Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn Broaden Their Palette

Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn Broaden Their Palette

Dawn Richard has always been a shape-shifter. From her early Danity Kane days moving through the pop space, she has since embarked on her solo career as an independent artist blurring the lines between dance, R&B and pop. Richard has consistently shown herself to be an incredibly versatile artist, whether it be working with electronic producers such as Machinedrum and JIMMY EDGAR, to indie acts such as Dirty Projectors and Kimbra, all while maintaining a distinct artistic identity throughout it all. Her latest project is no exception.

A stark departure from the electro-revival sound of Richard's last record Second Line, Pigments sees the New Orleans artist collaborating with multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer Spencer Zahn for an expansive new album that blends together elements of classical, jazz and ambient electronica. Spread across a body of several movements, the record eschews house beats and catchy hooks for a rolling soundscape of soft saxophone melodies, blooming string sections and shimmering ambiance as Richard's vocals cut through the watercolored fog, floating in and out of focus as the album's tide ebbs and flows.

"I wanted my voice to be moss surrounding the roots of Spencer’s compositions, never forcing the moment to fill every space but rather reveling in the openness of thought and breath," Richard says of her contributions to the record. As the record's name suggests, Richard's meditative vocals cut through Zahn's ethereal soundscapes like rich pigments washed in a sublime tenderness that sees one vibrant hue melt into the next.

Taking inspiration from color in its rawest form, the album — along with its Pantone track list — is at its core a love letter from Richard to her hometown of New Orleans, imagining the city as seen through the eyes of a young Black girl with dreams to paint her future using the pigments given to her. Augmenting the record with a set of visuals, Richard called upon the diverse talent from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to further flesh out visual and kinetic language in a spectacular fashion.

In celebration of the release of Pigments, PAPER caught up with Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn to dive deeper into the evolution of their joint album, the process of working together through the pandemic, and how New Orleans played a role in the creation of the record.

How did you two initially come to work together and how did the album start to take shape from there?

Dawn Richard: I was lucky enough to collaborate with Kimbra on a record called "Version of Me" and thought she was an incredible artist. Lo and behold, not only was she a great artist but she was surrounded by awesome people. So when I went on tour, one of the people I met was Spencer and I fell in love with him immediately. I thought he was an incredible composer and musician and I asked if I could steal him for my performance when I opened for her. He was able to play keys and cello and really work with me on that side of that. He was also an artist and he showed me some of his work.

After we had finished touring, I contacted him separately and was like, "I really love your music. Can I take one of your songs and do a record to it?" He was like, "Sure, take it," and the result was "Cyanotype," which is a record that we did together. That is still one of my favorite records I've ever really done. I kept listening to it, kept telling him I loved it and that turned into, "Do you want to do a project or a few songs together?" He was awesome enough to say, "Yeah, let's do this and try it." It was organic.

Spencer Zahn: Like Dawn said, after we did "Cyanotype," it was like, "Let's take that sound and develop it a bit more." There was a bunch of new material that came together and we developed that sound some more until it became Pigments.

Along those lines, what was the process of fleshing out the album for you two?

Zahn: From my standpoint, I basically wrote a bunch of electronic demos at first. They're kind of like synthesizers with upright bass, more electronic-sounding stuff. Then, as Dawn started singing on those, we started developing the sound of what the emotion of her vocals and what things were inspiring both of us at the time. We started to swap out instrumentation and expand and then all of a sudden, it was like, let's get like a whole string section together. Let's get all these woodwinds and expand the view a bit and make it more of a large acoustic ensemble with some electronic elements that make it sound like a modern version of an orchestra. We did that piece by piece and fit it all together.

Richard: Yeah, this project was made during quarantine, so it was one of those things where we were never able to be together, so we were really creative about the way in which we wanted to communicate. I think we got really good at communicating what we wanted because we had no other choice, Spencer could go into his caves and create. You could live with these things more, we could sit with them for long periods of time and talk about how we expand. How do we make it great? I was so in love with "Cyanotype" and I knew I wanted to go into a soundscape space. I wanted to create something that was really unconventional to where I already was. I had been itching to do this for a long time, but never really found someone that I could work with to do that, and I also thought that would be jarring because of the work that I was already doing. But versatility is fun for me! From the beginning project, I knew I didn't want the lyrics to be at the forefront. I knew as we progressed, I should breathe more and let the music be the narrator.

I think about four songs into us creating and building, I knew I wanted to have dance accompany it. I had not shared that with Spencer, but I knew when it started shifting from electronic and going into a more orchestral sound, I felt like this could be an opportunity to incorporate a visual movement, the way the music was moving. I was recording most of my vocals in New Orleans, so to me, it became a no-brainer to see how I could incorporate something that I really wasn't seeing, which was the art of dance in a contemporary space. How do I figure out how to make New Orleans make sense within what we were creating? Because I was always home. I was there constantly, and so it became this really beautiful search to figure out how to connect all the emotions and all the inspiration Spencer was having within his world. It's this really beautiful back-and-forth.

