March 30, 2012
“You can’t wait for someone to deliver your dream.” These are the words of Dawn Richard, and judging from the chat I had with her yesterday, it’s safe to say it’s also her life’s motto. Since just 2005, we’ve watched in awe as the Nolia-bred powerhouse beat out thousands of contestants to secure her spot in the platinum-selling girl group Danity Kane, survived Hurricane Katrina, toured with Diddy himself as part of the super group Diddy Dirty Money, got “dropped” from Interscope (more on that later) and--without skipping a beat--went on to launch her solo career...without a major label. The average person might be exhausted just thinking about the energy that would take. But just this week, we’ve seen her extraordinary efforts validated as her new EP, Armor On debuted at #1 on the US iTunes R&B/Soul charts and her bossy new video, Bombs, has cyberspace buzzing.
I had the privilege of talking to the refreshingly gracious Miss Richard during what must be a whirlwind of a week, and I could just feel excited energy bubbling out of her. “This feels amazing. Out of all the number ones I’ve had, this feels the most rewarding because it’s my baby. It had no features and it was an EP--not even an album. These numbers confirmed everything the movement and the EP is about.”
The heavily conceptual Armor On EP serves as a prequel to Goldenheart, tentatively slated for Fall 2012. Goldenheart is the first of three full-length albums she plans to release over the next couple of years, and to her, Armor was a natural link from Last Train to Paris to the trilogy. “Everybody has watched me go through what I went through: Making the Band, Katrina, Danity Kane, Dirty Money...people have seen the ups and downs of it so I felt like I had to come from an honest place.”
A diehard literary fan, she fashioned this concept like she would a novel. Above all, she didn’t want it to retell a cliche love story. Armor On is a reflection of what she’s gone through in the industry, “How it’s affected me, how I fell in love with it, how it hurt me, and how I’ve armored myself.... Instead of wallowing in self pity, armor yourself and you don’t have to go through it alone.” As for the sound, she wanted to build a “moody, atmospheric, tribal” experience. And she attributes a large part of this musical landscape to Druski, the Grammy-nominated sole producer of the EP. “He’s so phenomenal--he’s a huge part of the EP, it’s really a collaborative effort. I would be like, ‘I’m thinking of a tribal cave party in 2055..go!’ and he’d come back and it would be exactly in my head how I dreamed it.” She expressed that so many producers are worried about making a “commercial” or “radio” record, but “there’s no limits between him and I.”
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Growing up with musical influences like Phil Collins (“I’m a Phil Collins junkie!”), Prince, and Bjork, Dawn knew this wouldn’t be a “comfortable” sound. “We took a risk. People don’t hear R&B like this. But I thought, you know, I could be who everyone thought I was, or I could be who I really am.”
And although she’s spent the last few years constantly in the limelight, many of us still may not know much about who Dawn, the woman, really is. Born to a musical family, her father was also a musician and the director of her church choir, and her mother was a dancer who ran her own studio. It’s not surprising that she proudly credits her parents--who have been together 40+ years--for providing the foundation that has served as the launching pad for her success. “[Music] was always a part of my life.” Beyond the music, her mom appears to have instilled in Dawn the work ethic that has fueled her career. “My mother is a champion. She is beyond amazing. I watched my mother work, create a dancing company by herself while teaching... I watched her build up a life for herself and her family for 51 years, lose everything in Katrina and rebuild everything in another place, and do it all with grace. I wish I could be half the woman she is.” From where I’m sitting, it seems like she’s on the right track.
As a 20-something singer, her list of accomplishments is already long. Multiple number-one singles, platinum selling albums, an EP that has now charted in multiple countries... And let’s not forget being mentored by industry veteran and business mogul, Diddy. But as you might imagine, building a career with Mr. “Bitchassness” wasn’t all roses. “It’s like working with anyone who’s a great mind or who is brilliant. It’s difficult, it’s perfect, it’s abnormal, it’s stupid...all the time. Why would it be anything else when you’re dealing with someone who has an empire?” Still, she says “It was everything it needed it to be because it prepared me for now. I hated it then but I’m thankful for it now.”
Her feelings about her split with him and former label, Interscope Records, are positive as well. “I’m so grateful to Puff for allowing me to go pursue my dream.” She said that after it was clear the Diddy Dirty Money project wouldn’t be continuing on Interscope, there was a decision to make. “Just because I decide I’m a solo artist now doesn’t mean I’m next up [on the roster]. There are acts in the works and people who have been waiting for their spot.” When she spoke to her mentor and realized a new album might not happen for a couple of years, “Puff said, ‘I’m sure you want to come out before that.’ So I made a business decision to protect my brand. I prayed to God that he would let me go and [that he would] be the person everyone thinks he isn’t. But you can’t blame anyone for your own success--you have to go fight for it.” She parted ways with the label in 2011 and is proving to show signs of a solid solo career ahead of her.
So what’s next for the songstress? As far as major labels go, Dawn feels like the release of the EP has relieved some of the pressure. “Now the ball’s in our court. At first it was we need this, we need that. Now I feel we can be independent if we want. Right now I’m going to sit back and be a great artist, take the journey as it comes and just move a little bit easier now that we know the plan works. In these seven months I have a #1 EP with no features. It shows that Puff did his job as a mentor and i did my job as a student.” She’d love to collaborate with Florence and the Machine, J*DaVeY, fun. (“I’m loving the new record with Janelle Monae”) and The Weeknd in the future. But her “biggest dream of all” would be to work with Björk.
As for the future of her career, “Success looks like whatever your heart tells you it is. It’s not measured by how many records you sell or how much money you make. I just want to be happy. If God tells me I’m happy then that’s all I need.”
Check out Dawn working it out in the Bombs video below and preview/purchase her EP here.