Andrew Ryce meets the woman fusing R&B, virtual reality and underground dance music into some of the most adventurous pop around.
"'You should do what Keyshia Cole did, you should do what K. Michelle did, and go on Love & Hip-Hop,' they said. No disrespect, because I think that platform works for them, but that's not me. If you look back at Making The Band, I was wearing fucking fairies ironed onto my pants. I'm a fucking nerd, dude. I had fucking purple hair."
When I met Richard in Hollywood, there was no entourage and no publicist with her. It was a few days before the release of her latest album, Redemption, which was coproduced by Machinedrum. She was by herself, ordering a drink at Wanderlust, a hybrid coffee shop and yoga studio she goes to when she's home in Los Angeles. It felt like an unguarded setting for an interview with a former pop star, never mind one with two number-one albums under her belt. But that's how Richard does most things these days: on her own.
Richard, who was raised in New Orleans, took the opposite route of most pop stars: she started huge and then went independent. She was propelled to fame on Puff Daddy's Making The Band TV show, where she was part of Danity Kane, a five-piece R&B girl group who had instant mainstream success. Now she self-releases her music and works out of her house.
Richard has far-reaching taste that comes from years as a music obsessive. She unites listeners from across genres and scenes, and she has a knack for marketing, learned during her time in the mainstream music industry. She's directed her own music videos, she's designed a fashion line, she's started doing animation work for Adult Swim and she's now making her way into the underground dance world.
We met on the day after Donald Trump's election victory. An almost funereal feeling hung over LA. (Later that day, I watched people in line for a taco truck crying as they read the news on their phones.) But Richard seemed resolute and ready to fight on. She's always been fighting—first for credibility as a woman in the mainstream music industry, and now for recognition as one of America's most interesting independent artists.
Richard has an out-there sense of style that extends to her entire identity. She's always seen herself as a misfit. Growing up in jazz-obsessed New Orleans, she was into electronic music and alternative rock.
The day I met her, Richard had just dyed her dreadlocks bright red. She was wearing black pants that were ripped to shreds down the middle, in a sort of lattice pattern. She sees fashion and her personal style as another facet of her art. In her music, she brings new technology to familiar forms of black art and identity, and, in turn, brings black identity to the frontier of technology. Her latest music videos have explored virtual reality—impressive for an artist with little-to-no funding behind her—and she released her new album, Redemption, as a USB necklace, combining fashion, technology and music in one device. She has a deep and responsive relationship with her fans on Twitter, previews new material on Snapchat and was an early adopter of live streaming through apps like Periscope.
"I'm trying to figure out a way to collide the sound, the fashion and the look of where tech is going, all in one thing, so that we can really show what Afrofuturism is in a larger spectrum," she told me. "It's so new, especially in the VR realm. I think these worlds are all separate right now. That's where I was with the mainstream and the underground, and now the bridging of the gap is becoming shorter and shorter. That's why the USB necklace was such a cool idea—you can wear your art and listen to it at the same time. It's pushing that boundary."
For someone from the pop music world that kind of avant-garde ambition isn't always well received. Going her own way was tough for Richard at first.
"I did lose a lot of people—the black people in my fan base," she says. "They were like, 'Dawn's always talking about space and shit we don't even understand.' They'd make fun of me, like, 'Is she talking about stars again?' And I get it. It was a large transition going from 'Strip Tease' as a title to 'Goliath.' I think it was shocking that someone who came from reality TV was making music like this."
Richard was an odd fit for reality TV—the name Danity Kane came from a superhero Richard made up, for example—but she was compelling. She helped establish what was on the surface a cookie-cutter R&B outfit as the most successful group to emerge from Making The Band. Part of it was her eye-popping style, but her bewitching voice and bold songwriting was even more important.
"If you listen to a song like 'Lights Out,' it's countermelody upon countermelody," she explained. "I was telling everyone then that I had an affinity for countermelody, putting voices in. That had been the signature the entire time, on records like 'Strip Tease.' I was loving groups like The Cranberries, Stone Temple Pilots and Gorillaz, and I thought it would be really great if a girl group wasn't clichéd. They laughed at me for it, but then we used the name Danity Kane, which was very telling of where I was going anyways."
When Danity Kane fizzled, Richard was drafted into Diddy's Dirty Money group. They released the Ibiza-inspired oddity Last Train To Paris, an unsuccessful experiment. Undaunted, Richard attempted a solo career, self-releasing the flamboyant Armor On EP, which would establish some of the key themes in her work: grandiose production and songwriting, dance music dynamics and a sense of scale that had more in common with art rock than pop music. It was, in Richard's words at the time, "R&B taken to a whole 'nother level."
Armor On and its full-length follow-up, Goldenheart, marked the first time that Richard was able to truly express her passion for electronic music, a love affair that started with Chris Cunningham's music videos in the '90s and trip-hop acts like Portishead. It was also the beginning of her meticulously coproducing every song she put out until each one fit her epic vision. She sang love songs with the scope and melodrama of great Medieval literature and science fiction, and backed it up with production that was somewhere between mainstream dance music and post-dubstep.
