Record Of The Week: Dawn Richard’s ‘Second Line: And Electro Revival’


Jewly Hight will be hosting an NPR Music online listening party for Dawn Richard’s Second Line, on April 30 at 3 p.m. Central. Details are here.

About The Record

Artist: Dawn Richard
Project: Second Line: An Electro Revival

Even in our amorphous post-genre era, it’s notable how artfully Dawn Richard balances stylistic paradoxes in her music. A student of commercial polish since her days in the pop-R&B girl band Danity Kane, she applies her understanding of shapely hooks to expansive artistic concepts. She’s proven that beats engineered for a dance floor experience can also serve as the building blocks of her literary-minded epics. And especially on her latest full-length, Second Line: An Electro Revival, she’s grounded electronic music-making—which has, by now, evolved far away from its old associations with city-specific scenes and sounds—in the richness of New Orleans.

It’s not that Richard is literally relying on funeral procession-style second line grooves, with their strutting, syncopated drum patterns and saucy horns; she’s invoking the space they offer for the freewheeling celebration of life and legacy as an elastic metaphor. She’s loosely shaped the album’s 16 tracks around an androgynous protagonist, King Creole, who’s half-android and half-human and not at all hesitant about asserting sexual and romantic desire or agency, self-preservation skills and an irreducibly multifaceted sense of identity. The other primary character is Richard’s mother Debbie, who serves as a warmly uninhibited narrator through recorded snippets of their conversations. All of this plays out against the backdrop of a city still scarred by a hurricane and marked by inequality, whose culture Richard imaginatively references and reinterprets, and a music industry that’s continually thwarted and miscategorized her, unprepared for a visionary southern Black woman.

Richard wrote and performed all of the songs and, it’s important to note, also served as sonic mastermind, doing quite a bit of producing herself, and pushing her carefully chosen producer-collaborators, like L.A.-based Ila Orbis, to help incarnate her ideas in tracks that range from pop-house, to bounce, electropop, R&B, hip-hop and even classical art song. Sequencing is an aspect of album-making that rarely comes up in critical appraisals, but it’s certainly not an afterthought for Richard, who uses it as a tool of aesthetic curation and immersive storytelling. The album’s sleek first half reflects King Creole’s automaton nature, several tracks in a row unfurling at a uniform BPM, like they’re part of a seamless club DJ set. Then Richard let’s the pulse ebb and flow, in an expression of humanity that has as many layers to it as a listener chooses to recognize.

On the Record: A Q&A With Dawn Richard

Jewly Hight: Where are you right now? What am I looking at on the Zoom screen? Is this one of your creative or work spaces?

Dawn Richard: New Orleans. You’re looking at my dad’s old chair in my parent’s house in New Orleans, Louisiana. That’s what you’re looking at, his old man chair. I’m with my parents right now, because I’m still trying to look for a place here in New Orleans, since I’ve moved. So I’m staying with them while I’ve been doing my business and recording and stuff.

JH: In the big picture of your body of work, you’ve been in your self-directed. independent phase longer than you were in the major label girl group phase, when Danity Kane was signed to Diddy’s label Bad Boy and looked at as a mainstream pop-R&B act. Pretty much ever since, you’ve had to be vigilant about defining yourself artistically, pushing against the perception that everything you do falls into the category of R&B, refusing to be hemmed in. What has that been like for you?

DR: You’re right, it was a little bit more self-explanatory going into my career. But the truth was, it wasn’t for me, because I thought it was odd that a rapper would want to have a pop group. I thought that was interesting that a rap label was trying to cultivate something new. So I came into this business with something that was a bit of an oddity.

I was a Black girl in a predominantly white situation, and that was my first dilemma, in my mind. I just thought I was an artist in a space where I was I was writing the music that we were doing. It wasn’t until I left the mainstream that my color became something of a conduit for what genre I was going to be in. In Diddy-Dirty Money, we were doing electro-hip-hop. So for me, in my mind, I thought I was just doing versatile music when I left as a solo artist in my independent career. The same records I was writing, I was realizing me singing them didn’t make them popular records anymore, just because now my visual [as a Black woman artist] is leading. And that was mind-boggling to me. So then I had to start articulating, “But wait, guys, I’m not I’m not just an R&B artist. I’m doing something beyond this.” And for the life of me, I couldn’t understand every album that I put out, it kept being [categorized as] alternative R&B: “Former Danity Kane artist is going into a stage where she’s being truly ambitious.” I didn’t know that my color would become the label for my music.

JH: You did boil your argument down to two lines in the opening track: “I don’t need a genre/I am the genre.”

