More so than the ever-changing landscape of R&B and everything else her peers are doing, Dawn Richard finds inspiration in classical music, the medieval era and timeless stories—the wondrous effects of those that are make believe. Growing up she found herself attached to pop and rock acts such as Green Day, Alanis Morrisette, and The Cranberries. Although Richard’s musical direction can be attributed to her fondness of diverse music and her sophisticated inspirations, there’s something within her newly defined sonic space that’s very large and majestic–something innate with the fusing of Richard and her producer Druski that shifts listeners’ thoughts and guidelines of great music.
Burning through stints with groups Danity Kane and Dirty Money, this spring Richard broke out as a solo artist with her EP, Armor On. Gifting fans with something to hold them over in light of her album pushback, Richard released the Whiteout EP in December. On January 15, 2013, the first album of the heart trilogy, GoldenHeart, will be unleashed. SoulTrain.com caught up with Dawn Richard to learn more about her movement, high standards and journey as a fast-rising indie artist.
SoulTrain.com: A lot’s been going on with you. You put out “86,” “On a String” and just recently the Whiteout EP. Do you feel it’s difficult for you to stay consistent without confusing people who aren’t familiar with your movement?
Dawn Richard: No, because I think my sound and signature is the same. If anything, no one really knows me as a solo artist. The more music I put out the more comfortable they become with the sound that I’m creating and they can decide if they love it or if they don’t.
SoulTrain.com: As far as the Whiteout EP goes, what’s the story behind the cover?
Dawn Richard: If you look at the Armor On EP my face is forward. I wanted Whiteout to be the ending of an era. Armor On is the beginning of the book, now it’s kind of a journey closed. If you look at the GoldenHeart cover it’s back again with a new face, new outfit and new design. The Whiteout cover is a story ending so the back of me is what you see.
SoulTrain.com: In the song “And the Bells” on the Whiteout EP you say, “They keep calling, ringing, talking.” Is that a metaphor for something?
Dawn Richard: Yea, it’s about people. We refer to people’s ideas and dreams as bells. When a bell rings it reverberates, echoes off of buildings, keeps going and sonically moves for a long period of time. Sometimes peoples thoughts and opinions kind of stay in the atmosphere longer than they should.
SoulTrain.com: Has the talking died down a bit since you’re doing your own thing now?
Dawn Richard: Oh no, they talk more than ever and most of it’s negative. But at this point I’m really comfortable with where we are. We kind of have our own lane. Anything new is going to be hard for people digest, so most of the time that they hate, it’s because they don’t understand what it is. They say it’s forced, corny or doesn’t have star power and I think it has a lot to do with it just being great music. It’s been a long time since people wanted to rock with you solely because of your music. They want to fall in love with your face, your outfit or your personal life, but this movement is about really good music.
SoulTrain.com: I can appreciate that statement. On your site it says that you and your fans have a lot of work to do. Is your focus on artistic value your way of telling the world there’s still more to music, even though it’s faded away?
Dawn Richard: Yea, I’m just doing me. I don’t know any other way to be. People are just surprised by it because all they know is what they saw on a TV show. Me being outspoken, cursing on records or wearing certain things–this is new for them. When you’re in a group you can’t really bring all of you out without clashing with someone else. If I would have done this with Dirty Money or Danity Kane it wouldn’t have gone well. This is my opportunity to bring that to the forefront. I’m really excited that I can do it and I pride myself on being that kind of artist. I’m glad you see it like that–we really are bringing the artistic concepts back into the album and visuals again.
SoulTrain.com: The quality of your videos is exceptional, especially “Wild N Faith”. Everything from the videos to photos is outstanding. Did you have a serious conversation about taking it up a notch with the visuals?
