D∆WN On Her ‘RED*emp*tion’ LP, The R&B Shift & The Power Of Independence: Interview

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Dawn Richard — or D∆WN as she is now known — is officially kicking off the Red Era as she gears up for the release of her third album, RED*emp*tion. 

We sat down with the 32-year-old artist to discuss the creation of the upcoming album, not wanting to do typical collaborations and how she’s learned to be comfortable in her own skin. Read on to see what D∆WN had to say in our conversation below!

I’m curious to know the significance of the color red, because with the Goldenheart album you said it kind of represented being the hero of your own story. So what’s the meaning behind RED*emp*tion?
DAWN RICHARD: It’s not about fighting anymore, it’s understanding. I found this freedom with being me. This [album] is not seeking to be the hero, but appreciating the journey and sitting back like “I’ve made it to where I feel comfortable with myself.” So red signifies this fire, this phoenix feel that’s been inside. And the bounce back and what you’ve been through…everyone hits that moment in their life where they have an “Aha!” moment. The lightbulb turns on and instead of it being yellow, it’s red. 

And I’ve never really considered you to be an independent artist, but I know you put yourself out there through marketing and publicity—which is rare in this industry—yet some may look at you as mainstream. So how do you balance that fine line between the two?
DR: Well I am independent. There is no team behind the 3-4 people you see, there’s no major machine or co-signs—it’s all hard work. Like I put a nine-foot LED triangle together by myself before a show, and take it down at the end. I think it’s great that you said you don’t see us as independent because we’ve managed to put ourselves out in that way. But I’ve beat that horse of telling people we’re indie so much, so now I’m just gonna lay back off that and do me. I’m not gonna keep throwing it in everybody’s face, and like you said it doesn’t matter at this point. But I do hear what you’re saying about mainstream with the threading of the sound, it’s not so far over to the left where it’s only one beat. And that’s a beautiful thing.

We’re among a few—well maybe more, but I haven’t listened to the radio that much, who are pushing that hybrid. You don’t have to be over here or over there, you can sit quite well in the middle. I think we’re comfortable there, and it’s cool that it’s being accepted more. It used to be a taboo where you’re either a cool kid or a pop culture kid, and it’s nice to see these hybrids starting to happen. I have a really great relationship with a lot of underground artists, but then we also have this history with my girl group and what I’ve done with Bad Boy, Interscope and Atlantic. So I do have the best of both worlds and I want to be able to put that in my music.

Do you ever find yourself returning to a big label again? Or are you focused more on pushing like you are now?
DR: If I do, it will be on my terms. It will still move as my own engine and they’ll have to be behind the scenes to allow me to be the creative. That’s the only way I’ll go back to any kind of label. I’m not opposed to a major label—I grew up in one. But I love this creative process right now and I don’t think I’m willing to let that go, because I feel like it’ll be super transparent for people where they’ll pick up the change.

And when I listen to your music, the first thing that comes to mind is R&B. But I don’t think you would want to be boxed into one genre, since you have so many music influences.
DR: It’s so funny, because each person has a very different idea of what my music is. I had an interview where they said I was very much an EDM artist, and you say I’m R&B. And I’m all of those things. And it’s not there in music anymore. You’ve got Diplo and Skrillex working with Justin Bieber on R&B-infused records that are on pop/dance charts. I don’t think the genres really matter anymore.

Speaking of those bigger pop acts, I’ve been noticing a trend where these male singers are using the R&B niche to sell their pop music. But I also feel there are so many lesser known artists who aren’t getting recognition.
DR: Welcome to the business! There’s always a larger brand or company looking at the little people and saying, “Let’s take this trend and make it better.” They have the money and the ability, so there gonna run with it. We shouldn’t be bitter, we should figure out how to be better. I see it, but I’m going to keep finding ways to break through it! But there’s always a crack that someone authentic seeps through who is able to do it their way. But I do see it, and I think everyone’s aware of it. But that’s the name of the name—it’s a beast.

You said you’ve been working with a lot of underground producers for this new project, so do you have anyone on your radar who you feel will be the next big thing?
DR: It’s hard because when I’m in the album process, I don’t listen to anyone because I’m so in the zone. I don’t want any influences because people do that enough with me. So I haven’t had my ear to the ground, but I know the people that I’ve been working with like Machinedrum, Kingdom, Fade to Mind are so cool and already on the verge. Those guys are consistent, and I like to be around that.

And I know you co-produced a lot of tracks on Blackheart, is that going to continue to happen on this album?
DR: It will, that’s always a freedom when working with Noisecastle. And with Machinedrum, we’re a clash of the titans because our conversations and text messages collide a lot—and it’s a good debate! It gets us out of our comfort zone, so I’ll be building a lot like I did with the last album.