How did dance then end up manifesting on the record?

Richard: Well, if anyone knows my career, dance has always been present. There's choreography everywhere always, even from the beginning of my career in pop, so it had always saved me. Coming from New Orleans, people always gravitate toward the other things, but they never talk about the dance part of it. For whatever reason, we kept delving, and I just felt like musically, this could be a really great story to tell about how movement really catapulted not only my career but saved me in a lot of ways because I couldn't get out in New Orleans. I couldn't get an opportunity, and then when one was given, dance was the reason I even got the opportunity to get the option to sing. For any dancer, you first start with the basic foundation of ballet, contemporary, modern, tap. That's what I grew up in. But rather than having a story be about me, I felt like because New Orleans is so much more than just a solo thing, how do I tell our story in an ensemble way? I thought it'd be really beautiful if we told the story of many — how all of us have the same story of how we're all building and painting in our own ways. I wanted to tell how so many people like me, so many artists, girls, females, queer people, whatever, where they come from opportunities that they don't get. In New Orleans, if you can't afford to go to contemporary school, there's no way out. That was my story. Dance couldn't take me past a certain point because of what I look like. I didn't have the feet. I didn't have the body type. I got an opportunity to collaborate with NOCCA, which in New Orleans is this contemporary institute for young students, and I was able to find some of the most incredible talents who have all their stories — “I'm 4'8", 4'9" and they told me I couldn't dance.” “I've been told many times that I'm going to have to straighten [my hair] and get a perm because my hair is too nappy to be a ballerina.” Stories that you just wouldn't believe! One of my dancers has an insulin button on her arm. She has constantly been told that that has been an uncomfortable thing for her visually if you are onstage as a principal dancer. Things that dancers go through, I wanted to tell that story with them and that's what you get in the end of it.

From a conceptual approach to the record, the naming convention throughout it is all different sorts of colors, could you maybe expand on the sort of the ideas on the record, the narrative or the emotional through line?

Zahn: I'll speak about the instrument, composition side of it first, but what I wanted to do after we developed the initial ideas and figured out what the sound of the record would be, I wanted to have each instrument that is part of the album be basically a character that recurs throughout the album. They each have their own theme — melodically, harmonically — and so the clarinets will start the album. Those themes kind of change and modulate and grow throughout the record and they become different characters throughout the whole album. That's the same for every instrument, whether it's the strings or guitars or Dawn's voice. We kind of gravitated towards the emotion of each song, and then Dawn and I talked about what these sounds, melodies, harmonies, what do they make us feel? Dawn always wanted the records to be about the pigments that make us all up and I'll let her talk about how that came through.

Richard: What's pretty gnarly is Spencer was naming some of these records colors already and I don't think he purposely was doing it. He will do something and I'd listen to it and be like, "But damn, this sounds exactly like this color. It sounds so good!" With my career, a lot of my albums are color based. I did a whole trilogy on color, so I really believe in the power of what color can evoke in a mood. I started thinking about the concept of pigments. Pigments, at its purest form, is powdered color, and I thought that was interesting in the sense that we have to all love the skin and the color we're in. We have to love this life we choose to live, and for someone like me, my pigment has been harder to love because I was told that it wasn't beautiful. This album to me is telling the story of people painting with broken brushes, not everybody gets the perfect palette. I didn't get the best brushes from the best store. I didn't get it set up where I could paint beautifully. My easel is an old renovated one, it's like a repurposed wood one. It's chipped. it's cracked. I don't even have all of the utensils. Sometimes I have to use my hands to paint these things. It was a very imperfect palette, but it is mine, and I have to own that.

I thought it was really cool that I could collaborate with artists who have built and painted these incredible lives for themselves, that collaboration is powerful to me! Pigments became a personal story of what it'd be like to paint the world with imperfect brushes, with broken brushes, because to me, the majority of the world is doing that. Pigments became, to me, an opportunity to tell the story of coming from nothing and being able to paint what I feel is my own life's masterpiece. That is what I want Pigments to be because it isn't just about me and Spencer. There are incredible musicians on this project. There are incredible dancers, young girls, who this is their first opportunity to show that though they come from an inner city, they're able to show that they are fine art themselves. Being my color, being what I am, whether you're queer, straight, Black, whatever. You are fine art!

Was there any moment along the way that surprised you or stood out to you in crafting the record?

Richard: I think for me, it was the shock that we may have something that was bigger than what we expected it to be. I think watching the evolution of it was a surprise in itself. I had no clue that it would inspire and move me in this way that it became so much more. I think we were like, "Let's do some records!" And then it became, "This needs to be done!" Then it became not just big for me, but for others too. It became something more. We're just now being able to spread our wings again, get out again. I was concerned that maybe people would be jarred by this, but then every time we'd do another record, I'd be like, "This needs to be seen! This needs to be heard." Seeing that people were supporting it as we kept moving, how expansive it got, was a bit surprising because at first, it literally was just two to three records. Some of the things that Spencer wanted me to work with, were going one direction and I would always pick the ones that I think were the least where he was trying to go originally and I love him for it because I know he had his own journey. I'm shocked that two to three songs became not only an EP, but really my directorial opportunity to tell a story in a space that I have yet to really speak on the power of.

