INTERVIEW: Dawn Richard on blurring the lines between recording and live performance, the importance of creative isolation, and the fifth anniversary of "Last Train To Paris."
Dawn Richard is used to being a couple of steps ahead. Signed and releasing music since 2004, the New Orleans singer has seen every side of the industry in her decade-plus career, from the pinnacle of major label excess to the humbling and freeing independent grind. As unpredictable as it's been, she's managed to push her sound forward with every release.
The singer's first big break came with her involvement in Bad Boy girl group Danity Kane, which came together through reality show, Making The Band. After the gradual dismantling of DK, Dawn remained on the label's roster and cautiously participated in the supergroup, Diddy-Dirty Money, made up of herself, Diddy and Kalenna Harper, forgoing her frustrations with the way her last act was handled in the name of great music. The trio's one and only album, Last Train To Paris, released in 2010, predicted R&B's recent obsession with electronic music, going over the heads of mainstream audiences despite its blockbuster presentation. It proved to be both an influential work and a stepping stone for Dawn as a solo artist. "That’s the reason why I’ve taken the journey that I’ve taken sonically," she suggests. "Everybody's doing that sound now."
However, it wasn't until 2013's fluid, experimental GoldenHeart that Dawn began her most ambitious undertaking yet -- a trilogy of solo records, each completing one essential piece of her artistic vision. The Heart series is the result of the creative freedom Dawn has earned through complete independence, putting herself at the center of every aspect of her art -- whether that be her guiding role as a producer, surreal visual ideas, elaborate set designs, or the very release of her music with Our Dawn Entertainment.
The second installment in the trilogy, BlackHeart, which Dawn describes as her "milestone" achievement thus far, arrived in 2015, taking her even further from R&B and pop song structures, and building on the "cinematic" feel of GoldenHeart by introducing an immersive visual component alongside it. It also paired her with Noisecastle, a producer whose unwillingness to make eye contact with his peers makes him a rare match for Dawn, who has made an effort to preserve his insular world and weave it into her own. "I love him to sit in his corner, and his little cave," she says of the purposefully isolated recording process she too prefers. "I’m not a fan of people, I like caves better."
Now going simply as D∆WN, a recent pseudonym, but one that feels in line with the phoenix narrative she's been building over the course of Heart, she readies RED•emp•tion, the closing chapter of the saga. The album continues the progression from BlackHeart, inching closer to becoming a living work of art, as Dawn focuses on bringing performance and the "live" aspect of music to the forefront. As of last week, she became the first artist to perform as part of YouTube's 360° series, and that inclusive, interactive approach is the album's mission statement. Bringing up the tempo to a naturally danceable, rave-inspired 160 BPM, it's also some of the most universal music she's made yet -- or so the infectious singles "Dance" and "Not Above That" would suggest. "Everybody told me I wasn't going to be able to do this," she said of the early ambitions of her trilogy. "I'm just trying to finish this shit so I can put up my middle fingers at the end of it all."
As much as she defines herself as a cave-dweller when it comes to perfecting her vision, the payoff comes with the way the music moves people, something Dawn has learned from her recent shows, and is now working into the album experience for RED. The cave will always be intact, but this time, she may be ready to let the world in.
You just kicked off your tour. How has it been so far?
It’s been great. We always do a bit of the old stuff, because I never really have enough time to do as much music as I have. So I did a lot of music that I hadn’t done in the past before, and I did a lot of the new stuff. It’s dope that they know the words to a lot of the new shit already.
What’s the setup like?
I have keys, a drummer, and two dancers. I always carry the dancers with me. I just love the aesthetic of choreography, so I like their presence.
Do you think about the performance aspect of your music when you’re writing?
Absolutely, I have to. Even with this new album, when I knew we were going to go with the 160 BPM, I knew that I wanted to have a show that was way more visual, way more light effective, way more LED, way more of a strobe feel. I wanted it to feel like a fucking party on stage. I knew that the music was going to feel like that. It had to look like that. Aesthetically, we’ve kind of created a rave on stage. Having the dancers, and having them really be manly and aggressive. Then my drummer’s a goth and my keys is like a hipster [laughs], so it feels like when you go to a rave and see all these random people.
