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Personal Best
Dawn Richard

As she announces her live return to the UK, future R&B auteur Dawn Richard talks Alan Pedder through the five songs in her catalogue that she's most proud of.

01 May 2024, 10:30 | Words by Alan Pedder

Dawn Richard may never have lived in the UK, but spiritually she belongs to the elite cadre of American artists whose music careers flourished here first.

People like Jimi Hendrix, PP Arnold, Tori Amos, Chrissie Hynde and, more recently, Lana del Rey – all artists whose talent, to some extent, coloured outside the lines of the familiar, easily saleable ideas that mainstream success in the American musical ecosystem required. London has always been an artist’s city, a place where novelty, invention and outright anomalies could be celebrated rather than viewed as something suspicious, and Richard is an artist through and through. “I remember when I was trying to figure out where my place was,” she says, recalling the earliest days of her solo career. “Coming from New York, I felt like London was a place that never questioned me, musically. My music just made sense there, and I still feel that kind of energy when I go back.”

Richard’s path in music has always been unconventional, first as one-fifth of reality TV manufactured, perennially in-fighting girl group Danity Kane, and later as a member of Diddy’s short-lived electropop/soul experiment Dirty Money. Although she had an early stab at solo success with 2005’s Been A While album, it wasn’t until the total creative reset of her ‘heart music’ trilogy – Goldenheart (2013), Blackheart (2015) and Redemption (2016) – that Richard really came into her own power. For her, it wasn’t so much about colouring outside the lines as it was about obscuring those lines completely. “I hate to talk about myself, it’s weird,” she says, pulling a face. “But one thing that I do think is cool, and that I wish more people would embrace, is the idea that there are no limits to what I am doing.”


Take her most recent ‘epoch’, The Architect, for example – an evolution of the King Creole character she introduced on 2021’s triumphant Second Line, her Afrofuturist vision of a New Orleans parade tradition. To some The Architect is a three-track EP, but to Richard “it’s literally just one song” that mashes pop, house and Afrobeat together in radical ways. Describing herself as “like a kid in a sandbox” when it comes to playing with concepts, sound design and structure, she says she only has two rules that she swears by when building something new. “First of all, it has to have a story, because if it doesn’t have a story, what’s the point? Secondly, I don’t want to do anything that will diminish all the things that I have built. I don’t want to just throw something out there.”

When Richard returns to the UK for a solo show in July – and again in November to reprise her sublime collaboration with Brooklyn-based composer Spencer Zahn – there’s every chance that she will have broken through even more walls. With all the discourse lately about dismantling genres, as a staunchly independent artist Richard is careful to give credit where it’s due. “There’s a really beautiful synergy right now where people of all colours, shades and genders are collaborating on music beyond the spaces that they’ve historically been stereotyped to. To me, that’s the coolest part – the blurring of the lines, even in the mainstream world. The mainstream owes so much to what indie culture has brought to the table, and I always want the indie world to get the respect it deserves.”

“It’s such a beautiful thing to see more and more artists taking ownership of their narrative and not relying on the major label machine,” she adds, giddily. “That’s something that I have been fighting for, so to see artists taking a stand and saying ‘Do not box me in’ is winning.”


Asked to choose the five songs in her catalogue that she’s most proud of, Richard has no hesitation in making her selection. “It was a no brainer for me,” she says, laughing. “These are the songs that I really love, and I think pretty much define the why and how of me as an artist.” If there’s a through-line that connects them, it’s the idea of there always being a warrior in the fight. “If a person played my entire discography from beginning to end and really paid attention, I‘d hope that they would be able to see that it’s all part of the same story. It’s like a book that never left me.”

"Ode to You" (2013)

DAWN RICHARD: “Ode to You” is also one of my favourite vocals on Goldenheart, beyond “Return of a Queen”. At the time, when I was making the album, I was hugely influenced by people like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, who, to me, are artists who exemplify that ‘80s sound with sparse drums and a lonely vocal among them. Enya was a big influence too. Her songs tend to make you feel like you’re alone in some kind of Celtic light forest, and it’s so beautiful and grandiose.

“Ode to You” was kind of a play to this naïve warrior in the middle of all this sparseness and loneliness. It’s also a play on words, to use ‘ode’ rather than ‘owed’, because I see this song as a massive thank you to all the people who’d stayed with me through everything that had happened in my earlier career. As if, when the battle was done, we were like the last six men standing. I was thinking about how it would feel, to arrive at that endpoint. When the dragons are all slain, what would that be like? And that was this record.

