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Santigold

May 22, 2012
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“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 songwriting skill.

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 GarageBand?

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 songwriters.

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 the album?

“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 rough edges.

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.

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