Goldenheart was also the first taste of Richard's conceptual work, the beginning of what she conceived as the Heart Trilogy. Goldenheart would be the first chapter, the Gold Era—"That first naive moment where you're like, 'I got this,'" she explains. "But you don't. When you first decide to go to college, or you're gonna get your job, you feel like you're the shit. You're like, 'I'm gonna kill everyone.' If you think about that in a mythological sense, it's like... 'I am going to slay all the dragons. I am Khaleesi.'"
The record was well received in the independent music press and earned her some devoted fans, but it was far from a blockbuster, selling around 9,000 copies. A Kickstarter for the next album only drummed up a couple grand, not enough for Richard to start work on another album. She reunited with Danity Kane for an ill-fated third LP, which spawned a moderately successful single ("Lemonade"), though the group broke up again before their last album, DK3, even hit shelves.
Richard soldiered on into the Black Era, named for the fall from grace she experienced after striking out on her own. Blackheart was a dizzying album that turned the dance-R&B of Goldenheart inside out. The opener, "Calypso," is a rush of percussion and synthesizers with only a few vocal lines, and those don't appear until several minutes in. It's a dark, disorderly album that marked Richard as both a forward-thinking R&B singer and an electronic musician.
"Blackheart was the fall, the confusion," she told me. "The fall is unstructured. You don't fall neatly. You fall chaotically. I was all over the place. I wanted sounds that were uncomfortable. I really went over to the electronic world. It was just like, 'Fuck this, I'm not even gonna sing until three minutes into this song!'"
The album received rave reviews and crossed over into the electronic world, turning heads thanks to its cutting-edge production and much larger marketing effort (Richard produced nine videos for the release, all on her own dollar). It also charted, climbing to the top of Billboard's Independent Albums list and peaking at #2 on the dance chart. Richard had broken a significant barrier with her strangest and most stubborn record yet.
"I just couldn't believe we actually made Billboard," she said. "I'm not your girl that's gonna sell 30,000 units. I'm not on the radio, I'm not on The Today Show. So to be able to be on Billboard speaks to where we are with social media and word of mouth, grassroots business.
"We've managed to exist and create something beautiful based off of some shit like... straight hard work. That's it. Like a startup. We're a fucking small business, which I never thought of until I realized I was sitting at home doing the same shit that someone doing their first app or doing the first fucking VR accessory line, or whatever, was doing too. Studying marketing, financing, learning what to invest the money in, cold calls—shit that other artists are not doing."
After the success of Blackheart, Richard entered the Red Era with a string of one-off singles, a name change to D∆WN and some eye-catching collaborations, including work with Kingdom that was teased on Rinse FM and eventually ended up on an EP in spring 2016.
Richard decided to sign to Local Action, a small, London-based dance music label run by ex-FACT editor Tom Lea, which had primarily released grime and house music. It might have seemed an odd fit for someone like Richard, but it made sense to her. "I will fucking ride with Tom till the wheels fucking fall out," she says. She teamed up with Machinedrum to coproduce almost all of her third album, Redemption, a move that fundamentally altered her sound but also helped it reach the middle ground between dance music and arty R&B that she'd been aiming for since the beginning. The two were introduced by the booking agent they shared; their connection was so strong that they made three songs together the day they met.
"The way he uses cadence, man, it's erratic," she says. "It's like he's dancing on you—his beats are dancing on your chest. I love every second of it."
Redemption, as the name implies, is an uplifting, soaring record, one where everything comes into place at once. It shares a bright tonal palette with Machinedrum's last album, Human Energy, and brims with an optimism and self-assuredness that feels like the down-to-earth realization of Goldenheart's grandiose fantasies.
Redemption is Richard's definitive record as an independent electronic artist, and also her most personal. It highlights her upbringing as a woman raised in Louisiana but coming up in Los Angeles, referenced by the geographical double entendre of album centrepiece "LA" and the occasional incorporation of New Orleans jazz musicians—another deft touch that could easily have felt forced in less capable hands.
"I really wanted to introduce Louisiana in there so people could understand that I could live in this electronic world and I don't have to a change a fucking thing about my past, my colour, or anything," she explained. "Because I am that kid that came from a fucking jazz city and loved something different, and was awkward, and was all those beautiful things. That's what my redemption is for. Whether you can accept it or not, that's not really my concern anymore. It's about those who are going through this with me—this is your shit, too. You're gonna rock with it, and that's the difference.
"Scarily, the trilogy is exactly what I said it would be," Richard said. "I knew I would have issues, and shit, that's what I mean—it just proves this shit is cyclical. We are all constantly going through that three. The rise, the fall and the recovery. I didn't think it would be this fucking perfect, but I'm human, and I'm realizing that everyone's going through that."