Spirtual awakening

Santigold and the art of feeling
By Conor Hudnut | Music | 27 September 2022

“There was so much going on, I think Obama had just won,” Santigold reflects on her time during the thoroughly discussed ‘Indie Sleaze’ period. “It was so hopeful, and the art was really fresh. Fashion had all of a sudden just burst out of the boring end of the 90s/early 2000s, when everything was just really straight and boring.”

The timing for Spirituals, her first record in six years, is serendipitous. At a time when the youthful abandon of the early 2010s is being romanticised, one of the period’s leading figures has proven that it’s OK to leave the past behind. “I don’t like when we just do the same thing,” she explains, “I like when we are informed by history to create fresh new things that have not been done.”

Fast forward to today; Santigold is a legacy artist and Spirituals might be her most ambitious project to date. If the Obama years were defined by, as she describes, a “fresh” creative boom with no larger moral project, the art of the Trump years may have been an over-correction– a time of cloyingly painstaking introspection and tiresome emotional confession. On Spirituals Santigold chooses to do neither, in taking inspiration from traditional Black Spirituals she invites the listener to transcend the outside chaos, tune out their thoughts, and allow themselves to feel.

Conor Hudnut: I really love this album. I read that it was a bit of a quarantine baby, how does it feel to release an album born in isolation?
Santigold: Well, it was born in isolation, partially, but it was about a lot of things that are still very present. Some of the things I’m talking about aren’t necessarily related to exactly what was happening then, and unfortunately, [these] are still happening and have been for centuries.

CH: You can see that in the video for Shake. It was interesting– when I was listening to the album I was very much like, ‘Wow, this song is a bop,” but the music video was so intense and dark.
S: That one is really about human resilience; it’s about flow and moving through all the things that come at us, moving on, rising above. I think that’s an uplifting message. You should feel like moving when you hear it because that’s what it’s calling for. As for why the visual is what it is, I’m not going to say that song and the visual came at the exact same moment, but it did remind me of all the hardship Black people in the Civil Rights movement had to rise above and live through, and how much fortitude and courage that took for them to just sit there and keep going, because they believed in what they were doing. 

Of course, these times brought that up because there were all the protests happening [Black Lives Matter], and there’s just so much going on. Even the protests that aren’t happening right now but should be happening right now, it’s just really tumultuous times. It’s about fighting for what you believe in and keeping going through the onslaught of constant craziness. That’s the world we live in, constant craziness. I thought that the hose in particular was a powerful symbol, and that’s what the best videos do, they take one symbol and it speaks volumes. 


CH: That’s something really special about this album, how you both compare and embed your personal struggles within a larger historical struggle or movement.
S: I do think that’s a journey I’ve been on. At the same time I’ve been working on this album I’ve also been working on a book proposal, a memoir about my life; it goes back four generations of women to my great grandmother in Mississippi. I’ve been assessing what it means to be me now, the progress, the lack of progress, the generational trauma I’m carrying that’s not necessarily mine to carry – and how do we release that? How do we release ourselves from all this past trauma, and constantly being in survival mode? Those are things I was thinking about.

And what you said, it made me think about the song My Horror, where I’m talking about feeling stuck. This feeling, almost like the walking dead or walking while you’re asleep. I was stuck in this too small aspect of myself, as a mother being locked in the house with no children and no escape, or even time to shower, to create. It very much felt like I was trapped. But in the same song I’m talking about the larger world, and how everybody is sleepwalking, everybody is the walking dead, because everyone has been so overwhelmed with all the stuff going on, we’ve turned off, we’ve disconnected, we’ve numbed ourselves. People are living in the Metaverse, doing drugs, on social media, because it’s all too much. Everybody had to figure out how they could turn off, so now we’re living in a world of everybody being turned off, which is also terrible. In that sense I’m talking about myself in the internal, but also about myself in the external world. 

CH: My Horror is actually my favourite song on the album. I’d love to just hear more about that song in particular, the conception of it.
S: Well, I actually started that song several years back with Doc (McKinney) I started four of the songs with him and Lil Angelo, it was during a time when I’d just had twins, it was four months after I’d basically just been breastfeeding. Doc came to town and he was like, “Do you want to work on music?” And I was like, “Yes!” We would do like four hour sessions, and three of the hours we would just talk and eat and do nothing, and then the last hour we’d bang out really skeletal music ideas, one of them being the skeleton of My Horror

Then I put it away for a long time, and when I decided I was ready for a new album, that I was going through something, I was like, “These are great.” So that’s where the music started. And then, once I really started working on it I gave it to Boys Noize to work on. I love Boys Noize’s approach to drum programming because a lot of the time you can’t put a finger on it. It can live in a world, he’s really good at subs and 808s, but it’s not just, like, ‘hip hop’, it’s a really fresh and creative take. And that’s what I wanted for it, to merge all of these different elements. He definitely brought that with the weird snaps and clicks and all these things. Then you’ve got the crazy, beautiful, dark vocal thing that had already happened. And then Rostam [Batmanglij] actually added that crazy, skanky bridge, which was a whole other thing. It just slowly turned into this, it’s almost like, I don’t know, a funeral march. But it’s not, it’s just this cool blend of all these different things that are dark and sound like you’re sleepwalking in hell. But it’s beautiful!

