“I think that might have even been the number one thing I had in mind: summertime!”

As I revisit Santigold’s back catalogue in prep for our chat, my acute obsession with her 2008 eponymous (well, close, she was Santogold before a name tweak for legal reasons) album comes flooding back to me: 'Creator', 'L.E.S Artistes', 'Superman' all seared somewhere in my memory from extensive replay. The dark shades, the weird and wonderful vocals, the edgy beats, the audacious attitude. A decade on, a brazen disregard for convention or trend means those tracks have held their ground, if not been revealed as somehow ahead of their time: blending genres, pushing boundaries and resetting expectations.

Since that debut, 2012’s 'Master of My Make-Believe' and 2016’s '99¢' further played with influences from pop to electronica, new wave to reggae. Beyond her own output, Santi White found time to work with dizzying array of artists from across the spectrum: Kanye West, Beastie Boys, N.E.R.D, Diplo. She appeared on albums from Jay-Z and Drake, toured with Bjork, Coldplay, David Byrne, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers; plus, she produced and wrote for artists from Lily Allen to Christina Aguilera.

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Now the singer back with a fourth record. Her previous three have been meticulously put together by White. But 'I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions' is in contrast rather, and consciously, spontaneously produced, resulting from a project with Mixpak Records’ Dre Skull out of a shared loved for Afrobeats and dancehall, to form a modern day mixtape. “I wanted to do something light and quick,” White tells me. “My music has always been very grounded in reggae and dancehall and afro-Caribbean - so it was like, ‘let’s do a mixtape in this sort of zone.’”

The bulk of it was recorded in just two short weeks, White putting lyrics to Dre’s pre- prepared beats. Work had to go on pause when White fell pregnant with twins, the final touches put in place just before she gave birth while supposedly on bed rest. “I called it ‘The Gold Fire Sessions’ because it's like a moment, not like the other records which have involved this long laborious process with all these different people. It was with one producer and one thing. Like, ‘boom, I'm going to put it out exactly as it was in that moment.’”

While the sounds of Jamaica are now a hot trend in pop, propelled by the likes of Drake, Rihanna and Bieber, for White, there are roots which run much deeper: “Jamaica’s part of my heart. I have a home there. I’ve been going there and listening to music from there since I was a little girl,” she explains. “Also, whether it’s Blondie, 'The Tide Is High' to the class to Toto, 'Africa' or The Police - there's always been a lot of of reggae influence in pop music, it’s not just a modern thing.”

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When I write lyrics it's a chance for me to create movement, get it out, be able to breathe.

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More than anything, the mixtape oozes sunshine vibes: “I think that might have even been the number one thing I had in mind: summertime!” That’s not to say the songs are necessarily easy- breezy in content. As with all her material, if you’re listening closely enough, there’s a strong thread of social commentary: whether questioning our modern state of being, the experience of life in the limelight, or suffering under a male gaze - whatever is preoccupying White’s mind finds its way into the word play. 'Valley of the Dolls' is about the “phenomenon where everybody is like more than image them than a substance,” 'Coo Coo Coo' about being catcalled, 'Crashing Your Party', highlights strength in motherhood: “Here come the momma with her babies/(If) you look right in her eyes know she contagious.”

The themes are not necessarily a conscious decision for White but something more organic, an instinctive lyrical reaction to thoughts weighing on her mind. “It’s not like I really think that hard about what I’m going to write. Whatever is on my mind ends up in the song - it's a process that I feel a bit removed from mentally. It's a bit of a spiritual process for me. It's a kind of cathartic.” While this has always been the case, the current political climate, she senses, has intensified it: “Especially now there's so many things going on. It's a bit overwhelming. I can feel a bit paralysed. When I write lyrics it's a chance for me to create movement, get it out, be able to breathe. And hopefully spark some inspiration in in the listener and make them think about things differently.”

Though she doesn’t expect her audience to be pondering and absorbing her words in a literal sense: “The lyrics maybe saying stuff you might not even connect necessarily but you can feel it. Because music is something that you can feel on so many different levels. It's cool just to be able to sneak the lyrics into a summery reggae tune. You get people to listen because they're dancing.”

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She doesn’t go as far as characterising her music as political with a capital ‘P’ - “I’m not like, ‘vote Democrat’” - but still as often having a point to make: “I’ve always listened to music that had content, with messages, whether Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, or Public Enemy.” Even the first ever song she wrote when she was 11 had a social message - she treats me to a little rendition: “It went something like ‘City streets, City Streets/City streets, City Street/People need help out there but no one's there to lis-ten.’ That was my first song lyric. So I guess that's what I thought songwriting was. And I kind of stayed on that course.”

