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Santigold on her Favourite Music Books

The critically acclaimed singer-songwriter took an unusual route to becoming a performer. She tells us how she got started, how to get what you want in the music business and how an extraordinary range of influences continue to inspire her

Interview by Eve Gerber

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You’ve collaborated with Jay-Z and David Byrne. You cite influences ranging from Devo to Nina Simone. Critics say you draw from pop, ska, rap, punk, jazz, rock, soul, New Wave and Nigerian music, but above all see your work as genre busting. Before we discuss the music books you’ve found influential, how do you see your music?

My music mashes up influences and may defy classification but it’s not something that I think about a lot. It’s not like I set out to take a little of this and a little of that. I draw from my musical history, which includes all the things I was exposed to as a kid. My dad took me to see James Brown and Nina Simone and Fela Kuti. My sister went to see Bad Brains and the Cure and would bring the concert home with her, coming back in combat boots, dripping sweat. From a young age I was exposed to all different kinds of music, and all that influences who I am musically. But making music is not something I do according to a formula – it’s a natural process for me.

You’ve said that you got into the music industry backwards. Please explain.

I never – as a kid, a teenager or even as a young adult – ever wanted to be a performer. I’ve written lyrics since I was nine, but no part of me wanted to sing them on stage. I loved music and I loved making music. I took guitar lessons and I got some beat-making equipment and made my own beats. When I went to college, I started interning at record companies. And then I started writing songs for other people. The songs started coming out, but not like I wanted them to sound, so I thought I’d just record them myself. Once I did that I was drawn up on stage. So I slowly became a performer, and now it feels right – it feels like what I was supposed to do all along.

You also studied music at university. How does your academic and industry background inform the music you make?

My industry background doesn’t necessarily inform the music that I make, but it informs my understanding of what to do beyond making music. The problem for a lot of artists is they make music and then they get tripped up on the business part. A lot of them don’t end up getting their music heard, especially now as the music business is falling apart. My background helps me understand how the industry works and how to manoeuvre so I get what I want artistically and get the best out of the other players on the board.

As for the music itself, I was a music major at Wesleyan and a lot of what I did there influenced me. I had to take guitar but I ended up more focused on hand drums. I studied Cuban, Haitian and West African traditional drumming styles and techniques while I was at Wesleyan. I grew up listening to a lot of reggae and other world music, but at Wesleyan I learned to actually play different rhythms. A lot of how I write music, even the way that I choose my melodies, is based on rhythm. I’m really interested, compositionally, in how the bass and the drums interact; I think that’s something I picked up while drumming. I had to take experimental music classes and classical music classes. It was a formative time for me, so all that stuff definitely made its way into my music.

Let’s turn to the five music books you’ve named, beginning with a book that roots the story of rhythm in antiquity. Tell us about When the Drummers Were Women by Layne Redmond.

This book is not just about drumming, it’s also about gender, history and spirituality. It tells the story of the relationship between women, music, religion and power. Thousands of years before Christ, women played hand drums, specifically the frame drum, in religious ceremonies, as we can see in surviving images of goddesses. Music and rhythm are intrinsically a part of spirituality, but originally women set the beat. But with the advent of Christianity, ceremonial drumming, which was associated with paganism, stops. Drums were silenced and so were women.

I ended up writing a senior essay about women drummers because my experience in school was that it was always men on top of music. There were certain drums that women weren’t supposed to play; superstitions were attached to them, like they’d mess up your fertility. I tried to write my paper about that – that’s when I got this book.

Music is a very male-dominated career. Women who don’t just sing but also write and produce are rare. As a modern woman musician, the alienation of women from rhythm, which Redmond describes, had a lot of resonance for me. So it’s just a really interesting book, and at the time that I read it, it gave me the courage to pursue my music.

So the book is also about how music affects and conveys consciousness. What inspiration did you draw from it?

Rhythm can carry us away. If you just look at how people respond to music throughout the world, it’s one of the things that bring people together. At a concert, people move and sing and breathe together. It can also be a tremendously cathartic experience, a communal cathartic experience.

