Dawn Richard is a bit of a nerd.
Growing up in New Orleans, she was the kind of kid who balanced dance, sports and academics. She went to college to study marine biology, but the singing and dancing she assumed was just a hobby became much more than that. She landed on the reality show Making the Band and became part of Danity Kane, whose name stemmed from a comic book character she created in school. Later, she worked with Sean Combs as part of his Diddy - Dirty Money group.
Since then, she has dropped her last name, stylized her first in all caps (with a triangle instead of a capital A) and emerged as an independent, ambitious solo artist. In four years, Dawn has released two full-length albums and three EPs. Her third full-length, Redemption, is out on Nov. 18 through her label Our Dawn Entertainment.
"I had always had an affinity for series, in literature," she says inside a Hollywood coffeehouse, "and I thought it would be really cool to incorporate what I loved about books into the story of music, to pile it together."
Dawn sparkles against the stark surroundings; there are rhinestones on her beret and glitter painted onto her fingernails. She talks fast, dropping art and pop culture influences. Everything from Gustav Klimt's paintings to Hans Zimmer's movie scores have impacted her work.
Dawn is into epics. She cites The Odyssey as an influence, but if you mention Star Wars in connection to her work, she's down with that, too. As for the trilogy of albums that she just completed, that's her epic. That's Dawn full of a young warrior's confidence on Goldenheart. Second album Blackheart chronicles her fall, but she rises again on Redemption, inspired by her own up-and-down journey as an artist and casting herself as a Luke Skywalker with a smooth voice and killer beats.
She picked her inspirations carefully. Goldenheart, the most conventionally pop-sounding of the trilogy, was inspired by Zimmer and the golden images of Klimt, particularly his depiction of the Biblical figure Judith. For Blackheart, she delved into the dark worlds of Tim Burton and Edgar Allan Poe and bass-heavy dance music. Redemption, influenced by virtual reality and the sounds of her hometown, mixes electronic and organic elements. "Redemption sounds like a jubilee. Like a second line if you will," she says, referencing the parades for which New Orleans is famous.
On "L.A.," Dawn merges her Louisiana roots with her current home base of Los Angeles. She explains it as a story of a drive with a friend down La Brea. "We thought we were above it because we made it. We're here," she says. "But as we're driving, we feel the cops. The people. Looking at us because of what we look like. We're black. And I feel a sense of speeding that starts to happen." You can feel that shift in the song. What begins as a smooth afternoon jam morphs into a tense, hard rock-influenced race towards relief that comes in the form of Trombone Shorty's horn, serving as a reminder of home.
She has recently taken to virtual reality. Dawn performed YouTube's first 360-degree concert live stream and released the VR experience "Not Above That" last June. She has also been working with Adult Swim on a series of curated promotional spots, which has rekindled her love of animation. (Last summer, she released the song "Serpentine Fire" through Adult Swim Singles.) "That's something that most people don't know I do," she says. "As a black woman, that's huge. The black geeks of the world, we feel like we don't have a home."
Dawn finds inspiration in women like Björk and Missy Elliott, artists with distinct visions whose contributions to their sound have often been overshadowed by that of their male collaborators. "We're just now being comfortable with hearing that Björk produces. We're just now hearing that. It took 20 years," she says. "That's a problem."
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When Dawn stepped out on her own, she didn't know if she would keep her old audience or find a new one. "I was very fearful that I would lose the fan base that I had with Danity Kane," she says. "I cared in the beginning, after I realized that they didn't latch on like I thought they would. But there were people who did. At that point, I was grateful for the people who did because they were genuinely there."
She notes that people have to search for her now. She's no longer the artist that people find by flipping TV channels or listening to pop radio. "They were following me based on their own accord, which was way better," she says. "It was way better than what I was used to before, which was the machine telling you to like us."
What was even cooler was that Dawn's fans weren't limited to people who were into Danity Kane. As a solo artist, she began to attract people who didn't know about her old band, who didn't watch the reality show. "I wasn't expecting [the new fans], and I love it," she says, adding that she does this out of passion, that there's no financial gain in working independently on a very ambitious string of releases. "The reward is the people. That was the blessing that made me want to be the geek that I've always been in my heart."
Dawn's Redemption is out today, Nov. 18, via iTunes and other formats. More info at dawnrichard.net.