After we finish talking in her hotel bar, the woman who made last year’s weirdest and best R&B record – if that’s what we’re calling it – will take her tool kit and build a giant, illuminated triangle for the set of her New York tour stop. After the show, she’ll take it apart, and the next night she’ll do it again, with help only from Kyle, a fan who has become her constant companion and assistant. Before her current tour of North American clubs, which kicked off earlier this month, she sat at home and taught herself introductory carpentry. “The guy at the venue thought it was so funny,” Dawn Richard says. “I was with Santigold – she had a show there too – and he was like, ‘She has people that build it!’ I’m like, oh, that must be nice.” She laughs. “At this point I wouldn’t even know what to do if the label sent people. I have my own little screwdriver, and I’m gonna figure this shit out.”
I’m a little surprised, but not really. For years now, Richard, who as of late goes by D∆WN, has been carefully constructing an elaborate musical fantasy world, piece by piece. On 2013’s Goldenheart, her first independent full-length, the New Orleans native was recast as an Afrofuturist Joan of Arc, for whom love was a literal battlefield and “R&B” was a cover-up for next-level dance-pop. Last year’s Blackheart ushered Richard into a darker era; deeply personal and wonderfully weird, the album joined polyrhythms with power ballads and reimagined “Billie Jean” as a cunning nihilist skulking through a “city full of thirsty hos.” Both albums, and 2012’s Armor On EP, have been accompanied by some of the most stunning videos of the 2010s, fleshing out her mythological universe. And she’s done it almost singlehandedly, through her own Our Dawn Entertainment imprint – in other words, herself, Kyle, her director, and her stylist. That’s it. “When people call me ‘independent,’ I don’t think they understand that a bitch is for real building,” Richard stresses. “I’ve gone broke for this project. Like, you don’t even know — the struggle, the brokeness, of trying to make this beautiful because I just care about it.”
It’s taken a minute for people to get it — maybe because no one knows what to do with a black woman making conceptual electronic music (if that’s what we’re calling it), maybe because no one expects it from a former Making the Band star. Richard joined the third season of Diddy’s reality show in 2005, shortly before Hurricane Katrina destroyed her family home, and was ushered from there into the factory-grade girl group Danity Kane. (The group’s name came from a manga superheroine Richard had been sketching in the studio, naturally.) At first she was happy to be there. Gradually, she realized just how little autonomy she really had. “We’d have to take pictures of what we wore and get it approved,” she remembers. “Meanwhile, I just wanted to wear a fucking garbage bag.” She left the group in 2009 to join Diddy’s brilliant but short-lived Dirty Money experiment, and then struck out on her own.
Now she’s ready for her trilogy’s final chapter: RedemptionHeart, or what she calls the Red Era. But don’t expect the mythology and melancholy of her older works. “I think I’m done playing with the past,” she says. “The Red Era is very much in 2035. This is my party record, my ‘goddamnit, we made it’ record.” Richard previously kept her albums to a sole co-producer — Druski on Goldenheart, Noisecastle III on Blackheart — but lately she’s been working with Machinedrum, Jimmy Edgar, and Kingdom, ramping her tempos up to 160 BPM, having fun. Her latest single, “Not Above That,” juxtaposes her breathy falsetto against a breakneck Machinedrum beat, a balancing act between strength and vulnerability. “I just want it to feel like the party in The Great Gatsby, where it’s like, ‘Who the fuck is throwing this party?’” she explains. “And at the finale, when they reveal who’s doing it, it’s like, ‘Goddamn, this is the best party ever!’”
