Ivana Santilli Gets Back Into the Groove

Ivana Santilli Gets Back Into the Groove
It's been five years since Ivana Santilli first emerged with Brown, an eclectic brew of R&B, Latin and soul grooves. In the interim Santilli's career should have been smooth sailing, given that she toured for more than two years and sold in excess of 30,000 copies — no mean feat for an independent artist. But the fact that she hardly received any royalties from her distributor forced her into legal action, weighing heavily on her creative muse.

"The issue for me was the source of my pain was my music, so I couldn't escape to my music," Santilli says. "It wasn't so much the music, it was the music industry, but they're intertwined. So making music to me was useless. I couldn't escape to it because it was the reason I was going through all of these things."

The distributor ended up going bankrupt and still owes Santilli money, and for a while she hated music altogether. "I'll tell you one thing, I refused to put Stevie Wonder on," she says. "I was so terrified that if I listened to Stevie Wonder and I wasn't inspired there was definitely something wrong with me. Like, chemically wrong with me." She chuckles heartily.

She can look back and laugh now. She has been able to harness her creative impulses on her brand new record, Corduroy Boogie. Regaining her inspiration, Santilli dabbled with drum programming on her MPC-3000 and rekindled her love for music. "I started hearing stuff coming out of West London and some Jazzanova beats and some King Britt beats, I'm like ‘This is blowing me away, this is what I want to marry to my songs.' So everything on this next record had to go to the next level. Everything."

Starting in Philadelphia, she worked with acclaimed producer James Poyser and Corduroy Boogie's executive producer King Britt. Travelling to London she recruited broken beat don Dego, from the trailblazing 4Hero, and prodigious multi-instrumentalist Kaidi Tatham as well as UK soul icon Omar. She also managed to collar Detroit sensation Dwele, Sade producer Stuart Matthewman and Toronto hip-hop producers Solitair and Agile of Brassmunk.

"The focus on this record was to focus on groove, so that's why I chose the producers — because they're all phenomenal at what they do," says Santilli. "At the same time they're all really good people. They're not domineering men. Their music is so good because they listen, so that's why I think it worked well." This probably explains that while working with a number of producers who have an instantly recognisable sound, the record doesn't sound like a patchwork of their styles, underlining the upfront creative role Santilli took in the sessions.

"It was very important to me that didn't happen, that I'd just adopt another producer's sound. I'm not an employee of the producer. The whole idea is that I thought it was really important to express myself as a musician." Santilli ensured the holistic feel to the record by coming to the studio having written lyrics, melody and chord progressions in an ‘old-fashioned' way at her Rhodes keyboard. "Production goes through phases and it can become dated. It goes through trends. But the song aspect of it can always be redeemed. So I thought marrying these two things together is the best of both worlds. The same way I think marrying live instrumentation to electronic instrumentation is the best of both worlds — you're getting both of them talking to each other and not dominating the other."

Corduroy Boogie manages to strike this balance and her work with the name-brand producers on this record is a vindication of her songwriting, as well as the multi-instrumentalist and multi-lingual instincts that were largely suppressed during her stint in the ‘90s acid-jazz/pop combo Bass Is Base. "I was told I was lucky to be in that band by the small circle around it," she says. "I knew that there were certain things that I was capable of doing, like trying to write songs on my own, but I had never tried them. There was a feeling that I needed to breathe so I left."

Yet despite various issues that could have curtailed her creativity, Santilli's mood on record and in person is buoyant, positive and more inclined to seek peace rather than to dwell too long in misery.

"I'm a very unfortunate songwriter and a very fortunate person," she says. "What I mean by that is that I couldn't write music when I'm going through hell — what would my music be like? I write from a place where I'm pretty much finished at the end of my turmoil and I'm more contemplative about it and can make sense of it all."