Let’s turn to the assembled reminiscences of seventies rock musicians in Please Kill Me. Paper magazine called it “stuffed full of the most scandalous tales ever assembled on the ongoing epic of sex, drugs and rock & roll”. Sounds like good reading.

Please Kill Me is one of the most fun books I’ve ever read. It’s basically a collection of oral histories, first-hand accounts from all the people who were around in New York as punk began. It’s the inside scoop on everything punk, with all kinds of details about who hooked up with who and the crazy shit they did. It’s not like reading a history book – it’s almost like being there, talking to all these people who were part of the birth of punk.

One of the authors, Legs McNeil, gave punk its name. But what exactly is punk?

People define it differently. I think the truest definition is that punk is the attitude of not really giving a fuck about what is acceptable or how things are supposed to be. It’s a staunch declaration of individuality without apology. It prompts people to question their values. It demands personal freedom. Obviously, at a certain point, punk defined a style in the same way that people today use hipster to refer to a style.

Tell me about the musical style.

Originally, a lot of people in punk bands couldn’t play their instruments. They would learn just well enough to play repetitive power chords – a two-finger version repeated over and over again. So punk evolved as a style that was simple to play and didn’t take much technical skill. The most exciting thing about punk was the energy and the attitude behind it – and the speed. It was faster than anything, it was louder than anything, it was distorted and the vocals were full of angst, even screaming. It was so raw. Disco was so shiny and punk smacked it across the face.

In this book, as you mentioned, artists like Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Dee Dee Ramone speak for themselves. What did you learn from them?

I read this book when I was about to start my first band, which was called Stiffed. It was sort of post-punk. The book made me feel a bit more free – like it didn’t matter how much singing experience I had, the energy that I got across and the freedom that I was able to convey on stage were more important. People come to shows to feel something.

I love your line from the song “Creator”: “I love to make it up/the rules that I break/got me a place up on the radar.” Is that something you draw from punk?

That’s totally a punk-inspired lyric. I subscribe to that creed. Rules are to be broken. I do what I want. That’s how I picture myself as an artist. That punk attitude is a way to keep grounded. You can’t think too much about what other people are saying and what other people expect. You have to ignore the industry and do what you want. That’s the art.

Next, you named Alternative Rock – an encyclopedia of the people and recordings that transformed the music scene in the eighties and nineties. It contains entries about more than 2,000 recordings and more than 500 musicians.

It’s a reference book, but it’s so interesting to read. I got it back in college, during the nineties. It includes anybody that you ever heard of from somebody else. It’s a beginners’ guide to every band in that genre – it tells you the best records and a bit of background, just enough to pique your interest. I learned about so many bands and records just from flipping through the book. You could do random searches on the Internet but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s really cool to have all this in one place.

The author, Dave Thomson, talks in the introduction about how the rules of rock were rewritten during this period. Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed’s first solo album paved the way for electronic pioneers. Patti Smith’s “scream of consciousness” liberated musicians that followed. But can you clarify, what is the difference between alternative and punk rock?

Alternative is a different epoch. It’s late eighties through nineties. Punk had subsided by then. You can see the commonalities and differences in groups like Nirvana. Nirvana had the energy of punk but its lyrics were more pop. They were a punk band produced in a way that made them more accessible and attractive to kids who didn’t know shit about punk.

Let’s turn to Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones. Tell me about the man, his music and the book he wrote about himself.

It’s about Quincy Jones’s journey. He started out poor, born on the South Side of Chicago to a mentally ill mother. He went on to become one of the most influential producers in the industry. Music sort of saved him. He started to tour as a back-up musician in his teens with these amazing jazz bands. He ended up scoring all these movies, and then he got into producing. Quincy Jones produced the main Michael Jackson records. He started so young and he accomplished so much.

Aside from the fact that his life is so interesting, I read this book as I was steering the ship on my own album. It showed me the skill of a great producer. It’s not necessarily that you’re playing things yourself – it’s the ability to bring together the best people and direct them to create your vision. That information was invaluable to me, as I’ve been developing my skills as a producer. I don’t consider myself a player of any instruments either. I can write on many instruments but don’t excel at any instrument and yet I’m very involved in every step of the creation of my music and I’m so particular about every sound. For me reading Q validated that skill set.

