Dawn Richard On Continuing Her Musical Evolution With Spencer Zahn Collaborative Album, ‘Pigments'
Dawn Richard is the physical embodiment of metamorphosis. Every step in her career path is an unexpected and unpredictable one, with each album release forming a winding road of new sonic thrills. The proud New Orleans native entered the industry in the latter half of the ‘00s as a member of the pop-R&B group Danity Kane and later one-third of Diddy - Dirty Money.
From there, Richard created her own lane in the electro-house world with experimental albums like 2016’s Redemption and 2021’s Second Line. Now, she continues to evolve with the release of her seventh studio album, Pigments. Out today (Oct. 21), it is in collaboration with producer and composer Spencer Zahn. The album is more of a sonic escape, with weighty synths, classical strings and shadowy vocals that’ll drift you to a safe space. And throughout this week, the artist brought the album to life as she joined the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for the institute’s first-ever week-long artist residency (Oct. 17–21, 2022).
Below, Richard dives into all the shades of Pigments with EDITION.
I personally don’t like asking “what’s the inspiration behind this album” because I feel like artists are just so over that question. But I feel like it’s integral with Pigments because––just knowing what I know with your music and your trajectory––this is a completely different step for you. So I’m curious to know the significance or the reasoning behind why you wanted to do more atmospheric and spatial-sounding music with this album.
It’s funny, I don’t view it as such a different step for me because I’ve kind of been moving in whatever worlds feel normal and natural to me, so I feel like no one ever really knows to which extent when they’re getting a record. But I think if you really look at the throughline, there are still electronic and electro-synth influences within that space, the sequencing and the composition of the fluidity throughout the sequencing are very specific and very reminiscent of my other projects, so another throughline there that is quite similar.
I think the difference here is the choice to move into a more atmospheric place, and the only reason why I wanted to do that is I’ve had huge influences in my early days of listening to records like Pure Moods and Enya. Growing up, that was another part of my world––my father has a master's in Music Theory––so growing up listening to Debussy and Bach and watching his process in music was a heavy influence on me as well. I always do my projects and then my EPs will be these moments that feed me and kind of sit on their own, like Infrared with Kingdom, which was an interesting, different spectrum of R&B. Then Whiteout, which was a Christmas album that was not a Christmas album––it completely dealt with trap and spatial sound, it was not like any conventional Christmas album you’d ever think of. Armor On, is another EP, to me that sits on its own. I’ve always done side projects or side EPs that speak to me and feed me, and after that I did a record with Spencer called "Cyanotype" [in 2018].
Yeah, I was listening to it earlier.
It’s one of my favorite records I’ve ever done. I listen to that record more than I listen to anything else. It is the closest to who I am as a person and how I sit in my life, and I wanted to do a project built around that. I had no clue one to three records would turn into this entire thing that he and I have created. But I do feel like Black women get pigeonholed into doing one thing, and this was a project I was scared to do because I felt like I had difficulties prior with people receiving me in the electronic and dance space, and I was worried that if I kept pushing, I would keep pushing myself out the realm of what’s comfortable. And then I got to a place where I just really didn’t give a shit anymore about what people thought because I had created a name for myself. So that’s why this project is finally so real to me because I just don’t care if people understand or get why I’m moving in this place. I want to be a versatile artist and be in spaces that have always inspired me, and this is just another piece of that story for me.
I think you have shattered a lot of boundaries with electronic and dance music. I interviewed Aluna from AlunaGeorge a while back, and we were just discussing how as Black women––as Black people––we are the foundation of this genre. I think it’s a very important movement that you’ve been doing for years, this is nothing new to you.
I appreciate that and I see the beauty of it becoming normal, and it becoming necessary, which was something that should have been happening since the time of Donna Summer and even earlier than that. When we speak about La Bouche and incredible artists like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard, artists that have been paving the way in dance and electronic music for decades, I'm just happy––and again, there have been women before me and there will be women after me––but I am honored to be a part of that group of women who were trying to do it earlier and were ignored for it at first, because again we didn't have major machines or for whatever reason, we were getting pigeonholed into the alternative R&B category.
I think what's bigger than just the genres that were kind of putting us in the right places is that versatility is key. I think sometimes as women of color and even artists who are queer or who are different visually, it is very uncomfortable for people to see them within multi-genres, whereas non-Black or non-colored artists are able to be very flexible within their space musically. They're never questioned, they're able to be a little bit more flexible with what they choose to be. For me, I want to encourage artists to not have to feel like if they wear their hair one color, or if they do this sound, they are only this sound. The evolution of the artist is changing. And you're starting to see it with modern artists today. And now even labels, because they're starting to see the undercurrent of indie––which I think is the normal thing, right, is that everyone always looks to indie culture, they take from it, because it's authentic, it's open, no one is pigeonholing it––I feel we're seeing a massive uptick of mainstreams trying to figure out what indie culture had been doing for decades––and that's really not pigeonholing artists but that artists should be able to do whatever they choose or see or feel.