Can we expect the same feel from the “RED” era?
It’s a party. “Not Above That” is a really good indication of what the album will sound like.
You worked with Machinedrum on “Not Above That,” while your last two albums were largely collaborations with Druski and Noisecastle, respectively. Will Machinedrum play a similar role this time around?
Absolutely, he’ll be a big piece, but I’ll never leave Noisecastle, because Noisecastle is fucking ill and he’s the reason this sound has grown. Blackheart was our milestone. That was the one that kind of put us on the map, so to get rid of him would be blasphemous [laughs]. He and Machinedrum compliment each other very well. They’re two completely different styles, but still marry together. My homework is becoming the co-producer to get that to where it makes sense, scoring the album so it flows perfectly.
You also worked with a Norwegian songwriter named Maya Vik on the single. How did you meet her?
A friend of mine, Marcus, he worked over at Interview magazine as an editor, and now he’s at IMG. He was like "There’s this girl I think you would really fuck with, she plays the bass and she has an afro," and I was like "fuck yeah". And he was like "oh, and she’s European, she’s white."
This bitch is fucking Prince. Think Apollonia. High skirts and bass with a fucking blonde afro. I was like "I’d date you if I could’. She’s awesome. She has this really high, soft, angelic falsetto. I was like "I’d really love for you to do this next record," so she sent me this record, and it was super 80s, and it was “Not Above That”. I was like "this is super cool," and after I listened to it for a while I thought "this could go so many places. I like where it’s at, but let me make it Dawn". So I took it -- we wrote it together, and then I said, "Machinedrum, play with this" -- and he sent back this fucking dumbass break and I was like "aaaaaah! you get me!"
I went over the verses with the softer, more melodic tone, and I said, "it would be good to fucking trip people out. The girls will love it, but just when the dudes are about to press pause because it’s too girly, that fucking break beats you over the head, and you’re like 'this is amazing!'" [laughs]. I love that. I wanted that contrast.
Did you know “Not Above That” would be the single right away?
I knew it. It was too great not to be. Machinedrum and I are fighting over records now, because he has his album coming out. This one record, I will kill him for it. I promise you he will be assassinated. He wants it for his record, and I’m like "I will shoot you, this is so good" [laughs]. That’s what it’s become now -- us fighting for the best shit because it’s so good.
So are Machinedrum and Noisecastle collaborating as well?
They’re separated. I don’t want them to get influenced by one another. Noisecastle is special. I don’t think he needs to have anybody’s influence. He’s really good at what the fuck he does. I love him to sit in his corner, and his little cave -- because he has a cave -- and do his cave-like things, and I want Machinedrum to do his cave-like things, and for the two to never meet. My job as a producer and as an artist is to sit back and say, ‘now how do I make this make sense?’.
Do you have a cave?
I have three caves. I’m the biggest hermit crab you’ll ever meet in your entire life. I like caves. Can’t do people too much. I’m not a fan of people, I like caves better.
Noisecastle seemed to come out of nowhere. How did you find him?
JoJo was working with him. We’re friends, and she said "I found somebody who lives on the same planet as you". I said, "poor thing, he must be really crazy". The first day we met, we did like 4 songs.
Diddy-Dirty Money's "Last Train To Paris" celebrated its 5th anniversary in December. How do you feel about it now?
I feel about it the same way I felt when I said yes to do it. People were like "why would you be in a group with [Diddy]? He was just your boss, he shitted on you. Why would you even do it?," and that was the reason. I thought the music was fucking insane, and I wanted to be a part of that. That was the kind of music that I wanted to do. I still feel like it’s slept on, and that’s the reason why I’ve taken the journey that I’ve taken sonically.
Diddy just posted about it on Instagram and called it his “cult classic”.
I’m glad he said that. We loved it. It was the best times of my life doing that music. We had every-fucking-body on it. We had the entire music industry on it, literally. Fucking Grace Jones? We had Grace Jones, Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and fucking Lil Wayne and Bilal on the same record [laughs].