DR: I’ve always appreciated artists for their signature. I want people to know me, not for the genre, but when they hear the song, they’re like, “Yes, that’s the artist that I love when I hear her.” When I listen to Bjork, I only know of one Bjork sound. I wanted to be that kind of artist. So when I say, “I am the genre,” the point is, “Please stop looking at my color or my gender as an intro to your expectation of what this music is going to be, because I promise you, it’s going to transition multiple times and you’re not going to be stuck in one thing.” There are certain peers in this music business that are non-Black that are able to be that versatile. I look at some of my peers and they’re able to make a country album, a pop album, an urban album, you know, all across the board. And we never question if it’s popular, we just accept it. But because I’m a Black woman, I’m now limited to alternative R&B. I don’t want to just be that kind of artist. I want to be able to be as versatile as possible.

JH: I’ve noticed to that you’re often asked about the contrast between the major label days and the indie days in a way that telegraphs expectations or projects a certain narrative: like independent striving is the more noble artistic path. But watching the way you move, listening to the way you talk about your career, it seems like your mindset actually isn’t anti-commercial, like you’re not against big-budget production, but just looking to be supported intellectually by anyone you align yourself with. How do you really think about all that?

DR: You’re hitting it dead on. I’ve never been anti-the Establishment, because I was built in the Establishment. So I actually appreciate what it was. It’s built my career. The truth is, though, it just didn’t support me the way I would have loved it to. I was a part of a product, and it was barely that. And so when I got on my own in the DIY space, I had to love my journey enough; if it wasn’t me [doing it], it wouldn’t happen. It became a labor of love that I had to put extra amounts of time and work into, me as an independent artist. I had to study how to be this thing, because the only way I would survive is if I understood it at its core. I put so much work into it that I have now mastered what it takes for me to be able to sustain. So of course my DIY feels like the noble choice, and it feels like, “Yes, I choose to be independent.” Well, no, independence kind of chose me and I had a choice: Do I take the responsibility and show the quality of what it can be? Or do I starve to death? Or get a job at AT&T? And so I chose my art and I chose to put the diligence and the intention into it.

JH: What have you found yourself up against, and found it necessary to deconstruct, when it comes to perceptions around electronic and dance music, who makes it, how it’s made, what kinds of ideas it can carry?

DR: Dance music comes from Black culture. That’s just the truth of it. Chicago footwork, Detroit, D.C., bounce music from New Orleans, disco itself. So the fact that we don’t even have a presence visually within that space the way we should is mind-boggling. That’s number one.

Number two, the fact that there is a lack of representation of female DJs being seen, period. When we look at festivals, there is not an equal ratio to women DJs to males that are on the rosters. That’s mind-boggling to me as well. Also, queer culture. The queer community has built dance culture, yet when we look at these nominations, their presence is very limited. We are just now seeing nonbinary or gay or LGBTQIA. artists being seen the way they should as producers or DJs within the space.

And then the biggest one for me as a Black woman is I always wondered why women weren’t represented as producers even though they were artists. Bjork, Missy Elliott, Imogen Heap, all these incredible artists, we look at them as musical artists, but we don’t recognize them as producers, women have who have executive produced their albums.

I had to deconstruct all these ideas, because what I’ve noticed is in electronic and dance, if you’re not a DJ or a producer with featured artists on your album, you’re not seen as an electronic artist. When we look at the AMAs or the Grammys, most of the nominations are producers and DJs who have featured artists on their albums, and the woman is celebrated as the featured artist on the album. And I thought that that was interesting: Why can’t a woman be the producer, the DJ and the artist on the album and be seen as one entity? And I wanted to just deprogram that entire idea with these albums that I’ve put together. I just want this album to open some doors to pioneer more women to be on these playlists, be on these rosters, to give us more platforms. For eight years, I have been screaming in my heart, “I am here. We are here.”

JH: You mentioned some styles of electronic dance music that evolved in geographically specific scenes, in Chicago, Detroit, D.C., but the idea that EDM is grounded in a particular place has really receded into the background over the last many years. With Second Line, how are you giving electronic dance music a rooted, regional identity?

DR: We have taken the true essence of where dance music comes from—it was cultural; it was Detroit—and we took it out. And you’re right, it stands in this weird place where it’s just futurism. t’s kind of just transcendental.

That’s not a true thing for me. So what I wanted to do, especially for my city—because I feel like my city has never been seen this way—is to incorporate a cultural aspect of what I grew up in, the truth of who I am, and put it against the ideas that you naturally see, and see that they can be married beautifully together. That’s where the word “electro revival” came from. It was showing people that church, soul, truth, roots, heritage can exist within dance and have a story, a concept. And actually take you through an emotional story that can sit within a space, but also give you context and structure and substance. People think of conceptual albums and they don’t think that [that approach] can sit in these type of genres. And I want to show that pain can sit within a story in electronic music, and heart and soul can exist there. You still get the same formula, but with more depth. And I’m hoping that because it’s coming from a Black woman, it not only blows any concept that you thought you knew out of the water, but it shows that it can come from [an artistic vision] that hasn’t even been formulated in this industry. I was purposeful with this album to show so many different layers that people have to listen to this album a few times to see how the message goes way deeper than just, “Oh, this record is cool.”

