Music

Dumblonde Discovers Their Light

Story by Michael Love Michael / Photography by Allegra Messina

Dumblonde, the duo comprised of Aubrey O'Day and Shannon Bex, formed in 2014 following their then-final third album as Diddy's made-for-TV girl group, Danity Kane. O'Day and member Dawn Richard, who also has a critically acclaimed solo career, got into a heated physical altercation during recording sessions for that album, something they've both addressed online and in interviews. The fight led to a very public, very messy disbanding of the trio.

The formation of Dumblonde's music and image came rather quickly following. After teasing images of the two blondes looking practically identical with clips of the music they were preparing, the group's self-titled album arrived in September 2015. The casual brilliance of that album's 11 tracks merged the Top 40 dance-pop sound that made Bex and O'Day famous with '80s-indebted electronica, intricate harmonies, and left-of-center production. The duo shared writing duties with hitmaker Candice Pillay and production with R8DIO and Dem Jointz. Songs like "Dreamsicle," "White Lightning," "Carry On," and "Remember Me" got conceptual video treatments, which O'Day and Bex co-directed.

If you were ever a Danity Kane stan, it was nearly impossible not to root for Dumblonde's impressive breadth and playful ingenuity. Within their debut album cycle, they styled themselves as matching American Horror Story: Coven-style witches, Day Glo rave kids, glam swimsuit models, and more. Dumblonde charted in the Top 20 of Billboard's Top Dance/Electronic Albums, Heatseekers, and Independent Albums charts within its first two weeks of release. Here were two blondes proving themselves to be anything but dumb.

After that Beyoncé-style release of creative output, the women returned to their normal lives, while remaining in constant contact: Bex is a married mother in Oregon; O'Day is something of a sponcon Instagram queen who is unafraid to share her feminist views online. It is worth noting here that their yin and yang is the glue sealing their unbreakable bond. As O'Day explains: "Shannon's my person; she'll be my maid of honor whenever I marry. Shannon's going to pick out my casket, or she'll be in her grave bitching about how I picked the wrong casket."

The catalyst for their sonic reunion was a traumatic breakup of O'Day's. Again, she called her sister Bex, and the two hunkered down to write the songs that would ultimately form bianca. This time around, they drew inspiration from real-life tumultuous tale of Mick and Bianca Jagger, for whom the album is named. Its eight songs clock in intentionally at exactly 26 minutes; Bianca married Mick at age 26. The album's tracks are listed to form the phrases "Glad that I found my way out. I'm in love with myself." ("When you make a concept album, you don't have to play by any rules," O'Day says). Also, given the style icon's abundant and notable fashion moments, it wasn't hard for Bex and O'Day to pull visual references from Bianca's archive.

"People didn't see us as the ones in charge of being able to create their own music."

As they launched first single "white hot lies," which is renamed "i" on the album, again, images surfaced of the two styled as Studio 54 disco divas. It was only right that the sound matched, so this time, Bex and O'Day brought in live instruments, '70s funk loops, sparkling synths, and understated, but rich harmonies to capture the feel of that groovy, glamorous musical era. The song's lyrics are confident and direct, sang as if the pain of betrayal is but a distant memory: "You take love more than you give love," in "found"; "Got my feeling back inside" in "that"; and of course, "Your white hot lies electrify me."

For their first album, the duo admits that they needed to prove something to their audiences who have stuck by them through all Danity Kane's ups and downs. Currently, Danity Kane is "up," so to speak, with DAWN, and just wrapped a stateside tour called The Universe Is Undefeated. New music is pending, depending on how things progress. These days, Bex and O'Day are more relaxed, refreshed and feeling more realistic than ever about their future, but no less focused. Here's how they found their light.

The first album was more '80s dance-pop and bianca is '70s disco and funk grooves. Why the sonic shift?

