Very few contemporary R&B musicians succeed in carving out a bold and daring sound, let alone keeping it clean and consistent throughout an entire album. But that's exactly what Dawn Richard has achieved with GoldenHeart, one of the most ambitious records you'll hear this year. Not since Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid has this often mucked genre sounded so complete, futuristic and full of life.
Crafted under the aegis of Druski, her staggering voice is the powerhouse behind a truly original aesthetic, fusing elements of EDM, Skrillex-aping dubstep and morning-after soul, blending sounds, voices and ideas into one brilliant whole: the first in a trilogy of conceptual diss albums documenting the ups and downs of an utterly merciless music biz.
Swirling in metaphorical excess, medieval imagery and sensational lyrics (take 'Goliath': "I'm facing the beast with my bare hands"), it's clear we're dealing with a highly fidgety personality here, but all the better for it. Thrust into the limelight half a decade ago as part of P Diddy's Dirty Money crew, it seems she's now set on the trail to becoming one of R&B's most high-powered independent women.
Eager to find out more, The 405 gave Dawn a call last week as she prepped BlackHeart, the forthcoming second instalment of the trilogy.
Hey Dawn. Tell us about the new songs you've just uploaded.
I released one song called 'Love Me' which was written by Luther Brown, who's a choreographer actually, a friend of mine. That was produced by YoungPete. Then the second song we released is the big one and that's the remix of 'Northern Lights' with Eve. I'm really excited about that because that's the first feature I've decided to do. People always ask me why I chose Eve to be my first feature, and I think it's just a no-brainer. I love her new record – it's called Cobra Starships. She's doing some great things. And I think it's great to support someone who supports you.
Neither of these songs are from the next record and that's what I love about our movement. A lot of the songs we're releasing are songs that didn't make the records. And the sound of BlackHeart is quite what different from what you're going to expect from these released tracks, which makes me quite excited because I think people make up formulae of what I'm going to do next, and every time we tend to keep them on their toes.
GoldenHeart was described by you as 'the romantic tragedy' between yourself and the music business. How does the next record follow on from that? If it does...
Well, BlackHeart does. It's kind of the realisation that the music industry isn't as great a lover as I thought it would be. So the fall is a bit more harsh. Whatever GoldenHeart was, where I came in whimsical and it was a bit more dreamy, BlackHeart is way more real, way more harsh, and way more brutal. And we've gained that in sound. I love it because it's way more club-friendly and way more aggressive in the lyrics. This might be my more commercial album out of all of the albums that I do, but it'll never really take away from the sound that I've created with my team. We'll always have that new age push for people in their minds of what R&B is.
But with BlackHeart, I think people are going to realise that the fall isn't as sweet as you would think it is. When you fall and hit rock bottom, that aggression and that rock bottom is a whole different type of sound. We're going to play with a lot of synth and a lot of EDM this time around.
Would you describe these as concept albums?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, the entire trilogy is a concept that explains the journey I've been on. You know, a lot of people say that GoldenHeart was amazing but that it was a little bit overwhelming because there were so many tracks. But when you first dive into something and you're fighting your battle for life, it is a little bit overwhelming. The whole approach: life kind of comes at you a little bit quickly and things aren't happening as you want them to be. With BlackHeart, I know that now. The fall is way more assured, way more on purpose, less naive. When we finish the third album there'll be that celebration of knowing that I have an idea of where I am and my place in life. I think everybody can hear that in my music. BlackHeart will definitely be a realisation where I know that everything's not a fucking pretty rainbow, that everything isn't as fairy-tale and romantic as I want it to be. I think people will totally get that.
So, did you plan out the sound and the subject-matter of each record before you got stuck into the entire trilogy, or are you sort of seeing where it takes you as you go along?
No, I knew from the beginning how I wanted it to sound and it's going be like a three-book series. Each book is going to have its own storyline but it's never going to lose you; it's all cohesive and it all makes sense together. But I did not want to make three albums that sounded exactly alike. That's boring and honestly, that's not life, that's not how my life was. It was literally train wreck, after another train wreck, after another train wreck. And you know, I think people get that. They understand that. I just want to make sure that when people hear the story, they feel like they've been on a journey.
I don't want my albums to sound like just albums, I want them to sound like movies. And movies are soundtracks to people's lives. When you see it, it's just told in a way that makes you dream a bit better. I want you guys to see this music in colour.
