Jonathan Frahm: You have a very unique style that you’ve branded as urban folk, taking influences from both legendary hip-hop and traditional folk artists. Was urban folk always the sound for you, as an artist, that you wanted to tackle, or did you grow into the idea? Either way, what was the thinking process like for you when developing urban folk?
Santino Payne:I grew up pretty much listening to a lot of music that my mum listened to. So, basically, I listened to Dolly Parton, Buddy Holly, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles. During my early teens, though, there was a stage where I listened to a lot of Dr. Dre, a lot of Biggie Smalls. Then, though, when I got out of that phase, I started listenin’ to a lot of artists like Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, City and Colour, and stuff that was again more folk-orientated. It was only recently that I went back and I started to play Biggie Smalls again. It was then that I realized what a brilliant lyricist, what a brilliant songwriter, and what a brilliant storyteller he was … I remember being in the studio with Toby Baker and we sat down listening to a song I’d done called “Shoots and Runs”. There, I realized that it needed something different – it needed to be folk with a punch. So, I wrote down some lyrics and literally just got at the microphone and started spittin’ a few bars. Since then, it became a progression, really. I put it into “Shoots and Runs” and then I added it to “Footsteps in the Sand”. “Meant to Be” was a track that I wrote when I was about 18 years of age and at every show it was always one of my favorites to sing, but it needed something more to describe it, and it’s why I inevitably included a rap element into that one as well. I actually feel like with rap, and with folk music … It’s very similar in where an artist is attempting to describe something and use it to paint a picture, visually, with words. I think it’s a nice fusion, where you have the folk and you can be more softly spoken with the words that you’re trying to put across. With the rap, you can be harsher with it – you can come across as angrier. There’s a lot of British rappers I listen to like Professor Green and Plan B and they’re two guys on the scene that I really admire as well. So, yeah, folk and hip-hop are a big part of my music these days.
JF:Culturally, though, those two music scenes couldn’t be seen as more different. At the very least, there’s a stigma out there that’s preventing a ton of mass typical listeners of folk to appreciate hip-hop and vice-versa. Are you hoping that your music could be the start of a movement to bring the genres closer together in terms of how people perceive them, as a catalyst or even as a revolutionary? You mentioned City and Colour, and a couple years back, Dallas Green got together with Shad and did a few songs together, and then you’ve got Ed Sheeran who kinda did that with “The A-Team” transitioning into stuff like “The Man”. So, the idea of folk and hip-hop being melded has been touched before, but never as a tremendous trend yet.
SP:The problem that I honestly have with a lot of the vocal majority of people who tend to listen to music these days is they’re not very open-minded. I mean, I’ve got friends who will sit and listen to bands like Deftones— and I’m a big fan of Deftones —and then they’ll turn their nose up to the fact that you listen to Biggie Smalls. It really comes down to that, you know, this is a black guy, and he’s rapping, and they assume that he’s rapping about stuff that they perceive as being negative. If you take time to listen to the words that Biggie is trying to convey, then you’ll actually really appreciate that he’s trying to a story about a background that he was brought up in. It’s not all about guns and hoes and however people portray that, it’s about life and hip-hop in the now and growin’ up. The 90s era of hip-hop music is my favorite era of music. But yeah, you’re right, you probably get the same thing with hip-hop fans who turn their nose up at folk music. I think, though, even if they don’t say it, I think more hip-hop fans are appreciative of folk music than on the other end of the spectrum because even if they don’t admit it, people like Ben Gibbard from Death Cab or City and Colour are fantastic, amazing lyricists. Hip-hop has got a respect for that. Then, you kinda see what Ed Sheeran is trying to do by fusing indie and folk music with rap. I’m not a big fan of Ed Sheeran— though I bought his first album and I enjoyed it —but I can appreciate what he’s trying to do. He did start a new wave of music and you have to appreciate how clever he really is. You have to appreciate him because he’s a guy who, when you’re building a pop star, his style isn’t necessarily what you’d first associate with it. It’s because of his music that he was able to pull through the charts and, really, that was a breakthrough for Britain here, right now. For me, though, I’d rather be known as a singer-songwriter. It’s strange, because a lot of hip-hop artists who are in America and unsigned have often emailed and tweeted me and encouraged me to work with them. I don’t want to be primarily known as a rapper, so, you know, I just want people to see that two different genres can work. There’s a lot of thought process into making it work, but I want people to look at hip-hop and not say that “I don’t like hip-hop because I don’t understand what they’re trying to say.” I want people to listen to hip-hop and think, “You know, this guy has got a really good sense of story behind him,” and it’s the same with hip-hop fans thinking negatively towards folk, as well.
