“There is no gender, no colour and no genre”: Dawn Richard on her groundbreaking new album Blackheart

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The first words on Dawn Richard‘s sophomore album are an admission: “I thought I’d lost it all.”

Her vocals are spare, echoing slowly into blank space; the intonation of that line simultaneously communicates triumph, relief and shock. Once again, she sings about losing it all and the world around her begins to fill up with colour – first a kick drum’s thump and multi-tracked Richards, then glissando strings and fingersnaps – before the pace picks up, morphing from austerity to richly detailed soundscapes. From the possibility of loss, Richard builds and builds, crafting her own universe in the process. Welcome to the world of Blackheart.

To those unaccustomed to Richard’s take on R&B, a quick timeline: New Orleans native, daughter to the ex-frontman of ’70s soul band Chocolate Milk, shot into the starlight as a member of Diddy’s Making the Band girl group experiment Danity Kane, co-conspirator in Diddy’s short-lived and much loved Dirty Money, and now an independent artist very much navigating her own lane. Her debut album, 2013’s Goldenheart, found her fulfilling the promise of her previous mixtapes and EPs with wild ambition. Alongside musical collaborator Druski, she brought AOR, house and classical influences to her years of experience in R&B in a manner that rarely jarred, and felt epic in a way that many independent R&B records struggle to reach. There was also the fantasy and sci-fi element, from George R.R. Martin references (a song called ‘Warfaire’) to the album’s placement at the start of a narrative trilogy.

It’s fitting that Blackheart feels like the second instalment of a trilogy, the stage where a familiar world grows vaster and the author showcases wider emotional and thematic range. It’s The Empire Strikes Back to Goldenheart‘s A New Hope. It’s an album that emerges from a year of personal ruptures in Richard’s life – a professional split from Druski, the reunion and collapse of Danity Kane, family deaths and illnesses – and locates triumph within.

Prior to a set of New York album launch shows called The Black Era, Richard and I spoke about Blackheart and her co-producer Noisecastle III, loosening up her vocal approach, feminism, and the importance of embracing your inner geek.

The last time you spoke to FACT, you mentioned developing a “no-boundaries progression of R&B”. In that same interview, you mentioned that had you stayed on Diddy’s label, your debut would not have come out until 2014. Would you have seen yourself making something like Blackheart under those circumstances?

I can’t even speak for that because I’m long gone on a whole different journey. What I do know is that it became clear before I even started that if I wanted to use the label, I would have had to make a specific type of R&B. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do, because it wouldn’t have been honest, and I made a choice then to say no to that.

This album had a bumpy road to fruition, but one that’s gone unmentioned is the unfulfilled Kickstarter campaign for Blackheart. What made you go that route?

Well, we had never wanted to go down the Kickstarter route because we pretty much had the album done. But a friend said it could take the album to the next level in regards to having your fans involved. I didn’t really care about the financial gain of it, but it was interesting to me because of the interaction between fans and artist. I’ve always been a fan of interacting over social media with my fanbase. By the time we even started the campaign, the girls from Danity Kane came to me to discuss reuniting. The girls said I couldn’t do my solo stuff while we were trying to figure out the Danity Kane stuff, and it was true.

In a recent interview with Billboard, you said the following: “Blackheart will put you in a place where you’re stuck in a rainforest by yourself, and you realize that you have all this armour, but you have this blood on you as well.” Are you able to elaborate on this point?

I’d been fighting a lot of battles and didn’t realise that when you’re fighting for a purpose, you don’t realise the people you have to hurt in the process. You lose a lot of your friends, a lot of your own people, a lot of your own value. Most of the time when you’re fighting, you never realise the amount of loss that you have to process and account for. You’re always looking for the goal, but you never realise certain sacrifices and struggles can come with it.

This album also finds you with a new collaborator in Noisecastle III. You had previously worked extensively with Druski. What brought about the change in your creative circle?

[Druski and I] had an incredible chemistry but sometimes things don’t work out. I will always respect every artist I’ve worked with regardless, but we can’t work together forever. I was expecting forever but that was a cute idea, not a reality. I was able to meet with another incredible producer who was just as talented and just as amazing. I’m lucky to have worked with so many amazing people and to have been open to everybody – I was open to Noisecastle and he was open to me.

“Most of the time when you’re fighting, you never realise the amount of loss that you have to process and account for.”

