Dawn Richard Doesn't Mind Being R&B's Coolest Outcast
The singer discusses why she returned to Danity Kane, her 'medieval' album trilogy and making music that Joan Of Arc would listen to.
Dawn Richard understands why people were confused when she announced that she was returning to Danity Kane. After the R&B-leaning girl group -- which enjoyed considerable success with singles like "Show Stopper" and "Damaged," but never achieved the renown of the Spice Girls or Destiny's Child -- disbanded in 2009, the New Orleans native set forth on a career renaissance, first as one of Diddy's female counterparts in the electro-R&B project Diddy-Dirty Money and then as an unsigned solo artist. A pair of promising EPs, "Armor On" and "Whiteout," were released in 2012, and in January 2013, Richard released a wildly imaginative full-length, "Goldenheart."
Dense, dark and deeply weird, "Goldenheart" mixed medieval iconography, spoken-word declarations about fighting battles and winning wars, the futuristic bump of Andrew "Druski" Scott's production and Richard's unchained vocal power, now squarely in the spotlight. The album has sold only 9,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, but was roundly acclaimed by critics -- and, as the first installment of an announced trilogy of full-lengths, signaled the strong step forward for a pop-group survivor.
Then, last August, Richard appeared alongside former Danity Kane members Aubrey O'Day, Aundrea Fimbres and Shannon Bex at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the reunion was on (fifth member D. Woods has declined to be involved in the DK comeback). In the following months, Richard confirmed that a new Danity Kane comeback would arrive before "Blackheart," her completed next solo effort. For many, Richard's decision to pause her solo career and return to her long-defunct girl group was dubious. For Richard, however, it was ultimately easy to agree to the homecoming when the rest of the group approached her about reuniting last year.
"This was a decision that wasn't a music decision -- this was a personal decision," Richard tells Billboard. "It came out of left field, and it was hard at first, because the momentum was really great and it would have been perfect to drop 'Blackheart,' but I wasn't looking at it for selfish reasons. My girls asked me to come back, and I had to pay homage to the fact that there wouldn't be 'Goldenheart' if there wasn't Danity Kane."
Richard describes her choice to return to Danity Kane as part of a "noble cause," a theme that's popped up in "Goldenheart" and her preceding EPs. She laughs when asked about the tag "GOT&B" -- or a "Game of Thrones"-influenced style of R&B -- as it relates to her music, which includes lyrics that reference swords and armor, and song titles like "Warfaire," "Wynter" and "Gleaux." Richard tells Billboard that she hopes her music helps listeners "slay every dragon" that they encounter in their lives, that her album becomes "the shield that they carry with them every day, that helps them feel like they could conquer all things." Admittedly, most R&B artists do not use this sort of language in casual conversation -- in the 21st century, at least.
But the singer's affinity for fantasy doesn't stem from a book series or its corresponding HBO show. When Richard was a kid, she dissected the artwork of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, studying his use of gold flakes in the 1901 work "Judith and the Head of Holofernes," based on the Biblical character of Judith. Richard was fascinated by the longing in Judith's gaze, existing underneath her beauty and the regal symbols encapsulating her face.
"I felt like I wanted to make an album that was that whole idea, where there was a bareness to it, once you peel the layers from that first glance," she says. "It was art that had a royalty to it."
As Danity Kane led into Diddy-Dirty Money and Richard approached her solo turn, she started listening to Hans Zimmer scores and delved deeper into her studies of the history of Joan of Arc, collecting ideas for music that would convey centuries-old notions of virtue. "I started to play with sounds, and think about what those things would sound like," she explains. "Like, if 'Judith' ever came to life, what would that sound like? If Joan of Arc had a soundtrack in her time -- if she was able to tell her story in musical form -- what would that be?"
Her interest in a martyred French heroine is understandable, considering that Richard views herself as an outcast in the R&B community. She stays up late at night, taking notes on footage from Peter Gabriel concerts from 1985 and on old Kate Bush music videos, trying to unlock their dazzling effects. She hears people complain that she uses too much synthesizer in her music, and that she obscures her voice too often with vocoder. She knows that she's offbeat, and doesn't care.
"Sometimes people just want that authentic sound of R&B, and I'm not that artist," she shrugs. "I'm lucky enough to do that with Danity Kane -- to be the pop, mainstream girl with the group, because that is a part of me. I started that way, and I love it. But there is another side of me as an artist."
Richard has worked with the producer Noisecastle III on "Blackheart," which will arrive later this year and eventually be followed by the third part of the trilogy, "Redemptionheart." The second installment will continue the story of the first, says its creator, but will exist with a slightly dissimilar atmosphere. According to Richard, "'Goldenheart' put you on a battlefield in medieval times. 'Blackheart' will put you in a place where you're stuck in a rainforest by yourself, and you realize that you have all this armor, but you have this blood on you as well."
Along with updating the existing version of "Blackheart," Richard has been writing with other artists, most notably Disney star Zendaya, with whom she wrote the song "Fireflies" in 2013. But right now, the priority is Danity Kane, a project Richard describes as "a chapter that I never really got to finish." The quintet, which formed on the third season of MTV's "Making The Band" in 2005 and joined the Bad Boy Records roster, started to fall apart after its 2008 sophomore album "Welcome to the Dollhouse." The singer believes that the dissolution was largely due to the group's lack of knowledge in regards to the dealings behind their careers. "I think we were young kids who really wanted to be great at music, but we had no idea about the business side of it," says Richard.
Since last year's decision to reform, however, Danity Kane has worked tirelessly alongside producers like the Stereotypes to finish its next batch of songs. There is no timetable for an album release, but Richard says that the group has enough material to put out a finished full-length immediately. A special announcement is coming sometime in the next month, perhaps coinciding with the group's Mar. 15 performance at Fort Cheyenne in Las Vegas. Although Richard could have worked hard enough to ready both the Danity Kane album and her own album for simultaneous releases, she says that such a deal was never an option.
"It's a respect level," she says. "If people come to you and tell you that they're willing to put everything in their lives on hold as well to do something bigger, you have to make a choice whether you want to be selfish or selfless… I'm choosing to put people who helped start my career first. Danity Kane will come first, and it will be fantastic. I believe in this group."