Dawn Richard: I’m very hands on with the project and what I want to do–one of the many lessons I’ve learned from Puff. I talked to my director and my team and said, “I don’t want people to know we’re independent.” There’s no excuse for us not to be just as great. If we’re going to put out quality music, the visual has to be the same thing. If anything it has to be amplified, because the music and the lyrics are so storytelling and next level. If the visual doesn’t look like that’s it’s almost like you downgraded on the song. We put a lot of work into financing videos ourselves and I’m proud when people say it looks better than the label artists’.
SoulTrain.com: You had a long history with Bad Boy Records. Do you feel some type of way when people say things about artists associated with Bad Boy not having long careers?
Dawn Richard: I don’t feel any type of way, because I’m having a good career. God is so real for me that I can’t even listen to man’s ideas. They’re never right, they’re never on and God can change anything. People have said things to me about the curse of Bad Boy, meanwhile me and Puff are still cool. I left Bad Boy last year. I’ve been super successful on my own. I just got a distribution deal and released an EP not even one year after Last Train to Paris. Then next year I’m releasing my own solo album; that’s so difficult to do. I did it all with the blessings of Bad Boy. People said I couldn’t do that, either, but hey, that’s another one off the list.
SoulTrain.com: Your album was pushed back from its original October release. Did you change anything in the process?
Dawn Richard: No, I just added songs. There will be a deluxe version with two bonus records. It’s interesting because I have a song called “Northern Lights” which is an ode to New Orleans. If you know anything about bounce music it’s quite interesting how we incorporated that in the record. We did a remix on the album called “NLX” and, like the remix to “Save Me From You,” it’s a whole different record.
SoulTrain.com: Sonically, A Tell Tale Heart sounds different than Armor On, and I know that’s because the songs were recorded prior to Danity Kane. Was your tribal/Euro sound sparked while you were a part of Dirty Money?
Dawn Richard: Some of it but not really. The reason A Tell Tale Heart sounded different was because of the producers. The records are similar and eerie. “Bulletproof” can easily be on Armor On, it was just ahead of its time. I don’t think A Tell Tale Heart is that different; it’s the mix and choices of records. If you listen to the harmonies and lyrics you’ll find that I was headed in that direction anyway. Dirty Money just allowed me to do it earlier. If you listen to “Vibrate” you don’t hear those synths and bells like you do in the newer music. Now I have an actual engineer who can fix it exactly how I want it to be. I didn’t have the money for producers like Swizz Beatz or 20 million dollars to make it sound ethereal. Now I’m with Dru and a new team that gets what I’m trying to do. It isn’t that I’ve changed, I just found my match. I’ve met great people along the way, but they were people who weren’t great for me sonically, now I found my match.
SoulTrain.com: How do you guys manage to stay in the zone with your sound? Is there a routine or set-up in the studio to stay in line with what we heard on Armor On and Whiteout?
Dawn Richard: Honesty, there is no format. Because I’ve known what I wanted and have been patient, I’ve already had the plan mapped out sonically. Not necessarily as a solo artist, but the music that I loved and the music that I wanted to do. There’s no set-up anymore. This has been bottled inside of me for eight years. When I walk in the studio I already know what I want to talk about, I already have that feeling. I tell my producer, “I want to be in a rainforest on Pluto, make that happen for me.” Then he’ll come back with that sound.
SoulTrain.com: You and Druski make a really dope team. Do you remember the first song that you made together?
Dawn Richard: Yea, it was “Save Me From You.” I met him through Que, and the next day he was like, “You should come in.” We did “Save Me From You” and he said, “This is cool, but I want to push you.” Ever since then we’ve been inseparable as far as music is concerned.
SoulTrain.com: What songs on GoldenHeart would you consider to be lyrically complex?
Dawn Richard: There are a couple. On “GoldenHeart,” the title record, the lyrics are really amazing and the track I chose to do it on is quite unexpected. It’s a different approach to a record.
SoulTrain.com: “Pretty Wicked Things” incorporates dubstep. How far do you and Druski plan to push the envelope?
