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Santigold focuses on the music, not on dissing pop stars

Santigold performs during the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Sunday, April 15, 2012, in Indio, Calif.

Chris Pizzello/AP

Four years after the release of her debut album, the genre-bending pop singer Santi White is back with her follow-up, the audaciously styled Master of My Make-Believe.

For legal reasons, her stage moniker has changed – from Santogold to Santigold. But for the 35-year-old rising star from Brooklyn, making a name for herself is nothing new.

Reviews of your album have mostly been positive. Do you read them?

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You can read eight good ones and one bad one, and you focus on the bad one. I like that people are talking about it, but I try not to engage in all that stuff.

There's a combative theme to some of the lyrics. On Go!, you sing about people wanting your power and storming your winter palace. Do you feel under attack?

Some of the songs are meant to be light-hearted, or tongue in cheek. I call those my mantra songs. Muhammad Ali, before he would fight, would look at the mirror and say, "I am the greatest," and repeat it over and over again. That's what those songs are for me.

That kind of thing is not uncommon in hip hop.

There's a tradition of brag-and-boast rhyme. There's a little bit there, sure. But at the same time, I was one of the first artists to be making this kind of music – this electronic genre. And I see it sprinkled through mainstream music now. So, part of it is staking my claim for that.

What are you getting at with Go!, specifically?

That people want status. They want fame. They want it without putting in the work. But you can't just jump in and expect to be in the front. You've got to earn it. That's what that song is about. It's a very real message for right now.

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Are we talking about anyone in particular? It's believed that your song Big Mouth is about Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

That wasn't right. That's the press generating their own story. It was because of my video, where a tiger eats a mermaid. When I look at a mermaid, I don't think of Lady Gaga. But all of a sudden I'm the tiger and she's the mermaid, and it's like "oh, she's dissing Lady Gaga." Or that I'm dissing Katy Perry, because there's a girl with blue hair in the video. I don't know where they come up with these things.

Is there pressure for you to shock people a bit, or to deliver something bold?

My goal as an artist is to make music that feels natural to me – music that's in my aesthetic, and in my tastes. The originality happens, but naturally. As far as the need to be doing anything first, I'm not going to take on that pressure.

Your music is highly contemporary. But who are some of your heroes from the past?

One of my biggest influences musically is Nina Simone. What a voice she had. She was in such command, and her melodies were so interesting. You never knew where she was going.

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Any rock influences?

H.R. and Bad Brains. This was a hardcore band that was black, doing something different than any other black artists. H.R. used his voice in a way that I've never heard before. And his stage show was unbelievable with Bad Brains. There was such a raw, unbridled energy.

Not surprisingly, you're drawn to pioneers – singular artists.

Definitely. If you're going to make art, you have to do it in a way that's never been done. There's no point in making art if you can't bring something special to the table.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Santigold plays Toronto's Kool Haus on May 15 and Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom on May 26.

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