I totally agree. Even when I speak to artists, I don't even bother asking them about genres or anything, because the lines are so blurred. Even as a writer, I don't want to be pigeonholed––like, "I only write about R&B," or "I only write about a certain movie genre." So I think that in this new space that we are with entertainment and music, I like that there's more flexibility when it comes to these genres.
Agree. And I'm happy that you have that in your journalism as well. It's deserved. It should be that way for you.
Thank you. So even before I dive deeper into this album, how did your initial meeting with Spencer happen with your first collaboration?
I did a record with Kimbra called "Version of Me", another favorite. I love Kimbra, she's phenomenal and a beautiful artist. That was an opportunity for me to really expand my growth as a performer. I was able to do a completely different configuration for my live performances than I had ever done, I was doing full eight-counts in high-energy, high-impact shows. I went on tour with Kimbra and had done keyboards, upright-bass, I did a more jazz, atmospheric approach to a lot of my records. And that was a beautiful journey for me because in that process I met Spencer through Kimbra, and we performed live during that tour, performing in synagogues and museums. It was beautiful and something, again, that fed my soul.
And it was also an opportunity to enhance my movement, the people who were following me, and put them in environments they had never been in before, which is always an exciting movement for me to do. From there, I asked Spencer, "I love what we're doing, can I take us a bit further and maybe do a record"? And "Cyanotype" came from that. And I kept listening to it, like, God I love what we did here, I love the choices we made, and lived with it for a while and realized, how can I do this again with him? And so I reached out to him during COVID––this was years later after "Cyanotype"––and I said I'd like to just do some songs. And that was pretty much what we were doing because we were kind of stuck separately in different states, because of COVID. One song became an epiphany for me because I realized more and more, sitting in stillness because we had nowhere to go, and me being in New Orleans through COVID and already writing these love letters to New Orleans, like reconnecting with my city, it became almost a necessity to continue the music we had been making. And that's how we came together.
Did you draw from any specific inspirations when you guys were thinking of this sound? Or was more of an organic collaboration, kind of testing out what would work while you were experimenting?
That's the funny thing––I wasn't listening to anyone when I was going through this. I literally was like, I just really love what we were doing, it was quiet, I was in that space as a writer. I wasn't even thinking of Enya, Björk, or any of that when we first started. I was just listening to the record and saying, God, I see color here, I see color here––and remembering my time as a dancer. I started in contemporary, you know I've been dancing longer than I've been singing, so I was thinking of the contemporary space of how I learned to dance, and ballet, and modern and what this was, and my attraction to––like I said, growing up loving Debussy––was more that.
And we just kept recording, I never thought we were referring to anyone. I know that Spencer was looking at a completely different sound for this, and then as we progressed he was like, okay that's not at all what I was thinking we were going to do. And we kind of fell into our own sound and our own relationship. There was no reference. It was really us honing in on what we both do in our own worlds, and seeing how collaboration could be beautiful and authentic. That's the point––if it felt forced I was not going to continue. It was a beautiful give-and-take that created this really incredible sound. But there was no reference.
I was listening to the album all throughout this weekend to prepare for this interview. I had it in the background while cooking––I had a pretty stressful week last week, and honestly, listening to this album just gave me a sense of calm and I felt so zen in my space. I wasn't expecting that, this sound was not at all what I was thinking of. But it was a refreshing listen for me because it came at the right time, and I think it may come at the right time for a lot of people when they listen to it.
I wanted this to be cathartic. I've always wanted that for any musical experience that people have with me. But I think for this, particularly, it's to sit in stillness, and I did that even in the choice of lyrical content and vocals, I never wanted to be aggressively pushing or preaching with my vocal choices. This was really specifically about sitting in your beauty and self-love and acknowledging it, whether that is pain, whether that is growth, whether that is loss or gains, how to sit in the moment and be. I'm really happy to hear that you experienced that––everyone asks, "what do I want out of this project"? I want a cathartic experience, I want someone to walk away feeling healed. In any throughline in any of the music I've ever done, hope has always been––like even if I go through pain and sadness, all my albums end with jubilation, this sense of hope. And even though this is different from the others, hope still resonates here.
That's beautiful. And this was so long ago, you probably don't even remember this, but I first interviewed you in 2016 when I was working at Idolator. You were at SXSW and this was the Redemption album era, and I remember you telling me that you previously had hard times with loving yourself, and you're going through this journey of accepting yourself and loving all of the things that make you you, whether it be broken pieces or whole pieces. This album is continuing that conversation of healing your inner child in a way, really comforting yourself and knowing that this journey of healing is a never-ending one, right?
