Dawn Richard is ready for war. In the past seven years, the singer has endured everything from the breakup of all-girl group Danity Kane to the unexpected disbandment of hip-hop trio Diddy-Dirty Money. But the release of her solo EP “Armor On” (March 27), only proves that Dawn is prepared to do what it takes to defend herself and her music.
“I was always the one that people thought wouldn’t be able to survive,” Dawn tells Billboard.com’s The Juice. But the New Orleans native has done more than just survive. With the aid of a small team of supporters, she released her EP independently through her company, Our Dawn Entertainment. “We don’t have a label of any sort so it makes [‘Armor On’] my own baby” Dawn says.
With her “baby” sitting comfortably at No. 3 on the iTunes R&B/Soul chart, Dawn took a moment to chat with The Juice about her tumultuous journey. She set the record straight on everything from the end of Diddy-Dirty Money to her highly anticipated debut album.
A lot of people think that your career started with Danity Kane, but that isn’t true. When did you first step into the music scene?
I began my grind at [around] 18, 19. When I was [around] 18, I opened up for Anthony Hamilton in New Orleans for the ‘Ladies Night Tour.’ I think that was the launch for me as an artist. I had been doing shows prior to that as a solo artist. I had a CD out that same year I opened for Anthony Hamilton, titled ‘Angelique’ ”)
You went from being a solo artist to being a part of two groups, Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money.
It’s been a roller coaster. Honestly, I haven’t opened my eyes yet. I feel like I still have them closed, especially since they were all different genres of music and dynamics. You find a few artists who can make those transitions and still be relevant. You can’t cross that many genres within a time span of five to six years and think people are going to stick around. But they did. I think that is something new for me. It’s exciting for me because I have always second-guessed who would get my voice.
[Danity Kane] pushed me to change and mold my voice to be able to do different things. But I also always had to work that much harder because it always stood out. Each time I would do something, I would have to do that. I got thrown a curveball. Danity Kane was that; I worked really hard to fit that.
Then there was [another] curveball: “Oh we’re done with you. Let’s do Dirty Money.” It was a little bit easier working with Dirty Money because Puff let us do a little bit more of us. But it still was interesting trying to blend in with someone who’s first choice wasn’t singing and had a different tone.
The hardest transition for me, with each album, was to find my lane and still be me without losing it. But I wouldn’t be able to make this great EP without those transitions. Those sounds are now always with me. All those sounds have meshed together to create this new genre of music. It’s R&B but it’s super progressive. Had I not gone through those phases and those hard transitions, I wouldn’t have such a great album.
You felt like you actually had more freedom to grow as an artist in Diddy-Dirty Money.
Right, that’s why we felt like people didn’t get it. What we didn’t understand is why people wanted to see something different. People wanted to see the dynamic visually and they didn’t understand that the music and everything had to be spoon fed because it was different. They wanted to see less of Puff and more of us; that’s what they were saying. But we were thinking we needed [more of] Puff because we needed to sell these records.
While they were telling us [one] thing, we were thinking something different.
We’re writing all the records, singing, vocal producing and still people were calling us background [singers]. It was a different transition for me because I felt like it was a double-edged sword. In Danity Kane, we didn’t have freedom, but we had enough to be great [and] for all five of us to be leads. What we did with Dirty Money was phenomenal. Yet, it was misunderstood. Something that was simplistic and manufactured was successful [while] something that was brilliant and iconic, [people] didn’t get it.
Was it a mutual decision for Diddy-Dirty Money to disband?
It died out. I think Puff was tired. He had so many different things going on. I think he wanted to produce and act a little bit more. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If we would have wanted to continue, and he couldn’t do it, then there’d be no sense in it. It’s his project so you just have to take it.
Were you hesitant to go solo again?
I wanted to make sure the fans wanted it. Sometimes artists say, ‘I do it for me.’ It’s great to do it for you but they’re the ones who buy and support your records. So for me, I wanted to make sure they wanted it and that their hearts were excited for it. That was the only way I would be able to be a successful solo artist. I would’ve come out, but then it would have been like, ‘Shout out to Dawn and those three people that bought her album.’
Your first single, “Bombs,” is very edgy. Was it a goal of yours to push the boundaries?
Yeah, break them all down. I wanted people to feel uncomfortable when they heard it. Not just that record, but with the EP. It’s so funny because when we play it, people’s faces look like they’re trying to grab [the music]. I love it because that’s the feeling I got when I heard Phil Collins for the first time. That was the feeling I got when I heard Kanye [West]‘s “808s and Heartbreaks,” Sade‘s album and The Cranberries‘ album.
How much did your personal life influence this project?
It’s my entire life but that’s how people can relate. It’s honest. Most of it was [of] my relationship with music. Most of it was [of] the love life that I had with it. It wasn’t even about a man. ‘Armor On’ explains why I needed armor in the first place. Sonically you’ll hear this battle of, ‘I love you, no I don’t. I love you, I hate you.’ That’s what you’ll feel. You see the story kind of fight against itself.”
What part of your journey has been the most gratifying?
“This right here. I’ve had two platinum albums. I have worked with thousands of people. But the most rewarding feeling is to see people on Twitter, say, ‘Do you see what Dawn and them are doing? They are number one.’ It’s the most rewarding feeling because of all the tears, all the bad stuff, and the people that said I couldn’t do it.” For every person that said, ‘Oh you’re a background singer for him [Diddy] with Dirty Money,’ or ‘Oh so-and-so was really the star of Danity Kane,’ now they get to see the reason why I belong on the stage. I think this [EP] made a statement to the people that didn’t get it. I’ve never changed; I’ve been the same girl that I am now. I think people just didn’t want to see it. They were looking for something else.