Dawn Richard‘s musical career has had more twists and turns than most.
She emerged first as a reality TV contestant, on MTV’s P Diddy-helmed Making The Band series – and was catapulted from being one of New Orleans’ many homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina straight into the girl group Danity Kane. (In a telling sign that Richard would be end up much more than an anonymous girl group member, they were named by her, after a fictional anime character of her own creation.)
Two albums later – including 2008’s hugely underrated Welcome To The Dollhouse, with its hyper-kinetic harmonies and sleek production courtesy of Danja – Danity Kane, perhaps inevitably, disbanded. By now, though, Diddy had noticed Richard’s songwriting potential – and when he set about creating the tour de force that was 2010’s Last Train To Paris, it was with Richard and Kalenna Harper as the Diddy Dirty Money trio. Press attention centered around the megastar in the group, but throughout the Last Train To Paris campaign Diddy consistently insisted that the three members should have equal billing and credit – and indeed, Richard and Harper’s personalities and creativity were imprinted firmly on the trio’s music. But the very nature of Last Train To Paris – an epic conceptual and theatrical narrative – meant that Diddy Dirty Money was destined not to be a long-term project either.
Following 2011’s self-released mixtape, Richard announced her departure from Bad Boy this February. It seems to have unlocked her creativity: a 10-track EP the following month, Armor On, stands as the year’s finest release so far. The album to which it is meant as a prelude, Goldenheart, is due out on October 16, and promises even more.
“That’s the first thing, to believe in your own project and vision. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will.”
“I wasn’t expecting to have no label. But usually no one has the freedom to leave a label so quickly and with so much support; usually it’s negative and takes a fight. It was an amicable split. I think it took time for people to adjust to the fact that I was a solo artist without a label. I had a choice: wait for someone else to understand what the project was about, or take it upon myself to go forward in my career and go hard, and hope that people got it along the way. That’s the first thing, to believe in your own project and vision. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will.”
How long had that vision been in the works?
“That story has been a long time coming. I’ve been wanting to explain that one for a minute, long before I was even in Danity Kane. I knew I couldn’t tell that story then – out of respect for each group I was in, I didn’t feel like it was the right time to tell it, because you have to share your dream with other people. Once I left Bad Boy, I knew it was an opportunity for me to tell the story in the way I’d felt it for my whole life. I felt like I dreamed it…Instead of looking at not having a label like a negative, I looked at it like an opportunity to do the things I wanted to do that a label would have restricted or questioned; they perhaps wouldn’t have allowed an artist like me to go down that road.”
“Once I left Bad Boy, I knew it was an opportunity for me to tell the story in the way I’d felt it for my whole life.”
What do you mean by “an artist like you”?
“Not in a negative way. Coming from two groups, they’d have an idea of what my sound was – I went from a pop-mainstream group to a hip-hop/R&B group. Going into something more conceptual would have been…well, often executives feel like they have an idea of what Your Sound is because of what they’ve seen you do before.”
One of the most impressive things about Armor On is how well it’s sequenced – both in the way the music ebbs and flows from track to track, and in how the lyrical themes are developed, it’s like a story…
“I wanted Armor On to be like the introduction to a book. I always told myself, it has to be vivid, it has to seem like you’re reading a book. It has to be cohesive. I hate when I’m listening to something and it breaks me out of the dream I’ve been taken into; I really wanted people to listen to it like they were walking the journey alongside me, and not for a second stop or pause or be confused. This journey has really been a walking whirlwind for me; it’s been a long road, a hard fight – being homeless, going through the things I went through – and literally every day I feel like I’m fighting this battle with armour on, trying to restore faith in something that has been lost. That’s the fight I want people to join me with.”
“I feel like I’m fighting this battle with armour on, trying to restore faith in something that has been lost. That’s the fight I want people to join me with.”
