You may not recognize the name Dawn Richard immediately, but you’ve likely heard of the MTV show that brought about her proverbial big break. In 2005, she auditioned for "Making the Band 3," and landed a spot in Danity Kane, the girl group produced by P. Diddy (née Sean Combs). Over the next four years, Richard made three albums with the group, as well as top singles including “Show Stopper,” “Ride for You,” and “Damaged.” After they disbanded in 2009, she stayed within the Bad Boy Records family, joining Dirty Money alongside Diddy and Kalenna Harper.
But while those years brought her fame, they weren’t without contention. “The shit that I saw in [the hip hop industry], I was not ready to see,” she said recently. Plus, the fallings in and out between band members were heavily documented, putting more of a focus on the reality TV element of the group instead of the songwriting, which was paramount to Richard.
“I started to write my own stories, like small novels, and those novels became poems and after poems they became lyrics, and song came from that,” she said, citing everyone from Anne Rice to Oscar Wilde as inspiration. “Melody came later because I didn’t care about the commerciality of a melody, or the hook. I was looking for something that felt good.”
So in 2011, she struck out on her own (“I ran rather quickly”), releasing her first solo album, "Goldenheart," to critical claim in 2013, followed up with “Blackheart” in 2015, which peaked at number two on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic charts. This year, she hopes to complete the triology with “REDemptionheart.” (Two singles, “Dance” and “Not Above That” have already been released.)
For her solo career she goes by D∆WN, and brings a large triangle to accompany her onstage wherever she's performing, be it her her Redemption tour (which wrapped mid-June), SXSW, or the Northside Festival in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, before which she sat down with W to discuss what a long way she’s come from Danity Kane.
Is there added pressure with "REDemptionheart" because it’s the third album in the trilogy?
Well, it’s funny, there as no pressure at all at first because everyone thought I was a joke. They thought it was overambitious. So to be honest, at first people were kind of laughing at me, like you’re not going to be able to pull this off. And now they’re kind of looking at me in awe, like how are you pulling this off? But that pressure is going to be there [for me] regardless, not for people to like it, but just to do something that sticks artistically, that is legendary and feels grand. And I think that’s big for me because being an indie artist, that’s a hard feat. Being self-made, everything is [done] by ourselves, from your makeup to your hair, everything. To make it feel grandiose is very hard to do.
Why are your albums named after colors?
Color invokes mood, and growing up [in New Orleans] loving art the way I did, art has really resonated with me throughout my entire culture. I feel like color symbolizes so much more than oh, this is the album title. I feel like people can really understand, when they see the color, the vibrance of what it is and what it embodies. It’s just another sense to touch and mess with. It’s another sense to connect with beyond your auditory senses.
What can you say about the sound of the third album?
This is my second line, I always say that. That’s what this will sound like. It will sound like a celebratory victory. Kind of our victory lap around life. It doesn’t necessarily have to sound like a win, more just an understanding of self. It’s self discovery more than anything…
You probably had to work pretty hard to understand yourself after coming out of--
--a machine, a massive machine, manufactured. That was a hard step to take back, to get away from. I mean, especially when you have that much money surrounding you. We were pretty much made on TV, and we were manufactured by numbers and that was it. And even though that was amazing and that kind of money and that kind of aggressive branding was great, man it was limiting. We could only be the product; we weren’t necessarily people. And that’s understandable but that limits the art in a sense. I can appreciate the tools that got us to that point, but I think filtering those things out and not letting the art be diminished in the process is super important. And I think that’s the only way you’ll find balance and success with any artist, is that the machine is great, but the machine can’t forget about the art.
Was there anything about the machine of “Making the Band” that you wanted to apply to your solo career?
I love the way the machine oversaturates the market. I love the way that when they find somebody that they love, they plant the seeds to make it grow. I think sometimes it’s a bit too aggressive. But there’s a purpose to that. People don’t know if they love it, but if they hear it enough, it’s innate, it happens, it becomes something, a part of their system. I like that. But I don’t think it should be force fed. I think you should cook the plate and put it in front of those people, and you make it such a beautiful presentation that even if it looks different, someone would at least want to try it. I like the system but I don’t necessarily like how it’s put together, so I’ll take a little piece of this and create my own person. It’s kind of like I’ll Frankenstein it out.
What about working with P. Diddy? Did you learn anything about songwriting from him?
Songwriting was my own journey. I never fit in with structure in songwriting. That was what Puff appreciated with me when he asked me to do Dirty Money, was that I wasn’t writing in the structure. The songs that I had submitted, they were not commercial but they were really deep, the lyrics were really deep. It took him to a place I think he didn’t see himself being in and I think he appreciated it. I did write more mainstream stuff with DK. But you could always tell the records that I wrote in contrast with everybody else’s because the format was a bit different. The harmonies were used in a different type of way. Way more metaphors in the mix. That was my own journey of appreciating literature and being an Oscar Wilde fan.
What was it like breaking out on your own as a solo artist?
I got turned down millions of times. I get turned down daily. And it’s something that I realized early, that either I was going to have to create my own music or I was going to have to find an artist that was similar to the dynamic I was…because you could tell that there was no soul in the ones that I wrote that were more mainstream or pop that were manufactured. There was something special about the ones that were just organic or authentic. Authentic in the sense that it was me, and even if I wanted to build it around an artist, I still wanted them to have depth, beyond shaking my ass. That was hard. A lot of people were like, you’re cute but no we don’t want your music. So I just started writing my own shit and singing my own stuff and releasing it, kind of with, not even expecting anyone to listen to be honest.
Did you continue to work with Diddy?
No, I ran really fast. I was grateful for everything he had done, but I was ready. I was tired. There is a thing about women that needs to be understood. We don’t sit well with being put in a certain place. I didn’t like how stifled I felt. Not in my art but just as a woman, the things that I saw. The things that you see in this industry are… I wasn’t ready for that. I was raised in a different environment, and my parents were very very stern. They were very good parents. And we were sheltered, I’d say. The shit that I saw in that world, I was not ready to see. And I think I was exposed to a lot and it was time for me to get away from that kind of crazy and really go back to what I really knew. I just wanted to get to a place where nothing mattered other than doing what oyu loved to do. So I ran rather quickly.
Would you ever be in a group or band again?
Here’s the answer to that. I joined music to be in a band. I never thought of myself as a solo artist. That’s the truth. I loved the Cranberries, I loved No Doubt, Bif Naked. So I always was like, I want to be a lead singer with the band in the back. But I would never do a girl group in the sense of pop culture’s idea of a girl group again. I think I will leave that respect to what Danity Kane was - it was a hell of a run, and it was really cool what we did, but I think at this point, I’ve already done like six groups already with Dirty Money and Danity Kane, I think it’s time to give that idea a rest.
Watch all the episodes of “The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice,” a four-part film series by Gia Coppola, here. Produced for Gucci by W magazine.
Produced by Biel Parklee.