Dawn, The Carpenter: An R&B Visionary Builds Her Utopia

'I've gone broke for this project. You don't even know the struggle.'

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.”

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