JF:What is it about Biggie, in general, that has made you gravitate towards him on an artistic level?
SP:I’ve gone back to Biggie more than any other rapper because if you just sit down and really listen to that guy’s work, you would appreciate what a genius he was and what he was trying to do. Forget the fact that he ended up being killed because of gang wars or because of a rivalry. The stories he was trying to tell had so much meaning, and the lyrics he was spitting were so clever. I really appreciate him as an artist and as a lyricist. It’s probably very strange for a folk singer to be such a big Biggie enthusiast, but yeah, I am, and I just hope more people become more open-minded with hip-hop.
JF:What is it about America that makes you want to, so badly, tour the country? If you could work with any foreign artist, who would it be and why?
SP:That is a brilliant question. As I said, growing up, I’d listened to a lot of country and folk artist. There’s a guy called Sufjan Stevens and he did a song called “For the Widows in Paradise”. I remember listening to it when I was young and I loved it. From that moment, I fell in love with that song and it opened my eyes to different kinds of folk music. He adds a lot of electronic stuff as well, so he innovates, but that one song stuck in my mind as the main point of why I wanted to do “Cemetery to Lie”. So, to go to America, where I believe they have a broader understanding of music than they do over in Britain … Britain’s completely overtaken by artists who just wanna do cover songs … The British have a stigma behind them where their artists are more about what there is to come when you are famous. I believe there’s a bigger understanding within America to whole different genres of music, and more of an appreciation for them. I watched a program called The O.C. and it was such a fantastic program when I was growing up for the music they played in it. From that moment on, I always wanted to go to America and play an American tour to an American audience. That was my primary goal ever since the age of 15. If you’re asking me what artists who are American, or who are close to America, that I would love to tour with though, it’s really hard simply because of the fact that I love Death Cab For Cutie and I love City and Colour. Dallas Green is the best male vocal out there, and Ben Gibbard is just a fantastic lyricist. They probably would be my main two, though if you could bring back Buddy Holly or Ray Charles, they would be another two that I would love to do a tour with. It’s hard to pick one, because a lot of my favorite artists do have North American roots. There’s a band called Benton Falls who are broken up now, but if I could get them back together and perform with ‘em, that would be amazing.
JF:What have been, from your perspective, some of your greatest feats as an artist so far? What are you hoping to accomplish in the next year or so?
SP:I started writing poetry around 15 just when my granddad died and he was a huge influence in my life. I remember the day when he was up in the hospital and I told him “I will do music for you and I will succeed in it.” I was determined to make sure that this hero would look down from the clouds and be like “That is my grandson, he’s worked so hard to where he wanted to be,” that I’d do him proud. Then, of course, there were a lot of people dissin’ me from the start, and I admit that I probably wasn’t up there being a fantastic songwriter or singer. The songs I’d written had been more like poetry so it was an effort to try and sing those. I did, though, and I recorded ‘em by about 17. I put them online and people really did give me a lot of s**t for it. So, I went away for a bit and I literally spent hours at the computer watching voice lessons to make sure that I could protract my voice in a different way and I could learn different techniques. I’d scrapped most of the poetry I’d written an entirely new catalog of music while beginning to work with a guy named Glen Goldsmith, who was a soul singer in the 80s over in the UK and a family friend for years. He’s the one who introduced me to Toby Baker, who’s been a massive influence in my career this past year, who let me record my stuff and a monstrous amount of creative input and criticism. Glen, though, he promised me the world, you know. I’d done shows in London and I’d headlined there, but I needed someone to push me further. We got to December of last year and he made some feeble excuse about having a heart problem and just dropped me at the top of the hat because he couldn’t be bothered to make the effort with me anymore. I was devastated! This was a guy I’d known for years as a family friend and he’d picked me up so much, but he done shattered my dreams. I was working in HMV, which was a record store, and I’d already recorded “Cemetery to Lie” with Toby. Even without Glen, I thought, “You know what, f**k you, I’m gonna put this out and see what happens.” And you know what? It