I think this song is still just as powerful now as it was to me when we recorded it. I would have put “Ode to You” out as a single had I known the impact it would have on me, and how relevant it could feel all these years later. I did put out “86” as a single, and to me that record has a similar sound to this one. Both those songs, to me, have stood the test of time.

BEST FIT: Definitely. I think, of all the songs on Goldenheart, “Ode to You” definitely feels like it was the biggest clue to the Dawn Richard that was to come.

Yeah, it’s funny because I wouldn’t have expected that, and I didn’t aim to do that. I just loved the way it turned out. Every time I listen to it, I’m like, ‘Damn!’. I know exactly what I was referencing. I know exactly the sound that we wanted for it. And that still hits me immediately when I hear it.

The whole story around Goldenheart and how it really shaped the path that your career would go down is so interesting. When did you start to realise that mainstream success wasn’t on the cards, and how did that reset your expectations?

I knew quite quickly that it wasn't going to happen that way, because I was rejected by everyone. Still, to this day, I feel that. It was funny, because everyone who was with me when the major label machine was there, all the people that were in the studio with me, they disappeared as soon as that machine left. I thought it would be easy to transition into the artist I wanted to be, but quite quickly I realised that it didn’t matter what I did. I realised that I had a choice. If I had continued to work within the machine, and even if I did exactly as they wanted of me, there was only a slim chance that it would get me to where I felt I needed to go. So I made the choice early – that if I was going to do this, it would most likely be alone – and that helped me tell the story.

It wasn’t like I was coming from some built up place to tell the story of Goldenheart. I was living it, it just happened. You know, I always say that I grew up in a library. How I loved books. I knew the stories inside out, and I realised that a lot of the really great stories are the same. Whether it’s David and Goliath in the Bible, or the Book of Job. Whether it’s the stories of Perseus, Medusa or Hercules. Whether it’s the Odyssey or The Iliad and the story of Troy. Or the story of Joan of Arc, which really blew my mind. These are all stories that are centered around some kind of huge challenge or massive quest. When I was writing Goldenheart, I really did feel like I had to go and slay a dragon. It felt like I had a rock in my hand and I was up against this massive dragon, and I just could not believe that I was in that position.

On the other hand, it also felt so relatable because Game of Thrones was really taking off at that time, and there was so much stuff in the press about storytelling within all these fantasy worlds. I remember one place called Goldenheart something like Dungeons & Dragons R&B. People were making all these connections with these fantasy stories and period pieces, and I remember thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t plan for this but, damn, it’s true.’ I knew that this quest-type story was going to be my journey. It’s not the story I’d thought I’d have, but it wound up being ammunition and fuel to tell a much more honest one. An honest story.

That honesty really comes through, especially on your next album Blackheart. You’ve chosen three songs from that era among your Personal Best, so it’s clearly still incredibly meaningful for you.

Yeah, definitely. There was just so much stuff going on at the time. My dad got diagnosed with cancer. Danity Kane was falling apart for, like, the 19th time. My grandmother died. And I realised that I had never really grieved throughout my career, all the way through, since Hurricane Katrina happened. Life had just been constantly coming at me and I’d had no time to grieve, and Blackheart was the fallout from that.

For me, that period was genuinely like a dark night. Dark in the sense that I would sit in darkness differently. I wasn’t depressed, I was wrecked. I recognised the dark, but rather than be afraid of it I embraced it. I learnt to be truly honest with myself. On songs like “Billie Jean” and “Swim Free”, I was being super truthful. Not just in criticising others but also in putting a mirror up to myself and telling truthful things about myself that were negative. About things I needed to work on and how I needed to grow. Because of that, I do think Blackheart is my best album. It was not only lyrically the most honest but also sonically the most experimental.

Dawn richard goldenheart

"Swim Free" (2015)

BEST FIT: Let's talk about “Swim Free” in particular. This one really ties into the theme of ‘heart music’ that you were working on at the time. It pulses in a way that's very much like a heartbeat and it's so wonderfully spacious. What do you love about this one?

