'We Find A Way To Dance': Inspired By New Orleans, DAWN Reconstructs Beauty From Ruin

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 8:10 am

DAWN is a survivor. You can hear it when she tells her story and you can hear it when she sings her songs.

The singer-songwriter-producer, f.k.a. D∆WN or Dawn Richard, first rose to notoriety as a member of Diddy's R&B group Danity Kane. The group dropped its debut album in August of 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina hit DAWN's hometown of New Orleans. She still remembers being stranded on a highway with her family when Katrina hit.

"We left Sunday, [it] happened on Monday," DAWN explains. "My dad had a wedding to sing for. He did it, then we got in the car. Usually it takes, what, six or seven hours to get to Dallas? It took us 15 hours. We got to Texas and there were no rooms available. So then they told us go to Biloxi. We went to Biloxi — sold out. Drove to Houston for a whole day — all sold out. So finally, my dad said, 'We stayin' here.'"

DAWN says she and her family stayed in that car for about a month until her brother finally got them and took them to Baltimore, Md.

Years later, she would return to New Orleans and use it as her source of inspiration after feeling exasperated by the music industry. DAWN says her latest album, new breed, out now, is inspired by the resilience of the people of her hometown.

"It is such a beautiful city, it is something so different," she says. "I took it for granted because I thought it always would be there. And then when I got home, I said, You know what? I'm going to make an album that tells people why I am the way I am, and why we are the way we are, and maybe it could connect to those other breeds out there, who are like us. In the midst of the worst of times, we find a way to dance."

DAWN joined NPR's Noel King to discuss the process of making new breed, the magic of New Orleans women and how all her hardships have made her music stronger. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for the interview in full.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Noel King: What did you want to do with this album, new breed?

DAWN: new breed is special. I've put out three other albums, I did a trilogy before this. And once I finished that I was exhausted because I had no label no management team, and I was getting rejected a lot because they just didn't get the vision. So then, I went home for the first time in a long time and it was the first time I could breathe and feel like I was in the same place I was on Jonlee Drive and I realized at that moment I had to tell this story.

One of the most striking songs on this album is the first song. It's called "the nine." It's named after the Ninth Ward of New Orleans where you grew up, which, of course, was devastated by the hurricane. I couldn't quite tell if this song is about trying to get back to a place that you can't access anymore because it's gone or if it's about going home and seeing that even though much of it has been washed away, the place itself, at its core, is still there.

It's both. It's a feeling of maybe never feeling it again but it was so great that it can never really disappear.

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What's the feeling that comes with that?

When it happened I was sad, but now it's a little bit of a bitter sweetness. I am proud of my city because even though we've lost everything, we are still moving, we're still dancing. It's no different than the celebration of a funeral. So even though we have a funeral, we dance in the streets because we know that the person we love is going to a better place. That is us. That is what we are as a city.

I am proud of my city because even though we've lost everything, we are still moving, we're still dancing. - DAWN

It's so interesting to think that if you were from a different city you would be a very different artist. You would be somebody who might not be able to find joy in ruin.

Yeah, that's real. And because of that, I've handled every experience that I've dealt with, whether it be sexual abuse, whether it be my boss in music industries that have treated me a certain way, whether it be me not having a label — I've handled that same situation like that with everything.

You have references to New Orleans all over the album, as you say. "Jealousy" is a track where you're talking to a woman who we assume is your boyfriend's ex. Is there New Orleans in that?

So, people make fun and they say, 'You know about them New Orleans girls.' Because there's a level of strength in us that is, I wouldn't say arrogant, it's confident.

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No matter where we come from, we don't need money. We hold ourselves at a standard and we expect something. The women that I knew from New Orleans, the women that walked like and talk like 'I'm on fire,' you know? Like, that's how I want to walk in my relationship and I know a lot of people out there who understand that. I know a lot of women who relate to the idea of being unapologetically open about saying, 'No, I'm not accepting anything but this, because I am worth it.' I wanted to make an album that spoke to those things.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Growing up in Louisiana, Dawn Richard dreamed of making it big as a singer. So she auditioned for the TV show "Making The Band," where the producer, then known as P Diddy, assembled a group of unknown singers to make them superstars. Richard was a standout. She even gave the group their name, Danity Kane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAMAGED")

DANITY KANE: (Singing) So how you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it? How you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it?

MARTIN: Danity Kane racked up two No. 1 albums before breaking up. And while music fans were falling in love with this new star, behind the scenes, Dawn Richard's life was falling apart. Noel King talked with her recently.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Danity Kane released their first No. 1 album in August of 2006. That was a year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, which is Richard's hometown. For a while after the storm, her family was homeless. And then they settled on the East Coast. Richard has a new solo album out now. It's released under her first name, Dawn. And she says it's inspired by the resilience of the people of New Orleans. She told me what she remembers about the day Katrina hit.

DAWN RICHARD: We left Sunday. It happened on Monday. And we stayed in the contraflow.

KING: What's the contraflow?

RICHARD: The contraflow is they keep the highway one-way.

KING: Oh, wow. So while the hurricane was happening, you and your family were...

RICHARD: We were in the car, yeah.

KING: ...In the car.

