When Santi White, aka Santigold, released her debut album in 2008, she earned comparisons to another forward-thinking sonic provocateur: M.I.A.
Four years and a second album (last month's "Master of My Make-Believe") later, Santigold has eclipsed any similarities to ... well, anyone. Her blending of sounds — driving beats intersect with ska, reggae and punk touchstones, all delivered in a slick, danceable package — has made her brand of jittery pop wholly her own.
Santigold, who performs Tuesday at Rams Head Live, spoke recently about beating trends, building a brand and her friendship with the late Adam "MCA" Yauch of the Beastie Boys.
Your next single is “The Keepers.” There’s a sense of disillusionment in the lyrics, but who exactly are the Keepers?
Honestly, it’s all of the citizens of the world, not just America. It’s all of us who live on the planet and have a responsibility to treat each other properly, and we’re not doing a good job right now.
Is it a call to do better?
It’s a call to take responsibility for all the things around us that are not how they should be but to know we have the power to change it. We are rulers of our reality. We have the power to create the reality we want.
Your music has always been ahead of the pop curve. You'll release something that sounds wild and new, and then we'll hear similar sounds a couple months or years down the line. Are you constantly fighting to stay ahead of the zeitgeist?
Honestly, no, I'm not. I feel like sometimes when you do that, people expect that's your mission, but that's a dangerous path to tread because then it's not really about the music. It's just about staying ahead and being the next thing. That's a frantic chase, and that's not what I'm doing. I think my taste is always a little bit ahead. It's a blessing but it's like, Damn! They say second is always first, you know?
You worked with a "big pop writer" for your new album but hated the results. Was that an eye-opening experience, like, "OK, I really am different from these other singers"?
No, I already knew that. [Laughs.] I was just accommodating people asking that I try. And then the process was stripped of everything that's exciting about the process of writing a song. I think everybody was like, "OK, maybe you shouldn't do this."
You’ve recently made professional moves that will potentially open you up to a bigger audience: You’re now managed by Roc Nation and you moved up to Atlantic from a subsidiary. How much of an effort are you consciously making to broaden your reach?
I do want to broaden my reach. The goal to make music is for the most people to hear your music. … Atlantic is definitely in a position to give me a push. As far as Roc Nation, I moved there because I wanted to reach a broader audience but I think they have a really good understanding of the changing nature of the industry. Especially an artist like me, I like doing all kinds of stuff, like my costume design, the sets of my videos. It’s about the gamut of artistic expression. Roc Nation has a good understanding of building brands outside of music. Things are changing so rapidly in the music, the old model – make a record, tour, make a record, tour – it’s not going to get you very far.
From the album's imagery down to its name, you're putting emphasis and value on your own control. Did you feel like you needed to regain control of the ship at all?
I think the answer is more, not necessarily me having control — even though it was about that in the process. The bigger emphasis is about we all have that power. Right now, a lot of people feel powerless and also frustrated. That's the general climate. That's why we have riots. That's the vibe: It all seems out of control.
It's really about that inherent power we all have and really exploring it and claiming it. That's what I had to do during the process of making my record, but I always have control of my [stuff]. It comes out of my head, so I don't see how people could steer the ship anyway. I would have loved to have a partner to take some of the pressure off but I didn't. [laughs]
This is something I’ve been meaning to ask you for awhile. Drake famously remixed “Unstoppable” years ago and I've always wondered: Why haven’t you two collaborated yet?
I don’t know. I think Drake is really expensive to collaborate with. Cash Money doesn’t play around.
You are featured on "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win," which could be the Beastie Boys' final single. What was that experience like, and what do you think of now when you think of Adam Yauch?
Working with the Beastie Boys was an amazing experience, most importantly because I formed some very valuable friendships with those guys. They're role models to me all around. I've loved them since I was 11. I was so inspired by them, saying I wanted to be in the girl-Beastie Boys. They're so down to earth, real, grounded people.
To tour with them [and] we were together at [President Barack Obama's] inauguration, even recording the song and hanging out in the studio for a couple days, I had some really great experiences with those guys. Any opportunity I have to work with them, I love to do.
With MCA, I don't really like to talk about it. He was really special, someone you connect with instantly. So open, inviting, immediately accessible and friendly. He was the first one I had a relationship with beyond music, inviting me to places, making sure I had my inauguration tickets. He was the warmest, friendliest dude. It's such a great loss. lt really hurts my heart.
You're getting close to the finish line on this tour. What's surprised you?
We played in some secondary markets I never played before. I'm always surprised when I show up and there's actually people there, like, "Wow, I have fans in Indianapolis! Denver, Colorado!" Previous tours, I had done more major markets, so I had never been to those places. I'm always surprised. I'm very happy and grateful.
If you go
Santigold performs Tuesday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Theophilus London also performs. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.