Yeah, you're dead on. I'm also continuing it on through movement. And you'll see as we progress and you come to the event that I also did it visually as well, even if you look at my visual pieces that I released with the projects online, I've incorporated my first love––dance. And it's not just my story but multiple stories of young women and queer dancers who have experienced that same loss of self––that same journey of having to find yourself later or in the midst of it, like your art is the only thing saving you from losing yourself. Or even if you get lost within your art there's beauty there, too. So I get to share this story with not just my journey, but with others who have felt this, too. So yeah, you're completely right, it's the continuation of self-love. I'm going to push that message till I die. I really know what that feels like, and my albums will always have that narrative throughline of not only hope but that discovery of loving you first, to be able to then love others.
Speaking of visuals, I was watching the "Saffron" music video and the dancers are from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, right?
All the dancers are from NOCCA. Everyone. And again, it's intentional––to come from New Orleans––it's intentional to speak on specifically [women] who have not been given the chance in contemporary spaces. I remember growing up as a ballerina, the struggle of the bun, because of the curls and the coif that we have. And being overlooked because of your hair, your skin tone is "too dark," women of color tend to have different body types and are overlooked because we have more breasts, or more hips, or more butt. Not having the feet, being short, all these concepts of having ableism issues where you maybe are disabled or have a prosthetic leg, or you have vitiligo, all these different things as to why you couldn't be the fine art that you are. So I made it a point to talk about painting with broken brushes. To me, New Orleans speaks to––you know, we're not always dealt the money hand, but our talent is overflowing in this city. And we paint with broken brushes and we have masterpieces all throughout the city. And so yes, I did get an opportunity to work with NOCCA, and they allowed me to have auditions and to get young girls whose stories are very similar to mine, young men whose stories are very similar to mine, and to tell their story through movement.
I love that. And this was your directorial debut?
Yes, I was directing for the first time. I was able to partner with Monty Marsh, my longtime collaborator.
That's very exciting.
I always tell people this, I know you probably heard this when I did Redemption––I want my younger self to be proud of the choices that I made. So if my young self saw me now, they'd be like, "yeah, girl..."
You're doing it!
Like, "This is a good choice," you know? I didn't get a chance to go to NOCCA because I had to go to private school. My mom and dad were teachers, and they were worried that the public school education, because they taught in it, would not be helpful, because it was underfunded. Just things that my mom and dad knew we needed that was overlooked a lot in the education system in New Orleans. My mom and dad chose private school for my brother and I even though they made pennies. In return, I couldn't go to NOCCA––you couldn't go to a private school and do NOCCA at the time I was going to school, you can do it now. So I lost the opportunity to go to an art school because my parents wanted us to have the books, the academia first. So to come full circle, and not only work with them, but them be proud to have me as an artist in that space and to work with their own, was a full circle, a local moment for me that I will forever be proud of. It was an honor to work with the school, they're very prestigious, and when I was growing up they were the only art school available.
You’ve carried New Orleans on your back with you throughout your whole career, even starting from Danity Kane. You go hard for your city, which I always appreciate, because I'm a native New Yorker and I feel like anywhere that I go I'm always so excited to go, "I'm from New York!" It's just in your blood to represent where you come from, and despite any sound that you may be experimenting with, that New Orleans essence always shows through, and I think that's really beautiful.
I appreciate that. It's funny, because with New Orleans…I love my city and doing the music and the sound that I do, it's the hardest for them to digest sometimes because New Orleans is so used to its sound. And so it's really imperative for me to show how much I love my city, but to show I am a product of my city, and I am not the traditional stereotype that comes from New Orleans. And that, to me, makes New Orleans ever the more beautiful. Because dance culture, contemporary culture––a girl like me, who is embedded in this city––my father is from New Orleans, my mother is a Creole girl, like so Louisiana––can create this sound and be ever more my city is imperative for me. Because I want to give the people who are like me living in that city the same excitement that someone who does bluegrass, or R&B, or soul, or jazz––the same excitement that we get when we see that element from New Orleans, I want them to get the same element from an artist like me. Because there are DJs in New Orleans that are killing it, there are electronic artists, versatile artists, rock and heavy metal artists, they're existing in New Orleans, and they're looking for a voice and a place and I want to provide that and say "we do exist here, too."
I'm curious to know if there's any significance behind the title of the colors on the album. Because you know, it's not the typical "royal blue" or "violet."