O'Day: For us, it starts out visually for the most part. Shannon and I were looking through old Studio 54 photos and just vibing on the whole era of what that felt like. Bianca Jagger was such an icon of the Studio 54 era; she embodied everything that style is and was. I started to revisit her life and her story and look at her marriage with Mick Jagger. It closely resembled the relationship I had just gotten out of, which thankfully Shannon let me write about that for this album because that was what was on my heart. On this album I wanted to say some real shit about what was going on. As I started to see the disaster of Mick and Bianca's relationship, it felt very similar to the one I had just went through. I thought she would be a perfect heroine to build everything on.

What's your take on concept albums in general? Especially when so many artists today are focused on making streaming-friendly records.

O'Day: I'm all about the concept album. I know it's considered a thing of the past, but I choose to really make concept albums because that's what I fell in love with growing up. Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson, they are just legendary; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is such a profound, unified concept album from start to finish. Even the pop artists that we grew up with from Christina to Britney. Concept albums are much harder to create and take a lot more of your talent as an artist to put together. We listened to '70s music for two months straight just to learn how artists then approached ad-libs. They sing in a lot of minor keys, and we had to learn what takes you completely out of the '70s or keeps you completely in the '70s, in terms of the music. And there are a lot of things that are a no-no for '70s, production-wise and musically and visually.

Dress: Unravel, Shorts: IRO, Boots: Bally, Jewelry: Bulgari

You both are known for shapeshifting into glam twins. When did you realize you'd be good together as a duo?

Shannon Bex: One thing we noticed in Danity Kane was that we were the two blondes; we were the two white girls that should have had the most competition with each other; we were the bookends, yet personality wise, we are yin and yang. We complement each other well because of that. That, in combination with the name Dumblonde, it's like we wanted to show that we could look identical and sing in harmonies but still we're independently powerful women, too. So it's kind of a reflection of shining in your own light and your girl power too.

O'Day: When we first started this, I saw us being this power duo of two blonde, sexy robots. I wanted to dynamically play on how visually, we can look similar but are completely opposite. Something about two women who aren't afraid to look alike was so empowering after being in Danity Kane, because in Danity Kane everyone always struggled over the costume rack and getting the best costumes so you could stand out. Everybody always wanted to stand out; everybody always wanted to outdo each other. It was always a race to be the most different one in the room, and I wanted to show the ease and confidence of what Shannon and I felt together as a unit, and separately as our own women.

Shirt: Antonina Poppy, Bodysuit: Vex Clothing, Earrings: Swati Dhanak, Tights: Wolford, Boots: Unravel

Within girl groups, female pop artists are often told to blend in. How has Dumblonde fought against that?

O'Day: Blending in is much harder than standing out. Anyone can stand out; you can make a million and one bold choices to stand out, but blending in is actually takes much more discipline. At one point in my life, this famous rapper I can't name was really trying to be with me and he was blowing me up everyday. I was like, I have to go on a date and I have to see what this could be. Shannon reminded me that I've done this sort of thing before, so it wouldn't be different this time. She told me that trying everything, especially when I've been there, done that, isn't what makes someone special. It takes more strength to discipline yourself and make good choices for yourself. We learned this the hard way in Danity Kane, many times over. Even with Dawn — who is killing it in her solo career — and us reuniting, we've found it can be difficult to come back in and lock in as a group. Shannon and I have disciplined ourselves over the years to be in sync together. But we also remember in Danity Kane's beginnings, when everybody would be stepping out of line or just two inches in front of the other person. But the picture is much better when you can learn to come together for the greater good.

I interviewed Dawn recently and she said that what the three of you have these days is much more real. It defies notions of how women are expected to behave together: either having conflict or totally in sync. Your relationship is somewhere in the middle.

O'Day: We've all been together since I was 17 years old, so I've been in the longest relationship with Danity Kane, specifically Shannon. Shannon and Dawn are both specifically back in my life and I wish the other girls were as well, but Shannon's my person; she'll be my maid of honor whenever I marry. Shannon's going to pick out my casket, or she'll be in her grave bitching about how I picked the wrong casket. [Laughs] Shannon and I were the two that hung on to Danity Kane and never let go of the group aspect of it. As a result, we communicate so well, from our look to our sound, but are also completely comfortable with who we are as individuals, and aren't defined by who the other person is. We're family. And we've been with Dawn for so long and just like she said, it feels good that we can all come together. We wouldn't come together if it was fake.