There was so many drugs, so much rock and roll in that era. It was so gnarly to see. We would sit down and Jay Z would just walk in, Kanye would be sitting in there, Swizz Beatz would be in there. Motherfuckers was just playing records. I’d never seen no shit like that. And then Grace Jones would just walk in drunk and high as fuck. It was like "this shit is really happening". It was one of the coolest times ever. It was exactly like it sounded.
Now that you're completely independent, do you feel you learned a lot about the industry through those experiences?
I think I was blessed to see both sides. I saw how the machine worked. I was IN the machine -- like I fucking woke up next to the machine. It was literally like we were in the studio and we were like "ugh, you again?". I lived with that. I lived with someone who showed me this industry at a whole other level. I think that was really cool to see hands on. I saw the interchange between Interscope and Atlantic, and watch that story happen too, as well as seeing what it was like not to have it. That was a big fucking difference. That was a lot of money, a lot of furs, a lot of fucking booze, and then it went to "how am I gonna pay to eat today?" [laughs]. It was a different dynamic. So to see both sides, I see how the industry is, and I appreciate it. I like both sides. Both sides showed me a lot. I think I’m applying that knowledge and the structure in the way I’m coming out as an artist now. It’s this hint of mainstream, with a lot of underground as well, so it’s kind of like the best of both.
Would you ever go back to a label?
I mean, if there’s money that comes to help us, if there’s sponsorship, if a label can let me do what I choose to do, then we’ll do it. But I’ll always be indie because my team will always be small. I don’t want anyone but these people that I’ve got right now. So I’ll always move like that.
I guess at this point you've built your own brand, and if a label approached you, they'd be looking for the whole package as-is.
They’d have to shut up and just give me the money. It would be like sleeping with a prostitute [laughs]. It would be like let me have some sex and then pay me and just let me go about my business. You gotta just let me do what I do, and if I can’t do that, then I don’t want to be a part of it.
When can we expect the album?
Fall. The album’s done. We could do more records, but the skeleton is there. The tracks are there.
So are you just drawing the lines between the songs at this point?
I’m sequencing and I’m pushing the producers to see my vision. Because sometimes I think a little too out of the box, so I’ve gotta bring them over.
How do you do that?
Producers just see it in the context of music and beat machine. They’re not looking at these sleeves, this color and this hair -- they don’t see it that way. You have to present it to them beyond just the music. Like the “James Dean / Titans” video that we did that we turn into diamonds. Noisecastle didn’t see it. I was like, “I’m going to turn into a diamond, and then the guys are going to be titans and they’re going to be black obsidian things” and he was like “what the fuck are you talking about?” I’m like "you have to make the music like this because I’m going to put 'Titans' and 'James Dean' together," and he was like "that doesn’t make sense, they don’t fit”. We showed it to him visually and it did.
Will there be a large video component to the "RED" era?
I think so. I’m really trying to make interactive choices with the fans. I really want to do videos where they get to do more with it, and we get to push it to the next level. It won’t be like it was done with Blackheart where it was just visuals upon visuals. Each visual will have an interactive point, there will be a reason for it. The “Red” Era is not just visual, it’s live. GoldenHeart was cinematic, but it was just about the auditory-- it was the music, Blackheart was more visual for videos and that aesthetic. This is the live experience. We’re trying to bring it to you live, right into your face. It’s not going to be just delivering videos, it’s going to be something interactive where the fans can be live and in color with it. So each era has its own personality.
Does that mean you'll be touring a lot more this time around?
I would love to be on tour forever. I would love to live on a bus that would be great -- in a bus cave. I would sleep all the time. I’m a Leo so I would just nap and then sing. [Laughs] That would be the dream. That’s what I’m used to, just work.
What's the best part of performing?
Looking at them. The people who know your shit. They know your lyrics and your moves, and they feel touched and they come up to you like, “this record changed my life”. That shit is amazing. You’re going through your own shit, you don’t know you’re going to touch anybody. You’re just putting that record because you hated your girlfriend or your boyfriend. You’re like “I wish you would just go jump off a bridge, I wrote this about you because you’re stupid." Then someone says “yo, that saved my life.” That’s the best part about live performance. It’s that you can touch people. It puts a face to this whole thing.