Even though Ivana Santilli's new album Late Night Light was slated for release around the start of 2015, her first project in nearly five years is just now seeing the light of day. Santilli tells Exclaim! that there were a host of extenuating factors for that — a lot of "boring business stuff" happening behind the scenes — but she's thrilled that the soulful 11-track album, due out independently on November 27, is finally getting the release it deserves.
"It's the record I've had ready for over a year-and-a-half. But we wanted to reset and give this album a proper release," she says.
After a more than 20-year recording career — reaching back to her work with '90s R&B group Bass Is Base — creating new material these days comes down to being empowered by still having something to say according to the Toronto native.
"It's a process to get the place where you know you need to write another record. What motivates me at this point is the voice and knowing that [my] voice is valid. It's about having something to say through music [and] the challenge of putting that message to music."
Also playing a role is the fact she recently purchased new music gear and wanted to test it out. "I have a new Prophet synthesizer and it really informs this record," she says. "I tried to strip away some of what I've done before and try some new tricks, some new instrumentation."
Santilli admits that she's in her "grown folks music" stage in her career; the new record — a mix of throwback and forward-looking soul and R&B-pop sounds — includes matured takes on love and relationships, basically "life after your 20s." The record was also influenced by how technology has affected personal relationships — online dating being a prime example as explored on a track like "Calculate Love."
"It's a pretty personal project. This record is situational — it depends on what you are going through at the time," she says, adding that "Love Me Back" — which centres on the theme of balance and reciprocity in relationships — was the first song she started with. While the songs aren't about anyone specifically, she explains they do generally track the feelings and emotions she's dealt with in recent years.
"I noticed that I always just wrote about love and this time there are different angles to it," she says. "[Writing a song like 'Love Me Back'] that told me I need to get back into the studio. The song pretty much describes five years of crappy romantic situations that I had been in, all encompassed in one song."
Even as a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and Juno Award-winning artist, it has been Santilli's passionate commitment to shaping her career and creative direction — on her own terms — that has been her key to success. And while she's been often referred to as being "underrated" as an artist, there's a freedom in that and not conforming to industry expectations, she says.
"I've been underrated many times, which is a strange compliment, backhanded almost," she says with a laugh. "[But] it gives me the freedom where I don't have to redo all my own records. I don't have this huge number one song that's hanging over my head. I can do anything right now. I don't have to do something that I've already done."
She's familiar with being signed to a major record and being indie. These days she's happy being a hybrid of the two on this project: "Sometimes being on a label interferes with artist freedom. And sometimes with indie, there's too much freedom and no sense of direction. So what we did was balance the two: we [first] recorded three songs to realize the direction we wanted to go into."
By "we" Santilli means Toronto-based producer/engineer producer Mike Rocha (Greys, Electric Youth). It was working with Rocha that helped flesh out album concepts. Collaboration played a key role in this project; she brought onboard names like Eon Sinclair (of Bedouin Soundclash), Mike Lindup (Level 42) and Stuart Matthewman (Sade). Also playing a part in the creative process was her sense of how R&B as a genre has evolved in recent years.
"When it comes to R&B, it's gone through so many changes. A lot of R&B artists now are EDM artists. That's been a big change," she says. But, in her estimation, the soul music that tends to last is a sound that both looks back at the old school while thinking about how best to rework it in a modern context. Artists like Frank Ocean, James Blake and Little Dragon, she remarks, are the ones really doing interesting things with the genre.
"There's this real hybrid of using slowed-down EDM with the contemporary sounds and experimentation. With sonics but with the sense of soul and warmth," she says. It's something she aimed to accomplish with Late Night Lights, which she says represents a continuation of sorts to her critically acclaimed 1999 debut album Brown: "I didn't really want to be following or chasing anything."
With the new album around the corner, she's considering which singles and videos to put out at the moment. Also in the works are vinyl editions, both for Late Night Light and also a Brown reissue, happenings that she's excited about. Santilli notes that for her, success is having longevity and making music after all these years.
"The best R&B artists are the ones that have great old influences and listen to what's happening now sonically. You have to have an anchor in your purpose. But you really should have a sail [as well]."