How did you meet Noisecastle III?

I’m friends with JoJo, who he worked with on her mixtape [Agápē], and she said that this guy was from the same planet as me, that we shared the same mind. We did a couple of records together and really did! We’ve never looked back since. I’ve been able to create two completely different ideas with different producers, and have both be just as creative and musically authentic.

You’ve had two different collaborators over two thirds of your trilogy cycle. Would you see yourself seeking another collaborator for the final part?

I don’t want to voice it – I love Noisecastle and don’t want to break up something that’s great. And when I was with Dru, I wasn’t expecting to work with another producer. But I don’t know now, it has to be organic. With Noisecastle and I, we’re already working on the next chapter. We’re not forcing each other, it’s no pressure.

You uploaded a number of tracks that do not appear on Goldenheart, including a cover of Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’, to your Soundcloud over the past year. Were the release of these tracks a glimpse into the feeling-out process between you and Noisecastle?

We weren’t trying to feel each other out, I think we were just working organically. People that know me as an artist know that I just put music out – if the music is good and something powerful, I’m putting it out. For free. That’s what I’ve always done for the people and for the art, and it was no different with Noisecastle, who agreed on that.

I don’t like covering songs, because if you can’t do one to the best of your ability, you shouldn’t insult the artist that started it. But I love that record, and we thought about taking the song and making it completely ours. We didn’t think it would get the love it did, same thing with ‘Valkyrie’ and ‘Judith’. They allowed us to see how people felt and that’s the type of relationship you need to have with your fanbase: they understand who I am as an artist and can appreciate where I take them. We like to see how far we can push them and when we go too far into the galaxy, they’ll go “we don’t get that!” and we can go back to the drawing board.

There’s a lot more space on this album than on previous releases, like on ‘Calypso’, when you don’t come in until two minutes in.

Actually, the vocoder at the beginning of the record is me, it’s just that it had to be an instrument throughout the track, so you don’t hear my stripped-down vocals until the end of the song. Calypso herself was a seductress that wanted to keep her love in her world, and didn’t want him [Odysseus] to leave with a whole other life. He missed his life and wanted badly to go home to his wife and child, so she was ordered to let him go. It’s kind of the relationship I have with the music industry. At the beginning of the record, this temptress is the vocoder and then you hear me sing clearly “I’ve been waiting so long”, and the vocodered voice is answering back. It’s a kind of forbidden love, and at one point the music industry has to let me go and I don’t want to go. It’s a constant battle – am I even supposed to be here? Is this supposed to be my calling? She won’t let me go but at some point I have to leave. It’s a really beautiful relationship, and that’s why I sang in these two different voices.

I don’t really go by the format of what a song should be. I believe in what’s genuine and feels good. Sometimes a song calls on you to go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, and other times it just asks you to feel. Most times when people are going through things throughout their lives, it’s never traditional, like you should feel a certain way and sing this certain way. It’s all over the place! It’s unconventional and erratic, like this album. I wanted it to feel like that.

It also feels like a less narratively structured album than Goldenheart was.

Mmhmm, absolutely! Blackheart is about the fall and like I said, when you’re falling you don’t really have the time to say, “okay everybody, I’m falling!” You’re trying to catch your breath, catch your life. And when you do that, there’s a sudden realisation of who you are, what you’re in and how to stay sane. There’s no narrator needed because you are speaking directly from your soul, and I’m glad everyone can see the stories we’re showing are real and we don’t have to force it. That’s beautiful, because sometimes it’s hard to get people on your wavelength and taking you seriously. Especially when you’re independent with no budget or money and wanting to relate a difficult story and keep it authentic and – honestly – cinematic.

It’s interesting that you use the term “cinematic”, because at times listening to the album is like watching a film go widescreen, like the possibilities are suddenly much vaster. It also emphasises character traits that you may not have displayed on Goldenheart, like the wry sense of humour on ‘Billie Jean’. It takes a lot of cojones to call your song ‘Billie Jean’, for instance.