ended up getting played on BBC Radio which is a massive thing, and I started picking up more lines and more lines and it got British Single of the Week. It was played on American internet radio stations… Then, it was tweeted by Daniel Newman and I started getting this following behind me! I’d say that that has been one of my biggest accomplishments so far. Just thinking you’ve got it readymade, then being dropped and doing it yourself. I’ve pretty much spent this past year since January working on my own, emailing people and working my ass off to make sure people notice Poppy’s Field, sittin’ at the computer for hours and hardly getting any sleep. I see a lot of artists who are better than me vocally but do not put in even half as much effort as I’ve put in, and they question why they’re not getting anywhere and why they’re not having any success. It boils down to believing in yourself and believing in your product — believing that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life. I don’t do music for fast cars or for money. I do music for people to be proud, and to give everything back to my mum that she’s done as a single mum on her own. So, that is my biggest achievement. I also really enjoyed playing at Westfield in Stratford, which is my hometown. That was amazing for me to play in front of a crowd … As well as having my EP out now! I just hope that in 10 years’ time that I can look back at myself and be proud of what I’ve done, and my family, too. Other than that, I hope that when people listen to my music, they feel something from it and evoke emotion, because that is your most major goal as a songwriter. I don’t want to write rubbish that gets recorded and forgotten. I want to make people laugh and cry. There’s so much that music can do to people, and I want to be able to do that for them.
JF:How did you come about naming your EP, Doll Face, and is there anything else you’d like to divulge about it?
SP:So, Doll Face, has 5 tracks. We’ve got “Cemetery to Lie”, “Footsteps in the Sand”, “Meant to Be”, “Oceans Will Collide”, and “Music On a Roundabout”. The three main tracks are the main tracks on the album, whereas the last two are a little bit of fun from my earlier works. As for the name, ever since I was a kid, I have been obsessed with tattoos. All of the guys I’d grown up with had ink. For years, I wanted to get my knuckles done. Well, because I’m British I suppose, whenever I’m around a lady, I tend to say something like “Alright, doll,” and I was like, “Yeah, having ‘doll face’ on my knuckles probably sums me up as a bit of a cheeky sod.” So, I had it put on my knuckles just the other day and had it become the name of my EP!
JF:Lastly— and this is a crazy one —if you could be any food dish, what would you choose to be and why?
SP:Well… I’d probably be a hamburger with cheese and bacon… and chips! That would probably describe me well as food. It’s a bit naughty, though with a homely comfort. There is that bad side though, where you eat it and you’re like “Oh no, I shouldn’t have done that!” I guess that kind of reflects my music, too, because folk listeners can listen to it and hear the hip-hop and be like, “Oh no, I guess I shouldn’t have liked that!” I guess it is a bit of a guilty pleasure, though, isn’t it? [laughs]
JF:Anything you’d like to say before we wrap things up?
SP:To wrap it up, I want to thank all of the people who’ve helped me this year from Toby Baker, to Anthony Kluge … You, my friend, have been a massive help to me, also … Jeff Classic Popka, Neil Sabatino from Mint 400 Records, my family, Elliot Bobbin for doing a fantastic job on the visuals in my music videos … Peter Berry... Without you guys, I wouldn’t be in the position to do what I’m doing now. I just really hope that people latch onto Poppy’s Field and really appreciate what I’m putting out over the next year. I know it’s hard for musicians these days and there’s a lot of artists who get downhearted as they might not be doing as well as they’d hoped they would’ve been two years ago. But to all of the people like that, I just want to say keep tryin’, because if one door closes, another opens and it could lead you to places that you could never imagine you’d be in 6 months down the line. Looking back at January, for me, I would never have imagined that I would be going to America with Jeff, or having an EP out this soon! So if you really put your mind to things, you can achieve success and you can create something that will last forever. I just hope that everyone gives Poppy’s Field a chance. Give it a listen, because at the end of the day, you won’t regret it! [laughs] Thank you so much for doing this interview, man. I really enjoyed it, actually; it’s probably the best I’ve ever done.
JF:Thank you, Santino, for conducting this interview with me. I agree that it was definitely one of my favorite interviews that I've ever conducted! We at PopWrapped are glad to call you a friend and extend our well wishes for the future!