Against The Grain: Dawn Richard Discusses Her “Sci-Fi” R&B

With this year's huge and ambitious GoldenHeart album, Dawn Richard has already set the bar high for pop music in 2013. Laurie Tuffrey met up with her to discuss the album, how Genesis and ballet are equal influences on her work and why P. Diddy's "a big ass dragon"

It seems unlikely for a pop star to describe their first major solo album as "seeming a bit monotonous, just a bit redundant", but that’s how Dawn Richard refers to GoldenHeart, the startlingly good LP she released in January.

She is, admittedly, framing it within the context of the trilogy she’s releasing, of which that record is part one, with BlackHeart and RedemptionHeart set to follow. Fittingly, GoldenHeart is a grand gesture, a 16-track first instalment, pivoting on Richard’s lyrical fixation with a particularly fantastical, valiant image of love (the EP that preceded it was called Armor On), matched with an appropriately all-encompassing musical approach. If anything, that purpose-built extravagance — GoldenHeart does feel overwhelming, but in a good way — makes it even more of an impressive achievement: a pop album, working in a genre typically hinged around instant gratification, that not only urges the listener to embrace its overlength, but bows to a grander concept.

At its base is R&B — and, with a track like ’86’, killer R&B at that — but it also tips a hat to prog-rock and cinema soundtracks as much as it does closer-worn pop territories like house and dubstep. Unlike the large cast of collaborators that are frequently involved in R&B releases, GoldenHeart is largely the result of Richard working solely with one producer, Andrew ‘Druski’ Scott, and consequently the album’s sonic signature feels unique. ‘Northern Lights’, for example, opens with spoken word over a distant music box, shifting to a punchy electro chorus before giving way to shuddering drums in the middle section, displaying the same kind of style-vaulting approach that made Frank Ocean’s ‘Pyramids’ so compelling. ‘Riot’, meanwhile, is dance-oriented pop, done exactly right.

With Richard having been through the machinations of the pop mainstream twice before, it makes sense that she should go in for this single-minded approach. Her first solo album, 2005’s Been A While, flew under the radar, but in the same year she became a member of girl group Danity Kane, put together on MTV’s Making The Band and signed to Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs’ Bad Boy Records. After two albums, they disbanded, with Richard the only one to be kept on at the label, going on to form part of the Diddy – Dirty Money trio, who released one LP, 2010’s Last Train To Paris. When the mogul called time on the project, Richard took it as the lead to form her own label Our Dawn, a seven-person strong venture through which her album trilogy is being released.

The sounds on GoldenHeart are incredibly wide-ranging – what were your influences for the record?

Dawn Richard: Well, I grew up listening to everything but R&B – I was a punk kid. Green Day was my first concert, System Of A Down, Bush. The Cranberries were a big influence on me. I loved wailing women – I was a fan of wailing voices. And if you listen to The Cranberries or K’s Choice or Bif Naked, this Canadian artist, the women are very obnoxious in their vocals. I almost resonated that with this album – it’s very aggressive and I wanted that display. R&B is kind of the foundation, but never do I do it all that long.

When did you start listening to R&B?

DR: My brother said my voice was reminiscent of these people that he liked, so he said "I think you should listen to artists like Sade, your voice, your tone is similar to them, and I think you should check them out". So he threw me a couple of artists that had that tone and I kind of fell in love with R&B in that sense. Chaka and Brandy and Anita Baker and women that had resonance in their vocal. But I still couldn’t shake my roots and would refer back to Enya and Björk – Björk is my all-time favourite vocalist, so that’s where I kind of wanted to wander.

I read you mentioning Genesis and Peter Gabriel as well, who aren’t the most frequently cited influences.

DR: The sound of Genesis was such a clever sound, and what I thought was unique about Phil [Collins] in particular was that he was a drummer first, so the cadence was important. In my music, cadence is key, the drum leads everything – if you notice, on a lot of the records, snare [clicks fingers], it leads. That’s what I wanted my R&B foundation to be. I wanted it to move, because I feel like people think R&B is linear and it can only be more of an atmosphere, or emo almost. I want to take them a little further than that, I want them to make their bodies feel like they can move and twirl and dance, similar to a futuristic sugar shack!

Were there any non-musical influences?

DR: One of my favourite painters, Gustav Klimt, was an influence behind the visuals. He uses gold paint and pellets in his paintings, which creates this regal feel. I wanted GoldenHeart to have the same kind of imagery and look. Mikhail Baryshnikov was another influence: I really wanted to use his film with Gregory Hynes, White Nights, because they are such different dancers, it’s hard and soft at the same time. I wanted a similarly visual element to the album, the drums and patterns to be similar: kind of against the grain, but flowing in the same direction.

There’s a very literary sense to the album, in that it follows a story over the course of the 16 tracks, which I imagine will form part of a larger story in the trilogy. How do you go about piecing that together?

DR: These songs were written through a course of six years, and some were in a shorter period. GoldenHeart was actually written before Armor On was created. Some of the songs were really long – ten, eleven minutes – some of them were just instrumentals. I really wanted the album to be like that, but it would have been a little long-winded, and even now it seems a bit overwhelming at times, but I kind of wanted it that way.

Is the next album ready?