I want to be clear that I wasn’t trying to take him on, what Michael did was brilliant! Michael talked about her so brilliantly that there remains this idea of what a Billie Jean is. I’ve encountered a lot of [Billie Jeans] in this industry… We’ll call her a hoe, a tramp, a stripper, a reality TV show groupie. And what I’ve realised that there is a thin line between the whore and the artist starving and willing to do whatever to make it on her label, or what the tennis player will do for their agent, or the football player will do for that deal. Instead of calling her a hoe, I called her Billie Jean. I’m like… intrigued and impressed at the maneuvering behind the woman matching the Billie Jean idea. She’s making it. It’s a feminist take on who people call the hoes and video girls of the world or whatever they may be – by the end of the record I’ve become her. I had to do what she did just to get a number one record. Am I Billie Jean? We’re all on the borderline of doing something to get where we need to get. I didn’t want to come at it negatively, so there’s that lightheartedness you mentioned.

Do you consider Blackheart a feminist album?

Yeah. But listen, before you write that down, let me go back. People throw that term around so strongly these days that I want to be careful in the way I state this: I am just a woman. I’m a woman that has stood by her brand and this independent push for a very long time. A lot of my other records have taken a feminist approach because I feel like there are not enough of us out there having the voice that we should have, and when we speak, we’re ridiculed. A lot. I’m not here to call myself a feminist, but what I love about our brand is that as a woman, I’m able to put out an album that never antagonises the woman, only lifts her. And what we’re trying to do is beyond than just being a woman or the colour of your skin – there is no gender, no colour and no genre to this music. It is universal. Blackheart is not a feminist album – the movement that we’re doing is a feminist act.

Being a black woman in this industry, with two people [at my label] able to have a number one album with no label, no one to push us, and have some of the world’s hardest critics praise us? That to me is a bigger deal, and that’s a feminist act. It’s a beautiful thing that a black woman in this industry can produce this on her own, with amazing visuals like ‘Tide’, carried out with no help. I get cussed out every other day being a woman, coming on the way that I do and being able to create what I create. To make that a better answer, I believe I am standing firm as a black woman in this industry in a time that it is hard as an artist period. Is Blackheart a feminist album? That’s for you guys to decide. If you feel that, I’ll let you have that, but there are a lot more women out there doing far, far larger things than me that deserve that title.

A few years ago, you mentioned Björk as an inspiration and said the following regarding her vocal approach: “She leaves the music open for possibilities.” From your first solo mixtape to Goldenheart, you have mirrored this approach by increasing the amount of open space in your songs. Is this a technique that you have had to grow comfortable with over the years?

I’m glad you see the growth, because I see it, I just had to take risks. I always wanted to play with my voice, especially regarding my tone. I couldn’t do that in my previous material because I was still working in an R&B world where they want you to just sing your throat off: vocal runs, belting as high as you can… they don’t understand vocoders and Auto-Tune, they don’t understand those instruments and those spaces. I was trying to not risk too much without forgetting my genre. This time, there’s a fearlessness and leaving space lets you live in the record.

Production-wise, when you are sharing an experience like I am with Noisecastle, you learn that instruments need to breathe by themselves. They’re vocalists too! Sometimes, you need to let the synth breathe, let the 808 come in and do its run. I’m learning to let everything breathe when needed and on other songs like ‘Blow’, there’s countermelodies upon countermelodies upon countermelodies. Then ‘Swim Free’ is hella empty and the drums and 808s are the stars of the song. Sometimes, I don’t even need a vocoder, I can mold it so much that I can change my tone from earthy to natural, to these erratic little punches like when I say my “uh-huhs” and all that. What I’m finding is that it’s so much fun to live beyond a common idea of what the vocals can do.

Your father, Chocolate Milk’s Frank Richard, co-wrote the album’s final track ‘The Deep’.

My father created the record on the piano and I wrote it. This past year has been interesting and… I lost my grandmother, my father was diagnosed with lymphoma, the Danity Kane thing happened. When my grandmother was still living, I really wanted to write a song for the group touching where we were. It was a very different record when I first started it and when it was turned down, I took it back to my dad. Then I lost my grandmother. I said to my dad that I wanted to create it for them, because honestly, we don’t know any other way to love. There’s only all or nothing, and that’s not just in my relationships with family – also this industry, with Danity Kane, every time I’ve made a sacrifice in this business. That’s a great thing and crushing at the same time, because when it doesn’t love you back, you’re in the middle of the ocean and have to find a way to swim out of it. Some people can do it halfway, stay in the shallow end of life and can succeed because they’re never drowning. When I get into something, it is a full dive into the ocean and I have to figure out whether or not I can swim. My father and grandmother could relate to that the most because they were in all-or-nothing situations – give it your all and hope that you can beat it. That record was my most emotionally open.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get people on your wavelength and taking you seriously. Especially when you’re independent.”

