“Quincy Jones had this amazing talent to bring together the best people
and get the best out of them,” says Santi White. “That is my talent; I am
a great orchestrator and I can get what I want, then I go in the studio
and fix it until it sounds exactly like I need it to.”
White, a.k.a. Santigold, is practically a one-woman Wrecking
Crew. Whether playing the drums, guitar, keyboards, or all of the
instruments; co-writing with Q-Tip, TV on The Radio’s Dave Sitek,
and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O; or meshing multiple producers’
ideas until she hits paydirt, Santigold is a potent powerhouse of
Four years after her rock ’em sock ’em debut, LES Artistes, Santigold
raises her game by including everyone she knows and respects
on Master of My Make-Believe. A futuristic mélange of African and
Jamaican rhythms, dense arrangements, and hyper girl-group power
vocals, the album is nothing less than a shocker. The other shock is
that many of the basic tracks were written in Apple GarageBand or
producer Ricky Blaze’s FruityLoops.
The list of Santigold’s collaborators is long, reflecting an almost
Brill Building approach. Master of My Make-Believe co-writers
include Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and Nick Zinner (who plays mucho
guitar), Greg Kurstin (who also produced), Diplo, and Q-Tip. Producers
include Blaze, Switch, Sitek, John Hill, and Buraka Som
Sistema. Many of the tracks from Master of
My Make-Believe began on Santigold’s GarageBand
rig, then were completed in Geejam
Studio in Jamaica, Downtown Music Studio in
NYC, Echo Studios in Los Angeles, and Federal
Prism in Beverly Hills. She sat down with
Electronic Musician to talk about production
on her album.
Your new album is a marked evolution from
your debut. It has a very dance-oriented,
Jamaican, African sound. It’s more focused
than your debut.
You’re right in saying this is an evolution from
the last record. This was the natural direction,
because that is really who I am musically. It’s
not like it was a concept record; it’s just the
music that I feel. And so that is my musical
language. That’s how I talk in music, and this
time I pushed myself. It’s four years later and
I’ve evolved as a person and as a music maker.
[Laughs.] This is a little more ambitious, and a
couple songs are more complex than anything
on the first record.
How did you push yourself?
I was more at the helm of the project than on
the last record. On this record, I was the only
constant. I worked with so many different producers,
at the end of the day I was the orchestrator,
and that was a challenge for me.
How do you typically write?
I write on GarageBand a lot. I write stuff that
no one else can read; that is what my scratch
versions often sound like. All I need is a mood.
Some people write on acoustic guitar, but I
could never do that. I could write to a guitar
that sounds horrible, but it just has to have a
mood. For instance, on “The Riot’s Gone,” I
literally sat at a piano and put my computer on
top of the piano, and I added reverb and delay
on everything because it helps mask how bad
the basic sound is. [Laughs.] It’s all about the
feeling. My voice needs to sound a certain way;
it needs to sound more interesting than just me
playing piano. I put the laptop with GarageBand
and effects on top of the piano, and I played
the melody. When I played it back, it had all
these weird and interesting sounds because
it picked up all the vibrations from the piano.
Then I had a drum beat from a prior session; it
matched the tempo perfectly. I put that drum
loop on top of the recording, and there was
“The Riot’s Gone.” I actually used a tiny bit of
the GarageBand recording in the final track.
Often, the vocals I do on GarageBand will
make it to the final version because they have
so much weird color. I sing right into the basic
mic that comes with my laptop.
Right off the laptop?
Yes. It’s so lo-fi and it has an interesting texture.
It would never be the lead vocal, but
background harmonies or accent vocals. It’s
way more interesting off the laptop than
anything I would recreate in the studio. That
would be too clean.
What else do you like about working in
You can work anywhere with it and it
doesn’t need anything. On the last record, I
had an M-Box, and anything I wanted to do,
I needed a cable, a mic, and all this stuff. GarageBand
is like a notepad. You can work with
it out of nowhere, with no preparation with
no tools. Bits of many songs on the new album
came from GarageBand, including “The Riot’s
Gone,” “The Keepers,” and “Pirate In The Water.”
I can write an entire song to somebody’s
drum loop in GarageBand.
There are some complex arrangements on
the album as well.
GarageBand is for when I write vocal melodies.
But then when it comes to making the
song, it’s a different process. I sing into the
Neumann M149 and the Chandler LTD-1 they
have at Studio B in Downtown Music Studios.
Sometimes I receive tracks that are fully
done. That happened with the song (“Fame”)
that Dave Sitek sent me. I didn’t do anything
else to it. Same with “Big Mouth.” But other
times, it’s a way more complex process. “Go”
began with Q-Tip at his house and we used
samples (“Joyo Can You Hear Me Part 1” by
The Visitors), which I never use. Then I went
to Downtown and I had a punk rock drummer
come in and play drums. Then we distorted
the crap out of the drums and I did my vocals
there and then we took the track to Switch’s
studio. He chopped up the vocals using Logic;
he uses Logic in a way that no one else does.