DAWN RICHARD: Well, you nailed it. This song was influenced by bands like Portishead and Massive Attack. That was the vibe I wanted – a sort of downbeat, laidback, simple vocal that was kind of floating over these pulsing beats. “Swim Free” doesn’t necessarily sound like Portishead or Massive Attack, because I’m not interested in copying anyone. My aim is never to copy musically but to try and understand the vibe that others are creating, to sit in it, and then to make my own version of that. I think Portishead did such a good job of creating music that sounds like darkness, music that sounds like sitting in sadness, and that’s the feeling that I wanted to aim for.

“Swim Free” is a song about leaving someone where they are because you have surpassed them. You can’t meet them anymore because they can’t get to where you are. I wanted to express that very real feeling of having to let someone you love go, and to watch them go, knowing that you’re not compatible with them anymore. That’s why I wanted the song to sound and feel like a kind of drifting away, and to do it in a way that lived in more an electronic, synth space. I think we executed it really well, especially with adding the steel drum as a nod to Afro/Black culture and giving it this nautical feel and a sense of the islands. It was hard to do without making it sound ridiculous, or too much of a stretch, but I think we did a good job.

It seems like a lot of people have interpreted “Swim Free” as a goodbye to Danity Kane, even though I guess from the timeline that you probably wrote it before the 2013/14 reunion fell apart.

Yeah, it’s cool if people interpret it like that but it’s not what I wrote it about. “Swim Free” was written from my love life at the time, which was a whole other thing going on. I had a severely horrible experience with my partner, and the way it happened was really gnarly. It was crazy. I’d never really told anybody about how I was treated in that, so “Swim Free” was the song where I got to express some aspect of that.

I do think it’s interesting, though, that the song could apply to so many other things. It can apply to my journey with Bad Boy Records. It could apply to Danity Kane. It could apply to Dirty Money. It could apply to my relationship, and that was part of the point. My songs are for anyone to receive as they feel they should receive them. I will say that “Castles” was about Danity Kane – that song was me being real about what was going on in my career, and other things in my life that I had to face up to honestly – but “Swim Free” was about love.

Is there anything that really sticks in your mind about the process of writing this song?

I remember thinking, ‘Don’t write too much.’ One of the things I love about Blackheart was that I really stepped away from the expectations of a lot of the R&B heads. With Goldenheart, I’d already proved that I could make something that had all these great vocal runs. This time I wanted to really learn to step back from being so focused on a performance vocal and start to use my voice more like an instrument. I was learning how to just sit in a record, and I feel like there is such a change in the way I utilised my vocals between those two albums.

Honestly, I loved it. I loved the withholding and being able to make the choice to let a song breathe. Like on the album version of “Calypso”, I don’t even start to sing until more than a minute in. There was a genuine comfortableness about letting the record move and tell the story that happens in Blackheart, and that, to me, is like gold. I realised that it’s not about how well you can sing but how well you can tell your story. “Swim Free” is a great example of that. It’s so sparse, and there are so few words, but it hits home in a way that is, to me, more powerful than anything I could have written in a more full-on way.

It's amazing what you can do with a few simple ideas, and that’s something that you’ve really carried forward into the music you’ve made since.

Yeah, and the R&B heads don't love it, right? [laughs]. The people who loved me for how I sang prior to Blackheart, they still want that, but I’m so in love with this other way of doing things. To me, singing in this other way means that when you do have your moment it actually matters so much more.

Dawn richard blackheart

"Warriors" (2015)

BEST FIT: That leads really nicely into the next song, “Warriors”, where you do suddenly have this big, big vocal moment. It’s so powerful, and to me it comes across like you’re finding some kind of euphoria in the struggle. What does this song mean to you?

DAWN RICHARD: I mean, you just defined it so eloquently. Like, perfectly. That’s exactly what “Warriors” is. If you listen to it, there are vocals everywhere, high and low. I even left yelling in there and other imperfect things, and there’s one moment where I’m just, like, ‘Ahhhhhh!’

If you know New Orleans and if you pay attention to the song, the cadence choice towards the end is a direct reference to New Orleans second line culture. It’s done in a different drum pattern and with a different drum sound, but it’s super, super indigenous. It reminds me of being barefoot on the land, being around a bonfire. It gives me such a feeling of home.

Although the song doesn’t flagrantly come across as second line, New Orleans chants, if you start to strip the layers away you can see it. If I got a second line band to play this song, it wouldn’t be difficult for them because it would be right in the same time signature. This song was kind of the beginning for me, in terms of revealing how New Orleans could sit in a different sound and still be New Orleans.