And you explore the idea of “armour” from every possible angle…
“You have absolutely got it, that is exactly it. And it’s not difficult, it’s so relatable. To me I feel that’s what writing is – the same stories retold in a thousand different ways, and I just want to tell mine in a way that causes you to dream a little.”
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You worked solely with producer Druski on Armor On, and the obvious chemistry between the sonic ideas, the melodies and vocals is one of its strengths: it seems completely natural and effortless even as you go further and further out. Tell me about your relationship with Druski.
“I met him not even a year ago, through my ex at the time – which is interesting because that fell apart. The first day we met, we realised our musical chemistry was dead on, we were meant to be together. He had an idea on what he wanted to do for me but by the time we did that, he realised we were gonna dream some way further than he’d thought. Once I told him, Dru, we’re gonna dream a little bit bigger and go a little bit harder, he was so excited – after working with so many artists it was an opportunity for him to spread his wings a little wider. We gave ourselves no boundaries. This kind of no-boundaries progression of R&B – that’s a sound we developed together.”
“This kind of no-boundaries progression of R&B – that’s a sound Druski and I developed together.”
“I always tell everybody I have this cyber-rainforest in my mind. I live in this place where I feel like every day I’m in this jungle fighting. And I’ll tell Dru I’m in a rainforest, or in Egypt, or in sand, and I want you to create this – and he’ll come back and it’ll sound like that! We laugh with each other because we dream in the same place. I feel like when I wake up I do put on armour and I fight these big-ass monsters every day of my life. I come back and I say Dru, how was your day – and he did the same thing. I feel like that’s the world, how can you set that up musically? And Dru looks at me and says he can set it up. I’m a huge fan of Phil Collins and I’ll say, how do you incorporate that padding or that tone, and that’s what we come up with.”
My favourite section of the album might be the moment it hits ‘Faith’, which is a masterclass in build-and-release both in itself and in its positioning two-thirds of the way through Armor On, between the multi-layered vocals and luxuriant strings that precede it on ‘Heaven’ and the devotional mysticism of ‘Scripture’.
“I feel like you’re running towards something in ‘Faith’, and there’s a breakdown when it all slows down in ‘Scripture’ – but it never feels slow, it feels like you’re ever moving, your body and your heartbeat are taking you someplace you don’t know. And that’s the mystery of life: you always feel like you’re holding your breath in anticipation of something. And nothing stays still or the same. It’s almost like you already know the visual side…I remember feeling like that reading literature – reading Hemingway, you felt like you could picture it, hold it in your hands. I feel like Armor On has the same intensity – if you close your eyes tight enough, you can almost see the story happening before you.”
“That’s the mystery of life: you always feel like you’re holding your breath in anticipation of something. And nothing stays still or the same.”
It’s definitely an extraordinarily visually evocative record – how conscious was this in its creation?
“The visual is the centre of everything. People forget that dance has been a part of my life longer than I’ve been a singer, so for me the visual and the movement – everything is incorporated around that. When I’m at the studio, I’m always telling Dru, this has to change, or this has to move because people are gonna move to this sound in a different way. He’ll be looking at me like, what are you talking about? I had to literally visually show him what that movement is.”
So he creates rhythms from the dances you do, rather than vice versa?
“Yeah. I know it in my mind already and I have to be able to dance to it live. The whole project has to be cohesive, from the studio to the stage. You hear Armor On and you can damn near see it on stage already, you’re standing in front of it.”
It’s unbelievable to me that a project as fully-formed, thought-through and flawlessly executed as Armor On is billed as an EP that’s a mere prelude to the album proper. What can we expect from Goldenheart when it drops in October? The single, ‘Pretty Wicked Things’, is a magnificent piece of work.
“When we saw the responses to Armor On, Dru and I looked at each other like…that wasn’t even our best, we have so much more to give. I’m so excited about what we can create, I’m like a little giddy kid. ‘Pretty Wicked Things’ is actually the set-up for the sound of Goldenheart. It’s a lot more cinematic. Every song has an intro and an outro. ‘Pretty Wicked Things’ sets you up with an atmosphere before it even starts; and just when you think you’ve got an idea of the record, it transforms into something else. Goldenheart will keep you on your toes. Armor On was just the preparation. It was us getting armed, it was us practicing, getting ready for the fight.