“…culture regurgitates the same shit every ten to fifteen years, I wish we could find some fascinating new stuff, honestly.”

CH: You touched on the mixing and production on your voice, how it weaves in and out. At times it seems like you’re really struggling to be heard, and then all of a sudden it’s crystal clear. Was that a specific narrative?
S: I don’t know,  it depends song-to-song what you’re talking about exactly. I wasn’t trying to make it hard to hear, but different types of music to me require different kinds of vocals at different levels. In pop you sit the vocal way up front, and I rarely sit my vocal way up front. I like my vocals to be in the music, if it’s like a punk-y song I’ll stick it further in the music, but if it’s something more like a ballad I’ll sit it more in front. The only thing is, I wanted the record to sound sort of ethereal and other-worldly, almost like you’re crossing dimensions. So maybe what you’re talking about are effects I might have used on the vocals to make them feel like they were beneath a veil, or taking you through something. 

CH: Obviously the name of the album is a bit of a double entendre with its historical roots, but I’m curious, and this is a big question of course, but do you identify as a spiritual person? Was that type of spirituality in the mix here?
S: I do identify as a spiritual person, but that’s not why I named the album Spirituals. I named the album that because that’s what the process of creating the songs did for me. Basically, traditional Negro Spirituals were songs that allowed slaves to experience and feel free and feel joy through song, at a time when they weren’t free, and things weren’t joyous. So it was kind of transcendental – it takes you out of your circumstances to experience something much larger, to move beyond your circumstances through song.

And that’s what this album did for me, it was my way up and out. When I say I felt like I was stuck, I felt like I was trapped, it was a way to connect back with myself and then rise above it all, and also to create beauty and light to move toward at a time when everything felt very heavy. That’s why I named it Spirituals, it was very much about the process. I don’t consider any of the songs on here traditional Spirituals, I wasn’t thinking about any of that while I was making the songs, I was just working on a typical Santigold record, the way I make it. It was about the process, which is why I chose Spirituals.

But I do consider myself a spiritual person. I’m not a religious person, what I’m talking about is something that’s above and behind all religions, supposedly. You know, it’s the part that’s supposed to be universal, and higher than all of that, that’s what I consider spiritual. I’m not down with one religion or anything. 

“There’s no progress if we can’t find common ground. There just isn’t.”

CH: This is a separate question, but it’s something I really wanted your opinion on. There’s a huge online revival of what people are calling “Indie Sleaze,” glamorizing that period– do you know what I’m talking about?
S: I do, I do. The only thing I know is the Indie Sleaze Instagram account, because I get notified when they post pictures of me. But I hear that there’s a whole revival of this era, yes. 

CH: I’m wondering how it feels to be part of that period, and how it feels to have that period of your life be, I guess, revived?
S: I don’t really feel any way about it. I don’t know, time goes so fast. Time goes so fast that I can’t tell what happened yesterday, or ten years ago. It all feels like it’s happening so fast. I know that culture regurgitates the same shit every ten to fifteen years, I wish we could find some fascinating new stuff, honestly.

I don’t really know what’s behind it. I don’t know if it’s a style thing, or maybe just that it was lighter then. Maybe creativity was fresher, it was easier to do things. So maybe that’s what people are being drawn to, a certain freedom that comes through the art. It isn’t free, and it isn’t light right now, so maybe that’s what draws people to the era. But, you know, it becomes clearer as you go through decades. Like, we’re doing this again? The same thing comes back so many times, but there’s so much more we can think of. So I’m like, let’s keep going forward! But look, I love when people look at history, and art is informed by history. I don’t like when we just do the same thing. What’s exciting to me is to look at it and then imagine something that no one has ever seen or done. 

CH: Definitely. I was in middle and high school when that was going down, and I remember looking up to you and some of those other figures and being so enamoured.
S: So what does it feel like to you now, then? When you see that. 

CH: It’s weird. A lot of the people who are pushing for it are my age, so I think there’s a nostalgia or regression going on. Wanting to cling to the people we idolised when we were experiencing everything for the first time.
S: Okay so is it like, “Oh, remember these people? They were cool”. Or is it like, “There’s something missing now that was there then?” 