How is your father doing?

He’s great, he looks great! His lymph nodes on the back of his neck by his glands are really big but the rest of him, you wouldn’t be able to tell, he does a really good job of keeping himself good. As a family, we’re doing great. We’re surviving.

It’s a nice gesture that you also have Aundrea Fimbres, your former bandmate in Danity Kane, contributing to ‘Phoenix’. You appear to be allowing the people from your life into becoming a big part of your solo material.

It’s funny because if you know the relationship between Aundrea and I, we aren’t necessarily the closest in the group. I hadn’t talked to Aundrea until we got back together as a group, but the respect we had for each other’s music was so genuine that it was something we could always count on together. She did not wanna leave that record, which was originally written for all of DK as a very different record. I was actually thinking of selling it to another artist and Aundrea asked me to not sell it and to keep her on it. But then I catered to it to help it make sense on this album and made sure she was on the majority of the record. She’s an amazing vocalist, I’ve always thought that. When people show you love, you do the same in return. She’s never been anything less than supportive of me as an artist, always. I had to let people understand, because I’m completely and utterly misunderstood, and I’ve learned that I’m okay with that.

Is that in regards to press depictions of your music?

I think it’s in regards to everything. It’s not a negative thing or anything, but I’ve been through a lot of situations – group to group to solo to group – a lot of things to digest for people, bouncing from one thing to the other. Press doesn’t help either – of course media picks and chooses what they want to say. Be that as it may, I’m at a place where I could care less. When people get me, they get that respect from me. They have chosen to take the time to know who I am, and not only do they understand me, they stand by me. They’re the people I sing to and make records for.

The imagery throughout your career is heavily linked to anime and fantasy. How did those find their way into your career?

It was always that way, I’m a geek [laughs]. Because I’m a geek! It’s always been a part of my life and I’ve always been a big fan of the illustration world, manga, Japanese animation, graphic design – that’s never changed. Graphic design has allowed us to create far bigger worlds, like WeWereMonkeys did on my ‘Tide’ video. This is the moment that I can show people who I am, and everyone is seeing it. This is my opportunity to show people an unadulterated me and it is the best work I’ve ever done, by far. It’s completely what I would look like I was in a Halo or Final Fantasy game – that’s how I would walk to church everyday [laughs].

Was video game music ever an influence on your work?

No, not really. I was always more into the visuals than the music. I always appreciated them but was more into Hans Zimmer’s movie scores than video game music. What I’ve found now is that new fans that have heard Blackheart are going, “why isn’t this on a video game?” They say the music could be a new soundscape for a new Halo or Final Fantasy, so it’s funny how some things go full circle.

I wanted to ask about your working relationship with DJ Carisma.

Yes! Love her.

How did that come together between you and the – for lack of a better term – the Los Angeles R&Bass scene?

Oh, it’s crazy because it didn’t even start like that. She was trying to break in as a DJ and figure it all out as a female in the industry, and I’ve watched her get to [LA radio station] Power 106. I’m so damn proud of her! But it was never a plan to do LA R&B. She was doing that at her radio station and putting me on – it was that type of exchange, but we were more friends than anything. What she does for LA music is amazing, she supports that city’s hip-hop and R&B in a classy way and with respect. She’s a gem, she really is.

You guys have done some music together recently, yes?

Yeah! I love that stuff that we’ve done, it’s sitting there.

You are a dancer as well as a singer, and I was curious if one directly affects the way you approach the other – do you approach your vocals through the context of dance choreography?

It’s funny you ask that, because I’ve danced longer than I’ve sung. I started dancing when I was two and singing when I was eight or nine, so I’ve been processing dancing longer than I’ve been processing music. Dancing has always been the first thing that comes to mind when I see something. Everything is visual, so when I create, there’s already a performance in my head. I can’t have one without the other – they’re a marriage. It’s hard for me to do a video without movement, and if you look at all my videos, those are fully choreographed videos. I want people to understand that there is more than just the visual, there are stories behind the song and the dance as well – there are these other parts to take on. I am not just a dancer, I am not just an artist. I am all these things – people are just catching up to this idea.

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