"I Wanted Raw Grit!" Dawn Richard Interviewed

"I Wanted Raw Grit!" Dawn Richard Interviewed

"I play that freedom loud..."

When holistically looking back at Dawn Richard’s 16-year career, no one could’ve foreseen that she would blossom into the conceptual and visionary artiste that she is today. First introduced to the world in 2005 as a member of Danity Kane, the multi-platinum girl group born on MTV’s Making The Band. Soon after she would join the abstract hip-hop outfit Diddy-Dirty Money.

Both groups were ultimately short-lived and tales of unfulfilled potential. Undeterred, Dawn patterned a durable path for herself as a solo artist. A path that commenced with the mixtape ‘The Prelude to A Tell Tale Heart’, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The shapeshifter is now back with her sixth studio album ‘Second Line: An Electro Revival’. An inspired body of work re-imagining her hometown of New Orleans as an afrofuturist ecosystem. A cosmos where the framework of electronic music can evade dissonance with the city’s history of jazz, blues, R&B and funk.

The title of the album directly draws from the New Orleans tradition of second line parades. Neighbourhood street parties led by bustling brass bands in celebration of the deceased. The “first line” refers to the grand marshal or parade leader leading the procession. The “second line” is comprised of willing participants who follow the band and form a commune of boundless expression.

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With ‘Second Line: An Electro Revival’, Dawn cleverly re-interprets the native and historical customs of her ancestors to rejoice at the death of antiquated views in the music industry. Leading the “electro revival” parade and procession is the character of King Creole. An assassin of stereotypes who Dawn has christened “the new breed of artist”. Those in the “second line” thus representing any artists who wants to join her army.

Expounding on King Creole’s characterisation, Dawn says: “King Creole is this half android/half human. Her journey as an assassin is a battle with duality. Half of her is part of this industry. Built to understand what it means to be a product. But her human side has a lot of pain as a result of that”.

The internal conflict that King Creole endures heavily informs the sequencing of the albums 16 tracks. The first half oscillates between the genres of Chicago footwork, house, bounce music, Hip-Hop and Caribbean-flavoured pop. An illustration of Creole’s android side. Radiating defiance, cockiness and kinetic energy. More ambient, sparse and downtempo, the second half channels Zero 7, Bjork, Imogen Heap and the production of William Orbit.

The avant-garde but bluesy ‘Voodoo (Intermission)’ is at the intersection of these two wildly different halves. A moment of truth where the residue of Creole’s suppressed emotions starts coming to the fore. “This is when we see a transition to the human side. You get lyrics, vocals and vulnerability. An insight into that duality I myself have constantly been fighting within this industry”.  

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The inclusion of Dawn’s own experiences into King Creole’s story with tracks like ‘Le Petit Morte (a lude)’, ‘The Potter’ and ‘Perfect Storm’ suggests ‘Second Line’ has a symbiotic relationship with her 2015 release ‘Blackheart’. The dark and solemnly second instalment in her ‘Heart’ trilogy of Nordic and medieval inspired albums. Beginning with 2013’s ‘Goldenheart’ and concluding with 2016’s ‘Redemption’, they were an exploration of her battles within an industry that can be enticing but extremely malevolent.

‘new breed’, Dawn’s inaugural release after the conclusion of the ‘Heart Trilogy’ intimated that she had moved on from this narrative. However, when contextualised alongside ‘Second Line’, ‘new breed’ can now be understood as the first chapter in a brand-new trilogy. “I felt with ‘Redemption’, ‘Blackheart’ and ‘Goldenheart’ it was personal, but I made it with this Joan of Arc-esque messenger. New Orleans was in the musical story, but it never was in the narration. With ‘new breed’ and ‘Second Line’, the narrative is still the same, but it is now purposefully done with New Orleans as the actual narrator”.

Like many New Orleans citizens, the devastating blow of Hurricane Katrina would have an immeasurable impact on Dawn. Almost instantaneously, she was met with the actuality that her family had lost everything and were now displaced. After spells between Baltimore and LA, Dawn moved back to New Orleans after the conclusion of the ‘Redemption’ era, allowing Dawn to fully reclaim her NOLA roots with an authenticity that she wasn’t entirely able to access before. “I couldn't tell that story because I wasn't authentically home. My city had shifted and become something else. I had to be re-acquainted with the new New Orleans and what it looks like now”.

