After a two year hiatus, singer-songwriter DAWN (formerly known as Dawn Richard) made her return to the solo music scene this past September with the release of the powerful new song “jealousy.”
The conversational record explains how a girl from the Lower Ninth Ward views jealousy as a drug in her dealings with her ex. It marked the first step towards a comeback for DAWN, providing listeners with a taste of her upcoming album new breed. Set to release on Jan. 25, new breed will bring listeners into the world of a New Orleans girl who has fell in love with her home all over again.
Following her stints with Danity Kane and Diddy’s group Dirty Money, DAWN embarked on a solo career that spawned a trilogy of solo albums that garnered acclaim from Rolling Stone, Fader, and Pitchfork. After a brief reunion with Aubrey O’Day and Shannon Bex as DK3, DAWN flexed her acting muscles when she made a cameo appearance on the FOX procedural Rosewood. After taking a liking to acting, DAWN stepped away from music and found herself starring in the 2017 films Kinky and 5 Weddings, while nabbing a role on season two of Issa Rae’s hit HBO dramedy Insecure. In 2016, DAWN also joined Adult Swim as a content creator and designer, penning animated shorts for Rick and Morty and more.
Taking time off, going back to New Orleans and focusing on other ventures proved to be fruitful for the hyphenate. DAWN was able to rediscover her roots in a city that continuously breeds creativity. New Orleans fueled her imagination and allowed her to expand her artistry to new levels. “I don’t think people really know who I am because I didn’t get a chance to show it because of Hurricane Katrina,” DAWN tells Billboard. “This album is me getting to say the things I didn’t get the chance to say, or show things I didn’t get to show, about who I was before all of this.”
The 10-track album provides the most intimate portrait of DAWN’s life so far, paying tribute to the rich tradition and vibrant culture of her hometown. The album is a hybrid of sounds from New Orleans, mixing the traditional soulful forms of R&B with DAWN’s fresh electronic sound. With contributions from Cole M.G.N, Kaveh Rastegar, and Hudson Mohawke, new breed sees DAWN at her most eclectic. “I’m pushing our sound and showing people a little bit of the past and mix tradition with what the future is,” DAWN says.
Billboard spoke more with DAWN about new breed, her time off from the music industry, transitioning into acting and animating, and breaking down barriers by being a woman wearing a chief headdress. Check it out below.
You were going strong within the realm of music and then suddenly you stepped away. What was the reason for you taking that step back?
I had a lot of breathing to do. I released three albums and also put out an entire visual process for those projects. I needed a break because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself or everyone else around me. I did this with no resources at all, so for someone that was independent, I had put a lot of work into each album and worked really hard to have them be of quality. I just needed the time.
I had the opportunity to really go home to New Orleans since my parents moved back and I was able to experience home again. People don’t realize when my career started taking off Hurricane Katrina happened so I was homeless and lost everything. Because of what happened, we didn’t get an opportunity to really showcase New Orleans, and I never had that chance to just be home. I was really evaluating who I was before all the crazy, and going back to the places that I remember before I got uprooted.
How has New Orleans impacted your work in all the fields you’re in?
My family is rooted in New Orleans on so many different levels. My mom is a Creole girl from New Iberia, Louisiana. My dad is Haitian, originally, but his entire roots, musically, are stemmed in New Orleans. My uncle is in the Mardi Gras Hall of Fame for designing all the extravagant garb that you see the Mardi Gras Indians have as a part of the Washintaw nation. That’s all I’ve ever known, New Orleans is in my blood. It’s rooted in everything from cadence, to the choice of singing, to tone, to storytelling. There’s a sense of pride in my art that I can thank New Orleans for.
What’s fueling this comeback?
Music has always been the root. That was the reason for doing everything I’ve ever done. I was a dancer first but I always fell in love with the performance and the music. I felt like I was only going to release music if it was ready and time to do so. I was recording a lot of different songs, and everything I recorded was stemmed in New Orleans.
I sat down and, while listening to all of it, I noticed this really native and rooted story that I was telling. I was honest about what it was to be a woman and really telling my story beyond just my relationship with music. The last trilogy was my relationship with music and the industry. This album is my relationship with New Orleans, me as a woman, and how being from New Orleans has created a person in me that acts and sees things a certain way. “jealousy” is a prime example of that. I just want to give you the girl from the 9th Ward that you guys only met once on [MTV’s] Making The Band.
What’s it like knowing you’re breaking down barriers by being a woman and wearing a chief headdress?
To be perfectly honest, it feels natural because I feel women can be kings — I’ve always seen it that way. I’m honored that they let me tell this story and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. New Orleans has always been about respecting tradition and your ancestors, so none of this would’ve happened if I didn’t meet with these people.
