D∆WN aka Dawn Richard's music seems to spring from another dimension. The artist might have begun her career singing for pop girl groups—first with Making the Band's Danity Kane and then for Puff's Diddy-Dirty Money—but over the last five years she's transformed herself into one of the most fiercely original forces in electronic music. Launching her solo journey with 2012's promising Armor On EP, followed by the next year's graceful Goldenheart, which would turn out to be the first installment in a high concept trilogy. Soon, it was followed by the numinous Blackheart, a towering masterstroke of thrillingly unusual R&B and future-pop that was easily one of 2015's best releases, and now, we finally have REDEMPTION — which is set to be released November 18th. For an artist impelled by innovation—who's released virtual reality music videos, and delivered YouTube's first ever 360-degree live performance—it should come as no surprise that D∆WN's upended her approach yet again. Still riding the cutting edge, REDEMPTION trades Blackheart's anguish and longing for restless optimism; it's full of vast, searingly kinetic productions that contrast synthetic timbres with the warmth of big band instrumentation and Richard's sultry voice, which we spoke about with D∆WN herself.
Could you briefly outline the significance of each era in the trilogy, what each album means to you?
Each era is color-coded. I wanted to make this trilogy not only sonic, but visual. The Golden Era [Goldenheart] was my Joan-of-Arc-like mythological experience with the music industry—it took influences from Gustav Klimt and Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet dancer. It's about my quest going in, sword in hand, with a very overambitious idea that I could conquer the industry. Then the Black Era [Blackheart] presented "the fall", with influences from Tim Burton, Han Zimmer, Hitchcock, Poe. It incorporated a darker sound, and dealt with things that were uncomfortable for me. The REDEMPTION era is red, drawing from the vibrance of the color and the influence of New Orleans—the marching band, brass, Zydeco and Bayou Music. REDEMPTION's about facing one's self and being true to it.
How was the music-making process different on REDEMPTION?
It feels like this is the first time the weight wasn't so heavy, so the process was calmer, the pace was slower. I knew the Red Era would be a bit different because shit started happening in the world. Goldenheart and Blackheart were more personal—about my own journey with music—but with REDEMPTION it felt unfair to only speak personally because there was so much going on; I wanted to make sure I told that story, too. Also, I've never really had features before, but here I do, and they all come from New Orleans—PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty. I wanted to push the idea of New Orleans beyond just jazz and brass and rap, to show it as a pop and electronic entity, too.
How did the political and social turmoil of late affect the music on REDEMPTION?
Quite a bit, but in a way that also caters to what I've personally gone through. I speak about not only race issues, but gender and gay rights, too. On "The Louvre" I'm speaking about appreciating self, no matter what gender or race or how fluid your sexuality might be. And "Love Crimes" is about black culture and black crimes. Instead of using "hate crimes" I chose to call it "Love Crimes" because I feel that in a way they do love to hurt us. That's the way I see it, the way I feel they see us.
REDEMPTION sees yet another shift in your sound. What keeps you hungry—always looking to change?
I never like to repeat what I've already done. I come from New Orleans; the fire for music, for art, for the visual perspective never dims there. I just have this hunger—I don't know what it is and I can't explain why there's this need to consistently do it. Creating something that bends the boundaries of where we are now—that's what matters to me.
Can you tell me more about your relationship with tech and how it affects the way you approach music?
Tech is always evolving—that's why it makes sense to me. I've always wanted to create a beautiful hybrid of fashion, music, and tech. I want to create moments that can touch people who wouldn't usually engage with tech like VR. My hope for the virtual space is that it will break down barriers and make all things more accessible to everyone. That's what I'm trying to do with my music: to break the barriers of genre, gender, race—all of it.
In addition to digital and vinyl, you're releasing REDEMPTION as a USB necklace, complete with VR content and a digital lyric book. How did that happen?
I always release a fashion piece with my albums—like sunglasses with Goldenheart—something that's a reference to where we are in that era. And tech is really present in this era. I thought a USB necklace spoke to that fashion-wise, but it also allowed me to include VR content, and enable fans to carry it with them. VR is something I'm very passionate about. I think this is the future—you don't need a disk, you can carry the album with you, you can plug it in and access it wherever you go.
Your music carries on a loose dialog with mainstream, big-beat pop but also with underground electronic music—like Kingdom, whom you worked with on the Infrared EP, Arca who you've cited in the past, and even to some extent Machinedrum, who co-produced Redemption. How do you balance the two without alienating listeners?
I come from a mainstream pop background—Danity Kane and Ditty-Dirty Money with Puff—so it makes sense that I have mainstream influences. I acknowledge that. I think at first I thought I could ignore it because I thought people wouldn't give me a chance. Nobody had really seen a reality TV artist go underground, so it was hard for everyone to understand that transition. But getting four years of manufactured success allowed me to understand the great things that come with the industry machine. The mainstream and the underground want so badly to remain separate, but the two can live together; I think I'm proof of it. The reason I think I'm able to balance the two is because I'm not just making records, I'm telling a story. I think that element is what pulls listeners in. I'm super grateful that I have a following that are willing to let me take them on that ride. I grew up as a kid in the 9th Ward, around soul, blues and jazz, and then later fell in love with alternative rock and electronic music, so I think it only makes sense that now I'm making music that includes both of those lanes.
This trilogy has taken up a significant portion of your life—five years at least—and now it's done. So, What's next?
Everyone also asks me `that [laughter]. I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out where I'll be tomorrow. I know I want to do more exploring with tech and animation. The music will always be there—it's not going anywhere. I've been drawing more than I have in a long time; I've been doing some curating, some acting. I'm going to try and just experience life, because I haven't had a personal life in ten years. I've just been working. I'm really excited about my collaboration with Adult Swim because it's allowed me to draw and create in that type of space again. We'll see where all that takes me.
REDEMPTION is available for pre-order via iTunes.
photos by Rob Daly