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If ‘new breed’ was the story of Dawn being re-acquainted with New Orleans and acclimatising to its post-Katrina iteration, ‘Second Line: An Electro Revival’ is Dawn taking action. Partaking in activity that contributes to the city’s long-term future. With the advent of PapaTeds, her vegan bakery business, Dawn is already adding to the enrichment of New Orleans in terms of economics and material means. Now she is seeking to broaden and expand upon the cultural ideas commonly associated the city. “New Orleans is always depicted as this old thing with nothing but juke joints. It’s always this cartoony old history version of us like The Princess And The Frog. I see New Orleans as Blade Runner or Mad Max.”

The sci-fi influence of those movies were subsequently woven into the visuals for ‘Bussifame’, ‘Pilot (a lude)’ and ‘FiveOhFour (a lude)’. Intentionally directed and shot with a DIY and grimy feel, they are Dawn’s visual manifesto of a post-apocalyptic New Orleans. “I wanted raw grit. I didn't want a lot of photoshop or filters. I wanted this to feel like New Orleans in 3045 after a huge radioactive bomb. Where the parade costumes are still beautiful, but they now have holes and rips”.

In order to convincingly map out her vision of constructing a New Orleans with futuristic leanings, Dawn’s approach to the record as a producer had to be very methodical and mathematical. “I wanted to make a second line record without having a brass band. For me, it was about what is the time signature of a second line? What are the metres used and how do I apply that within in the electronic space?”

The ode to Larry Heard ‘Nostalgia’ and the nu-disco groove of ‘Boomerang’ are proof that these two worlds aren’t so musically incompatible. Astutely mixing genres typically characteristic of NOLA like funk, swing and Afro-Cuban music to create tracks that are nonetheless and unequivocally electronic. “That’s why I called it ‘An Electro Revival’. I'm trying to create a possibility where the pad and synth can be cohesive and live in the same world as the electric guitar, the trumpet, the trombone and even the vocal run”.

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The valiant ambition to wage an “electro revival” isn’t just exclusive to New Orleans. In the long run, Dawn’s goal is to create opportunities for more black people to thrive and move freely within a genre that at present is insanely white, male and cis. “Black people, black queer people especially are the communities who started the movement of house, electronica and dance music. Yet we don't have them celebrated at all and they’re hardly anywhere to be found on the playlists or festival line-ups”.

Dawn is hoping that the new album will spark a new movement where black creatives in electronic spaces can start unifying. Working horizontally as a unit to create an influx of black representation. Citing the groundwork already being done by the likes of Make Techno Black Again, Ash Lauryn, LSDXOXO, Honey Dijon, Dweller Forever, Aluna Francis, Jayda G and Rave Reparations, Dawn said “So many of us know that we're lacking here. I'm just hoping that the more noise I make, we can lift eachother up and start moving the dial”.

The peculiar and anomalous trajectory of Dawn’s career places her in a lineage of progressive Black women like Betty Davis, Grace Jones, LaBelle, Skin (lead singer of Skunk Anansie), Fefe Dobson, Kelis and Meshell Ngeochello. Trailblazers that were ahead of their time. Critics may still be catching up, but Dawn Richard’s career is a remarkable story of how one can be consistently adaptable in ways beyond comprehension. “Nothing about my trajectory has been conventional. My entire career has been “Huh???” and I love it”.

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A proudly independent artist years before mainstream discourse around the necessity of major labels started to surface. She was also one of the first artist to experiment with VR, long before Childish Gambino, Travis Scott, Gorillaz and Imagine Dragons incorporated the medium into their live shows. With a back catalogue boasting hypnotic projects like 2010’s ‘Last Train To Paris’ and 2012’s ‘Armor On’, Dawn is undoubtedly among the most innovative and foundational R&B artists of the last 15 years. And now she’s the latest signee to Merge Records, an indie label whose pedigree is predicated on alternative rock music.

When asked whether she holds any umbrage about the fact that her potential to be a mainstream star was foiled for reasons beyond her control or power, she fittingly alludes to the gospel conveyed in ‘Radio Free’. “There’s never a sadness that I'm not that. I'm aware that I don't chart like everybody else. But I am free in this. I can dance in this. So, I play that freedom loud”.

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‘Second Line: An Electro Revival’ is out now.

Words: Sope Soetan / @SopeSoetan

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