Few pop musicians have a trajectory as unorthodox, strange, and ultimately triumphant as that of Dawn Richard. First introduced to the world via Diddy’s MTV reality series Making the Band 3, she spent the latter half of the 2000s in the pop group Danity Kane, making buoyant radio pop that hit (two of three albums were Billboard Number 1s), but didn’t often veer outside the bounds of the radio-hit mandate.
When the band broke up in 2009, the New Orleans-born singer formed another major label project with Puff, the trio Diddy-Dirty Money, but even with their own, slightly more adventurous (and largely underrated) hits, it didn’t last. As Richard grew up in the industry, she felt herself growing out of it, and when that group split in 2011 she began dreaming of music that would please not her label heads nor station directors, but herself.
As a solo artist unmoored from label expectations, Richard’s liberation led her to conceive a trilogy of albums—2013's Goldenheart, 2015's Blackheart and, later this year, RED*emp*tion—that explore her growth as a person and a musician. Her freedom, as D∆WN, rendered her astonishingly innovative, toying with tempo and sonics as she sussed out new ways to present her clarion harmonies; Blackheart was last year’s best album, a meditation on the way mournful, melancholy emotions could propel dance beats from disparate fonts of inspiration—and the first single from RED*emp*tion indicates she’s still headed forward. Richards has been making music on the precipice—pop, R&B, electronic dance that does not adhere to the rules of any of those genres—and she’s done so as a completely independent artist, releasing music on her own label, Our Dawn, and working with the smallest of teams, including frequent directing collaborator Monty Marsh.
I spoke with Richard over the phone last week in advance of her tour about her necessary autonomy, the future of her music, and the pressures that led her to this creative blossoming.
RED*emp*tion’s coming later this year, the third in your trilogy. What can you tell us about it?
Well, this era really is about freedom. Each project is its own story—Blackheart was really dark, and I was in a dark time. I wanted to celebrate the fall, that not all falls are bad, and some of them are needed.
With RED*emp*tion, it’s kind of the recovery; I love the place that I’m at, I love the sound that I’m in, and I’m fearless in the risks that I’m taking. I think with this album you’ll hear sonically the fearlessness in it. There’ll be kind of a head-first dive into creativity without any regard or care for the structure, you know what I mean, for mainstream structure. It should finish this trilogy with a sense of jubilation, like a jubilee or this sense of Zion or a utopian feel.
The new song and the imagery is really like a phoenix rising. What’s the journey been to get there?
Yeah, you’re dead-on with that. [Blackheart] was heavy, it was heavy. It’s organic. I knew that I wanted to break up my journey into three parts. For me, it became an opportunity for me to escape and to have therapy, honestly—to be to be able to talk about it in a different way and share it in a different way. This whole entire process has been one big therapist session, you know what I mean? One big sit-down on a couch, and kind of revealing myself to everyone in the most honest way possible, but also in an innovative way.
Going back to the Qur’an and the Bible, since the beginning of time people have written down these parables and these stories about journeys and applying them to life. Thousands of years later we’re still applying certain things that happened in the past to now. I wanted to create something that was timeless, where people could literally go back and say, man, I was at that point in my life and this took me to this place. It’s been an honest journey where people are able to see with a magnifying glass what I’ve gone through.
You’re making some of the most innovative music I know of right now, in any genre. Everything from your vocals, the way that you sing, to the production to just the song structure is really unconventional. How does putting yourself out there emotionally translate to the way that you’ve gone about making the music?
I think I’m blessed enough to have, number one, an incredible team that viscerally understands who I am, because honestly I think sometimes I’m overbearing to people. We get that call all the time, like, “You’re seriously overwhelming” and “You know you’re moving at lightning speed”—I get that a lot but, I think we just think differently, and I’m blessed to have people around me who think on the same wavelength as I do. When you find people who understand your vision, we can marry this beautiful relationship and that’s what I think we’ve been able to do.
I mean, people forget we’re independent, I think, because the quality of the work that we’re getting out there is really thought-out and really strategic. We really want to tell a story worth remembering—because what’s the point in giving people yourself if they’re not going to remember the story?
That’s what we wanted to bring to this project, is that if we’re going to say something it’s going to be powerful, and if we’re saying something worth something and affecting people, then we have to make sure that it’s not just told in auditory form but also in visual form and also in dance form.
It’s interesting what you say about the independence thing, because if you were on a major label, you probably wouldn’t be able to be as creative as you are, at least from a musical perspective.
I’m learning that!
But also it sort of speaks to the fact that it seems like you’re holding yourself to a higher standard.
