Genre experimentalist DAWN, aka 33-year-old Dawn Richard, has had quite the career already. In 2004 she auditioned for Puff Daddy's Making The Band TV show, eventually becoming one fifth of R&B girl band Danity Kane. While they were hugely successful – their first two albums both topped the US charts – they disbanded in 2009, eventually re-grouping in 2013 for a disastrous reunion and the loss of two members. In-between Richard was one third of Diddy-Dirty Money, another Sean Combs concoction that released just one album (2010's actually very good Last Train To Paris). Creatively restless, Richard broke free and started releasing mind-melting, forward-thinking albums completely independently. With each album part of a trilogy and split into different eras based on colour (2013's Goldenheart, aka the gold era; 2015's Blackheart, aka the black era and the forthcoming Redemption, aka the red era), Richard's music represents a cinematic sensory overload that, like the artist herself, is so much more than just surface level.
How in tune with your senses would you say you are?
As in tune as I've ever been. I've started meditation and I've started yoga. Just being at one with my chakras. I'm really in a good place with communicating with my inner self.
Why is it important to involve colours in the musical eras your create?
I think it's very important to not just sonically touch people but also to involve the other senses too. To move beyond what you hear. Colours have a massive presence in that. It can give the listener a chance to hear the album for what it's saying but also to hear it for what it's implying.
What comes first? Do you have the colour in mind when you're making the album?
Yes. When I did the gold era I'd already had an inspiration from Gustav Klimt, who is one of my favourite painters. I thought what he did was brilliant because he took an edge to a culture that was thriving at the time and putting in those gold flakes added a regalness to it and a life to those paintings. My favourite painting of his is Judith – there's this stoic edge to it and you can see the beauty within her beyond the surface, and I wanted to make an album that resonated like that for me. The black era was all about the heaviness, whereas with the red era, and Redemption, you get this vibrancy. When people see red they feel an alerting of the senses.
You grew up listening to alternative rock as a kid, how do you think that shaped your early relationship to music?
I think it shaped it a lot. I have an affinity with vocals that sound risky, or gritty, or like cognac and cigar smoke (laughs). I appreciate the wailing of the indie rock girl or the uncomfortable creak of the voices of the male frontmen. That sound and that vibe is something I held onto and you can hear that in how I use my voice. It's an instrument.
Do people assume you make R&B music, or are only interested in R&B music, because of your skin colour?
Yeah, absolutely. That's a safe place. It's okay to be black and make R&B music – I don't think there should be a colour to any of it – but I think because I am black people associate me to R&B. And of course, being signed to Bad Boy back in the day, I think people genuinely just saw it that way.
Your songs don't really conform to any specific genre - what inspires your creative restlessness?
I was a black girl who grew up in New Orleans who loved alternative rock music, so I think that speaks for itself. I had a lot of influences. My father was a classically trained musician so I grew up appreciating Debussy and Bach, but I also loved Green Day, System Of A Down and Björk. Also, I was brought up in a church; I was a catholic kid, brought up in a choir, so of course the soul of gospel was also appreciated. I understood the blues. When you look beyond the surface of who I am it only makes sense that I'm doing the music I'm doing.
Obviously you've been part of a major label world before, but how refreshing is it to be a properly independent artist now?
It's great. Four years ago, when I first started, it wasn't great timing. It wasn't popular to be independent at the time so it was a struggle. But now, you see artists like Chance The Rapper breaking that entire mould completely. I think it's harder for women though because we have a lot that comes with the brand – the hair, the make-up, the costuming and it becomes a little more expensive. But it's a great time to be independent and work with new technology. I'm using a USB for my album release so people can actually wear the album as a necklace. Then in the USB you have some VR content, a book and the album itself. So with technology being so amazing makes it a great time to be an independent artist.
Is the music you make as DAWN almost a reaction to how controlled and manufactured you were as part of Danity Kane?
I think the first album [Goldenheart] was. The first album was a big middle finger; me against the industry. It was me sword in hand. People were calling that first album Game Of Thrones R&B. It was so cinematic. So it was a rebellion at first, but not now. Not with this new album. I see me being an indie artist as a strength, whereas before I didn't see why I didn't fit in the mainstream. Now I know why. What I am as an artist doesn't conform to what the system wants me to be, and I'm okay with that.
How do you make it work financially? Is it about hustling?
It's like any start up company. You have to build, it's a hustle, you have to find investors and find people who believe in your art. I hustle and I build my brand.
Does it mean that when you do connect with your fans at gigs it means more? That people are there just because they believe in you as an artist?
Yeah because it's genuine. I'm not force feeding the people. I'm an artist that you have to search for so that means that if I have a fanbase, no matter how small or big, it's because they want to be there. Not because eight commercials have told them to like me. In the grand scheme of things it takes longer, but what's great about a cult following – and again that's what I grew up on with the small indie bands – is that they want to be there. Those are the fans I want to connect with – the shows are sweaty, they're intimate, they're connected. That to me beats any stadium show. I appreciate the dive bar band.
It's interesting that one of the biggest pop star on the planet, Lady Gaga, is currently doing a tour of dive bar venues.
Because she knows. She knows. If you're smart you take advantage of that fanbase and those venues, because they have a history. I can't tell you how good it feels to go into a venue like XOYO in London and everyone's singing your record. That right there is gold.
Do you want your music to take people away from reality? Or to magnify it?
A little bit of both. I don't want to run away from the issues we go through, but I also want people to know that there's hope in acknowledging it. Hope will take you to the escape. That's what the entire trilogy has been about – the golden era was about confronting the evil that's in front of you with sword in hand. The black era was the fall that let you into your alternate reality. The red era is the reality of both. When you find your redemption it's about revisiting the issues you've experienced but then knowing how to get yourself to the higher power, or the higher element of yourself. That goes back to the idea of senses and the inner chakras – you're going to have to live in your own reality, but the point isn't to just escape, it's to escape within yourself and define the beauty within yourself. That's the true testament of you as a human – you have to live in the crazy but be able to escape the crazy and have a sense of grounding for yourself. If you can find your peace within the crazy then you win.