(On Aubrey) Jacket & Capris: Sally LaPointe, Sunglasses: Mykita + Maison Margiela, Earrings & Bracelet: Bulgari, Ring: Cartier (On Shannon) Dress: Unravel, Shorts: IRO, Boots: Bally, Jewelry: Bulgari

Are there longer term plans with Danity Kane? An album? New videos? More touring?

O'Day: I think we're just taking it day by day. I'm always going to rock with Shannon and as long as both of us are happy, we'll rock with Danity Kane. I reached out to Dawn to resolve things between us, just on a human level. Danity Kane wasn't the main reason I wanted to talk to her. I just didn't want to leave it at what happened in the studio that day. I was going through a lot of therapy at the time. I got out of a really abusive relationship and I really was kind of sick to my stomach at all of the things that I've loved in life that ended in an unresolved way. I like resolution and I like things to come full circle. So reaching out to her was a really big deal. At the end of the day, I think we all want peace with ourselves and as artists and as women.

Bex: When it comes to conflict, we live in a world full of it. These days, times are so polarizing, it's like you either love people or hate them, and that's just not what's real. You can have mixed feelings about something or someone and continue if it feels right for you, or don't. It's sad that we're training our youth to either accept things or completely discard them. Life is not always either/or. It's about humanity. We live together, and we die together.

Because of your history, do you ever feel that you have more to prove than most other artists?

O'Day: We felt we had a lot to prove on the first [Dumblonde] album. We had a show lined up with E!, we had an entire album and a record deal. We had everything before I got hit in the studio [recording DK3]. And Shannon and I built that entire situation off of our success, so it was devastating. There was like a year and a half where she was away from her husband living in my home. We've sacrificed so much that when that happened we laid in bed for a week sick to our stomachs like, What are we going to do? How are we going to do this? We almost had that feeling like we can't do this because people didn't see us as the ones in charge of being able to create their own music.

And then we just fought that. We fought every word that was spoken against us that wasn't true and we literally OD'd, like let's show them how we can do this, let's show them how we do our videos, let's show them our range: for "Carry On," we pulled references from American Horror Story, "Dreamsicle" was pop art, and "Remember Me," we played on femme fatale narratives [like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction], and were both in love with the same man. For "White Lightning," we rented camera equipment from the USC film department and asked if any students could teach us how to use the equipment. We sat on YouTube for weeks and learned all the lighting techniques we could from wet looks to things that are more noir and moody. That's why we had so many videos. This time, we weren't as interested in proving ourselves, but were definitely committed to making great music.

Suit: R13, Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti, Corset: Vex Clothing, Jewelry: Bulgari

It's been about 15 years of you being in the public eye. Do you think you're in a position to mentor younger, rising artists?

O'Day: Our original idea when we came back to Danity Kane, was to stress the importance of three women who have all worked very hard in this industry. To showcase that, we wanted to do a television show where we now create our own band with our own label and platform, and from start to finish, we help them produce, write the music, and shoot all the videos, and also teach the girls along the way where we made mistakes and how they can not make them. The goals is to show them how they can win.

Bex: I've been working with young dancers, and I also just launched this app I co-founded that I'm super proud of, the first animated live streaming platform for children. It's Vooks and it's full of animated children's storybooks. We work with Scholastic and are also publishing a lot of independent artists and illustrators. We've grown 300% since January and are increasing 20% engagement and new users per week. We have amazing people on our advisory board and are about to get some other investments, and it's doing incredibly well so far.

O'Day: Part of the platform is working with all different kinds of writers, authors. And I'm over here mentoring all the Instagram hoes on how to do it correctly. [Laughs.] Find your light here, girls, in 3, 2, 1.

Jacket & Capris: Sally LaPointe, Earrings & Bracelet: Bulgari, Ring: Cartier

Photography: Allegra Messina
Makeup: Sara Tagaloa
Makeup Assistant: Marlu Soria
Hair: Tiago Goya
Styling: Star Burleigh

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