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Keeping Matthew Santos from 'Quickly Disappearing'

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santosmatthew.jpgRegarding Matthew Santos, some IT advice would be helpful. We need to clear our cache and reboot. Delete all files connected to Lupe Fiasco's "Superstar" and update to the Apple-cool, user-friendly Santos 4.0.

"Quickly Disappearing" is the Chicago singer's fourth album, out now, and let's hope the title turns out to be ironic instead of prophetic. Because it's very good, what he calls "neo-soul folk-rock" -- organic and soulful and moody, full of interesting musical ideas and dripping with serious vocal talent. Chris Martin and especially Jeff Buckley comparisons are rife, based on Santos' "Grace"-ful voice alone, but a better genetic match might be the easygoing, dreamy R&B/alt-pop of Josh Clayton-Felt.

But there's the problem: Few have heard of, much less remember, Clayton-Felt (School of Fish singer who made one stellar solo album, "Inarticulate Nature Boy," which isn't on iTunes or Spotify, before dying of cancer), and Santos -- despite worldwide exposure and acclaim just a few short years ago -- is perilously and unjustly close to a similar status.

In this case, Wikipedia doesn't lie, stating Santos "is best known for his collaboration with Chicago native Lupe Fiasco on the single 'Superstar.'" Santos' vocal melody on that Grammy-nominated 2007 hip-hop track (and four other Fiasco songs) put the Logan Square resident on the map, gave him a sweet ride on tour around the world and earned him praise from the likes of Jay-Z, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake.

Five years on, though, the superstar is a white dwarf. Santos is still in orbit, but this spring he's supporting the new album by touring without his band -- because he can't afford them. (Santos is due back in his adopted hometown March 15 at Schubas, though, and that show will feature his band. Tickets: $12, 773-525-2508, schubas.com.)

We caught up with Santos just after the album dropped, and just after performing in Taiwan, to talk blessings, curses and how to make those famous 15 minutes your own:

Q: So you're hitting the road without the band. You've always spoken so highly of these guys. Why go it alone now?
Santos: Unfortunately, it's the dire state of the music industry and the economy. It's hard to travel with seven people, with per diems, hotels, cash. They end up not making a penny. This comes out of an economic need to be more self-sustained. Bottom line, I gotta pay my rent.

Q: The songs on the album don't sound easy to pull off with one guy. How's this changing your approach in concert?
Santos: I'm touring with a bit of a rig -- pedals, a lot more looping and beat-boxing, trying to fill in some of that space left by the absence of the band. It's restrictive, but it forces you to be a lot more creative.

Q: More distracting, too, I imagine, having to concentrate on hitting all the right buttons instead of letting the band take it behind you.
Santos: It's more pressure, yeah. [Pause] I totally miss the band.

Q: Do you feel you've escaped Lupe's orbit at all?
Santos: No, I wish. It's that dark passenger that's always there, the "Superstar" reference. I can't escape it.

Q: Just today I got a separate email from your publicists, still hawking you as "the 'voice' of Lupe Fiasco"!
Santos: I mean, it's maybe not a bad thing, it's just more that I'm so past that stage artistically. It was never really my cup of tea. I had an amazing time, learned a lot, got to tour the world, and a Grammy nomination. It looks great on paper, but [he sighs] it wasn't as satisfying creatively as I hoped it would be.

Q: Is there some animosity between you and Lupe?
Santos: I wouldn't say animosity, no. There was a falling out, sure. He was going through dark times at the label, and I was trying not to get lost in the politics. I didn't re-sign my contract with him, and his camp stopped responding kindly to me. He himself said we're cool, but I don't know what's going on behind the scenes.

Q: When did you realize that the silver lining of "Superstar" also had a cloud?
Santos: I guess it hit me when I would Google my name and Lupe's picture would pop up. Every interview was "Superstar" Matthew Santos. After so many questions about Lupe I realized I'd been branded. I have this Lupe Fiasco stamp on my shoulder. I'm trying to re-brand, stay out of certain limelights.

Q: "Quickly Disappearing" is your second post-"Superstar" album. How does it pull you away from that gravity?
Santos: This album is me rediscovering what my values were -- not just as an artist but as a human being. The title refers to the polar icecaps, how we're affecting the planet, the ecosystem, global warming. I won't give you the whole spiel, but it directly affected the writing of three or four songs.

Q: It certainly doesn't sound like a hip-hop/R&B record.
Santos: Uh, no. Stylistically, I've stripped down a few songs, acoustic songs, piano songs. There's a neo-tango, soul-folk-rock tune. [At Columbia College] I was studying Astor Piazzolla and writing tangos, so I've revisited that interest. ... The title track has one of my vocal heroes, [Bollywood singer] Kavita Subramaniam. Her voice is like nothing you've ever heard before. There's a blues tune, "Scarecrow," I've always had a knack for the blues.

Q: Is it a blessing or a curse to be so stylistically fluid?
Santos: It's the conflict of being and human being vs. being a brand. A human has multifaceted tastes. I'm trying to be as colorful on my palette as I can. But, you know, I think this will be the last record that will be this way, to be honest. In college, I was experimenting with sounds and coming up with the weirdest sh--. It's crazy, but that's the norm these days.

Q: You mean more music like track 6, "History of Ice," -- the three minutes of "Blade Runner" synthesizer?
Santos: Exactly. I did that with a Korg Triton. It took a while to get that tone. That's what I'm talking about. Letting creativity soar as opposed to monetary restraints dictating creative decisions. I just want to get weirder with it.


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on February 16, 2012 6:00 AM.

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