RICHARD: Yeah, I'll never forget it. My dad had a wedding to sing for. He did it. We got in the car. Usually it takes - what? - six, seven hours to get to Dallas. It took us 15 hours. We got to Texas. And there were no rooms available. So then they told us, go to Biloxi. We went to Biloxi - sold out - drove to Houston, a whole day, all sold out. So finally, my dad just said, we're just going to stay here. They gave us a red ticket. And a red ticket was like a refugee ticket. You get a ticket, and you get clothes and food.

KING: Wow.

RICHARD: And we sat in the car for about a month. And then my brother finally got us. He was crying. And he was like, please, just come to Baltimore. So we took our little car. And we drove to Baltimore. My dad never slept. He just drove. And it's - we stayed. My mom and dad were in Baltimore for 10 years with no friends. And on the 10-year anniversary, my brother and I was like, enough. Go home. Like, you guys should retire. Just go. And they finally listened.

And so I visit quite often because I miss it. I miss my friends. I miss the feel of it. I miss what we were - because I've been a lot of places in life. And I've never seen anything like New Orleans. It's such a beautiful city. It's something so different. I took it for granted because I thought it always would be there.

And then when I got home, I said, you know what? I'm going to make an album that tells people why I am the way I am and why we are the way we are. And maybe it could connect to those other breeds out there who are like us. In the midst of the worst of times, we find a way to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW BREED")

RICHARD: (Singing) I am, I am, yeah. I am the new breed. But your crown don't fit me. I am, I am, I am, I am, yeah. I am the new breed. But your crown don't fit me.

KING: What did you want to do with this album, "New Breed"?

RICHARD: "New Breed" is special. I've put out three other albums. I did a trilogy before this. And once I finished that, I was exhausted because I had no label, no management team. I was getting rejected a lot because they just didn't get the vision. So then I went home for the first time in a long time. And it was the first time I could breathe and feel like I was in the same place I was on "JonLee Drive." And I realized at that moment I had to tell this story.

KING: One of the most striking songs on this album is the first song. It's called "The Nine." It's named after the 9th Ward of New Orleans, where you grew up...

RICHARD: Yep.

KING: ...Which, of course was devastated by the hurricane. And for an album that is so fun in places and so empowered overall, this song is really nostalgic. And it's really heartbreaking in a lot of ways.

RICHARD: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NINE")

RICHARD: (Singing) I want to go back to JonLee Drive, where Shanda and Sonja used to kick it every time. I wanna go back, yeah.

KING: I couldn't quite tell if this song is about trying to get back to a place that you can't access anymore because it's gone or if it's about going home and seeing that even though much of it has been washed away, the place itself, at its core, is still there.

RICHARD: It's both. It's a feeling of maybe never feeling it again. But it was so great that it can never really disappear.

KING: Does that make you sad, or does it make you homesick? Like, what's the feeling that comes with that?

RICHARD: When it happened, I was sad. But now it's a little bit of a bitter sweetness, you know, because I am proud of my city because even though we've lost everything, we are still moving. We are still dancing. It's no different than the celebration of a funeral. So even though we have a funeral, we dance in the streets because we know that the person we love is going to a better place. That is us. That is what we are as a city.

KING: It's so interesting to think that if you were from a different city that had been destroyed...

RICHARD: It would be jarring, yeah.

KING: Yeah, you would be a very different artist.

RICHARD: Yeah.

KING: You would somebody who might not be able to find joy...

RICHARD: Yeah.

KING: ...In ruin.

RICHARD: That's real. You know, and because of that, I've handled every experience that I've dealt with - whether it be sexual abuse, whether it be my boss in music industries that have treated me a certain way, whether it be me not having a label - I've handled that same situation like that with everything.

KING: You have references to New Orleans all over the album, as you say.

RICHARD: Yeah.

KING: The drums on the song "New Breed" kind of...

RICHARD: Yeah.

KING: ...Borrow from New Orleans bounce music...

RICHARD: Absolutely.

KING: ...Which is this very hype form of hip-hop. I want to ask you about one of those songs. "Jealousy" is a track...

RICHARD: Yeah.

KING: ...Where you're talking to a woman who we assume is your boyfriend's ex.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEALOUSY")

RICHARD: (Singing) I know you feel he may be comin' back to you. He won't. He won't, he won't, he won't, won't. I know you feel like he'll come around. He won't. Oh...

KING: Is there New Orleans in that?

RICHARD: Yeah.

KING: Or is - there is. Where's the New Orleans there?

RICHARD: So people make fun. And they say, you know, something about them New Orleans girls.

KING: (Laughter).

RICHARD: Because there's a level of strength - right? - in us that is, I wouldn't say arrogant. It's confident. No matter where we come from - we don't need money - we hold ourself at a standard. And we expect something, right? The women that I knew from New Orleans, the women that walked like they - they'd talk like that. I'm on fire, you know?

KING: Yeah.

RICHARD: Like, that's how I want to walk in my relationship. And I know a lot of people out there who understand that. I know a lot of women who relate to the idea of being unapologetically open about saying, no, I'm not accepting anything but this because I am worth it. And I wanted to make an album that spoke to those things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE, DIAMONDS")

RICHARD: (Singing) And even though we're broken, that don't mean we ain't diamonds.

KING: I've been talking to Dawn. Her new album, "New Breed," is just out. Dawn, thank you so much.

RICHARD: Thanks, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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