“It’s a battle, and it’s going to be the most extreme battle.”
“Goldenheart is the actual battle, so things are a lil’ bit more aggressive; a lil’ bit stronger, vocally and lyrically. Armor On was just a vibe. You hear everything coming through strong on Goldenheart because a battle cannot be timid. When ‘Pretty Wicked Things’ is erratic, it’s urgent. When the dubstep comes in on that last part it’s almost damn near like you’re at the top of your head. It’s a battle, and it’s going to be the most extreme battle.”
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The power in ‘Pretty Wicked Things’ felt so elemental to me…
“Yes. It’s turbulent. In battle, everything is based off instinct. This album is instinctual and animalistic, but it’s innocent and pure at the same time. You know when you’re passionate and you’ve never fought before, you just go in screaming? It’s like that. I want people to feel like they’ve had a cathartic experience by the end. To wipe their foreheads because they’re sweating from the emotional rollercoaster they’ve been on.”
“I want people to feel like they’ve had a cathartic experience by the end. To wipe their foreheads because they’re sweating from the emotional rollercoaster they’ve been on.”
Let’s talk about some of your influences. One recurring motif in the Diddy Dirty Money project was a love of Sade – first Diddy rapped “smoke weed, listen to Sade” on ‘Ass On The Floor’, and then on the LoveLove vs HateLove mixtape you made an incredible song titled ‘Sade’. Armor On sees you interpolate Sade’s ‘Pearls’ on ‘Scripture’. What is it about her that appeals so much to you?
“I think she’s revolutionary, and the reason I say that is because she maintains her sound – one of those sounds that has this dark feel, but there’s always that bliss that comes with it. She creates a setting and a vibe that is timeless. That’s an element I always wanted to use in my music.”
“I think Sade is revolutionary.”
You’ve discussed how you wanted Armor On to tell a story. Your 2011 mixtape A Tell Tale Heart also did that to an extent – and indeed was named after an Edgar Allen Poe short story. What was the significance of that?
“I’m a huge fan of the way Poe tells stories. There’s always darkness behind them but always a moral to it too. I felt like the storyline of A Tell Tale Heart – this guy, even after he’d killed all these people, he couldn’t get rid of his guilty conscience and he’d always hear this sound – I felt it was a really strong image…It’s also interesting – when you get inspired by something like this you lose people. We don’t have as many readers as we used to. But I tried to find ways to incorporate characters and storylines that were my favourites because that encourages people to go and find out the underlying message and read the book themselves – it pushes them a little more to decode something.”
“Those records were done a long time ago, prior to even Danity Kane. Everything is timing, and when I was in the booth for them it was just not the right time to release a mixtape – after Dirty Money ended I thought it would be a way of announcing myself as a solo artist. I did want people to notice the lyrics and the cohesiveness. I felt like it was gradually evolving into Armor On, I already knew I was gonna go down that path. A Tell Tale Heart was kind of a tester for everything.”
“When you realise that the people who’ve been walking with you from the beginning will understand what you’re trying to dream, that’s all the ammunition you need to take you to the next level.”
You can definitely hear that – it contains a lot of the themes that you’d go on to explore more fully in Armor On; I was particularly struck by how it opens with a song called ‘Superman’, in which the title is representative of hip-hop swagger and braggadocio, but ends with you actually becoming superhuman on ‘Bulletproof’ because of the profound emotions in that song.