DR: Yeah – BlackHeart‘s almost done! It’s a heavier sound, it’s the fall, where GoldenHeart was the naivety. That was just going out there on a whim, that first moment where you think "I can do all things". You’re so naive and you think you can conquer everything, and that’s kind of way I did the overwhelming, 16-song-releasing, throwing it all out there, seeming a bit monotonous, just a bit redundant. The reason why I did that is because, when you fight a battle, in the beginning you have no idea what you’re set for. So you just go out there, head and neck out first. BlackHeart is the realisation that it’s not easy! So it will be reverting back to some of those songs that I did that went on and on, going back to an Afro-Cuban, New Orleans native sound, but being a little bit more strict. It will be a lot less overproduced, more vocal display. Just because that’s your falling point. It’ll be a shorter album, because the fall doesn’t last long – when you hit the bottom, you don’t want to stay there that long.

What’s the process of writing and producing your records like for you?

DR: I’m a researcher at heart and I create and produce with Druski, who is classically trained, so he’s been playing piano his whole life. We go together and we literally listen to just sounds. Even though Genesis and Phil [Collins] and Peter [Gabriel] are all great influences, that wasn’t necessarily the derivative of the album. A lot of it was just sound and cadences, and listening to drum patterns. I used to listen to the music they used in White Nights, which is a Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines movie, and kind of listened to some of the music that they used in that, Hans Zimmer as well, and we really like playing with just orchestrated sounds. We listen to anything from different sounds of toms, pads and snares, and I like to listen to plug-ins. If you listen to a record like [GoldenHeart‘s] ‘Gleaux’, it ping-pongs around your ear so that it almost seems chaotic – all of that matters, that’s what I kind of do every day, and we try to make the lyrical content make sense with these patterns.

It’s organic, and it has a lot to do with working with Druski. So when I come with an idea, like "I want to sound like I’m on a rainforest in Pluto", he just gets that and he’ll come back and play it to me and I’ll be like "yes, that’s exactly what I want!" We create that world – it sounds like it would be difficult, but I’ve kind of met my match in music, where he gets me completely.

Do you think the fact that the album was just made with you and Druski, eschewing the legions of collaborators you must have been working with before, impacted on the record?

DR: There are so many artists collaborating with so many sounds that you can almost lose signature, you almost lose that relationship that you had when you listen to people like Aaliyah and Timbaland with their collaborative sound. It wasn’t on purpose, it was just that we were independent and people don’t like independent as a word, because money’s not involved in that. We had no choice but to work together, and I think we made it work for us and it wound up becoming kind of official, we learned that in Armor On, and so, what isn’t broke…

Releasing a trilogy of pop albums is a big undertaking — were they a long time in gestation?

DR: I knew I was going to make a conceptual album. I knew it would be this detailed, but I didn’t know I would have this much to say, in that it would feel like that much of a fight. These are just the cards I was dealt — being homeless after Katrina [Richard’s family home in New Orleans was destroyed in the 2005 disaster], Danity Kane and then Puff when Dirty Money split up – it’s just been so many different trials. You can either make that a positive or you can make it a negative. I didn’t want to tell the victim story, the R&B story, "oh, I hate life, I hate men", it’s such a consistent story, and not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s been told quite a few times: the angry black woman that makes the great hits about angry men! That’s just not my story, I don’t look at things that way, so it was a choice to tell it in a different way and have people still relate to it. I didn’t know if they would get it, but, surprisingly, a lot of people have got it dead-on.

Part of this setting out in a different way involved establishing your own independent label.

DR: It was one of those things where I knew I was going to take a big risk, and I knew that if it didn’t sit well, then I knew that I had tried, but if it did, I knew it would be revolutionary, huge, especially for for an African-American woman in R&B right now, independent. I guess people don’t realise that there’s just seven of us. We charted on Billboard in five different areas, with nothing; that’s unheard of, and I think that no matter what they say, they can’t take that from us. It’s one of those things where it’s proving that a machine can be a whole different avenue now, especially at a time when it’s so different for female artists, you’re definitely in a machine, because your beauty and your image is such a huge part of your sound. The machine helps catapult that – if you don’t have that, it’s harder to make people fall in love with you. People are loving us based off the music alone. This is music for the people, and I think that’s something huge. I’m just excited that people are pinning me amongst the Frank Oceans and the Miguels, because they’re signed. For them to put us in one of those categories, and of course them both being Grammy-nominated, that’s incredible for us.

Was it difficult to turn your back on Bad Boy Records and plough your own furrow?

DR: No, because I wasn’t turning my back on it. It was a mutual thing – I actually told Puff I wanted to work with him, he just knew that it would take some time to shop me as a solo artist and he knew that I wouldn’t want to wait three years to do that. So it was just an amicable decision, it was a no-brainer – it wasn’t mean, it was a choice that had to be made, and I made it. He’s tweeted all my stuff, told me how proud he was, and I think he knows my tenacity, I think he knows how crazy a person I am, how much of a perfectionist I am, and that’s what drew us to each other. So I think he’s not surprised.

Finally, a lot has been made about the fantasy theme in the album – what do you make of it yourself?

DR: People say dungeons and dragons R&B! I don’t know if that was what I was going for, but it’s my life, it’s kind of how I see things. When I wake up, I literally do put armour on; Puff wasn’t a human to me, he was a big-ass dragon and I had to slay that every day! This is my story, and, if it were a novel, it would be in the sci-fi section.

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