Then Nick Zinner played guitar using his crazy
custom pedals made in Japan. That’s the usual
process; I am jumping around to different places.
The last process would be when I worked
with Greg Kurstin. He has all these amazing
analog synths and mics and old drums. I really
suck at playing different instruments, but I do
write on instruments. I even played the Simmons
SDS-1 drum pads with mallets; they’ve
got these cartridges that only let you use one
sound at a time. I love to do stuff with my hands,
not always in the computer. It might start with
real instruments, then it’s about creating the
most interesting sounds we can.
And you worked with many different
I do a lot of research before I go in with somebody
new. I had never met Greg Kurstin, but
I saw all the people he’d worked with. His
influences are similar to mine. My taste is very
influenced by punk. I like really grimy guitars
that sound interesting and screwed up. I like really
dead drums. And I don’t like cymbals, so I
remove the high end to make them sound more
staccato and rhythmic. There’s melody, but it’s all
very tight, no frills. Greg really understood that.
He would keep bringing in new instruments. I
said, “I want a Phil Collins drum sound,” and
he’d say, “Well, I have the actual drum machine
that Phil Collins used!” People who can actually
pick live instruments are a hugely important part
of my songwriting process.
Why did you record in Jamaica?
I just wanted a writing headspace and a different
environment. I wrote lyrics for “Riots
Gone,” “Disparate Youth,” and “God From The
Machine” in Jamaica.
What was the most experimental track on
“God From The Machine” was a long process,
and it went through a lot of changes. “This
Isn’t Our Parade” was the most organic song; I
sang the vocal melody in one take. “God From
The Machine” started from a Ricky Blaze
track. I sang a chorus idea, then we totally
replayed the chorus, and then we wrote a different
verse and bridge and changed its direction.
I love that bass line, which was inspired
by Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” from Cops. I love
that song! I love the guitar in there, too.
How did you create the angelic vocals in the
intro to “God From The Machine?”
That was Switch’s idea; that set the tone for
the whole song. I played the marching snare
drum part and all the drums on that song. I
can write on anything. I have a bass, a couple
keyboards, including a Minimoog Voyager and
a Korg Delta. I love the sound of the Delta;
it reminds me of Devo. And I play guitar. We
chop up the best part and loop it ’cause it
sounds so bad!
How do you present songs to producers?
I record everything I do. I recently recorded in
a hotel room with Amadou and Mariam with
Nick Zinner. They were singing, but I didn’t
know what I was supposed to do. I can’t
retain what I am doing, so I have to record it.
They were waiting for me to chime in and I
said, “Sorry, I have to turn on my GarageBand.”
So I started singing very quietly into Garage-
Band, I layer vocals and different parts and I
create rhythms between my melodies. It comes
together as I am layering tracks in GarageBand
and I am really quick. It doesn’t make sense
until I have it all together. My whole process is
a collage. It’s like painting. With Garageband,
it’s all right there, and it’s super easy. It helps me to
quickly map out my ideas and when I get in the studio,
I can do it properly because I have the sketch.
What created that electronic kalimba in
“This Isn’t Our Parade”?
It began with me and Nick Zinner, then I
went to Dave Sitek’s studio. I love his sense
of rhythm; he has all these amazing old drum
machines. But he used something really simple.
It’s almost like church to me. He added the
handclaps, which I did in GarageBand, with
a lot of reverb. Then after that, I went back to
Downtown Music Studios and I worked with
[producer] Chris Coady on the arrangement.
That was a slow process.
What is your process for recording vocals?
On a song like “Freak Like Me,” that is so fast,
so I punched in. Usually, I do the vocals as
soon as I’ve finished writing the song. Back
in the day, people only went to the booth
when they had the song inside of them. But
there isn’t enough time now; half the time I
am reading it as I am recording the vocal. It’s
so difficult, because my lyrics are so hard to
deliver. Like “Look at These Hoes.” There is no
punch-in that can fake that, you have to deliver
it. The most important thing for my vocal production
is that I layer my vocals and sing them
in different ways then I put them all together.
When I blend them, I don’t pan them; I keep
them really close together, maybe a tiny bit of
pan. I really wanted to get a group vocal effect
on a lot of the songs. That required layering
the vocals and singing them in different ways.
I like reverb and a little bit of slap delay on the
rhythmic songs. But when you use too much
delay it makes the music sound too polished.
I don’t want to clean up my vocals. I like the
Ken Micallef covers multiple genres of music
for various publications, domestic and
global. He lives in Greenwich Village with his
cat Morty and his Shindo hi-fi.