Dawn Richard doesn’t move forward, she evolves. Since our introduction to the singer over a decade ago as a contestant and eventual champion on MTV’s Making the Band, Richard has run through the cycle of artistic birth and death innumerable times–first as a member of the Diddy-assembled girl group Danity Kane, then as a member of Puff’s side project Dirty Money, and now as a visionary solo performer. It’s no surprise, then, that her current, futurist spin on R&B takes considerable cues the phoenix–a mystical beast legendary for its regenerative powers-–inspired her breakthrough single titled after the beast, and accompanied by an attention-grabbing visual depicting the singer as a cybernetic, feathered, awe-inspiring beast.

Ten years after making her public debut on TRL with Danity Kane, Richard’s lifelong dreams of innovation–heretofore fallen on deaf ears–are finally coming to fruition. In 2013, she released Blackheart, the first in a color-coded trilogy of solo albums exploring love, sexuality, and the human-experience from a post-modern, post-internet perspective. The project went global last year with part two, last year’s Blackheart–a labyrinthine collection of brittle R&B and off-kilter IDM arrangements light years away from the formulaic bangers of her group material. This fall, she’ll release the trilogy’s conclusion, REDemption: and if the songs and visuals released in recent months serve as any indication–not to mention INFRARED, her recent surprise EP with producer Kingdom–it’ll be her most magnificent rebirth yet.
Richard took the stage at Rough Trade last Friday for a sold-out Northside festival appearance. Instead of her usual backing band, the singer was accompanied by DJ Earl (of the celebrated footwork crew Teklife), Kingdom, two back-up dancers–and a 9-foot tall, rainbow-lit triangle that pulsed in time with the beat. Despite some less-than-ideal surrounding circumstances–a venue swap from the far-more-intimate Market Hotel, a mic setup incongruent with Richards’ dance-heavy performance style–Richards marveled, delivering a dazzling set spanning her young-but-fruitful solo career. I sat down with Richard shortly before the much-anticipated show to discuss her new song “Serpentine Fire,” the next frontier of virtual reality, future plans, and much more.

You just released a new track for Adult Swim, “Serpentine Fire.” Is that track indicative of what we can expect from your upcoming album Redemption?
Yeah. “Not Above That,” “Wake Up,” “Dance” kind of resonate with what the sound is going to be, just for the red era.
The new album’s coming out in the fall, right?
Yes. I know the date that I want, but the reason why we can’t announce it is because the technology we have built around it has to be built.

Speaking of technology, you just did that 360 degree concert for YouTube. What was that like?
It was amazing. I think I was already on their radar when I did the Motion Capture video for “James Dean” last year. We had already hacked into the Kinect system to do mo-capping and I think they saw that I was into technology in a different way.
This next premiere that I have literally coming up in four days [6/14] will have another big announcement that nobody’s expecting, which is even more innovative. I had announced on YouTube that I was going to do a VR piece, so I have a VR piece coming out, and it’s going to have a 2D companion piece to come with it.
What do you find most interesting about virtual reality as an artist?
It’s connecting on another dimension, on another level. I think it’s activating more senses than normal for people, and I think it’s bringing a brand closer to you in a way that is creative and innovative. There’s something disruptive about it that I like. It’s activation that you aren’t necessarily ready to work with in that kind of way and I like that uncomfortable feeling. I’m more prone to the design, and the sound design within VR. That’s what I would like to concentrate on: spatial sound, and how that’s going to connect with VR. That’s an exciting project for me: hos spatial design will be part of VR.

Your new EP with Kingdom, Infrared, touched upon those themes, as well how things are so distant and yet so close.
The Red Era’s about connecting tech, fashion and music together. It’s so divisive. Everything has to be in its own place, and I just don’t feel like that has to be the case. I think if it’s done correctly, it can be quite beautiful together. The geek in me, the fashion nerd in me, the music lover in me, wants to be all those things at once, and I think that can connect and resonate.
A lot of your music deals with sexuality. Does VR–more specifically, its connection to the uncanny valley and how that figures into how we regard sex and bodies–factor into that aesthetic at all?
I went to Frontier at Sundance, and one of my first VR experiences was a piece called “Veins.” It was a French piece, and it was all naked bodies moving into into each other. It was so sexy and so real, and you couldn’t tell who was a man and who was a woman. It was a large play on androgyny and I thought that was a really great way to introduce VR to people. It pushed the feelings you had surrounded by the bodies, and you stopped questioning sexuality in the sense of a negative way. You started seeing it as a positive artwork–it made you feel uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable, claustrophobic, but also free and liberated.

I liked how VR presented it in that way, and when I went back to my music, I wanted to look at it that way too. There’s an appreciation of being a woman and what that means–a no-bar, no boundaries sense of taking it where I feel. I love my body, I love the natural way it moves, I love movement, and I also love how far we can push people with it being controversial. I think that’s needed–we need people to see that there’s no standard between what a woman’s body is and what a man’s body is.
I’ve always been a fan of the blurred lines of gender. Some of my biggest influences–from Grace Jones to Bowie to Prince–have pushed those lines of what we consider to be gender-specific. I’ve never really felt like that way the case. It’s made people very weary. In the beginning I think people didn’t understand where I was coming from and now that people are identifying with it, I think that’s a sign of the times as well. People are starting to be ok with that space of being what you are.
This week marks the ten-year anniversary of Danity Kane’s debut on Total Request Live. How’s your life changed between then and now?
We’ve come a long way. I understand now that my vision was a little bit ahead. When I pitched this in the beginning, they didn’t get it. I understand now that I had to play that role. I had to stay quiet until I had the power to do it my way. If we would have done what I’m doing now back then, they wouldn’t have even allowed it. It’s been such a hard journey, but everything comes with time and I think my work is a sign of the times.
Did P. Diddy reach out at all about the Bad Boy reunion that recently took place at the Barclays Center?
No, he didn’t.
Having seen both sides of the industry, do you think you’d ever want to start a label?
I wouldn’t be selfish enough to do that, because financially I don’t have enough to do that. I wouldn’t take on an artist I couldn’t give my full attention to. One of my biggest pet peeves is artists who have labels and care more about themselves than their artists they sign. They [the label heads] promote themselves because they feel that their brand will help the group, but all it’s doing is shadowing it.

If I wanted to do a label, I wouldn’t be an artist again. I would sit down and run a label, which I think is the smartest thing you can do. You really need to make the money to give the artist a fair chance. Maybe some time in the future. I’m not going to be the girl who’s 55 dancing on stage; I’m not judging it, I just have a lot of other attributes–I love animation, I love tech–and music will always be there for me, but there are a lot of things I could do to make music bigger and more different. When that moment comes, I’ll sit down and take on an artist I think I can believe in, because I have the knowledge. But I’m still learning, and it’s a lot of responsibility to take over someone’s career and life–because it is their life.
What’s the next VR trend that people should know about?
Spatial sound is the next thing. VR is great, but if you cannot resonate in that auditory component, you’re just watching something in lifelike form but with a flat auditory experience. That’s not realistic; If something’s surrounding you, the sound has to surround you as well. I don’t think enough people are talking about that. They’re still trying to figure out what VR means: how to get rid of the seams, how to make the renders shorter. There’s a lot of hiccups that we haven’t exposed yet. I think the idea is there, but sound design is going to be imperative if people want to get the ultimate experience of what VR really is. I’ve only heard spatial sound by three people or so; they have no idea what that’s going to be.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Lead image by Sasha Samsonova.

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