When we enter Dawn Richard’s recording studio at Red Bull’s Tooley Street HQ, we find her sitting across from Jack Adams AKA Mumdance, a red cap covering her eyes. They’re discussing the direction of a vocal line while Local Action boss Tom Lea takes calls from Boiler Room about her debut tomorrow. There’s some back and forth about what colour she’s meant to wear (“I just want to be naked,” she jokes) and wireless microphones (“they’ve been giving me these fucking long wires, and I'm wearing platforms that are about eight inches”).
Those that know Dawn from her Diddy-Dirty Money and hyper-glossy Danity Kane girlband days might be surprised to hear kind of dizzying electronica that she’s helming today (as D∆WN), dripping with idiosyncrasies from the underground. Tomorrow the singer-songwriter is performing alongside Machinedrum - a producer who’s assisted on her album, while she reciprocated the favour for his recent ‘Human Energy’ LP. Her full-length ‘Redemption’ (read our review here) completes a trilogy, following 2013’s ‘Goldenheart’ and ’15's ‘Blackheart’. But Richard’s vision goes beyond music: she’s been experimenting with VR (the 360-degree video set in space for ‘Not Above That’), and has been working on an animated film for some years.
While some artists would be happy to sit back and let the nuts and bolts of her career be handled by someone else, D∆WN has a fiercely DIY spirit. She literally turns up to play clutching a hammer, ready to build her own sets. We sat down, post recording session, and spoke to the pop renegade who is pushing the envelope into outer space.
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We just caught you in the studio with Mumdance… How’s that been going?
Dawn: He’s bringing me back to my old days of, just, power ballads. He was like: ‘It would be really cool to do a kind of power dance ballad with you, because you've been doing a lot of over-processed vocals’, which I've been loving doing with Machinedrum - it's always fun to move my vocals a bit, morphing them into different things. It’s part of the track and the production, as well as just having a vocal lay on top of the record. We're doing a strong vocal delivery, people haven't heard that from me in a while.
When I work with a producer who wants to take me out of something that’s comfortable, and switch it up a bit... that makes me love him even more now!
So you’ve just been trying a few things out, seeing what works?
We’re almost done with the song now. We're both different in the way we record, so we’re learning each other. He was like: ‘I've never really done it this way’. I'm a huge fan of his. I think we'll have more records together, just because it's two different dynamics coming together. That always makes for great music - when you have a clash of things that are odd together, you know?
Is it going to appear on the album?
That will have to be a talk. I might steal it from him. We'll see if he'll allow that! I would love it to be on the album because I'm a huge fan, but I think whatever is organic. Whatever feels authentic we'll do… I'm pretty sure I'm going to force him to do maybe three, or five, or nine more records. Because I like him a lot (laughs).
What is it you look for in a potential collaborator?
I like to be challenged. If someone is gonna come in, and they’re the same sound or a similar pattern, it's not exciting to me. I want to feel off-kilter; I want to be pushed. I like to be around people who are completely different than what I would normally deal with, like when I met Machinedrum for the first time. We were completely different. My music was somewhere different with ‘Black Heart’ than it is with the ‘Red Era’, with ‘Redemption’, and I liked it. It pushed me, and then in that situation, now being in that 160 BPM, kind of footwork sound, here I am with Mumdance, and we're doing like an 80, 90 BPM. It's super powerful vocals, so again it's pushing me and switching me.
I just did a full tour with all of that dance, dance, high energy, and then you get in the studio, and he's like, "I want to take you this place." Now I've got to step away and push myself to redirect. I like working with producers that give that vibe because it keeps me flexible, versatile, and it keeps my craft growing.
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Are you going to be working with anyone else while you’re over here in London?
I would love that. Right now I'm just trying not to die, you know? Because it's a lot of work. It's super DIY - it’s exhausting. It leaves very little time for the art, and I’m very seldom able to stay in the studio for long periods of time because I have to do everything else. I would love to stay a bit longer and just be an artist instead of being the carpenter, the financier, the welder… The driver...
Yeah, I read that you basically do everything!
Every fucking thing, yeah. It would be nice to just be an artist for a second, you know? That's the one thing that I miss, being able to sit back and create.
You originated from a pretty mainstream background - Danity Kane and Diddy–Dirty Money. What's the main thing that you've taken from that arena and brought to what you're doing now?
I can appreciate the way they think, if that makes sense. They don't necessarily look at things as art. They look at it as numbers, and dollars, and product. There's a respect in it that I understand. I think that there is something in mainstream that, with that quality - what they're trying to present as a product is respectable. They're trying to deliver something well packaged. I don't want people to say, "Oh she's indie". I want them to say, "Wow, that shit competes with whatever else is out there."
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...they don't want to call us mainstream, but then we're not underground.
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I like to be underground. I love that the quality can sit in mainstream level if it wanted to, and that's something I took with me from that whole experience. I'm trying my best - with ten dollars - to create something that is worthy of the fan, worthy of the artist or the viewers buying it. That's what we've been fighting for: quality. They make it seem like underground can't do the same, like just because we're underground we've got to be dirty. I think that the grit is a part of its appeal, you know? There can be a balance.
We sit in this middle where they don't want to call us mainstream, but then we're not underground. We kind of sit in this really cool, weird spot in the middle, and I think that's because it's a little bit of both.
That's what's really interesting about what you're doing, because people don't really know where to place you…
And it's difficult. We're in this lane that we're building ourselves. I'm not purposely doing it, I was just built in it, so I have no choice. If you're doing something for ten years, it does rub off on you. That kind of structure is still there in me, but the passion and the drive is very much an indie, underground feel. People want to separate it - either you're mainstream or you're underground, and that's it. The two never shall meet. And I don't think that's the case. I think you can sit wherever you want to sit, and it works.