Well, funnily enough, color has always been a part of the movement. Redemption was based on the color red, and everything, even the filming––"LA," the music video was black and white except for the hint colors of red. The trilogy was black, gold, and red––the armor being gold and the aesthetic black heart being all about the black, like the "Tell-Tale Heart." Everything has always been color for me, so that's not necessarily a surprise with me and color. I do think the reason why I went with this, which is why I think you're so awesome and you get me, is the reason why I went a different way with the naming is because in painting, pigments have specific colors. They have multiple different names. And as an artist and as someone who illustrates and draws, that has always been something really cool to me. Spencer was already sending me records that were named colors. I don't think he knew––I hadn't talked to him about doing the album as colors. We were just feeding each other, and he was naming the records these interesting color names, and as I would sing I would see the color in real-time. And so I started researching pigments and color in its early and purest form––it's a powder, pigments come in powder before oil touches them and they circulate into their base paint color. I was looking up different color forms and what their names were––sienna, saffron––saffron is even a spice––cobalt. We are not just one thing. And I wanted to be imperative about that versatility and intentional.
So again, the undercurrent––if you're not paying attention, you won't see it––but if you know me and you're looking for the eggs that I always leave, this is one of them. And it's naming the concept that it's not just blue, it is multiple versions of blue. There are multiple versions of yellow. I am multiple versions of one sound. So choosing pigments, choosing not one basic color but showing the versatility of what colors are speaks to me as an artist. So I hid an egg there. And also loving something in its purest form. And pigments being that powder, that was important for me; to not just name it a color, but name it a color that hasn't been touched quite yet, it's in its purest state. To me, that is the best place for any talent, to be at its most pure form.
I think that translates to the fluidity in the music as well, because once you're stripped down to your purest form, that's the most beautiful part of you. That is reflected in this music because this is a true collaboration, where it's such a blend, and it's so fluid because no single sound overpowers the other. Your voice doesn't overpower Spencer's production; the synths are delicate; the way that your vocals blossom, it's like a journey in and of itself, like with "Saffron" or "Sandstone." So I think that pureness and the different sides of pigments and colors are being showcased in the actual, technical collaboration itself.
I mean, you nailed it––I can't even––yes, yes! That collaboration was important, to let the record breathe. Artists sometimes, we want to say "me, me, me!" So we get on the record and we're aggressively on the record––it's like, runs and vocals everywhere... I didn't want that––y'all know I've been singing, y'all know what I'm capable of, I've done that album already. This was something else and I want it to be still enough to let the synths breathe, the woodwinds breathe, to let Spencer breathe, and then to sing when I'm able to, but then not to be preachy. Sometimes I repeat words, and it's just one word but it's powerful in its own sentence. "Can you save me the last dance"––that's powerful to me to just repeat that. Like, if I have one more dance in this music industry can you save that dance for me? That concept of being purposeful and intentional without being overbearing.
So, one more question for you––I'm assuming because this is a living, breathing album, it can't just sit on Spotify. Which is probably why you're doing this week-long residency at the Clive Davis Institute, because it's creating an immersive experience and a conversation that exists beyond the record. Was that the intention?
Oh, absolutely, because again, we forget that we tend to tokenize Black culture. Though we are evolving, and we look beautiful right now, we're everywhere, I'm loving it––we have Lizzo and all these beautiful artists doing their things, we've got all this cool––but we have to be careful. In the contemporary space, we relished in Misty Copeland and we supported her beautifully, but she cannot be the only story we tell in contemporary and ballet structure. We're having strides with Solange being the first Black woman to score at the New York City Ballet. Sarah Jessica Parker is the head over there for the fashion, and they did their piece there and it was absolutely beautiful. We are having our moments but they're tokenized sometimes, and I want to be careful that even though it was beautiful, it was in this massive space; the American Ballet is this prestigious space where in the inner city of New Orleans, Louisiana, there are contemporary talents who can't afford to go to Juilliard, or can't afford to go to Tisch, and they have to work twice as hard to get to their space and sometimes they're overlooked. I want to tell those stories. And so, coming to NYU and speaking specifically to these talents [who are often] undervalued is so important to me. To show how a young girl from New Orleans, Louisiana can be fine art in a space where New York City encompasses the art of dance––right? Admire how beautiful that can be to have a kid from the Ninth Ward be able to play her work in such a space, where she probably couldn't have afforded to go.
You're showing that it doesn't matter what your background is, or if you were ever taught by society, like, "oh you're from the Ninth Ward," or with me, I come from the Bronx––you can't escape certain stereotypes, right? And I think the conversations that you're going to be having throughout this week are showing this new generation that it is possible, no matter where you come from.
Exactly, broken brushes can paint masterpieces, and that's the point. It's okay to be a broken thing. I'm not afraid of that. It does not mean you will never be a masterpiece.
That's a beautiful way to end.
Pigments is out today (Oct. 21) via Merge Records.