Of all places we’re sat in the bar of the swanky Landmark Hotel for our conversation, a self- playing piano tinkling out classical tunes in the background. It’s about as far away from the setting I would have placed the artist as I can imagine.

“Actually I’ve been staying here for 10 years,” she explains. “It’s my home away from home. I started out staying at K West, as all artists do when they come to London. But you bump into 50 other people you know. Touring is hard on me - I mean, I know it is on everyone - but I struggle with losing my voice [proving the point, she pauses to let out a cough]. Here has a spa and a pool and steam room - which helps.”

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The thing I really care about is misrepresentation to my fans. I really am a person of my word...

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She surprises me by referring to herself as anti-social, a recluse - it’s a characterisation which not only appears diametrically opposed to her warm, easy manner and fluid chatter but also to her prolific work with others: “I didn't used to be when I was little. But now I feel social anxiety,” she ponders. “I think it’s from becoming a performer. Because all of a sudden turn you have to guard your energy.” It’s a sense of control she needs in her interactions, which no doubt can seem all but lost when thrown into the public eye: “I love being with people that I want to be with. I can enjoy social atmospheres where everybody is of my choosing, if you know what I mean. I love camaraderie and collaborating on creative projects. Otherwise this lifestyle can be lonely.”

I tentatively ask about the Lauryn Hill debacle, a chunk of her tour supporting the legendary artist celebrating the 20th anniversary of seminal album 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' cut short due to the support being reduced. As ever, it doesn’t seem to have fazed her, only forming a source of contention in terms of letting people down: “The thing I really care about is misrepresentation to my fans. I really am a person of my word so if they're saying I'm going to perform and you’ve paid your ticket and you don't know until after you’ve arrived I'm not going to be there - I don't like that.”

Her criticisms of the music industry as a whole are scathing to say the least - “the music industry has nothing to do with music, definitely not good music. It's been about money for a long time” - citing structural changes that combined many independent labels into fewer super labels as key. “Think of some of the great artists: Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, even in the 80s and 90s, Nirvana, Pixies, hip hop - anybody and everybody back then had their own producer. So they had their own sound. Now you've got like the same producers doing in all the music for everybody. It’s about quantity over quality.”

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Most vociferous, are her thoughts on diversity and the marketing machine that perpetuates a sexualisation of female artists. “A lot of women think all they've got is their image, that's all their value is. That’s why women flaunt their appearance over their music. Like, in order to get fans, they think they need to look a certain way. ‘If you want fame, you better cut up your face and inject your body and flaunt that shit on stage.’ And guess what? Unfortunately, it works.”

If there is any artist who has managed to successfully navigate this minefield, it is Santigold, part of a wave of female artists that have something to say and are bold enough to say it on their own terms, with parallels often drawn between her and the likes of M.I.A. And it’s something she advocates for more of in order to see change: “I think it’s really important to have diversity, especially in pop music. For girls to know that's not the only avenue you have. You can actually be valid for something other than your appearance. You can have something important to say in the world that people actually care about hearing. You can actually be attractive for your brain. There might not be the same audience for it, there might not be as large an audience for it - but it is valuable and it's important. We need to hear more of those voices and see people that care those things.”

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My music has always been a little bit of everything, I haven't ever felt boxed in.

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Her ability to stand her ground and carve her own path is also relevant to her music which holds a unique combination of experimenting with genre and style, while also keeping something consistent and timeless. “What's really cool about the Santigold brand is it's kind of an all-inclusive buffet!” she says with a laugh. “But honestly I get to do anything I want. My music has always been a little bit of everything, I haven't ever felt boxed in. I've never felt like there's anything I could think of doing that wouldn’t have fit. Obviously I have a style but my style is almost every style. For example, I have seven singing voices which is a nightmare for an engineer. On the same song I come out with three different voices…”

This achievement she puts down to resisting a fixed genre, aesthetic or even singing style from the start: “I came out of the box like that. I feel other people get pigeonholed. I stayed very consistent with being nothing that you can pin down.”

Though she admits it has presented her with challenges in the past: “I had a band before called Stiffed and we played sort of post-Punk new wave. But at that time people would be like, ‘you’re black and you're doing rock?!’ You know, that can happen. By the time the Santigold project came out I think people were ready for it because of all the different things that had happened culturally. It was really tiring but I think timing plays a huge part. It’s not always been easy but I have to be true to what music I like to make and always have done.”

And it looks as though she will continue to do just that, and at a faster pace than ever: “I've been having fun just making stuff pretty quick. And I think that's the new thing anyway - so if I can keep that going I'll be happy with that.”

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Words: Sarah Bradbury

'I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions' is out now via Downtown Records.

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