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Rise and Shine

Rise and Shine

No longer on Diddy’s team, singer Dawn Richard finds her own fame with GoldenHeart. By Carlene Thomas Bailey. Photographed by Chris Clinton

Even before she mentions it, it’s clear that Dawn Richard is a Leo, a born performer. Commanding our attention this cold January afternoon in a Brooklyn photo studio, the 29-year-old bounces around like a grasshopper, sticks out her tongue, and flirts shamelessly with the camera. This is not an act, or something she turns off as soon as the photographer stops clicking away—this is her.

“My mom told me that when I was a kid, I looked at the TV and said I wanted to be in it,” says the New Orleans native after the shoot, catching her breath and taking a sip of water. “I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I knew I wanted something bigger—I dreamed bigger.”

Richard achieved that dream back in 2005 on P. Diddy’s MTV reality show Making the Band as a member of girl group Danity Kane. After four years belting out chart-topping pop songs, the girls called it quits (“To this day people think that I broke that group up, which is completely false,” she says) and Richard next teamed up with Diddy and singer Kalenna Harper to form a new band, Dirty Money. But with both groups, Richard struggled to have her voice heard among such powerful and sometimes outrageous personalities. “Being in a group was my blessing and my curse,” she says, rubbing the black-and-white design on her long nails. “I wasn’t necessarily the one in front, so people didn’t know me or my sound.”

Now, though, she’s definitely making a name for herself with her debut solo album, Goldenheart, out this month. Richard has been working toward this for the last two years, after being released amicably from her deal with Bad Boy in 2011. “There was no beef,” she says of the break. “I love Puff, I speak with him frequently.” Her fans, it seems, were ready for her to branch out on her own: Her 2011 mixtape, A Tell, Tale Heart, was downloaded over a million times and her self-released 2012 EP, Armor On, hit No. 1 on the R&B/soul charts on iTunes.

On GoldenHeart, Richard and her producer/creative partner, Andrew “Druski” Scott, mix New Orleans parade snares, driving club beats, mythical lyrics, and ’80s heartbreak harmonies (she even covers Peter Gabriels’ “In Your Eyes”) for a deeply satisfying and varied album that steps far outside the confines of traditional R&B. She says it’s part of a planned trilogy; BlackHeart and RedemptionHeart will follow.

Though the music she’s making now is nothing like the output of her former bands, Richard knows she wouldn’t be here without them. Her experience in Dirty Money, in particular, taught her a lot. “I got to vocal produce and write so much,” she says. “And the best part was that I got to work with Grace Jones [on Dirty Money track “Yeah Yeah You Would”]. That right there in a sentence is unreal. She sounded like a black ocean. It was incredible. She is motherfucking perfect.”

GoldenHeart was influenced not by other musicians, Richard says, but by aesthetics. The painter Gustav Klimt, who uses bright gold leaf in his works, inspired the album name, and she says she watched the 1980s dance film White Nights, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, on repeat. Richard says she wanted “a grittiness and a softness in the album, so you’ll see this hard and rough sound pieced together with such vulnerability.”

It’s a juxtaposition that seems to define her. As Richard changes after the photo shoot, she reveals the tattoo she got when she decided to go solo: three wings merged together which cover her whole back in deep, dark ink, the result of three 10-hour sessions. “I wanted something that exemplified extreme flight,” she explains. Underneath the wings and stamped down her spine is old Sanskrit message, which translates as “mastered, blessed, saved, beautiful, a force.” She smiles. “And if those things are in alignment, then I am perfect.” Having found her voice, it feels like she’s pretty close.

Stylist: MASAYO KISHI
Hair: DAKOTA HERMAN
Makeup: CHEYENNE