"It was a blessing, but it was also a curse," Santos says of the song that put him on the map. "It's gotten my music to people around the world that I would never have been able to reach otherwise. But people have expectations after hearing a song like that. Hopefully, it's a pleasant surprise when people come and hear what I really do."
What Santos really does is something he calls "neo-soul folk-rock"--think of a less serpentine Jeff Buckley combined with a more genuine John Mayer and the hint of a Gen Y update of Bill Withers. It's a sound he hopes to introduce to a wider audience with a new release next spring, and which he's celebrating Friday, Dec. 4, with an ambitious "album preview show" at the new Lincoln Hall.
The soon to be 27-year-old artist was born in Minneapolis and raised by a Danish mother and Spanish/Filipino father. He moved to Chicago to study music composition at Columbia College in 2001, but dropped out a few years later. After what he calls "a soul-searching trip to Alaska," he came back to the Windy City--"I had met so many people, the band was starting to pick up a bit, and Chicago just seemed like where it was at for me"--began working a day job, and waited for his break.
That opening came courtesy of his friend Greg Magers, who was trying to establish himself as a recording engineer. Located over a burrito joint near Addison and Lincoln, his studio, the Attic, has since produced a handful of much-buzzed hits, including the new album by Kid Sister. But it was just starting out when Santos was crashing there and a skinny, hyperactive kid named Wasalu--soon to become Lupe--dropped by.
"Lupe's partner Chilly heard one of my tunes and wanted to sign me to their label, which didn't make much sense to me, because it's an urban/R&B/rap/hip-hop label, and that was far from what I was doing," Santos says. "But I guess he saw something special."
Santos wound up singing on "American Terrorist," one of the most striking tracks on Lupe's 2006 debut "Food & Liquor," and he added his voice to three more songs on "The Cool." Before that disc really took off, Santos released an album of his own music, "Matters of the Bittersweet," on a small indie in 2007. But the boutique label with major distribution that Lupe and Charles "Chilly" Patton envisioned never got off the ground after Patton was convicted of selling heroin and sentenced to 44 years in prison.
"The first album was more of an acoustic-folk live recording, and this one is a lot different," Santos says of "This Burning Ship of Fools," which he plans to release himself in March. "I started recording last summer, right after I got done touring with Lupe. I jumped into the studio and I've been in there ever since. It's been a difficult process, because I'm sort of producing it myself, alongside my co-producer Greg Magers.
"It's been a learning experience, among other things. We spent a lot of time exploring different production techniques and sort of an edgier sound. We geared it toward what we thought was going to be a major-label release, which to me was an interesting way to approach it, because I didn't know what the hell pop music was all about. We made a few tracks that were a little bit more radio-friendly, and the rest of it was sort of down-home soul/folk-rock."
Santos hopes that sound will appeal to fans who appreciate his work with Lupe as well as new listeners, thanks to a familiar ingredient: soul. "I have R&B influences and I enjoy the vocal freeness of R&B--it's really fun to sing--but it's not necessarily the core of the music. I call it soul music, because to me, if you don't have the emotional quality that initially inspired the music, it's just a passing entertainment, not an emotional experience. What I try to do is put myself into that emotional state so deeply that there's no way that a listener couldn't feel those emotions."
And the songs? What inspires Santos to write?
"I have my muses--one in particular who's inspired a lot of songs," the singer says. "I've known her probably for 13 years now, ever since I was a kid; she's kind of like a soul sister or... who knows what it will be. But my songs are mostly inspired by a need to explore some sort of life situation. It has to have a relevance for me at the time, a burning thing inside to really come out and manifest it in a lyrical manner. Sometimes it's a bittersweet longing for someone or something; other times it's a desire to uplift."
And that, in the end, is what makes Santos a superstar in his own right.