Wearing Barbour International at FLANNELS, south London's Santino Le Saint talks putting the bow on his new album, paying homage to his roots and what his future may hold.
“One of my friends said today that when I speak on matters of the heart, I have a skill for communicating feelings that are hard to talk about, or that are hard to communicate in a simple way,” Santino Le Saint tells me, pondering the introspection that makes his music so relatable. Wrapped up in a black hoodie and beanie in his London home, during our conversation, the 25-year-old often finds himself deep in thought, analysing the sweet melancholy of previous releases.
For Santino, reckoning with love and romantic cynicism helped him to find his voice in a nascent south London music scene. The painstaking stories and syrupy confessions find themselves on countless releases, establishing his soul-bearing sound and uncompromising attitude towards the creative process. Over Zoom, I catch him in a rare moment away from the studio, where he’s putting the finishing touches on a new record, set for release next year.
“We’ve got like 30 songs, so we’re just trying to choose the right ones,” he announces confidently with excitement filling his eyes. It’s a nice problem to have, but whittling down music into a cohesive project is no easy feat. Writing the album on Discord with Connor Barkhouse, his loyal producer accomplice from LA, the sheer volume of bangers, Santino believes, was inevitable as they’ve gravitated towards each other’s artistic philosophies since meeting five years ago.
The decision to record online and not over in sunny LA was a conscious one. Santino prefers making music at home in south London; he knows where he stands and there isn’t so much pressure to perform: “I hate the idea of feeling like I’m in entertainment. I don’t want to be part of the circus and I’m not really about the glitz and glamour, either.” Despite this, you can hear the transatlantic influence in his music. Although the lyrics evoke a British pessimism, they often drown in a pool of psychedelic guitar licks and bruising R&B, akin to Jimi Hendrix and The Weeknd: two artists he constantly references as influences throughout our call.
Born Santino Bucknall, the multi-instrumentalist’s life has always been consumed by music. His dad, who was part of the British hip-hop group The 57th Dynasty, taught him how to produce and play the guitar. After falling in love with rock music, the singer-songwriter joined a heavy metal covers band that played music by greats like Ozzy Osbourne. Sharing the Black Sabbath icon’s love-hate relationship with hedonism, as he grew older, the vocalist began uploading tracks to Soundcloud, channelling teenage angst that touched upon rock music’s elicit indulgences.
Always on the move, growing up, Santino lived a nomadic lifestyle, visiting different family houses. These long journeys around the country laid a foundation for the inherent songwriting capabilities he holds today. Seeking refuge from the capital’s 24/7 lifestyle, he would reflect on what he wanted to say artistically and what he wanted from the fruitful career that lay ahead. “I try to look at things in the way that you don’t deserve anything,” he affirms, looking up at the ceiling. “It’s not like I wanted to blow up in the beginning. I think the best thing is that I’ve had consistent milestones and I’ve built a steady fan base. Now I can put whatever I want out and people like it, that should be the journey of an artist.”
Releasing music on Cloud X, the independent platform that runs a successful record label and yearly festival, Santino here alludes to the importance of creative freedom in allowing his music to flourish. This should be a given for any artist, but only now are we seeing consistent success stories of independently released music coming to light. Little Simz’s landmark Brit Award win for her album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was followed up this year by Raye reaching number one with the record, My 21st Century Blues – her first since a messy break up with Polydor Records.
Set up as an events company by founders David Dabieh and Ben Cross, booking the likes of Chance The Rapper and Ray Blk before they blew, Cloud X has since become an incubator for south London’s most trailblazing voices. Naturally, Santino gravitated towards the platform and its dynamic vision. “We ended up hanging out and then they opened up a studio in Brixton, on Coldhabour Lane. I lived about 35 steps from there, so it was a nice coincidence. I ended up making some of my first releases with David.”
The studio quickly became a musical metropolis, where artists would bond over their likemindedness. Santino speaks fondly of the friendships he formed in those walls, many of whom he’s still in contact with. More recently, the soulful singer counts Col3trane as a close collaborator. The north Londoner, making waves with his R&B futurism, features on Santino’s latest project, ‘new material’. “That’s just my guy now, we hang out all the time,” he shrugs. Layering sultry harmonies over hazey hand-picked guitars, their chemistry is evident on ‘more!’, which has since proven to be a standout single from the tracklist.
Paying homage to his roots, ‘new material’ is a stripped-back affair that amplifies his profound connection with the guitar. Sonically, Santino felt like he needed a break from his endless experimentation and reign in the sound he’s so synonymous with. Simultaneously detoxing listeners from this chaotic world, the 15 minutes of blissful riffs and gut-punching croons tell us of the triumphs and tragedies that he’s experienced since his debut album, Beautiful Disaster.
“I was like, let me just breathe for a second. I didn’t expect much from the EP but I’d created this art and really wanted to release it.” I ask if he thinks it was a selfish project, something that he made to prove his versatility. Santino politely disagrees, explaining: “This is something that I’m proud of and no one’s seen this side of me. A lot of the time when you release a song, especially with my type of music, it’s like, ‘Listen to me, I’m in pain’. I didn’t feel it was like that this time. I didn’t want to shove it down people’s throats.”
As we’ve already touched upon, one of Santino’s greatest strengths is articulating universal emotions with striking accessibility. It’s a superpower that’s racked up millions of streams and sent him on several dates across the UK and Europe. The pain he so often references is relayed with such vividness that it’s impossible not to relate it to your own experiences. “I think words are so powerful, which is why I love telling stories, specifically romantic stories, or like the darker, twisted or more confusing ones,” he lists with increasing energy. Growing up an only child, as a self-confessed “emotional kid”, meant that he spent a lot of time a lone with his feelings, which is why he’s become so adept at pictorialising them.
As well as writing poetry, Santino spent much of his youth in skate parks committed to learning the art of BMXing. Travelling around the country in the name of extreme sports, the rising rockstar was enamoured by the rebellious and counter-cultural nature of these environments. A breeding ground for creativity, they encompassed people from all walks of life, and as he articulates, this gave him a well-rounded view of the world as a teenager.
“The earliest examples I’ve got of being in skate parks is me being 14 years old BMXing with guys, some married, some divorced, some who just came out of prison, but it’s all a brother[hood] mentality. I think that, alongside the ability to express yourself without anybody watching, creates the perfect place to be creative, and to be yourself.”
You may have noticed from Santino’s knowledgeable ramblings thus far, that the artist previously studied philosophy. As young as primary school, he knew his perceptions were slightly different to those around him. When his class were asked to write a poem in primary school, the artist recalls writing something far more esoteric than his peers. “Everybody was asked to write about ‘their favourite thing’ and people wrote about, you know, their grandma’s car or an orange and I wrote about nothing, because I was like, nothing is something you know, I was one of those kids.”
This anecdote explains a lot about the music Santino’s released until now. The moments of tenderness or poignancy on Beautiful Disaster and fellow projects bring listeners to the brink of their own emotional conquests. That very feeling isn’t for everyone, but Santino believes no one, not even the harshest of critics, will be able to discredit the masterpiece he has waiting in the wings. “The next one coming is like, ‘You better listen to what I have to say.’ It’s my Starboy era”, he states, evoking The Weeknd’s genre-defying album. And who could tell him otherwise? Resolutely experimental, he’s conquered so many sonic avenues already that you wouldn’t put it past him adding more to his repertoire.
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