I’m not in competition with anyone but myself, so when I go out like I don’t really see anyone else. We just kind of see, “How can we best that which we’ve already done?” And that’s what makes a great artist. I don’t think you set out to be better than anyone—you set out to be your best self and that’s always been the goal. We’re holding ourselves at sometimes a ridiculous standard that I don’t think any of us will ever reach. But damn it are we not gonna try. It’s taken awhile for people to get that literally we’re not just independent as an indie label—we’re independent as in, “There is no one.” We’re doing it by our own grace you know, and somehow managing to stay relevant in a beautiful way.
The relevant part is interesting. You’re ahead of your time in certain ways and I would like to know where you’re pulling from musically. I know you’re collaborating with the electronic producer Machinedrum, and the London producer Deadboy just remixed “Not About That.” For Blackheart you had Noisecastle III.
I just tend to gravitate toward people who make me feel things, and each producer that I’ve worked with and that shared my vision, I felt like they were needed for the place that I was in in my my life. So Machinedrum has that drummin beat and that aggressive jungle sound, over 160 beats per minute. It feels like it’s a moving, aggressive party happening. I wanted to apply that sort of vulnerability, the sort of soul that comes within my tone and my melodies against an aggressive sound, because I feel like that’s a beautiful hybrid. What I think we’ve come up with is this really beautiful blend of soul—this underlying New Orleans second line feel, that Afro-Cuban feel—against that drum and beat, house sound that makes for something really special.
And it’s not even that the sounds have been consistent throughout all of this, it’s just a different feeling. It keeps it interesting, but it also keeps it honest. No one is ever the same thing forever. That’s just not even realistic. Everyone has changes, everyone grows, you fall in love and you fall outta love, you grow and you see yourself in different ways. I just wanted to portray that in my music.
A lot of your lyrics have been about self-actualizing, being strong for yourself. What’s behind that?
I’ve had a very interesting journey through the industry and what I’ve been treated like, especially being a black woman in this industry, and what I’ve learned is that I refuse for us not to be respected. So every influence that I’ve gone through, with whether it was Goldenheart or Blackheart, there has been this feminine ferocity. Joan of Arc was my kind of inspiration during the in the Goldenheart era, where I felt like the message was made for us to see that we’re fighting just as hard as everybody else. And then Blackheart was this sense of vulnerability where we kind of took this Alice in Wonderland approach, where [women were] made to feel small in a situation where the world felt bigger, but really we had a way larger role that we forgot we played.
And when you get small and you fall, you sometimes forget that you are still the queen that you are. I appreciate the fact that a woman needs to have a voice, and in a time where coming from Bad Boy and coming from New Orleans and where I came from, it’s sometimes hard to have not only a voice but the type of voice that I’ve had in this. I’ve wanted to do things my way and artistically create something that I felt was incredible or that I felt was different, [but it] was sometimes hard to say because people weren’t listening. They see my color, they see my gender, and automatically they peg me to be something that they would like me to be—and I just really like to be who I am. I think these albums have been the catalyst for me to say, No: there are others out there who dream the way I dream, who see the world the way I see it, and there is nothing wrong with the way we see it.
Man, you’re going to make me cry.
I don’t wanna make you cry!
No, in a good way. That’s so real.
It’s super real, and I felt it and I am super grateful that there are people out there that share it because that’s all I wanna do is make music where people are like, that’s my fuckin story, dude. That’s my story.
It feels generally significant that you’re coming with the phoenix message in 2016, in particular, a year where so much is shifting within the music industry, and that you’re continuing this long tradition of black women being at the forefront of innovation in pop. It’s big.
It’s big because the message is big. When we first got into it, I kind of was like, I don’t really know what we’re doing, we’re kind of figuring this out as we go along. We kind of sit in our own little lane and we do our own little journey and I can’t wait for the day that people don’t have to describe or define me as, “This is music like such and such.” Cause we’re not on an independent or major label. There are no managers, there are no cosigns. There is no money! This is just artist passion, people out just doing what they love to do and saying, we refuse to be put in a category, we refuse to be told that we can’t do this because we don’t have the budget. If we can’t find the funds to support us we’re going to figure out a way to do it on our own.
It’s also an example of how a person can be complicated, that you don’t have to be part of a binary. You can have been on a reality show, and also make creative, unorthodox art!
Well, they’re still struggling with that one! Some people can’t conceive of it, cause it’s just it hasn’t been done and I think it’s so hard for them to catch onto it because they only see it as one thing. They’re like, But you were on a reality TV show, this can’t be who you are because you were pop music and you were mainstream so this is not you doing this. It’s like, we force ourselves to be one thing—but I never was one thing to begin with.
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Image by Sasha Samsonova.