CH: I do think there is something missing now… I do. But also, for as long as I have been alive, that really does feel like the peak of culture I have experienced firsthand.
S: I hear you on that, actually. That does resonate with me because I felt like that at the time. There was so much going on, I think Obama had just won. It felt so hopeful, and the art was really fresh. Fashion had all of a sudden just burst out of the boring end of the 90s/early 2000s when everything was just really straight and boring. All of a sudden Jeremy Scott was making clothes with stuffed animals, and hair, and everything went. You could wear whatever you wanted. And before that all the girls in pop – you had to wear, like, bustiers with stockings. There was no creativity. Then all of a sudden art became part of culture again, and I think that was really exciting.

I think that became commodified really quickly, as we were doing it. You know, it started out and it was an underground thing. The indie artists were doing it, and then the pop artists just cherry-picked it all, and they figured out how to monetise it. Then it was hard again. And also, it was the beginning of a new thing with technology, and being able to bring your music direct to an audience. That was new and exciting. Now we’re deep into it, and it has turned into a disaster. People are depressed and feeling terrible about themselves, and committing suicide based on social media. In our culture we overdo everything, and over-consume everything with no moral gauge. I think we end up getting ourselves in trouble because of it. I think we’re a little jaded right now, culturally. 

Photography by Frank Ockenfels

CH: I’d love to actually keep on that, do you have any advice for people – how do you see the way out of that feeling jaded and fatigued?
S: Part of what I was saying is that we’ve got to think in new ways. We can’t just keep trying to look back and going back to the ‘glory days’. And part of it is, you know, we’re over-glorifying this. Whether it’s ‘Make America Great Again’, or, ‘Indie Sleaze is the way!’, I mean – I’m not really saying those are comparable, but it’s the same notion. The idea that it was perfect before. But it wasn’t perfect before. Even with the pandemic, you know we were all saying, “I can’t wait to go back to how it was before this,” but we don’t really want to go back to that, before the Black Lives Matter protests and all of that. We want to think of new ways to communicate, to engage each other, to solve problems. I think the best way to do that is to study history, which I don’t think enough people do anymore, and to figure out what are the things that keep getting us into trouble? What are we not doing right? And one of them – I’m doing a podcast right now, I’m reading more than I’ve ever read, and I’ve also just been talking to people so much about things, but I think one of the ways forward is to stop being so divisive amongst ourselves. There’s no progress if we can’t find common ground. There just isn’t. 

And even with the whole cancel culture thing… Look, cancel culture is a dangerous thing to approach: on the one hand there’s accountability, you want people to be accountable for the things that they say and do; but at the same time, you don’t want to make a climate where people are afraid to speak when they know there’s something to be said. Because that’s counter-progressive too. And we need to stop over-consuming everything! I just read an article that said they’re going to start drilling the seafloor for materials for car batteries. So now it’s like, we’re trying to end fossil fuels, but we’re going to drill more than ever, into the sea bed. And why? It’s not because we’re trying to save the planet, it’s because someone else figured out a way of making ridiculous billions and billions of dollars that no regular people are ever going to see. These cycles, we need to break them. But in order to do that, we need to have good education for our children, and we need to be able to see each other as allies with similar needs and desires. I think everyone wants to feel good and have enough, and to feel safe and healthy. To figure out how to not be divisive and shaming everybody, I think that’s the way forward. 

“In our culture we overdo everything, and over-consume everything with no moral gauge.”

CH: Definitely. And again, I’m asking big questions, if you don’t have answers that’s okay. But, would you say you’re hopeful for the future and the way things are going?
S: I have to be hopeful for the future, or else there’s no point in living anymore. You know? And I’m also a mother, so I’ve got to be hopeful for the future, because if it’s not right, I’ve got to make it right. And it’s not just me – we. We have to, I’m not going to put that just on my own shoulders. But like I said, I create art because I believe art is a real, powerful force in moving culture forward. Specifically, I create are that is topical art, it’s talking about things, commenting on things, because I think that’s really important. Unfortunately, that’s not really popular anymore – especially in music. But it’s a huge tool that can be used to move culture forward and to create change.

That’s what I do to try and keep hopeful, and keep people feeling inspired, and keep people feeling like they do have the power to change. I do think one of the main things we need to start doing is changing ourselves. Everyone is so quick to point the finger, but really no change is going to start happening until we point the finger at ourselves and figure out how we are part of the problem. And that’s evolution. The point of all of us being on this planet is to have the opportunity to evolve. People are so afraid of change that it just trips us up every time. If we can all get more comfortable with looking at ourselves, and at the pain it takes to evolve, I think we would all do a lot better. But I do think that this kind of work gives hope, when you’re doing it. And the fact that you know that you can change – that’s hopeful. Our spirits need art, and I really do believe that. Whether it’s the act of making art or consuming it, we need art, we spiritually need art. I’m happy to be of service in fulfilling that need.

Santigold Spirituals is out now
Follow Santigold on Instagram.

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