Dawn Richard is a musician, multimedia artist, animator, dancer, director, model, and entrepreneur.
As a founding member of Danity Kane, and later with Diddy’s Dirty Money, Richard has explored the ins and outs of commercial pop music. As a solo artist, she opted to self-release her music; over the span of six critically acclaimed full-length albums, she treats Louisiana Creole culture, New Orleans bounce, and Southern Swag as elemental, allowing her to weave in and out of house, footwork, R&B, and more. As she proudly proclaimed on her album Second Line: “I am the genre.” Her most recent album is a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and producer Spencer Zahn called Pigments, which is an orchestral fusion of neoclassical, ambient, and jazz.
In addition to her prolific musical output, Richard is active in a number of other creative fields. She works in creative direction & creative partnerships with Adult Swim; she is passionate about emerging technologies, as well as the intersection of tech and art. She was the first independent and Black artist to do a 360 oculus performance with YouTube, and has been a tech consultant for music-driven startups, providing arts concepts and marketing pitches to help merge art and tech seamlessly.
This past October, she was the Artist in Residence for a full week at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music,marking the first time in the program’s history that they’ve had a visiting artist for a full week of programming.
She also founded and owns Papa Ted’s, a vegan food truck based in New Orleans.
Friday, October 27 at 2pm.
The debut collaborative album from New Orleans electro-revival dynamo Dawn Richard and multi-instrumentalist, producer, and composer Spencer Zahn, Pigments tells the story of finding oneself through dance, self-expression, and community through the lens of New Orleans’ contemporary arts scene. Not strictly neoclassical, jazz, or ambient electronic, the project is one long composition that flows through several “movements” guided by five lead instruments: clarinet, saxophone, guitar, strings, and Richard’s stripped-down vocals. Marking Richard’s first step into the contemporary classical world, Pigments reveals a new facet of her limitless talents and provides a fresh introduction to Zahn, whose intimate, sprawling soundscapes play with principles of open space and motion.
After first collaborating on “Cyanotype” (a song that originally appeared on Zahn’s 2018 debut album People of the Dawn), the two artists wanted to explore making a full-length project that would depart from the celebratory R&B and dance music that Richard is known for, yet keep in line with her love for the experimental and avant-garde. The story that emerged from the new songs was of “someone painting with broken brushes,” she explains. “I felt like the tools that I and other people like me were dealt weren’t shiny. Yet we still painted these beautiful pictures.”
“This album is what it means to be a dreamer and finally reach a place where you’ve decided to love the pigments that you have,” Richard continues. After Pigments flutters open with “Coral,” whose title indicates a solid thorniness, Richard’s voice enters on the second track “Sandstone,” which swells into hopeful fervor as she sings of wanting “to be ‘more than’” and claims her dreams as if they’re reality. The rest of the project snakes through the hypnotic “Vantablack,” whose lyrics about “losing myself in you” are about learning to love your skin as a Black woman, and then into the melancholic “Cerulean,” on which Richard rawly expresses sadness and rage, as she questions to the world, “Are you hurting/Are you hurting me?” Finally, the album funnels into the triumphant “Umber,” on which Richard boldly states her desire to make “real change” as she sings, “I’m gon’ climb this mountain/Till I reach the top.” All the lyrics are minimal and bare, allowing the listener to bring their own feelings and stories to the music.
As Richard’s lyrics outline this emotional journey, the rest of the narrative is told by the instruments that ebb and flow around her tender introspections. Though each instrument has its own theme, they modulate to the key that Dawn is singing in and “provide a new tonal center,” Zahn explains. Like on his 2020 album Sunday Painter, his approach to composition is informed by classic ECM productions and the solo work of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, but morphs to incorporate the energy of his collaborators. “I’m not the sole narrator,” Richard adds. “The composition is the story, and we’re just living inside its space.”
In recording, Zahn also focused on capturing the sound of the room and the breath of the players to foster a feeling of spaciousness, as well as acknowledge all the beings who contributed to Pigments. The musicians throughout include Stuart Bogie (clarinet, bass clarinet), Mike Haldeman (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, sampled electronic instruments), Malcolm Parson (cello, violin, viola), Dave Scalia (drums), Kirk Schoenherr (electric guitar), Jas Walton (tenor saxophone, flute), and Doug Wieselman (clarinet, bass clarinet). For Richard, the project as a whole feels like a tribute to her father Frank Richard, lead singer of the funk band Chocolate Milk, who received his master’s degree in classical music theory.
Ultimately, Pigments is a deeply empathetic and compassionate project that opens itself up to both individual reflection and communal connection. Through telling a personal story of resilience and self-actualization, Richard and Zahn create a site of healing and new possibilities for not only themselves, but also the musicians who played on the record, the dancers and crew who contributed to the film, and the listeners at home. “The point is that we’re going through the same thing in different ways,” Richard reflects. “No matter what walks of life we come from, the story can be similar.”