I hope this pushes other cultures to see women in this light. I’ve always felt pharaohs and kings could be women. We’re seeing so many women believe in themselves and speaking up, especially women of color. It’s a beautiful time we’re in where women are stepping up to the plate and being vocal about what they deserve and want. Women are evolving, and I want to be a part of that list of beautiful women who are stepping up and saying this is who we are.
Are you connecting the old New Orleans with contemporary New Orleans on new breed?
The whole point of this album is the “new” New Orleans coming together with the old New Orleans, and seeing how they can exist together, and how we are just scratching the surface. People are just now getting New Orleans because of awesome artists like Drake, Beyonce, Solange and [Big] Freedia. We knew it through Wayne, but we’re starting to see this reinvigoration of New Orleans through people like PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty.
I want more of us who are from the city to show what the city’s worth is. People that go to the city love it, they get an influence, and put it within their art because they know how special it is. This is the beginning of a movement.
We’ve seen you really get to dive into acting lately. Was it easy making that transition into TV and film?
It was totally easy. My dream has always been to be in comedy and independent drama, like the dramas that make you feel uncomfortable. I’ve always wanted to act, and if you look at my videos, they’re always extremely elaborate — because there’s a sense of theater and acting that I’ve always been in love with.
The day Issa Rae called me to do Insecure, I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do this!’ She thought I wouldn’t do it because she didn’t know if I felt comfortable with it, but I love making fun of myself, and I never take myself seriously — so you know we got it done. Just by talking to her about carrying on and continuing, there’s this opening that’s happening for me that I’m so excited for, because people are seeing I’m doing different things they wouldn’t have thought of me doing.
I would love to work with Issa again. I just think she’s authentic, and I’m someone from New Orleans, where shit is very real and I worry about a lot of people being fake with me. She was kind, listened to me and we had some great talks.
Out of music, acting and animating which do you prefer?
I don’t prefer. I actually enjoy the ability to be able to be so flexible as an artist. What I love about Adult Swim and my animation is this sense of trying to cultivate a lane that is very few and far between with people of color. I have to fight — even me being an artist — for people to see me. There are so many things I want to do in the animation world. Most of the time when I go to these meetings, I’m the only black girl or [one of] very few at all. That’s not the reality, because there’s a lot of talented black animators out there. I love doing that because it pushes people to see a cool aspect of a female artist. I don’t know a lot of female artists that are getting the opportunities to animate and work with different partners like Adult Swim. I’m very honored and proud to be among the ones that do.
Acting is a high that I enjoy. I love escaping, because it’s so fun and I love the challenge when someone tells me I can’t do it. I’m always ready to prove someone wrong. Acting pushes me and forces me to dig deep when sometimes I’m not there. I enjoy the constant self-work that’s involved with acting. For me, music will always be special because of the performance element. It’s beyond just the studio and writing — the stage feeds my soul and I’m happiest when I’m on stage. They all work really well, and I’m lucky enough to be able to be an unconventional artist where I’m able to do a different type of introduction into this industry.
What’s the deal with the animated film?
I’ve been working on that for a million years now! [Laughs.] I’m so excited about it, but it’s also a process when you pitch it to people, especially because we’re just getting the respect women deserve in a place that doesn’t even have a lot of women. Throughout the entire process of pitching it, I’ve been building on it. But it’s definitely inspired by New Orleans. I’ve shown a little bit of the commercial on Adult Swim when I was working on the shorts there.
If I can’t find a distributor, I’m going to do it myself, like I always do, and find a way to get it out there to the world. I’ve done a comic book before, and a bunch of other things, and I’d love to do a tour run with Comic Con and just bring it to different places through Comic Con. But that’s definitely in the works, and right now I’m doing shorts for Adult Swim for Rick and Morty because they’re killing right now. While doing all that, I’m secretly in the cave making sure I’m getting ideas out– so when it does come out, it’s amazing.
You’re on tour with Aubrey O’Day and Shannon Bex as DK3. After the situation between you and Aubrey, how did you guys bury the hatchet and decide to go on tour?
It wasn’t really planned. Aubrey hit me up and wanted to talk. I was skeptical at first, because I didn’t even know if it was her or not. We really just talked for like eight hours, and it was something that a lot of women need to do, because the world is so good at pitting us against each other and having us believe that’s the right way to go about things. While talking to each other, we realized that we are very different people and we assess things differently. We didn’t act right based of what we thought we knew. The music is bigger that all that stuff that went on. Women can come together and not always get along but we can all have a common purpose. We don’t have to agree but we can come together and do something really great and productive. That’s the conversation we needed to have.
After patching it up, we saw that we were all releasing music and decided to go on tour. We need more women coming together, because there’s too much fighting going on. We’re going to try this again — and I think the headspace we’re in now, we understand how important it is to not always be right or wrong, but to understand perspectives.