Photo: Petros Koy
Dawn Richard On Alchemizing Grief Into Joy, Advocating For Black Creators & Her NOLA-Honoring New Album 'Second Line'
Encased in golden body armor with a vibrant plume of sky-blue feathers, King Creole crouches valiantly on the cover of Dawn Richard's sixth solo album, Second Line. Her eyes are fixed and steady as she prepares to lead the charge for Richard's newest era as an artist.
The illustrated character embodies the hope and tenacity that's carried the singer/songwriter through a career of more than 15 years. In that time, Richard has seen chart-topping success and an astonishing run of critically acclaimed albums as a solo act and as a member of Danity Kane and Dirty Money. The New Orleans native credits sobering personal and career challenges as vital to her growth as an artist and individual.
"The story I'm telling in King Creole is me. But I also feel like there are a lot of King Creoles. There are a lot of people who feel like they are worthless. They don't have a voice. They are the others," Richard told GRAMMY.com. "They've had a journey like mine, the unconventional journey, the journey that didn't have a blueprint. You had to be the blueprint."
For her sixth outing as a solo artist, Richard continues to strike down the unspoken rules that often surround Black music artists regarding the narrow scope in which critics and audiences categorize their music. Second Line—which Richard describes as an "electro revival"—is built on a foundation of electronic productions blended with other sonic inspirations Richard has pulled from across her career, like R&B, dance-pop and jazz.
"It is not a surprise that I would make an album full of so many different genres, so many different colors, so many different meanings," she says, "when I am from a city [and parents] who encompass all of that." Plus, Richard hopes the project will expand how the world views the city that continually informs her artistry. "New Orleans is the story, but it's not about brass horns and jazz and blues," she adds. "The story is about the journey. New Orleans is the journey. It's not in the sound."
In a chat with GRAMMY.com, Richard expounded on her inspirations behind Second Line, how she channeled her pain and promise into the creative narrative of the project and why she'll never stop speaking out for Black artists in the industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A major piece of your creative mandate around Second Line has been speaking out against the genre boxes Black artists are often placed in. Does continually having to speak out against those unspoken rules affect your creativity or headspace when you're going in to make a new record—seeing that you're always having to be, in a sense, a voice of representation for Black women and Black musical artists?
I would love to go in and not have to explain myself at all. The artist in me would just like to show my art and then become a recluse. That would be the dream. I would love to do what my peers do.
I always speak about this because I appreciate Lady Gaga a lot. But I always talk about her journey because she never has to explain why she did a country album, why she did a jazz album, why she did a dance album and then went to electronic. She never explained it. Every album came out in a different genre, and we loved her for all of them. She didn't have to ever lead with anything but her art. I thought that was beautiful.
Black women don't have that ability, or Black artists, period. When we do things, we have to have disclaimers. We have to explain who we are and why we're doing what we're doing because it isn't what traditionally people expect us to do. I always thought that was interesting. It was never a bad or good thing. I was just observant of it.
I don't ever want to have to disclaim who I am. I don't want to have to say, "You know, Black women in electronic [music]..." I would just like to come in and be among my peers and make great music. But the truth is, if I don't speak on it, it'll never change.
One of my favorite notes about this project is that you worked on it while at home with your parents—who are key figures in your story as an artist. How did sharing space with them shape the project and how was their influence reflected in what you ended up making with Second Line?
It was everything. My parents have always been the inspiration behind all that I've ever done creatively. They and I have experienced some severe journeys. We lost together and we gained together. We went through severe homelessness when Katrina happened. So every time I'm able to be with them, I feel like I go back to a sense of peace. I get to know who I am. I get reacquainted with why I keep doing this thing and why I have my passions.
With this album, when you hear records like "Perfect Storm" and "The Potter," [you hear] the influence of sometimes losing self-worth because I have been through this so long. And I have been treated in all different types of crazy ways. I always find that when I'm with my mom and dad, I find my self-worth again a little bit. I find the strength in me to keep moving.
My mom and dad have had severe loss, yet they dance in their joy of the possibility and the hope of what could be. They are a direct reflection of what Second Line embodies, and so is New Orleans.
You even had your mom featured on the interludes on the album.
We would have sessions. She was getting a knee replacement, so she was immobile for a while. And it made us have these conversations that I hadn't ever thought about. I discovered things I had never known about my mom. And it became so much more about creating an album that represented what it means to be from New Orleans.
What I've realized is I didn't want to make an album that sonically sounded like New Orleans; I wanted to make New Orleans. The record emulates New Orleans—who I am, my mom, who she is. The energy that I put into the record became the actual narrative and the sonics behind it became the possibilities of what it could be.
Do you have a track you'd call the foundation or heart of the project?
My favorite is the trio of "Le Petit Morte" to "Radio Free" to "The Potter." Those three just mean something to me. They speak to me. I wanted them to be one long record. But I just loved them better as a separate entity structurally when I was sequencing.
Those three spoke to how I wanted to design the record. Because the record is broken up into two parts. The first half is the electronic, the process, the android, if you will, of King Creole. It's the android version of the album. So, even if the BPMs are at a certain time frame, the meter is at a specific place. Whereas after the "Voodoo" intermission, the human side of King Creole forms. You start to get more soul and vibration that is from a human aspect.