Women on major labels are arguably much more shaped and controlled than a man would be in that situation. Do you feel that now having left that sphere has given you creative freedom?
I'm making mistakes. I'm fucking up. I'm getting it right sometimes, and I'm all in between. I think that's one thing I don't miss. When things are too structured and too perfect, it lacks soul. This part of it, what I'm able to do now, is so honest. I'm literally going into it like in front of you guys, trying to figure it out. That's a part of a small business. That's a part of any label that starts itself off, or any underground artist that's doing it themselves. You're gonna fuck up, but you're also gonna have big wins too. I don't mind showing that part of it in front of everybody. I mean, I was born on TV. For real, my career was born on TV, so I'm not afraid of that raw feeling. I'm not mad at that.
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It’s appealing because people see that you’re human.
I do think so. You have to be fearless - what makes you an artist is those imperfections. I want to show people the process because there are a lot of indie artists that figure that they couldn't create at this level. People have told them - you'll only be this small thing, and what we're showing them is that, just like any garage band that started, any punk band, any rapper that started out in their car... pop culture can do the same thing.
That's something that I think people never thought. They thought it would be taboo for a girl in pop culture to do what these garage bands have done, because pop culture needs so much money. You need so much money as the pop artist to be able to thrive, so to see an indie artist kind of sit in that world, it's starting to become a new wave. I think indie artists are realising you don't need that machine to be able to sit in pop culture, which is really interesting. That's really new.
I think people now realise that they don't have to rely so much on, as you say, a major label.
When I grew up, I loved it. It was mainly like alternative bands you would see. They'd literally be in garages, but they'd have massive fans and would tour like that. They'd stay in shitty hotels, and they'd develop their fan base. They didn't have to have clothes or costumes. They'd wear the same shit, and smell like ass, and you loved them for it.
Rappers are the same. Jay Z started that way, in his car, but you couldn't see Britney Spears selling her life in a car. You couldn't see that because pop culture required so much to have that machine. Now you're seeing these beautiful, electronic artists who are building it in their basements.
With this album, ‘Redemption’, you've moved into what you call the ‘Red Era’. How would you describe it?
It's really high energy, really vibrant. It's tenacious. It's relentless and aggressive and... lion's mane. If you see it in live performances, there’s no time to breathe. This really is a jubilee, almost. If you know New Orleans culture, we have something called a ‘second line’, and it's basically if there's a funeral or anything like that, we dance to the homecoming of your death. If you die, it's a celebration - thousands of people just get in the middle of the street and dance. That's what this album is. It's my second line. It's the umbrellas in the air, the Indian headdresses from the Mardi Gras Indians.
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This is my redemption. It's my recovery. It's my acceptance of self...
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You’re really influenced by literature, too. Has literature had any bearing on this record?
For me, this is more William Blake. Oscar Wilde. There's this tongue in cheek, if you will. Even Oscar Wilde played with religion and spirituality, but the way he did it was it wasn't preachy - it was aggressive in the way he chose to write it. There's an aggression, like I'm a woman in this, and I don't apologise for it. I'm going to dance in this shit. I've kind of fallen, and everybody has watched this process through me. This is my redemption. It's my recovery. It's my acceptance of self, and I always felt when I read Wilde there was an acceptance of self. An acceptance of society, seeing what it was, and it was true. It was honest.
You’ve been dabbling in virtual reality stuff also - like in your video for ‘Not Above That’ - what led you to have that interest in all of that?
I saved all my money, and I went to Sundance - the film festival in Utah. I went and watched all the art courses and seminars because I was like, ‘How do I figure out how to put music and fashion within the VR world?’ There were literally twelve people in the conference because it's new to everybody, no-one was really there. It was only VR heads - nobody from music was there, and I was asking all these questions. They were kind of like, ‘Who is this fucking girl coming in here asking about music when we're just trying to figure out how rendering is going to make sense with VR?’ I just studied and studied.
I asked Tom [Lea] if he knew any companies that would be willing to work with an artist that was indie. What we came up with was something very different than what most 360 videos look like. If you look at what Bjork and Run The Jewels did, it's in real time. So I felt like that had already been done. We wanted to add CGI, so we created a space where we put someone else in an actual world. It's more catered to gamers. On ‘Not Above That’, we used spatial sound, so you could hear the meteors. It forces you to move, and move to the sound. Which again is very new.
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Do you have plans to do more stuff within the VR world?
I'm in love with it. Even working with Adult Swim, doing animation with them, working with doing gaming. Tech tends to stay in tech. They never delve out into fashion and art, and I find that everyone wants to separate everyone. I saw when art and music collided in the beginning. It was funny. When Jay-Z was doing ‘Picasso Baby’, and Gaga was messing with Marina [Abramovic].
You played Berghain recently, what was that like?
People were explaining it to me, and I did not understand the fact that there were people in there because it didn't look like it. They were like, ‘Yeah, it gets really dark. People stay five days,’ and I'm like, ‘Wait, they don't wash or anything?’
It was odd to see the whole thing in person. It was amazing - it was packed, it was great. They were saying that most of the time people don't really move, but our show was pretty high energy, and I'm telling you, they were fucking nuts. It was super, super great, and a great crowd. I think I'll go back again and just get naked and do the whole rave thing.
Finally - when the trilogy comes to an end, what's going to happen after that?
I don't even have an answer for that. I'm just trying to wrap my head around finishing this project. I might take a break, or live life. All I've done is work for like eleven years. I don't think I've ever taken a vacation. So I don't even know what it would be like to take a step back. People told me I was overambitious and that this was a cute idea, but it would never work. Here I am at the last album, so to get this out would be like a great, big, cute middle finger. I'm really looking forward to that middle finger.
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Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Vicky Grout
‘Redemption’ is out now on Local Action.