It’s like a long lesson on how to make great records. Nowadays everyone uses the same crew that churned out the last pop hit rather than bringing the best of different genres together and creating something amazing and new, which was what Quincy Jones did. One of the reasons my music sounds different is I bring together people who do different things to create something new. Being an artist is such a rollercoaster – hearing about other people’s hardships and triumphs helps me keep going.

I love how Jones collaborated with others, even on his autobiography. Different chapters are written by different people who are central to his life, such as his friend Ray Charles and his ex-wife, actress Peggy Lipton. You do a lot of collaborating too. You’ve worked with Jay Z on “Brooklyn (Go Hard)” and more recently with the Beastie Boys on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”.

I love doing collaborations because it’s an opportunity for me to step out of the restriction of whatever it is that I do with my music and just try something completely different. It’s fun and I’ve forged fantastic relationships through working on other people’s songs. So I really enjoy it.

Lastly, Divided Soul is an intimate biography of Marvin Gaye based on extensive interviews with the legendary singer-songwriter. Tell us about the book and its subject.

I grew up listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye – my father was a huge fan. The day that Marvin Gaye was killed, my dad was affected so strongly he could barely speak. I didn’t understand why until I read the book. It gives you a sense of the struggles Marvin Gaye went through, as an artist and as a man – his struggle with the spotlight, his struggle with spirituality, his struggle with family and his struggle with drugs. It’s so wonderfully written and really riveting.

His story is amazing. His father was a minister and Marvin started singing for the congregation. He was signed to his first label by Bo Diddley but didn’t really hit it big until the sixties. His first wife was about 17 years older than him. His second wife was about 17 when he met her – while recording “Let’s Get It On”. He was, like, 34 at the time. So he’s got one wife 17 years older, another wife 17 years younger. To get a divorce from wife number one, he promised her the income from his next record. That record, “Here My Dear”, was about the dissolution of their relationship. So that’s some serious drama. Oh, and of course, his father was a cross-dresser who murdered him.

Shot dead by his father on the eve of his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye had one of the more tragic of the many tragic ends of American musical pioneers. How does reading about their lives and legacies affect you?

I read Divided Soul at a time when I couldn’t even conceive of being on stage. Looking back, there are some aspects of his biography that I can identify with, not the drugs or drama, just the struggle of being a self-conscious and at times insecure person who has to project the image of having it all together on stage and off.

Marvin Gaye started out doing doo-wop in the fifties but his work reached across genres and generations. What does his work teach about American musical traditions and how artists can migrate from one to the other?

I think that a great artist can sustain a lasting career. He started out doing doo-wop and some of his earliest songs were duets with the wonderful [R&B singer-songwriter] Tammi Terrell. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Heard It Through the Grapevine” were huge. Then in the seventies he became more of a conscience artist. He decided: I don’t want to sing happy love songs. He wanted to talk about what was really going on in our culture, with the war in Vietnam and continued civil rights struggles, which he did in “What’s Goin’ On”. It was a huge album and established him as a different kind of artist. Then he went on to “Sexual Healing” in the eighties, another huge success that made him a sex symbol. He went through three completely different images in his career. All worked because his music was consistently great.

You next album is due in the spring of 2012. Tell us about it.

It’s a continuation of my musical journey, blending different styles and different elements. Some of the songs are a bit bigger than those on my last record; some are songs for the club, but from an unexpected angle.

I grew so much in making this record. I learned how to produce my music my way. The title is really what the process was all about for me. It’s called Master of My Make Believe.

Interview by Eve Gerber

November 25, 2011

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Santigold is a singer-songwriter and music producer. Her eponymous first album was named one of the top 10 of the year by Rolling Stone. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Santigold was previously the lead singer of Stiffed. She has opened for M.I.A., Björk and Coldplay, and collaborated on songs with Jay-Z, Karen O and the Beastie Boys.



Santigold is a singer-songwriter and music producer. Her eponymous first album was named one of the top 10 of the year by Rolling Stone. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Santigold was previously the lead singer of Stiffed. She has opened for M.I.A., Björk and Coldplay, and collaborated on songs with Jay-Z, Karen O and the Beastie Boys.