Across R&B’s muddied history, the UK has thankfully seen victories for a plethora of Black British and minority talent, ever-present in London. In the ‘80s, crooners such as David Grant, Mica Paris, and Billy Ocean rose to the crest of the UK charts, helping to extend the Black British R&B/soul community.
As the 2000s pressed on, a lack of visibility from UK R&B acts became recognizable in the mainstream. Despite blips of success, acts such as Jamelia became a pop crossover, Mis-Teeq—a hybrid girl group—split, and Lemar, by the end of the 2000s, faded from the epicenter of British music. The shift to centering Europop was on the table in the ‘10s. Then grime entered the fray as one of the only Black-British outputs being prioritized, following successful blueprints in Skepta, Stormzy, and Dizzee Rascal.
In part, these details contributed to 22-year-old R&B/rock cultivator Santino Le Saint being told by a major imprint to pivot. “I was in a meeting, and they told me to start rapping, start doing grime,” he says. “They misunderstood me and my music.”
Raised in Brixton, and born Santino Bucknell, the artist found refuge in his father’s R&B and rock-based CDs, which he burned for their many car journeys to visit extended family members. Citing Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and other quintessential names, Santino Le Saint fell in love with both genres, seeking more professional lessons from his paternal figure early on in high school.
Santino Le Saint’s eclecticism is portrayed across his introductory mixtape, Rage of Angels, released in January. His melodic, guitar-laden universe sets the foundation for his melancholic themes to take center stage. He sits at the intersection of punk-rock and R&B, taking light influence from emo rap.
Outside of music, Santino is a film buff. The now-classic Matrix series informed his recent releases, the Blue Pill and Red Pill EPs. In the context of Santino Le Saint, the blue pill points to ignorance, while the red shatters ego and showcases his vulnerability: “Music empowers me as a man. It’s not something that emasculates me.”
Executive produced by co-founders of his label Cloud X, Dabieh and Ben X, both EPs are a strong example of Santino Le Saint’s duality and the undeniable talent.
Talk to me about your infatuation with both R&B and rock.
It’s weird because I think I’m influenced by the hip-hop and trappy side, too. It’s the way I program my drums. The way people listen to music nowadays, they like to hear a lot of drums on loops and repetition. Future and Drake do it quite well.
With rock, there’s a part of it where, when I pick up the guitar and play certain riffs; it’s come from only rock. That’s the genre I’ve played on the guitar my whole life. I tend to go towards certain patterns. I’m trying to head towards early 2000s rock melodies, chord progressions, and guitar riffs. There’s a song called “Evermore” by Foo Fighters that I loved the melody for; I expand on things like that. A lot of Three Days Grace, too.
How exactly do you marry these genres together when making a song?
I think I’m still working on it. You’re always working on it. You have to be flexible in your approach in order to make new shit. But moving forward, I actually want to do things [a new] way because I love films and concepts, but I’m making everything conceptual.
I’m gonna be taking guitar melodies from [the 2000s] and updating them with sounds of this era. But then on another concept I have in the background, I have influences of old-school R&B, so I want to conceptualize around that. Even flamenco and Spanish genres, later on. I think I’d rather do it this way than thinking how to make these worlds work.
You’ve mentioned being highly conceptual and a film buff. When did your relationship with films begin to take shape?
As I began exploring the storytelling in music and the visual side of music in videos, I started to pair the worlds together and began to actively watch films in abundance—I watch films all the time. It got to a point where when I started writing songs properly, I started writing so visually because of films. It built on my style of how I write today. I have to absorb [music and film]; both are parts of me.
Honing in on your EPs Blue Pill and Red Pill, how exactly did the concept of duality and, more importantly, The Matrix, manifest, and how were you able to execute them?
Firstly, I do feel like I could’ve executed slightly better, but hindsight, init. There was a period of time where I was obsessed with The Matrix, like I was watching it every day, all three in a row. I’ve always looked for, in films, the link between music and film. I just started thinking about how I could turn these specific films into R&B and how could I take the love stories out of them and go down the dark-romantic route.
For me, the concept of red and blue was so sick, too. Everyone has their own stories, their own devil and angel, and people just wanna do different things. It sums up humanity. I knew I had to make this formula.
How long did it take to craft both themes of the EP?
What’s funny is I started with a song I made called “Ecstacy” two years ago in LA. Then I made another song called “Serotonin,” and I’d had “Cigarettes & Alcohol” already, too. But when lockdown hit, I knew I had the idea of blue and red pills, but I didn’t know how I was executing that.
“Ecstasy” and “Serotonin” were fuckboy songs. Then I realized “Cigarettes & Alcohol” was more emotional; both types of songs fit in with the blue and red pill themes in terms of ignorance and the other side being honesty. Getting the themes tightened helped me to know what to write about.
You’ve mentioned that Red Pill changed in tracklisting last minute. What changed and why?
I added “Free” instead of another song, “Battle Scars.” “Free” is one of the most recent songs I wrote, and it feels like where I’m going in terms of the 2000s rock album. I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead and Coldplay. I’ve basically made a song with no drums and me playing around with my harmonies throughout the whole thing. It’s an honest song about not wanting to be free because you’re bound by love. It’s kind of a song about anti-freedom.
There’s a frequent conversation in the UK about both the visibility of R&B and the potential for the genre this decade. How do you feel about R&B in this region in 2020?
For the first time in a long time, I feel like things are going well, and I’m an actual artist [in this space]. I’m actually busy, and it’s happening. But everything I’ve felt attention-wise has not come from this country as much as it has internationally. Features, companies, COLORS this year—it’s all been out of the UK. It’s not like I haven’t made progress here, but it’s not the opportunities, the people reaching out, management, businesses that have come from here. People are saying 2021 will be for R&B, and that’s great. I want that to happen. It’s time for UK R&B acts who are underrated, underdogs, slept-on to get their shine.
Photos by Adam Ali.