Dawn Richard: We’re going to push people consistently, but it’s going to go through a period. Because this is a trilogy we have so much time to sonically go places people don’t expect us to. GoldenHeart is the introduction; we’re going to go easy on people first. It’s cohesive enough to where you feel like you haven’t lost yourself. We put out Whiteout purposely to push people further. If you like that, that means you’re getting ready for BlackHeart. We’re slickly putting in these sounds so it’s not a surprise. It’s already in your mind, “Okay they’re going to take me somewhere I haven’t been before.”
SoulTrain.com: Have you recorded anything that you said has to be saved because it’s too deep or because the fans aren’t ready for the sound?
Dawn Richard: Definitely, everyday. The Whiteout EP wasn’t even supposed to be that. We were going to do five songs and make it really simple. We weren’t going to do anything conventional because we didn’t do it the last time we released “December Sky.” We knew that we were going to do something cool, we had no idea we were going to go that hard. Every time we come out of the studio we’re like, “That was amazing!” We trump ourselves because we go in pushing.
SoulTrain.com: You worked with some other producers on GoldenHeart. Did you worry that branching out would disrupt the theme or sound at all?
Dawn Richard: No, because one of the producers Deonte gets it. He’s a singer, writes well and produces. Again, it’s one of those things where I have a great team of people who don’t just do one thing. Dru can write as well as sing. After Armor On we made a distinct sound ourselves. The record Deonte did transitions at least twice; it’s like “Pretty Wicked Things”–it changes a lot. The Fisticuffs are already a vibe. They have a distinct sound that’s very dark and in the same kind of place that I dwell. Working with these producers I got lucky, they’re on the same planet.
SoulTrain.com: As of now do you know when the Heart trilogy will be complete?
Dawn Richard: Yes, the top of next year. We’re going back to back; GoldenHeart will be released January 15, BlackHeart will be released fourth quarter sometime around the fall. RedemptionHeart will be released the top of next year.
SoulTrain.com: For anyone who’s not tuned into what you’re doing, how would you like to impact listeners with your music?
Dawn Richard: I want to change lives. I want people to listen to my music and say, “That changed me. It changed the way I thought, the way I felt, the way I moved.” If I can do that, then I’ve made my mark. You can win any battle you put your passion towards. It represents the people who are the rebels of life. I understand what that feels like. I want to be a voice for the outcasts. A lot of hate in this world is created for those people. I want them to feel like it’s okay to be better and win. If they can feel that then I’ve done my job as an artist.
SoulTrain.com: Are there any vocal features on GoldenHeart?
Dawn Richard: We’ll see. There’s supposed to be, but I’m proud of what we’ve done. With Armor On and Whiteout there are no features and they went to the top of the charts. It’s also been a minute since people wanted to buy a record based off of the artist. There are so many collabs and features, I’m excited that people are rocking with me without the cosign. So, I never tell people about the feature, because I don’t want it to be the selling point.
SoulTrain.com: Well, you certainly don’t need features with your lyrical setup and style of music being so different. But if you ever step away from the Heart movement and get with other artists, I’m speaking on behalf of the fans: We need you, JoiStaRR and Brandy to do at least one song!
Dawn Richard: Oh wow, that’s a crazy mix. I’m in, let’s do it! There’d be tones for days on that album.
SoulTrain.com: Lastly, you talk about having a small team. As far as carrying out your career, are you cool with being an indie artist with a solid distribution deal?
Dawn Richard: We’re doing good so far who knows what’s to come. I love the industry and what labels can do for the artist. I’m never neglecting an opportunity for someone who may want to sign us. As far as right now, independently we’re doing hella good. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it [laughs]!
Makula Dunbar is a journalist covering music, entertainment, business and community. Founder and editor of digital culture magazine Cognizant Measure, her work has been featured in print and across the web via UPTOWN Magazine, The Atlanta Post, Sister 2 Sister Magazine, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hiphopruckus.com and many more. Follow her on twitter @Kules.