Against the Grain

Santigold on her new album Spirituals, navigating the pandemic, and the job of music.
Photo by Frank Ockenfels

Santigold is a gift. The genre-smashing artist has an innate musical ability to transcend any imposed boundaries, resulting in an enticing gumbo of hip-hop, reggae, new wave, and ’80s pop, to name a few. Her fourth studio album, Spirituals, released in September, finds the Philly native once again embracing her experimental tendencies and further establishing her inimitable sound, all with a fresh perspective.

After all, it’s been a long four years since she released the I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions mixtape. Not only is she the mother to three children (including twins), but she also, like the rest of us, has gone through a life-altering pandemic. Beginning in March 2020, as COVID-19 began its rampage, the concert industry came to a screeching halt, forcing everyone into isolation. No more concerts. No more tours. No more insufferable nights sleeping on tour buses or enduring cramped flights. All of it—good and bad—was over. During that time, Santigold was deeply affected by the changing world around her, but it resulted in the 10 tracks that make up Spirituals.

“It affected my songwriting because I’m a really sensitive being as an artist,” she told High Times via Zoom. “So, I’m very much a sponge of the energy around me. And when there was so many things happening, it was just like, there was the pandemic, fires burning everywhere, protests, police brutality and now, women’s rights are being taken away and there are shootings everywhere. It’s crazy times right now.

“For a person like me, I think my job as an artist is to sort of mirror culture and what’s happening. So, it’s my interpretation coupled with taking something from whatever other dimensions I can; whatever art comes from because half the time, I don’t know that it’s solely coming from me, to be honest.”

Photo by Frank Ockenfels / High Times Magazine, November 2022

As Santigold explained, the chaos, destruction, and voyage into the unknown fueled her creativity in a way she almost can’t understand. To move culture forward, she aimed to create some beauty, light, and joy by mirroring what was happening. She had to accept, “This is fucked up, but I’m going to process it in this song.”

The result was songs such as “High Priestess” and “Shake,” which she hoped would help others process the societal madness infecting every corner of the globe and making life utterly miserable to navigate.

“Maybe in my processing of it, you can benefit from that, and you can say, ‘Hey, yeah, it did feel like that and maybe I’ll process it, too,’” she continued. “Then we can find our way through it because I do think that it’s important to talk about things. And for me, it’s essential to talk about things and create because that is my lifeline. When things get tough, that is what gets me through it. I’m working on a book, I’m working on body products and teas, and I’ll just keep going. That’s what I do. The harder it is, the more I’m going to make.”

Photo by Frank Ockenfels

And it was definitely a struggle; she’ll be the first to admit it. The demands of motherhood and a high-profile music career often didn’t align, and it became a delicate dance.

“This record was about ascension, transcendence, and multidimensionality; how we are multifaceted beings and we live in a multidimensional existence,” she said. “There’s so many different ways to see and think about things or to experience things. And for me, this album was literally about rising above my environment, rising above my circumstances, to sort of, at least, touch base with the higher version of myself or the universe to just know, to experience being free in an environment where I was not being free in the moment.

“I was in mom mode. I love being a mother, but I’m also an artist. And those two things sometimes do not go hand in hand because one is completely selfless and never having any time or space to yourself, and the other is all about space and time and dealing with yourself.

“I felt like I was living in this tiny little part of myself and kind of suffocating in that and, because this was during lockdown, there was nobody helping. I was wiping butts and cooking all day, every day, not even sleeping at night. It was just crazy.”

Photo by Frank Ockenfels

But it helped point Santigold in a creative direction that could alleviate some of that pressure.

“I called it Spirituals because traditional spirituals were songs that basically helped slaves in slavery—who were literally not free—experience freedom through music. It lifted them up and transcended their circumstance to, ‘This is what it feels like to be free.’ That’s what music can do. And that’s why I called it Spirituals because that’s what this album’s about. It’s about the pursuit of individual freedom, transcendence, creating beauty and light and finding your way to a better future.”

Santigold’s future is bright. She’s working on a plethora of projects, including a book (or, as she described, “an interesting take on a memoir”), podcast, film, and retail products. But beyond that, Santigold has a bigger mission, and it’s not an easy one. Mainstream music is undeniably clogged with hyper-sexualized female artists who sing or rap about very narrow subject matters—and that’s not to say they aren’t allowed to express themselves in that manner, but the lack of diversity among women is glaringly apparent.

“The world of music for me is a rough one,” Santigold admits. “I love making music, but it’s really hard to be an artist like me right now. I don’t feel like there’s as much support for artists trying to go against the mainstream and do something different and talk about things that are relevant to the world. I feel like the music that’s championed or held up by the mainstream is music that’s a commodity, what sells. And then the labels dictate what that is.

“So you get all this music that’s about nothing, and that’s the music that becomes the main music of culture, and it’s very sad and honestly, it’s discouraging. You spend all this time making it, and you feel so good about it, and then we have to reenter the matrix of the music industry, we’re just like, ‘Oh God, I just want to get out again.’ You just want to get out.”

The irony of that statement is the industry needs women like Santigold to stick around so balance is restored. In the 1970s and ’80s, music typically stood for something. Public Enemy was boldly shouting “Fight The Power,” Marvin Gaye wanted to know “What’s Going On?” and Gil Scott-Heron put a spotlight on the civil rights movement with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Photo by Frank Ockenfels

“I get it,” she said. “Everyone’s doing drugs, playing video games, and on social media because they’re just trying to escape. This world is fucking heavy right now, and it’s hard. It’s depressing. It’s discouraging. I get it. But maybe, if there was music where people were talking about how to survive it, how to uplift it and where we can go, then it wouldn’t be so depressing. And that’s the job of art. The job of art is to save us all and to push us forward. And if there are artists trying to do that who aren’t supported, then they disappear and the music suffers. Throughout history, there’s been music like that and now is probably the least that there’s ever been of substantive, topical music. It almost doesn’t exist.”

She’s also focused on caring for herself. Now 45, she also made personal changes to her diet and overall lifestyle. Her father, who passed away from cancer at 55, was a big wake-up call to truly pay attention to what goes into her body, but also notice the amount of stress being an artist puts on her.

“Being a musician is not a career, just to put that out there,” she said matter-of-factly. “Unless you’re one of the top people, it’s no longer a career. Nobody buys music, so you make the music for a lot of money. You spend a lot of money to make the music, then you give it away for free. Then you have to figure out 18 jobs to do to help people listen to your music because there’s 40,000 songs that come out every day on Spotify, something like that. So, you’re doing five people’s jobs. That’s how much work it is just trying to be a musician.”

From the outside looking in, Santigold handles it like a pro, and if Spirituals is any indication of the standard she holds herself to, she works tirelessly. But for her fans, every album is a peek into her ever-evolving creative journey and, yes, a gift.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was published in the November 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.

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