“It’s Devo — ‘Freedom of Choice,’?” says White, dressed in a pink Keith Haring leather jacket that made her appear the embodiment of “a new kind of cool,” to borrow the phrase she used to eulogize her late friend Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. She flashes a smile at the thought of the New Wave band that was a staple of her polymorphous musical diet while growing up in Philadelphia.
“It’s freedom to be who you dare to be, to be able to come up with what you want to be, and what you want the world to be, for yourself,“ says White, 35, the daughter of Ronald White, the adviser to former Mayor John F. Street who died in 2004, and Aruby Odom-White, a psychiatrist. “To say: This isn’t what I want, and have the power to make it what I want … I think everybody deserves that freedom and everybody should feel empowered in that way.”
While making Master Of My Make-Believe (Atlantic sssd), which combines rock, reggae, rap, electro, and dub in a way that never feels the slightest bit forced, White was empowered like never before.
That’s because in previous music endeavors, the creator of “Creator” — the electro-hop song that boasts, “Me I’m a creator?/?Thrill is to make it up” — was always part of a collaborative process. This time, she was on her own.
After attending Wesleyan University, White worked at Epic Records. She attracted attention for the songs she wrote for How I Do, the 2001 album by Philadelphia rocker Res that has attained cult status.
She’s lived mostly in New York since 1996. But White, who went to the Springside School in Chestnut Hill and spent a year at Central High before transferring to Germantown Friends School, lived in Philadelphia in the early ’00s while fronting the pop-ska-punk band Stiffed.
On Stiffed’s 2005 album Burned Again and on her 2008 solo debut — on which she went by the name Santogold, before changing it in response to a lawsuit — White worked closely with Stiffed band member John Hill.
White’s talent was apparent with Stiffed, but the rock band faced roadblocks. “We’re fronted by a black woman,” she told The Inquirer in 2006. “That doesn’t matter to the fans. But to the industry it does.”
As Santogold?/?Santigold, it’s been a different story. With parts of her songs, or music “syncs,” playing in shows like Gossip Girl and, most ubiquitously, a Bud Light campaign using the insinuating “Lights Out,” her 2008 debut album Santogold sold 226,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan), an impressive number in an era when people don’t have to buy music to hear it.
The album made her an avatar of cool. She’s toured with the Beastie Boys, M.I.A., and Coldplay, and collaborated with Kanye West and Malian duo Amadou & Mariam.
“I think the music world wasn’t quite ready yet” for Stiffed, White says now. “It’s changed, and I think I’m probably one of the people who helped change it, a little bit. People are more open to letting the music come in different packages now.”
After touring for two years, White spent a week in 2010 on an MTV-sponsored climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise awareness of the need for clean water in developing nations.
She flew to Los Angeles immediately thereafter to begin Master Of My Make-Believe with the producer Switch. He’s one of a bevy of knob-twiddlers on the album, including Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, Q-Tip, and Philadelphia-connected DJ Diplo. The latter says White distinguishes herself from the pack because “she’s a proper pop songwriter.”
The album came slowly. “I call it writer’s block, but it was really like my brain and spirit was saying, ‘Sit your ass down and chill for a second.’ The melodies always come out. That’s never a problem. But the lyrics were, because you’re not on the other side of the experience you’re trying to write about.”
This time, too, she made the final decisions herself, since she’s no longer working with Hill. “It came down to me with all the pieces. Like, how do I put all this together and make a record?”
White says her confidence in moving between genres goes back to growing up in Philadelphia.
The mention of the Beastie Boys and Yauch — with whom she worked on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” on their 2011 album Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two — takes her back to a video she made when she was 12 years old, rapping “(You’ve Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” with friends at the mall.
“I was always really into rock and rap and they were the first people that really captured both of those energies in a really honest way. … I was so mad at my dad because he threw that tape out because he didn’t know what it was. I was so upset. I’ve looked for it for years!”
White starts to sniffle. Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everyone’s lunch every day when she was working with the Beasties, she says, and Yauch was “one of those people that you feel like you’ve known for years as soon as you meet them.”
She breaks down, and excuses herself to cry in the bathroom. “This makes me really happy I wore sunglasses today,” she says with a half smile, returning a few minutes later.
Growing up in Northwest Philly, “I always felt that I could try anything,” she says. Starting in private school and then going to Central for a year, where “I had my little Fly Girl haircut and gold earrings,” taught her to be comfortable in different settings, she says.
“And then I loved GFS,” she says of the Friends School. There she learned “your voice is important. The idea that if you feel you have something to say, then it’s worth everyone reflecting on it.”
White’s taken those lessons to heart as she’s hopscotched about the pop music world as Santigold.
“Going from Springside to Central to GFS, all my friends were so different, and everywhere I went I felt completely comfortable. And it was the same with music. I just could jump from scene to scene and be able to totally relate and identify. … I felt like I had so much in common with Morrissey, and also with Salt-N-Pepa. I realized that I’m a connector.”
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, “In the Mix,” at www.philly.com/inthemix.