JH: As tech-savvy and forward-looking as you tend to be, with your finger on the pulse and eye on the future, you’re also doing a kind of archival work on Second Line, with the sounds of bounce and house music and the New Orleans settings and imagery you’re working with. Who and what do you consider to be important sources for this project and how does that come through, in particular, during your track “Nostalgia”?

DR: I couldn’t have done this work if I didn’t pay homage to someone who really inspired me, Larry Heard. I mean, he’s incredible, what he’s done with house music. When I was thinking about how do I put New Orleans culturally in it, but also pay homage to house music, dance music and the pioneers who have done before me, “Nostalgia” was just that kind of record that I started off with the baseline of what Larry Heard has created, but then also adding jazz elements from what I know my father has been indicative of when he was growing up in New Orleans, the culture of jazz, chord progressions and using different meters to incorporate something traditional within New Orleans, but also adding toward the end of the record of more futuristic approach.

My mom is another esthetic that is all throughout this album, the idea that a Creole woman is the narrator of this entire story. My mom was born and raised in New Iberia—they call that Cajun country in Louisiana—where you see sugar cane fields, chickens. It’s a different New Orleans, where they speak broken Cajun, broken French. I thought it was interesting to share her story about how her pilgrimage to New Orleans started and how she’s had to navigate her life. All she’s ever known is one man, one love, who is my father. She’s only ever known New Orleans through her perspective. I thought that was important.

I also feel like New Orleans is in itself the baseline of this album. In the “Morning – Streetlights” record when I’m doing multiple countermelodies coming from different directions, that’s all based off the chants that Mardi Gras Indians usually do when they march down the street. There’s multiple moments within “Perfect Storm” referencing Hurricane Katrina and how I went from homeless to limitless and how I lived in a car and on the street and then had to get to this place to tell my story.

So starting the album by paying homage and then going through this journey to get to the future, like you said, archival to present to what we can possibly be. And that’s what the hope is, is at the end of it, we are selfish. That’s the [the title of the] last song on the album. And it speaks to not being a selfish person, but choosing self in these moments, because I think every artist, if we choose the independence, we’ll find our way through it because we’re in uncharted territories with an album like this, or just Black women like me. I don’t know what this will do. I can only hope that putting the culture and New Orleans in this space, I’ll show a different story and hopefully people will see the context.

JH: You’ve brought character-driven narratives to other albums, and in earlier interviews you’ve talked about creating heroic protagonist parts to play. This time it’s King Creole. How does signaling that what you’re doing is something other than straightforward autobiography free you up? What does it enable you to do? How is the King Creole character reflected in the very forward, sex-positive posture you strike in “Jacuzzi”?

DR: I’m my grandmother’s grandchild. She had a Ph.D. in Library Science. I grew up in books. Large stories are what I love, The Iliad, The Odyssey, mythological ideas. When I did Goldenheart, I had records like “Goliath,” just these really big ideas of characters. Goldenheart was inspired by Joan of Arc and loving Gustav Klimt, the painter. I’ve always been a fan of the heroic aspect of things, where I always felt like this warrior kind of going against the world. Every time I’ve done anything as a woman, I’ve just constantly had to feel like I have to prove myself. I know women can relate to that daily. We have to walk into places constantly proving we deserve to be there.

With King Creole, I thought it’d be cool to not just say, “OK, this is my story,” but to actually visually show someone conceptually how I see myself in these times. And I see this half-android, which is the representation of the machine that I come from. The machine I come from is the algorithm. Being on a reality TV show with a pop girl group with P. Diddy is about as machine as you could get. So I am born from this machine, but I am also still a Ninth Ward girl. I’m very human. I play with that duality daily, just like I see myself as a king. Even though I am a woman, I feel like I can be both. I’ve always played with the idea of androgyny and perceiving myself as both masculine and feminine. I play with that vocally. I pitch my voice a lot of times in this record to play with the idea of masculinity and feminine and being multiple things at once. So that was why King Creole was created. Why do I feel like I choose to want to do that? I just think, conceptually, it creates a beautiful vision.