So I’ve been bumping “Not Above That,” and I wanted to know the musical story behind it. It’s such a great track!
DR: Thank you! It actually didn’t sound like that, it was a completely different record. Maya Vik [the song’s co-writer]—she’s very up and coming. She plays the bass and is very Apollonia and Prince. She’s white but she has this big head of hair and ’80s infused, I love it! So when we did the record, it was super ’80s, slow and very downbeat. After like two weeks I get bored, and I was like it’s so cheesy. Not that they made it cheesy, but I felt it could be so much more and way more aggressive. I gave Machinedrum the a capella, and he came back with this driving break, and it was insane. So I came up with these melodic verses that came in with his heavy feel, and it created an interesting hybrid. All of my songs evolve and always changes. Every song that I’ve done never started the way it is now.

The lyric video has this really funky 3-D effects to it, and I’ve admired the way that you make sure visuals are as important as the song. And there aren’t a lot of artists now who are really pushing the visual front.
DR: Some people don’t resonate with auditory, they resonate with visual. Some hear things in color and have to see to understand it. We shouldn’t be lacking on one or the other—if you’re making an incredible auditory experience, you have to give people the opportunity to see it visually as well. People can hate a song based off the way it looks visually, and some can fall in love with the record because the visual was better than the actual song. That marriage is needed. And I grew up where my mom made me watch [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers dance. I was in awe watching the way they move, and I fell in love with the art.

Now I won’t do a song if I can’t see it visually in my mind and if I don’t know the choreography to it already. That’s how it was in the ’90s: Aaliyah was giving you a full 8-count in a leather bra, Missy [Elliott] was giving a full moment. Like the records were great, and the videos had the audacity to be ten times better! And Aphex Twin too. Their music was industrial and then you saw the videos and was like, “I’m gonna have nightmares tonight. This is fucking gnarly!” And that was cool for me. I remember watching “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden and their eyes got big and their faces were stretched, it was super chilly and uncomfortable. But it was pretty dope they made me feel that.

I watched your Adele cover of “Hello” earlier and it was incredible! Why did you choose that song in particular?
DR: It’s well written, and I usually don’t do covers. Like when I did Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” I made it so different. People are now doing videos to songs, like remaking these songs. No disrespect but I just find that totally odd. But I think that’s where we are now and it’s the only way to keep everyone’s attention. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, they’re just trying to stay relevant in the times. So when I do something, it has to be pout of respect to the artist. Adele is Adele. So if you fuck that up, it’s on you.

Would you ever want to collaborate with other artists in the future?
DR: What I find with collaborations is that people are dying for co-signs. I love certain people, like the Alabama Shakes are amazing and I love Leon Bridges and the girl group King. But what I’ve learned from collaborations is that when I was at my lowest, no one was looking to work with me. I kind of got used to figuring things out on my own to the point where if it happens, that’s cool–but there’s no diehard need to collaborate. I like the build of collaborating with producers and musicians, that would be fresh. Like working with Nigerian dancers in Lagos or Misty Copeland–cool things like that would be dope.

I think now people look for a certain attachment just to get chart success, but there’s nothing organic about it.
DR: And that’s not really where I’m at. I’m looking to collaborate in a different way. The new contemporary artists out there, like illustrators and comic book designers. [I want to] do something on a digital platform like with Samsung and get outside the box with 3-D and 4-D stuff. Like what Intel did with Lady Gaga, that’s what I think of when it comes to collaborations. Not necessarily features.

I’ve been following you ever since the Danity Kane days, and I feel like you’re in a different state of mind with each project release. ForRED*emp*tion, what is the mindset right now?
DR: I’m happy, and in my own skin and loving myself. I know you can relate to this as a black woman, but I grew up in the South where brown and nappy hair were not in. I had hard times with loving self. And then being in a group that was predominantly white and I had a different voice—that wasn’t easy. I left school for that and had to graduate online, my family lost everything and the job that I love had left. It was like every time I would get eight steps up, ten more would fall down. So to be where I’m at now is because I’ve worked very hard—nothing was given. I’m accepting me as a woman, and most don’t get to that point. So that’s what this album is: an acceptance of self. And the fan base that I’ve developed deserve that too. They’re like little misfits. I’ve heard stories about them being being shamed, bullied…horrible shit, and this is their release. I have a huge gay fan base and they’ve gone through a lot, and this will be our story. That can be super cliche, but it’s fucking real life dude.

Are you amped to hear Dawn Richard’s third album? Let us know below, or by hitting us up on Facebook and Twitter!