Dawn Richard. Photo: Petros Koy
An important part of any album's story is its album cover. And for you to take this concept of King Creole and make it into an actual illustration, I'm sitting here looking and saying, "Who is she, or he, or them?" Who is King Creole? What do they represent to you?
King Creole has my eyes but she's not fully me. I want people to see themselves in this character. And it's important to me to always do that because I just want people to know they're never alone. I didn't realize when my albums would come out that for so many people, it affected them in ways when they had severe hard times.
Because that's what music was for me. That is the biggest compliment I could ever get. And I always want to make sure that when I make these albums, though I am on them and though I have these alter egos, they also reflect others who have also felt that way.
So instead of teasing Second Line through a music video, as most people would likely expect, you hit us with your animated short and then followed that up with the release of the "Bussifame" video. How did that short come to be and why did you choose to kick off the album rollout that way?
I always saw my city when I made this album. I saw New Orleans as so much more than just what we were being portrayed as. We are such a visual city. My city is so full of roots and heritage. That kind of diversity and movement is so ever-present in New Orleans. I thought it could be really cool to apply it to a post-apocalyptic Blade Runner-like story when I was making the album.
The only way New Orleans is seen in animation is The Princess and the Frog—a very caricature-like idea. I thought it'd be cool to show New Orleans in a different way in animation. And because I was working with that, I wanted to highlight Black animators. I [worked with] Nurdin Momodu from Lotusfly Animation—he's from Nigeria. I had him animate the trailer to show an animated New Orleans that hadn't really been seen before.
The I-10 and having King Creole smoking a blunt in the middle of downtown New Orleans, just something that is completely different than the depiction of what New Orleans is when people think of it. Because it's so much more. We always see New Orleans as the past. I was trying to show New Orleans in a futuristic way.
When did you start recording Second Line and when did you finish the project?
I started recording [Second Line] maybe seven months after I released New Breed in 2019. I started recording again while I was in LA and then I finished in New Orleans in the pandemic. My mom got her surgery in February of last year. So, literally around March or April 2020, I was like, "I don't know if I'm done."
I had the music, I had the plan, and then I met up with Merge Records. Because I haven't even been with Merge even a year yet. They heard everything. They loved it. They were like, "We need time 'cause this is dope and we want to do all of this stuff." And I was like, "Okay." So then they were like, "We're gonna release it next March."
So you've had all this done for a year?
Yeah, I had a year just sitting on it. And that's hard for someone like me because I never feel like anything's finished! You know what I mean? I was trying to do more stuff and put more bells [on it] and I was trying to figure it out.
Do you have any creative elements that you remember thinking out or sketching out very early on in the album creation process before they had turned into their final product?
"Bussifame," no question. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to the drill team and majorettes. I knew I wanted the Chef Menteur building. I also knew I wanted to do primary colors. Because for me colors play a strong role in all my albums because I dream in color. And if you guys check out my visuals, blue, red and yellow are very present in the story.
And how have you been able to find balance during your transition back into a label with Merge Records? You're used to having to handle so many aspects of a release on your own. Was it tough allowing members of your team to take on some of the responsibilities?
I handle every element of my project going out still. I talk to Merge daily. And I'll tell you; I've never had a PR team this dope. But I'm constantly on. It doesn't change. If anything, I'm even more on it because I do know what that feels like, and there are severe fears for me because I've had some really bad situations. I'm still with an independent label, so I'm still indie.
[Merge Records] moves good. My PR team at [Schure Media Group] moves good. But I'm still ever-present [with] it. For example, when I knew I would be on with Schure, I didn't take that for granted because that was a dream.
So I came to them with pictures already done. I did a whole photoshoot and had a folder. I was like, "No, we're in COVID. So because we're in COVID, and we may not get photoshoots for magazines, I'm gonna take all these pictures and give you guys a folder. So that'll make it easier for you to pitch."
I promise you that happened. Just because you get help don't mean you stop. It means you go harder because you've got people who believe in you. So I feel like I'm even more involved because I'm not taking for granted that extra help.
There's energy sitting here right now, and it is very palpable. I can think of Goldenheart, Black Heart, Redemption, New Breed and all of those projects, but where does this project stand among those?
This is my best project, no question. I know that's hard for people because this project isn't as targeted into the industry.
With my other projects, the story was so specific. This is broader. It's a bigger message. It's a blatant choice to say in the very beginning [of the album] that "I don't need a genre. I am the genre." I purposely tried to show that a Black woman can move any way she chooses, believe herself to be the royalty that she truly is, and never care how the structure or the blueprint is mapped out.
This is the first album with that much versatility, and it doesn't take New Orleans so literally. It doesn't have to sound like the streets of New Orleans sonically. I'm showing you that the essence of what New Orleans is can be brought to the future. I feel like this could open doors for other Black female artists for Black women right now in music, especially in genres that they had never been seeing themselves.
I would hope that this would be that because that's really what this is to me. It's an opportunity to have people start looking a little deeper at what we can do.