When you think about a record like “Jacuzzi,” sexuality, to me, is so imperative for women, because we’re constantly told what we cannot show, what we cannot be. And when I think of King Creole, even when I designed her in the animation, she has armor on her breast, but half her breast is showing the way she’s sitting. There’s an openness to everything that I’ve ever done in my music, and I’ve always been very sexual in my music, but I’ve always tried to present it in a way that felt less derogatory and more of an ownership of self, an art to it. I think women should claim that daily, and not just women, but the LGBTQIA community as well. Records like “Jacuzzi,” “Sauce,” “Frequency :that I’ve done. I always put one on [a project], never overdoing it. It’s always one or two gems in there that just remind the listener that there is an openness. I am not afraid of this body that I have and I don’t see it the way you see it. I don’t see my sexuality the way you do, and I am very unafraid to speak of it. Visually, I always try to put it out there in a way that isn’t the typical way you see it. So when you listen to “Jacuzzi” and you see the music video, you’re like, “Oh, wait, hold up.” Because it’s three women in a simulation showing body positivity. The point of “Jacuzzi” is self-acceptance in any way, shape or form, that you can own your sex in any way, shape or form. If you think of an android, they don’t see sex the way you would as a human. It is a different thing for them. For me, I don’t view sexuality the way the world sees a Black woman. I think a Black woman should be able to use her body. I think it’s art. The more curvy you’re, the darker the skin, whatever it may be, it should be celebrated.

JH: At this point in your music-making life, with all the experience you’ve accumulated, how do you approach production, on a track like “Bussifame,” for instance?

DR: I’m very lucky to have incredible collaborators that have me come in and say, “OK, I like the skeleton of this, but can I then apply what I see the record to be?” Whether I’m playing the keys or the drum pad itself, what I have learned within my process is that though I want to take the reins on things, I am my best when I am collaborating with others who see the vision the way I do. For “Bussifame,” Sam O.B., incredible producer, I was able to say, “OK, now let me tell you where I want to take this movie.” Because a lot of times when I work with producers, they’re so used to getting the same formulas because they’re making the formulas for different writers that when they meet someone like me, I’m kind of like, “Oh, let’s go to Mars for a second.” And I want to be the producer and also the artist that when they work with me. I’m doing the things that normally no one’s telling them to do. And so they can spread their wings a little bit.

I’d push harder in records, like how I produced “FiveOhFour,” which is solely me as a producer. I wanted to do a production of a record that nobody would think that I would do, like for a hip-hop track like that. So whether it’s adding keys to the record or creating the entire track itself, my vision has always been to be a collaborative force as a producer. I have not worked with the same producers each album, and my hope is that people see that though I’m continuously working with a completely different vibe, the signature never changes. I’m hoping that people see that that’s the producer in me and the artist in me, that I have been creating this sound for eight years.

JH: You seem to bring a connoisseurship or curator’s attentiveness to choosing producers you want to work with. What did that look like  this time, especially in zeroing in on Ila Orbis, who’s all over the album. How does the track “Boomerang” reflect the aesthetic that attracted you to his work, and the kinds of conversations you had about what you wanted?

DR: I listened to his work and everything was so beautifully dark, and that’s something that immediately I love: a dark sound. I love. I love something that sounds like a foot is on the chest. I love that heaviness. That immediately attracted me to him. And then we sat down and then he played me this record that was so beautifully dark that I was like, “I’m going to do something immediately. Grab the mic.” And that [became] “Radio Free.”

He was comfortable and exceptional where he was. But I think he had never experienced the type of push I was asking for. We kept transitioning, kept moving. And I loved him because he was willing to receive the information and keep trying. We didn’t always get it right, but he and I became this collaborative force where we kept pushing each other to go further. “Boomerang” is a prime example of that. I said, “I want us to delve in the ‘70s space. I want to go into disco, because that is a sound of dance. But I don’t want to lose what we’ve already created. How do we encompass that?” So it was a lot of playing with synths and listening to old Daft Punk and trying to decide how do we shift from a Donna Summer to a Daft Punk.

JH: It feels a little weird to single out individual tracks, because you create seamless suites of songs, meant to be heard that way, from the suite of songs that flow into each other like they’re part of a club DJ set to your mom’s spoken narration throughout. What sort of thought did you put into the sequencing of the album?

DR: I never made a record with the intention that I need to make a hit. I’ve always created albums with the intention for it to be seamless. That’s always been my dream as an artist. I knew conceptually with King Creole being half-android and half-human, I wanted to tell that story with within the music. So the first half of the album is processed. It is at a certain beats-per-minute, and it is a certain store being told in a machine android way. You hit [the track] “Voodoo (Intermission),”  it shifts to a human place. It gets vulnerable.

My mom being the narrator is the choice to show you guys, “The reason King Creole exists in the first place is because of this woman. I am the assassin of genres and all these things because this woman was king first.” The way she talks about freedom in the very beginning, like a second line is you just doing whatever you know, do whatever you feel, that statement from the very beginning of the album speaks to what this album is. The way we talk to each other, it just feels like that natural throughline of having that narrative.