Many people described GoldenHeart as a triumph.
Oh, it was more than a triumph. Being independent, and being a solo artist... I'm alone in this industry basically because of my come-up from a reality TV show, so I've always had to prove to people that I'm a worthy artist. I think people fail to realise that I've been doing music way longer, way before walking into a line for a TV show.
I think with this album we've established not only that I'm a songwriter and an artist, but also that I'm someone who loves this music. This was something I was born to do, you know. It's about delivering a beautiful piece of art as a package. That's the type of artist I am. I think people realised that with GoldenHeart and that was a huge triumph for me because not only did the fans love it, but the critics appreciated it. You know, to be able to go to on a magazine's website and see people like you guys posting my new song with Eve, people saying the album is one of the best albums to be released in 2013. That's a huge feeling, a huge triumph for us.
The last album was steeped in medieval references. What kind of reference points did you have on BlackHeart?
The medieval stuff will always be there because that's the content, but with BlackHeart it's less decoded, less metaphorical. With GoldenHeart, I felt that the songs were more whimsical and more fairy-tale because that's your beginning, that's where you walk in, that's the naivety you have. I wanted the album to have that storytelling aspect, a narrative building through that whole kind of storyline. The lyrics to BlackHeart, like I said, are a bit brutal. It's way more honest and way more raw. So things are less decoded and less poetic, and more real and more relatable for people to understand. Now as the music industry and my passion and my love story unfold, I start to see myself and the music industry for what it really is. It's heavy and dark, not in the sense of evil or anything like that, more dark in the sense of just brutal reality. So the sounds and the drums and 808s are way harsher and way heavier. We're laying on that 808 this time, whereas in GoldenHeart the snare and the claps were leading the album. It was very top snare heavy. BlackHeart will be way more 808-heavy.
Did Druski produce again?
Yeah, but I had a lot more producers for the second album. But it's not like I have a producer for every song; it's literally, like, three go-to producers. I've been working with Deonte [Rodgers], the guy that produced 'Gleaux', I've been working with Mars and also another group from Sweden who did 'Strobe Lights' on Dirty Money's Last Train To Paris, so we've already got a great relationship. And of course Druski as well. So I have maybe four producers in total, but the sound will never change. I'd never want to jeopardise my sound and get songs on an album that don't cohesively make sense. It still has to be a sound and it still has to feel the same. That signature is so strong with us and I never want that to leave.
So how would you and your producers go about writing a song?
It's the feeling. I mean, the great thing is that I've had a lot of roller coasters to pick from. You know what I mean, my life has been an amazing one, so it's easy to put it on paper. Other times, I just write poetry. A lot of times, I'll just write short stories. Sometimes I write an entire story, like an entire novel, like full-out and narrowly know what I want to do with it. When I hear tracks, they remind me of the journey and I really always tell my producers that I want them to make a song or a sound or a track that's reminiscent of the soundtrack of my life. So a lot of times, it's twisted art, it's pushing art. It's a vibe, you know.
Most of the time, and especially with BlackHeart this time, I've just listened to drum patterns. I'll mostly only listen to sounds and cadence because it's important to tell the story right, and that drum pattern could make that story.
Would it be fair to describe you as a restless character?
Oh yeah, totally. I'm a wild child. I'm like all over the place. I think that's one of the reasons I feel like my movement is a rage against the machine. It's a really a rebellion but I'm not choosing it to be one. I can never stand still and wait patiently for someone to get the idea of what we're creating. I'd rather just do it and if you get it, you get it. And if not, you can at least appreciate that. It's consistent and it's constant work. This is something that I really love to do, so I'm always trying to perfect it. I'm just lucky enough to have a fanbase which gets that and is willing to come along for the ride.
Now tell us something weird about yourself that not many people know.
Well, I have a lot of weird things about me, but I think the biggest one is that I'm a huge anime freak. I love manga, I love Camilla d'Errico, I love animation and I love drawing. If I could, I would just be an illustrator and be in someone's corner drawing cartoons all day. I'm such a geek and I'm a huge fan of art, always have been. And especially art from Camilla d'Errico: really whimsical, very fairy-tale-ish, almost bubblegum pop.
You can find out more about Dawn Richard by heading to her official website.