Singer Dawn Richard’s family celebrated the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed their home and forced them to sleep in their cars, by returning to New Orleans for good.
“We just moved into another neighbourhood. Where we’re from – it’s gone,” says the experimental R&B singer who calls herself D?WN.
“It’s a whole new thing. The East and the 9th Ward, it’s not the same anymore. We couldn’t move back there. I watched my parents lose everything, from a house to birth certificates. We were homeless for about six months, then we stayed in Baltimore and my parents got jobs.
“They met at 15 and have been together ever since. To see them smiling, at a place where they grew up, and be able to do all the traditions we had when we were there, was a really nice thing,” Richard adds, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where she’s on tour, while driving to Death Valley National Park.
“Absolutely, we were excited. I don’t wish homelessness on anyone, especially when you come from where your parents work hard.”
Until Katrina, Richard had been leading an intense life, studying marine biology at the University of New Orleans, working as a cheerleader for the NBA’s then-New Orleans Hornets and recording her 2005 debut Beer & Wine (under the name Dawn Angelique).
“My school was about an hour and a half away,” she recalls. “I’d have a full schedule every day. If we had a game night, I’d go then for the NBA. Then I’d leave to go to the studio, then go till 4 or 5 in the morning, then drive to the lab at 8 the next day for microbiology class.”
The storm, in September 2005, dramatically changed her life, first for the worse, then the better. Suddenly her family had nothing. Then Richard landed a part in the third season of Making The Band, rap star Diddy’s reality show that transformed unknown singers into R&B stars.
She was a key member – her superhero drawing led to the group’s name, Danity Kane – and she landed in the trio Diddy-Dirty Money after Danity disbanded.
Life was easier in groups managed by other people, but not as satisfying. “You don’t realise how easy it is until you don’t have it anymore,” she says.
“I do appreciate the way a brand is built and how (record moguls) can have the power to change something. They have the power to feed the culture. I just wish what they were feeding wasn’t all bad food. It’d be nice if they put some healthy (stuff) in there, a little bit of choice.”
By 2012, Richard’s skills and vision had evolved to the point that she could make her own albums, beginning with a mixtape and an EP, Armor On, which borrowed skittering rhythms from electronic dance music more than from mainstream R&B or Danity Kane-style pop.
Working with Druski, her production partner, Richard made 2013’s Goldenheart, a sweeping, ambitious album that opens with an interpretation of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight chorus set to strings and timpani.
“I tend to go wherever it feels good,” she says. “You don’t know how far you can go until you push it. I feel like it’s really healthy to at least put it out there, and pull back if you have to.
“I fight that battle a lot and I like that. It keeps me aware of what’s relatable and what’s too out-there. … Sometimes I want to make sure the message is received.”
On last year’s Blackheart, Richard collaborated with Machinedrum, a North Carolina dance producer who had worked with rappers Azaelia Banks and Theophilus London.
His style is aggressive, but Richard is more than a match for him, with her voices floating high and low and her sexually confident characters who, as in the boisterous but not-exactly-Michael Jackson Billie Jean, “can’t stay too long, the money is calling.”
“I’ve come from this mainstream world and he’s come from this underground world. It makes complete sense. It’s kind of a clash of the titans, without sounding cheesy, and it works,” she says.
“He does it kind of industrial, hip-hop, and there’s this soul behind it that’s really needed in music. We’re kind of introducing people to our worlds together.”
The album ends on a personal note – The Deep, a piano ballad written by her father, Frank Richard, frontman of a 1970s funk band called Chocolate Milk. “He definitely can relate. My parents both lived that lifestyle,” says Richard, who recently completed RedemptionHeart and plans to release it in the fall. “When I was four, I had a schedule. I was playing softball. My brother was playing football. My parents were teachers and they’d owned businesses.
“We like to work hard. Work and then books. Books and then work. We just knew that we had to excel. It sounds militant, but trust me, it was fun.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service