In “Warriors”, you also reference the lion, which is something of a recurring theme in your work, and also something that you call your fans. Do you think your fans have really taken this song to heart, as if you are singing directly to or about them?

I do, yeah. Also, I’m a real Leo, through and through. I really do feel that. I relate to lions so much – the way that it’s the lionesses who go to hunt. Yeah, there are things about Leo tendencies that totally resonate with me, and I do refer to the lion quite often in my work.

When you think about lionesses, they need to travel in packs. Not huge packs, but a small and dedicated group. I relate to that too, and I knew that I would come into that space with my music. I used to say “few become many”, because I knew that my following wasn’t massive but they were true. When I was younger, going to see all the rock bands that I loved, it was always really cool to me that they had these cult followings who would be up front and really sweating. I always thought that was so much cooler than being a rock band in a stadium full of people who kind of like you. I feel like “Warriors” embodies that, and I hope my fans feel that.

On a lot of my albums, there’s maybe three, four or five songs that I dedicate to the movement, to just saying thank you to the ones who stick by me. I’m talking specifically to them and I’m unafraid to do it, because if I am going to be indie, if I am going to have a very niche group of people, why the fuck not talk to them directly and with passion than speak to some generalised shit? I don’t want to be a random product that everybody uses. I don’t want to make the same generic shit that everyone’s getting forcefed on radio. That's the truth! [laughs]

“Warriors” is really one of those songs. It feels like it would be really fun to perform live. Is it one that has stayed in your set?

Actually no, because it's so damn high! I did play it live for a while, for about three years, and I might bring it back one day because I did love to perform it. The drums are so damn good!

Dawn richard blackheart

"Tide" (2015)

BEST FIT: The idea of being a warrior feeds into this song as well, particularly in the visuals. I can see some lion in there too, with the big mane of hair your character has in the video. Why have you chosen “Tide” for this list?

DAWN RICHARD: Oh, man, what can I say about this song? This one might actually be my favourite of all. To me, this is the song that really embodies the warrior idea. Like, if the warrior had just one song, this would be the song. When I wrote it, I remember realising that I might really be on to something that would lead into the next part of my journey. It was like this song told me, ‘Okay, I know where I'm going with this. This is how the story can actually grow.’

I had so much fun with creating both the audio and the visuals. This was my first venture into animation, and I love that you have to experience the visual to actually listen to the song, because the ridiculousness of “Tide” is that it wasn’t on the Blackheart album. It wasn’t even a single. It just lives on YouTube, and as a bonus track on the vinyl edition of Blackheart only. That was such a fun idea to me, to release some of my favourite stuff in that way.

To me, “Tide” is one of the most interesting and intricate songs, especially for that time. I love the way it sounds, the way it moves, and I love that so much of it is about movement. I worked with We Were Monkeys on the animation, and the idea was so simple. It’s just this warrior with a mohawk of fire, walking on a planet while everything around them is being destroyed. It’s so blatantly simple, but the song is not even about fire or destruction. It’s about moving with the tide. The idea for the visual is so elemental. Whether its water or fire or some other element, the warrior can move through anything. Even the fire is animated in a way that it looks like waves.

To this day, making the visual remains one of my favourite experiences. And, to this day, I still feel like people are sleeping on how incredible it is. That’s one of my works that I’m extremely proud of. I feel like my 12-year-old self would be like, “This is dope! Who is this person that made this record?”

And, to this day, some people are still mad that it’s not on Spotify, right?

Yeah, I know, I know, but isn’t that the best? [laughs]

To me, it’s like an easter egg in gaming. It’s like one of those gems that you only get if you truly believe in the project, if you truly believe in the art. “Tide” is only for those people who truly rock with my thing. That, to me, is gold.

It’s funny because I spent all my pennies on that animation and on that project. I didn’t have anything left afterwards. But I was so, so proud to have done it. I remember I was in Baltimore when it was done and I was like, “Mom you gotta see what I just did!”… and then it wasn’t even a single [laughs].

I love that. How did your family react?

Well, they thought it was pretty but I don’t think they really understood what it meant to the geek in me. What it meant to me as my first time getting into animation for my visuals, and for it to be based on my own idea and concept.