“‘Bulletproof’ was last purposely, because that was the introduction to where Armor On was going to. I put it last to feel if people were really going for it: sometimes when something’s last you skip over it, or you listen to it but you really don’t. I knew if I saw people talking about that song I could progress into something more. And sure enough, it happened. So I knew I could take my fanbase someplace and they’d understand me completely. When you realise that the people who’ve been walking with you from the beginning will understand what you’re trying to dream, that’s all the ammunition you need to take you to the next level. Once I saw that, I had no more restrictions. I just went.”
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Did you ever discuss your vision with anyone around you while you were in Danity Kane or Diddy Dirty Money?
“I grew up in a place where respect was really important, and at the time we were trying to create something as a group. I had an idea, but a lot of people have a lot of ideas, and when you make a choice to have other people in your life and carry their dream with you, you have to respect that. It would have made people uneasy if I’d talked about my solo ideas and the things I wanted to do.”
“It would have made people uneasy if I’d talked about my solo ideas and the things I wanted to do.”
Your first group, Danity Kane, wasn’t as critically acclaimed as either your work with Diddy Dirty Money or your solo work – probably in part down to prejudice against your girl group image, because you certainly deserved more credit. What are you most proud of from that period of your career?
“That last album, Welcome To The Dollhouse, when Puff allowed us to write for the first time. Songwriting had been a part of my life for a minute, and that was the first time he realised there were writers in his group. We took charge that time and we could have failed, but I think we created a better album than the first album.”
“Definitely. People obviously had negative things to say, and they’d been saying them for so long. People said I shouldn’t be so loyal, but I knew you had to respect people who’d given me an opportunity – I was loyal to them because they were loyal to me when I needed a job and a career. When a label gives you that opportunity after coming from New Orleans and being homeless, you respect it. And Puff proved everybody wrong when he took a chance and let me go. I could have been every other statistic in Bad Boy, just another rumour – but I wasn’t. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
“We would love a major label budget! But at the end of the day we’re moving this train, with or without anyone.”
Was it the conceptual nature of your vision that Bad Boy wouldn’t have been comfortable with, or some of the sonic decisions you wanted to make?
“It wasn’t that – they didn’t even know the vision I was trying to create. When Dirty Money came off tour, I asked Puff what was next. And he said, well, I probably wouldn’t be able to put you out as a solo artist for two to three years, and you probably don’t want to wait that long. And I said, you’re right. He said, it’s not that we don’t want you, it’s that there are other artists on the bill who have been waiting – I couldn’t put them on hold, having been on tour with Dirty Money. So it was a choice between waiting ’til 2014 or doing it myself…”
Is what you’ve experienced with this project proof that you don’t need a major label budget to make sonically ambitious, well-produced R&B (rather than lo-fi production where you can hear that it was recorded in a bedroom) – and also that you can be successful with it?
“We would love a major label budget! But at the same time we’re proving it. We’re not choosing to, but at the end of the day we’re moving this train, with or without anyone. That’s a dope thing. We’re not being rebellious and saying ‘screw everyone’. We’re doing it on our own because we’re in a good place.”
“We’re doing it on our own because we’re in a good place.”
How large is your team these days?
“Just five people. Myself, Drew, [writer] Colla Carter, [mixer] Stan Green and our promo duo, the Double Ks. That’s it. That’s us. But we’re driven, we research every day. As an artist, I’m not just being an artist. I’m researching what social media is available to us, what marketing plans and financial plans we can do. I’m hands-on with everything, I’m creative director of the videos. No one has a specific job – it’s everyone’s, we just go at it like that.”
There’s long been a tradition in hip-hop of releasing music independently, through mixtapes and so on. Why do you feel this trend is catching on in R&B?
“I think creative minds tend to get a little antsy when they have a creative vision and they can’t put it out there. Artists get tired of waiting for something that may never come, or come at a time they’d rather it didn’t. We have vision, but the labels have strategy. I loved the labels when I was on them, and I wouldn’t mind having a support system – but in the meantime, I can’t wait around for someone to understand where I’m going. We’re in a different time when music and social media are friends now, so if someone doesn’t want to take a chance you can create your own sound and run with it. ”