After a decade of almost, it feels as if Richard’s moment is imminent, even though no one knows exactly how to make sense of her yet. This year, I notice, media outlets have started categorizing her music as “electronic” rather than R&B. (Upon its release, “Not Above That” hit No. 1 on the iTunes electronic charts — a rare feat for a black female artist, even rarer for a wholly independent one.) But Richard has spent too much time trying to figure out where she fits to give a fuck about titles. She just wants to make the music, build the damn thing. “If they wanna label me something, label me as the bitch that did every-fucking-thing – the Carpenter Dawn. The fucking carpenter artist! That’s what they should say.” She bursts out laughing. “The fucking Build-a-Bear Dawn, I’ll take that. The welder. The independent artist with no money Dawn. Then you’re doing your research! ‘The Princess of Pop’ — they can have that shit. The Carpenter? That’d be great.”
Did you know what this final chapter of your trilogy – RedemptionHeart and the Red Era – would be when you started it all?
Dawn Richard: I knew the Red Era would be the best of me – meaning me at my happiest. I just didn’t know what that sounded like. I worried I was too dark and my happy would still be totally melancholy, but it’s not. It feels like a second line. You know about second lines? In New Orleans, we do it for weddings, funerals, whatever. Walk out in the middle of the day on a Sunday, like, “Oh, the sun is shining, let’s start fucking dancing.”
That’s kind of a perfect symbol for a lot of your music, the idea of dancing at funerals.
Richard: We look at it as a homecoming. In New Orleans it’s a very spiritual black community. I grew up Roman Catholic my whole life, and we thought of it as a celebration that you finally meet your maker. So we dance. There’s some symbolism with that, especially coming from what I’ve been through in the Black Era. It was like my own little death, and now this rise.
What changed from last year, with Blackheart and the Black Era, to now?
Richard: When you embrace your dark side, you find that dark and light both need to be in you at the same time. Blackheart acknowledged that, and once I let it out, there was a sigh of relief. Now I can be whoever I am. I think we’ve been told that if we feel malicious or hurt, that makes us bad people. I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re learning to be human, and there will be fuck-ups. And if we embrace the fuck-ups, we’re better people for it.
What is it about the color red?
Richard: When I see red, I think of an urgency, a fire lit underneath you. When I was growing up, we used to study the colors of the flags of Africa. They had a song that went “Rally round the flag, rally round the red, gold, black, and green …” And we would learn about the power of the colors of Africa and red would always resonate with me. It was like the blood of the river. If you ever found freedom, what color would that be? Why not red?
Was conceiving the universe that you’ve been building over this trilogy an escapist thing?
Richard: It was healing. I never loved myself the way I felt like I should have. I think a lot of women go through that. Physically – being black, and my hair, and whatever the case may be – I was struggling with that. And then I got to pop culture and I felt caged. Every time I would go out to work, I was being told, “You can’t look like this, you can’t do this.” I think that was where the creation started. How do you grow as a person when everyone’s telling you how to grow?
Back in the Making the Band and Danity Kane days, did you know that you would eventually get to a place where you would be in a position to express yourself?
Richard: Not at all. I just loved the stage and I was grateful. I was happy to get on the stage and open for Christina Aguilera. I wasn’t aware that the caging was happening. After we got a few hits and we were sitting around, I’d bring up an idea and it was like, “Aw, you dumb girls!” And I was just like, “Okayyy, this is a little gnarly.” We started when we were babies. By the time you hit, like, 25, you realize, “I’m a woman, I need to figure this out,” and they’re saying, “Do not change your hair color. You can’t straighten it. You can’t put on eyeshadow.” I was like, “I gotta find an escape; I’ve been living this lie for a while now.”
Was there a specific moment where you suddenly saw the light?
Richard: There were a few times – I won’t mention them specifically because I don’t wanna put people’s business out, but there were moments that I saw women treated in a way that was unacceptable. And I kept being told to mind my business. That was my turning point. I said, this has been great, but I want to go on and create something different. And I was told to my face: “If you do this sound, no one will get you, and no one will fuck with you.” And I chose this path.
Lately the ideas of “mainstream” and “underground” aren’t really that separate anymore.