I love that you don’t even know if the warrior is a woman or a man, and I love it even more that you don’t even care. You just know that this somebody is badass. Just unwavering, and bomb with it too. What the warrior is doesn’t matter. It’s the sound and story of the warrior that’s important. I mean, so many of us all have the same story, and that was part of the point.

I remember that was a big thing for you with the Blackheart era, even with the album cover. This sense of wanting to be beyond race, beyond gender. To just be pure sound and story.

Yeah, exactly. I kept feeling like I was being stifled by what I looked like. Even now, artists are still talking about this shit. I see people like Mariah the Scientist trying to explain their position and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Man, this is a story that I’ve been talking about for years, and I’m sure Grace Jones was talking about it when she was alone in her journey.’ It’s really the age-old story of Black women saying, “Bro, stop it. Just because you see me in some other way, you don’t get to question my journey.”

To be honest, I really was pissed because I thought Blackheart was such a great alternative electronic project and people just couldn't get past the way I looked. They just couldn't get past it.

If you released it now, I think it might be different.

I think so, too. Of all my projects, Blackheart is the one that deserved so much. We went balls to the wall on that record and it deserved more recognition, I thought.

Dawn richard tide

"Babe Ruth" (2023)

BEST FIT: Now we’re right up to date with “Babe Ruth”. Of the three songs on The Architect single, what makes this one so special to you?

DAWN RICHARD: I think it's clever because there are so many layers to it. As you may know, Babe Ruth, a white man, is considered one of the greatest baseball players in history, so I thought it would be interesting for me, as a Black woman, to take on that mantle.

It’s interesting for me, too, because baseball was never my thing. I was a softball player, all the way through to the Junior Olympics. I got a full scholarship because of it. So I really loved the game, and I really understand the connection with the red dirt and all that stuff. I also wanted to honour Jackie Robinson in a way. In Black culture, he’s our own baseball icon and is someone who had to deal with a lot of controversy in his career as a Black man in a predominantly white and Latin sport. I use the Babe Ruth candy as an analogy in the song as well.

To call myself Babe Ruth speaks to the cockiness that I’m playing with in the song, and that was so astronomically fun to me. I love the audaciousness going on here. I talk shit in this song in a way that’s so ridiculous, and I love it because it doesn’t take itself seriously. After all the serious, deep threads that I’ve been pulling on throughout my career, I’m at a place now where I can have so much fun. That’s why I’ve picked this song, because it feels like I have arrived in myself enough to play with the freedom of just being me.

One of my other favourite things about “Babe Ruth” is that I got to co-produce with Gina Jeanz, who lives in Switzerland but she’s from Namibia. I love that we got to make this hybrid of sounds, and have this kind of underlying Afrobeat vibe to it. I also got to work with [Wesley Singerman and Taylor Dexter] on “Babe Ruth” and the rest of The Architect, and it was just so much fun to create this really cool smashing of sounds with them. It’s a 14-minute single that gives you house, Afrobeat and pop, all at the same time. When you add in that audaciousness, almost to the point of being a bit tacky, I think it makes for a really fun and interesting record that doesn’t sound like anything else out there.

I also love that, BPM-wise, “Babe Ruth” can sit with a lot of other records that live in a similar space, which opens up other possibilities for DJ mixes. To me, that just proves that, following my journey, I’ve really come into my own niche, my own lane, and it’s one that fits me really well. It’s a lane that make it so much fun for me to create and to not take things so seriously anymore.

I'm no longer a warrior. I have won all my battles. Now it's time to have some fun. To me, that's what “Babe Ruth” is about, and I think it shows the growth.

It's funny that you say that because I have it in my notes here that, lyrically, this song feels like the warrior’s ultimate reward.

Exactly, yeah. There’s no competition at all, there’s nothing left to prove. I think I've done a good job of setting myself in this lane. Whether people like it or not, whether it goes anywhere or not, no one can deny I have set a path for myself that sits alone. I don't follow anyone else and I never really have, whether that's a positive thing to people or whether they’re like, ‘Oh, that was the dumbest thing you could have ever done,’ to me, it just means I have a sound. And in an artist’s world, the best reward you could ever hope for is that you have your own sound.

Dawn richard the architect

Dawn Richard plays Colours Hoxton on 11 July, and the Union Chapel with Spencer Zahn play the Union Chapel on 24 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Tickets for both events are on sale now.

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