economy, you open yourself to critique for engaging in that exact behavior?
If they do, they miss the whole point. There's a tongue-in-cheek attitude to what I'm doing. I'm doing it, yes, but I'm like, this is what I'm needing to do. The argument at this point about selling out is gone. It's outdated. For me, I figured out a way to do it and feel like I'm okay with it because I'm not compromising my art at all. I feel okay in doing these crazy partnerships because I made that whole process what the art is about.
This is the first time that you were pregnant while you were recording a project. Did that have any effect on how you approached songwriting or your collaborative process? How did it manifest itself in the actual end product?
There's a certain lightness to the record and a playfulness that's partially due to the fact that I just had a baby. The two songs I wrote and recorded while I was pregnant are the darker songs on the record, which were "Outside the War" and "Run the Races." I was brewing something inside. Honestly, I was at my friend Ian's studio and he brought a mattress in, and I literally laid out on the mattress with my Great Dane next to me, eating endless dark chocolate and writing these crazy songs. When I recorded, I was nine-and-a-half months pregnant. I could barely sing, so I was singing in these crazy voices. Once I had the baby and went back in the studio, which was really soon, I started playing around, and there was just a lightness and playfulness to it. I wanted to continue the energy I had going on at home. Plus, I had set out to have a fun experience making this record, and I brought it to the idea of working with new producers, and once it got down to the songs, it was about keeping them light. We're talking about these issues that aren't necessarily light, but I felt like that energy was going to help me get this message across.
On your upcoming tour, are you bringing your son along?
Yeah. He's coming. I just bought him this Lego tour bus. I found it online. It's for girls, but it was awesome. It's called "Lego Friends Pop Star Tour Bus." Because he came on tour for a week last summer. We did five different countries in Europe in seven days, and he loves airplanes, loves tour buses, and loves music. He has his own little noise-cancellation headphones and puts them on. He's like, "Headphones!" and dances.