Dawn Richard is always on. From the age of three she was dressed in ballet tights dancing at her mother’s dance studio. She became addicted to the feeling of being on stage since her first standing ovation. When she auditioned for Diddy’s reality show on MTV, Making The Band, she was convinced she’d never make it–until she did. The show churned out Danity Kane, the all-girl Y2K R&B group that pulled Richard into the spotlight with Diddy’s team of specialized producers, PR reps, tour managers, choreographers and studio executives backing her and the rest of her bandmates up.
When the band broke up, Richard not only left Danity Kane behind, she left Bad Boy Records and all of the bells and whistles that came with it to embark on an independent solo career. Ferociously proud of her hard work and commitment to dictate the terms of her career without the guiding hand of a major label, Richard released the first installment of a trilogy with her Goldenheart EP. After releasing a narrative music video for “86,” collaborating with Eve on “Northern Lights,” and laying out plans for her forthcoming BlackHeart and RedemptionHeart, Richard is blazing back into the music scene full steam ahead.
We sat down with the Los Angeles-based triple threat to talk about singing in her father’s church choir as a kid, dancing as a professional NBA cheerleader for the New Orleans Hornets and her 808-laden next project. Read the full interview below.
What was the first live show you went to?
Coming from New Orleans you’d think I’d love soul and blues, but I actually grew up loving indie rock. When I was 14, or maybe a little bit younger I was like, “Dad I wanna go to this concert,” because–you know–I couldn’t go by myself. I made him take me to see Greenday and he had no idea who they were. I loved The Cranberries, Alanis Morissette, No Doubt, Bjork.
Your dad was the Choir Director at your church right?
Yeah, but we were Catholic, not Baptist, so it wasn’t exactly a soul choir. We were as zestful as we could be in a Catholic church. We were the coolest of the churches because we had it! My dad purposely put me in the Soprano section when my voice was more raspy. I didn’t understand what he was doing then, but I couldn’t sing that high so I would always sing in my falsetto. It took my range to a whole different level as a vocalist in the later years in my life, my falsetto is extremely strong. I use it a lot in my music now.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
I played softball really well, I got a scholarship for softball and that was my life. I didn’t even know how powerful I could be with music and dance until college. In my senior year I started dancing for The New Orleans Hornets. I only tried out because I wanted to sing the anthem and I thought it would be an easier way get the look. I ended up dancing with them for three years, and the girls were the ones who encouraged me to try out for Making The Band.
What was it like working with someone like Diddy?
I’m so grateful to him. Most people don’t get to say they have a mentor like Puff. I come from a place where not a lot is given to us. He gave me that opportunity, all I needed was a crack in the window and I was ready to take care of the rest. My years with puff were great and I never wanted to let him down. He was always my boss and I always respected that line, and because of it, when I asked to be released from Bad Boy he said yes. I was one of the first artists he ever let go amicably.
How did you transition into being an independent solo artist?
It’s very hard to get resigned after you’ve being with a label like Puff’s. People don’t want take you on, they don’t want to have to deal with any back lash, so I didn’t wait for it. I just decided I wanted to do this on my own, and not even a year later I’ve been able to put out to amazing projects. I’ve been able to chart on Billboard five times with no label, no features, and literally no budget and that‘s huge.
Do you think that has something to do with the way the music industry is changing?
In the hip-hop world and the indie world you can thrive independently because you can sell out of your car. Drake made it independently before he was signed. In the world of female R&B artists you’re a package. Fashion, beauty, and music all factor into why people would watch for you. And to be a package like that you have had to have a major machine behind you to sell it. I’m one of the people who’s changing that.
Well I’m making a trilogy like Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games just in musical form. Blackheart is coming in the fall, I’m already in the studio recording it. It sounds nothing like Goldenheart but the story still continues. Choreography plays a major role in the narrative, so the live shows are going to be amazing.
I don’t think any other female R&B artist is doing what I’m doing–experimenting with darker sounds, heavy 808′s and multiple genres. It’s a risk to do something that makes people feel a little bit uncomfortable, to make them think, and to appeal to the mainstream at the same time. I’m lucky to have fans who are so loyal and genuinely love me. If Bjork, Janet Jackson and Prince could do it before me I think I can figure it out. I went from being homeless to being here, so I already started right! If I can open a few doors and make my mark on the world I’ve done my job.