Richard: That’s what I’ve been saying! I’ll go to a label that’s indie and they’re like, “You’re too mainstream.” I go to a major label and they’re like, “It’s too different.” But sometimes people need to see it as they go. They told us Dirty Money music was not good, and I go to the radio now — the shit they’re doing sounds like the shit we were doing six years ago. Maybe people might’ve hated Puff, so they didn’t support it, but the electronic hybrid shit, we were already on it. If it’s ahead, let it be ahead.
I’m done proving. I was on a show that made me prove myself for 175 years – and even then, when I got on the label, we were still trying to prove to them that we were great. I’m not fighting for superstardom or for fame. I came from a family and a city where you could literally have a job as an artist for the rest of your life, and that’d be enough. My dad is a music teacher and had a career as a musician all his life. We weren’t rich, but we had a good life, and he did what he loved to do. I’m cool with that. I never really wanted the fame — if that shit comes, that’s cool, but I don’t even know if I’d be good at that shit. I hate red carpets. Do I love fashion? Yes. Do I want to wear what the fuck I want and maybe an umbrella’s coming out the side of my head? Maybe. And they’re gonna say I look a fucking mess, and that’s fine. A bitch just wants to run naked!
Your videos feel like such a crucial part of what you’re doing — these elaborate, strange, transportive spaces you used to see in Hype Williams or Missy Elliott videos that people don’t really do anymore. It’s crazy that you’re pulling this off as an independent artist.
Richard: And, like, independent on a whole ’nother level. I really believe in what I’m doing, and that’s about it. But I study. I told Kyle, “I need to learn how to do sales pitches.” I have a great director, Monty Marsh, and my stylist, and the three of us just sit down, and I’m like, “I think this would be really cool if we tried this.” Then Monty and I go and hustle and figure it out: OK, this is the dream, it’s gonna cost this, how do we find this? Every time we say we’re gonna be cheaper, and then we’re not. By the grace of God, we figure it out. It’s still just our little team, but gradually we’ve found people that are like, “We believe in you, can we just be on board?” Because then they get to do their art. The people we were working with on “Titans,” they do commercials in massive production, and they’ll be like, “OK, we’ve been working on the same shit, what you got for us, D?” And they’ll take time and make no money to come and work with us, because they get to do something outside of the box. I’m lucky. If I had a machine behind me with the ideas that we have, I think it would have been so next level – but then that wouldn’t have been the journey. I remember sitting in that office and being told, “If you do this, you will fail.” And here we are.
Why do you think they were so confused by what you wanted to do?
Richard: It’s fair. [I’m] unlike Kelela, unlike Santigold – they came in with their sound. Twigs didn’t come from a girl group and then decide to be Twigs, she came in as Twigs. By the way, she’s great. I think I confused people because I came in with Danity fucking Kane. I do see where the confusion lies. But it doesn’t make sense to me — I looked at early work that Van Gogh did and later work. Impressionism is different from the shit he was doing toward the end of his life. So do you say he’s not an amazing artist because he decided to change his stroke? Lady Gaga started off doing dance-pop and now she won a fucking Grammy award for a jazz album! I thought that was genius. She just managed to say, “Fuck your box.” But I have to ask, is it because I’m black that you can’t accept I’m doing different styles? And I’m not comparing, because I’ve got way more stripes to earn before I become a Gaga, because she built herself. But it doesn’t make sense to me why you can’t see me doing different avenues of music. I have to ask that question a lot. I think psychology is the next thing I’m going to research, because we accept certain things and not others. It’s weird, I don’t get it. I’ll just study it.
Say the label was right, and people don’t get it. Will it still have been worth it?
Richard: Yeah! ’Cause I got a family out of it. I met this kid [Kyle] as a fan, and now he’s my brother. That’s forever. I ain’t having no kids, but if I did, he’d be the godfather. My fan base, like, they have my number, we DM. And I got to create some of the coolest shit ever, with nothing. A lot of people would have given up already.