Zahn: I'm always surprised that Dawn is not only open to these things but is just so excited to always go there together because when we first started making the music, I was thinking like, "Oh, maybe it should be a little bit more beat-driven or have a little bit more of a pop element that Dawn's audience might be used to hearing." Then I was like, "No, no, no! Let's take away all the drums. Let's take away all the big production moments and make it big production in a more orchestral way — a more experimental way. The result is surprising and exciting to me, and I hope that the audiences that know Dawn's music and know where I'm coming from feel the same thing.

As two artists, how did your relationship grow and evolve throughout the course of building this record?

Zahn: I've always trusted Dawn because I think that she's basically completely self-made and has developed her career and found her direction in an organic way and is always being more versatile and trying new things. Every time I would send something and I would get something back vocally from Dawn, I'd be like, "That's cool! Let's go in that direction! Let's try this thing" It's always been a "yes and" kind of process, and I'm really grateful for that with Dawn. There was never time within making it a record that I felt like, "Oh, we're hitting roadblocks! We're not on the same page." If we're not on the same page, it's just like, "Let's just do something else. Let's just keep moving forward." And I think that's what made it possible to have this very different sound to what we both have released.

Richard: Yeah, I feel the same. I knew when I met Spencer what it was. I've been very lucky enough that I've been able to work with really incredible people that sometimes are in their own lanes, their own worlds and they're magnificent in it. I feel like I'm lucky enough to meet incredible talents. I knew when I met Spencer that it was going to be not just music but just a really good person. Something that I could learn from. I don't have the pressure of anyone saying, "Okay, the audience! The numbers!" I'm 19 years in where I've been independent for so long, and I don't have anybody telling me, "Okay, don't do this! Be careful!" Especially being a Black artist, people have countless times been like, "Why are you doing this when you could easily do this?" I just have never wanted to do that, and so I've always wanted to be an artist that could be as versatile as possible and be fearless even if I get it wrong. When I met Spencer, it just grew. The love and the adoration and the trust grew. It made every opportunity and conversation get better and better. The best thing you could do in a collaboration is push each other outside of your lines, and I've been lucky that with Spencer, I can push and color outside of those lines. That's what our relationship to me has become, an evolution of growth and pushing ourselves. To look back and say, "We went a little bit outside of what we were trying to do in our normal journey, or we took what we normally do and created something completely new.

Great! And then both of you have touched on this at various different points throughout the conversation, but what do you hope people take away from the record?

Richard: I was purposeful in the lyrics and intentional in it. I felt like I didn't have to beat people over with a dead horse, but I did want to make sure that when I sung, it was with purpose. I think what I want most is for people who have been marginalized or unseen to know that they have a space to color! They have a space to create and to dream as big as they possibly can. I hope when they listen to this, it inspires and it is cathartic. It is healing, that is the biggest thing. And it doesn't matter what you look like, what you've gone through, ableism, whatever it may be, there is an opportunity for you to dream and paint as big as you want.

Zahn: Yeah, actually, I think maybe it's quite similar for me. I hope that people hear the music and can take time to be in the space with all the musicians we've worked on and hear her voice and her story in a different space than they may have heard before. I think it's a universal thing for artists to try new things and be excited about a new direction and not have to stay in that direction. It's like we created this thing and we're both really proud of it and think that it is a special project that I don't think I ever thought I would have been able to work on, so I hope that people enjoy the silence and enjoy the movement of the whole piece of music as one piece of music.

Were there any points that we maybe didn't touch on that y'all wanted to make sure we got covered?

Richard: New Orleans is a really incredible city. NOCCA is an incredible school, but a lot of the time their recognition comes from musicians. We have really incredible musicians that come out of NOCCA from Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty, the Marsalis brothers —but there's also a dance department. There's also an acting department. There are also other artists who have opportunities that they want to see., and what I've noticed is a lot of dancers feel like their shelf life and their opportunity is limited because people don't see expansion or growth within that space in New Orleans. We don't have a massive contemporary art space after NOCCA. We don't have a MET. We don't have a New York ballet. We have it, but most of the New Orleans Ballerinas are not local. These are just truths. Most times they're predominantly white which is surprising, because New Orleans is a very Black city. There is a bigger story being told here that I don't want it to be forced, because I think that we can get past constantly always saying, "I'm black! I'm black!" I think we should just be able to be artists, but I do want to shed light on the fact that New Orleans has talent here that can fit in the contemporary space and be seen as fine art. Our skin, our hair, our body, what we come from, even when we don't have access. We only had one or two art schools. I really want to make sure that I'm showing New Orleans in different lights, lights that maybe people haven't seen New Orleans as. This is just another gift of showing how beautiful this city really is and what we have to offer within our talents.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn