If SXSW has become the age of Too Much Content manifested as a physical environment, you certainly don't go in looking for a single narrative and takeaways. This year's film program failed to produce one massive takeaway success story; one could hardly expect the music half of the festival — which features over 2,200 artists — to do what it couldn't. And yet, all last week, in food truck lines, the corral outside Fader, on smoky patios, I kept overhearing people talking about Dawn Richard.
Part of this may have been just a question of exposure: Richard, who now goes by D∆WN, was playing a formidable amount of sets last week, from tiny bars to big outdoor venues. But there's also a huge amount of commitment on display at a D∆WN performance — at each of those venues she brought in her two muscle-bound backup dancers and a huge, strobing triangle-shaped stage light, and put on a goddamn show. Even if you hadn't already been tipped off to her critically-acclaimed albums GoldenHeart (2013) and last year's Blackheart, she left an impression strong enough to warrant a morning-after Spotify search — a rarity in an overstuffed environment like this.
A little R&B, a little EDM, a little fantasy, a little sci-fi
The New Orleans-raised Richard, who spent a three-season stint on the Artist Formerly Known as Diddy's reality show Making The Band, and then three more years in the resulting girl group Danity Kane, improbably went independent in 2012 (not indie-label, independent, as in, self-released). The music she's produced has been a compelling mix of the familiar and the exploratory. She's clearly learned a thing or two from the pop R&B world, down to the pro-level choreography and universally relatable hooks. But she and her producers fuse it with often unconventional production and song structure that takes more from the electronic world — and a lyrical and visual imagination that is heavily influenced by high fantasy, sci-fi, and Greek mythology. (Fun fact: the name "Danity Kane" came from the name of a manga character Richard had been doodling in the studio one day.)
I was selfishly encouraged by Richards' warm reception in Austin — I already had an interview lined up with her, and had been playing her Machinedrum-produced latest single "Not Above That" on repeat. But I wasn't prepared for what a conversation with her would be like. Talking to Richard, even on a foggy, drizzly morning after a late-night performance, you know you're in the presence of a mind that is constantly bursting with ideas. Richard is the kind of artist who will make a pilgrimage to Sundance and call her manager from New Frontier to talk about ideas for her next video. Our conversation veered from Björk to Hans Zimmer to dolphins and underwater VR. At one point, I make the factual observation that she has a huge imagination. "It's too big sometimes," she laughs. "It's so fucking big. My little poor pockets are like, 'Dawn, you cannot fly today. You cannot have wings today.' I'm like, 'I want them.'"
After touring this spring, she's set to release RedemptionHeart (the third album of a planned trilogy) later this year. And after that, hopefully, wings.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Emily Yoshida: In EDM, there's this cliché of a male mastermind DJ controlling the whole thing while some anonymous female vocal is laid over his beat. What I love about "Not Above That" is that Machinedrum's production is very distinctive, but there's no question that you're steering the ship.
Dawn Richard: Yeah, you don't want to ever lose that. I think that's what [distinguishes] us a bit — labels are building these girls that, like you said, they're trying to make interchangeable. [The vocalists] probably are incredible and have more depth, but the label isn't really giving them that. Whereas my sound has its own depth in its own right, and it's colliding with something that has its own depth in its own right. Instead of outshining each other, we're living together at the same time. I think that's how music should be: the best hybrid.
I think when you start self-identifying as working within EDM, it gets hard. There are these really set preconceptions about what that genre means.
It has so much more soul, and they're not allowing it to have that. But that's all we have.
Do you ever feel like it's an uphill battle — critically or commercially?
I don't even look at it in that context. We're just making good music ... I think [electronic music] is taking itself way too seriously. It's so fucking like, "We're better than you guys. We're going to steal from you and take underground culture, put it over here and make it mainstream." It's all just become a bit of a pompous shit show. Honestly, I don't want to really be in that shit show. I just want to make great music and have people walk up to me and say, "Yo, you know that record you just did was bananas." That's it.
You've got a unique perspective on the industry, coming out of a very mainstream, produced girl group world.
Do you think that experience freed you up from a certain kind of career anxiety?
Yeah, it's just opened my eyes, man. I've been able to see both sides, and both sides act very funny. [The mainstream] has an idea of what music is, and the underground has an idea of what they think it should be, and they never feel like the two should meet. The problem is, they can meet if you allow it to just live. I love my creative freedom right now. I love it. Because I do take a little bit of elements from the mainstream. It's just that I don't dwell there. Because there are so much beautiful things over here in the underground world that I can do so much more with, and create so much more with.
I'm taking these elements and going from what I've experienced from being in a major label to doing this on my own. It's kind of taken what I loved as a kid [and applying it] to what I created as an adult. It's super organic.
Creative freedom is a huge perk of being independent, obviously, but are there any cons? Is there a scenario in which you'd go back to a label?
I was always open to a label. I just wasn't open to the bullshit of the label. The label was money, I'm not going to lie. But I don't like the way the labels don't give their artists depth. I understand why they're doing it, because it's an investment. I get both sides of it, because as a business now, I see why you have to be the way you have to be. I'd only do a deal with a label if it allowed me to still be indie, and have that indie mentality. I have to have creative control. That formula has been working for me, and the moment you switch that on your fan base, they're going to know. They're going to feel that, and they're going to feel some kind of way. I don't want to do that to my movement.
There are artists who really explicitly position themselves as a brand, and others who very staunchly emphasize that they're all about the music. But you seem to be working in both worlds.
Because both mean very much to me, and again, why not? It's so obvious to me that it would work more, because you'd have this unity of sounds and images colliding together, but I think [the industry has], again, been so used to separating the boundaries.
As a solo artist, you made a very deliberate decision to go the concept-album route. Were there artists who worked in that way that were an inspiration to you?
It wasn't an artist. It was authors. I mean, I read books ... trilogies, and war volumes, sonnet upon sonnet upon sonnet, and I just kind of thought it'd be cool to [release music the way] books were released. You know what I mean? Because I would put one down and be like, "I cannot fucking wait to get to the next one." My grandmother had a Ph.D in library science, so I grew up in a library, and I would appreciate those books, and the smell of them, and how they'd have these series, and it was cool to me. I always felt like if I had an opportunity I'd create an album that felt like a series.
What books in particular were inspiring?
Okay, so, don't judge me. The first, when I was a kid, was the Goosebumps series. Then as I got older, Anne Rice became huge [for me]. Her vampire books, they were like ... they were a series. They were all based off the vampire mythology, and it was based around New Orleans. It was my first time experiencing a female author who was taking it there with that culture and that style.
That had to make where you grew up feel kind of magical in a way.
It did! And then of course The Odyssey, and Greek mythology, and the stories of Zeus. Those were series, too. You'd read The Odyssey, and then you'd read the The Iliad, and I just thought that was grand. Of course, I'm a nerd — but those were huge for me because I'd put them down and be like, "Okay, now... who's Calypso? Why did Athena do this?" And the Fates. Finding out that The Fates were women. I thought that was really genius to have women to be The Fates, who cut the ties of life. Why did women have that power even in a time where women didn't have much power? There were things about that that really struck me — how women were often the fall of these grand men, like Achilles. Those were things that took me to a place that I appreciated as a reader.
"Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson ... that shit was a movie."
I thought that if I ever had the opportunity to be an artist, I would treat [my work] as if it was a series, where people would be like, "I liked Blackheart more than I liked Redheart, because of the place I was in." They'd get to describe that feeling and what that album was for them. I always wanted that.
That idea of a cohesive album, something you get lost in — that feels like something that's getting a bit harder to come by now. Is that a loss for music, or is it getting replaced by something else?
It's a loss for music. I mean, I was looking back at Earth, Wind & Fire, and their old records, and Stevie Wonder's records, and how that shit was a movie. Stevie's records ... what the fuck? Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, Thriller. These were experiences. That's a blow to the industry. Our youth won't be able to tap into that, but that shit was shocking for me. I was watching [Michael Jackson's "Leave Me Alone" video] like, was he really just riding on a roller coaster? Did he just get up on the roller coaster? Holy shit, is he dancing with a rabbit? That shit fucked me up. And when Björk did the robots with Chris Cunningham and they were kissing each other. I was like, "How did she know?" My mind was blown.
Is there a way that you feel like you can still get some of that depth of experience within a single track, or a single video?
You have to put time into the art to do it, and you have to know that what you'll get out of it is not a financial or a fame thing. It'll just be the pleasure of being an artist. And I'm cool with that. I'm cool with that feeling. Hearing you say what you said about "Not Above That," I'll take that any day. I never cared about the fame shit. People are caring about those numbers. They've got to get that number one. They're missing out on the idea of the album, and what that experience is supposed to be when you press play. I've only wanted that.
Again, I'm coming from New Orleans, a city where you can have a living singing on a fucking street. My dad was a teacher. He has a Masters in music. He taught elementary school, and he played gigs his whole life, and we lived good. He got to sing every day of his goddamn life. He was on RCA with Allen Toussaint. You can have a life being a musician, so that was all I really wanted, was to be able to be a musician.
Now that everything is more or less public, there's sort of an assumption now that if you're going to do music, or you're going to do something performance-based, it must be because you want to be famous. If you play on the street, or put a song on SoundCloud, it must be to get discovered. But it wasn't always that way.
Yeah, we never grew up like that. Because no one in New Orleans is famous. I mean, you can go to the Tremé and walk up in a hole in the wall and a rebirth band will be playing better than any musician that's really out right now. They'll be in a T-shirt and some jeans smoking some weed, and be playing a tuba, and be insane. That's a normal thing. It's normal to walk down the street to see the best tap dancer ever in history. That's just home. I always saw [music as] what I would be doing if I was at home.
So when you talk about building a brand, and creating that business, even independently, around your music, how do you reconcile that with that more unadorned musical spirit?
I like the business. It's not that deep. My parents are both teachers. They didn't really think music was a career for me, so most of my life [I was studying], so there still is this kind of affinity to learn. I like the idea of building a brand. I think it's fucking dope, and I think what we're doing is dope... I think you should want to learn, and you should want to grow. The problem is you still have to be part of the times. The only way for people to see the aesthetic is if you build your brand for them to see it. To be able to work with these incredible, innovative artists, you have to reach a level. It took Gaga to get to Gaga to do [her collaboration with] Intel. She couldn't be sitting at home like, "I'm going to do a thing with Intel, but I'm just going to be an artist. I don't really want to be famous." She was able to do something innovative based off of her platform. I want to build a platform to be able to do some cool shit.
What would be your dream "cool shit" thing?
I can't tell you, because we're doing it now. I want to take what we're doing now to a whole other level. Interactive media is something that I really, really enjoy. I love trying to touch fans visually in different ways. I love giving dancers platforms. Dancers are becoming a really big thing now for artists. They're using it in all of their videos, from Sia to Bieber... I appreciate that. I appreciate that dancers are getting their love, because there was a time when artists weren't using them as much.
The reason why the brand is there is, number one, I really love the idea of figuring out how to fucking shove it up to the motherfucking industry. Like, you bitches said we couldn't, but we can. That middle finger seems still fun, but there's also this sense of having a platform to do really cool shit, and then showing people that they don't necessarily need the machine to do it. I think that's cool, and I think if we can figure that out, why not share that?
I feel like a lot of artists now have to figure out that way of making the music go beyond the album, beyond the release, and make it an experience. Even something like the Kanye album where... who knows what that's going to be next week?
By listening to the latest version, fans become involved in it.
It's interactive. That's where we are now. I think, again, that's why the branding is important, and I think that a lot of brands, like Samsung and Google, are searching. They're searching for new artists to [raise their profile] with, because they see how music is important. I think they're looking for something, but they don't really know where they're looking, because this is very new for them — going beyond the major artists. Now that we have YouTube and all these artists, your artist isn't necessarily going to be the big [A-list] artist... It's forcing them to look over here and say, "This person has an audience. How do we get involved with them? " That's what I love about that branding, it's saying, "We're over here, and we're doing some cool stuff." and then you show people this whole new way of moving as a business.
I do feel like artists are faster on the pickup with new business models than tech companies, though. When I look at something like the Samsung deal with Rihanna's album... she got a huge check from that, and that's great for her, and I'm not sure what Samsung got out of that.
They're trying to figure it out, and not enough heads are looking in [the right] direction. That's why I feel like they're lost. They don't really know where to look, and the people that they're looking to... Like Rihanna, and these [major label artists] ... That doesn't necessarily help direct them. They're just kind of staying stagnant, because I don't think they know what it is they're searching for. They just know that it will be lucrative, because music is big.
"We can come to a place where music, tech and film have a way better marriage than we have right now."
Brands see where people are now — what albums are selling, what tours are selling. They can only follow that.
Even with the Gaga thing with Intel, I just felt like there was much more that they could have done with her. You know, they're trying to figure out these ideas, and I think with more people developing that, we can really come into a place where music, tech and even film have a way better marriage than what we have right now. I think we could be way more in sync than we are.
That's the fight for me with branding. That's why I'm forcing the name to come out. It's more of an affinity for business, for marketing. I majored in marketing, and I have a minor in marine science, but that's a whole other story.
[At this point, I probably make a face that says, "tell me the story, obviously."]
I was going into marine biology, and I was three years in, and I was dancing in the NBA, and my dad was like, "You have to make a choice, because you can't keep going to labs at 8:00AM" I went back to UNO... and they didn't have marine science. I had all these fucking credits, dude, and I wanted to get a minor in marine science, and then I just went back into business. My major was business marketing, and I have a minor in marine science just kind of sitting there.
Just some fun bonus knowledge.
If I ever want to, I can just go —
— study dolphins.
Well, I was concentrating in dolphins and manatees! I'm a certified SCUBA diver, everything.
That's awesome. You have to do an underwater video next.
I have to get my fucking director to go down there! He's so damn scared of the water.
I don't think there's been any underwater VR yet. That needs to happen.
That's where we're going.