Before we see Dawn Richard play Pitchfork Festival’s Blue Stage, we see what she’s built for us: three jagged peaks made of neon tubing rising up from the floor. They’re the latest iteration of her personalized set design, which previously has taken the shape of a single neon triangle yawning nine feet high behind her. But she does her stagecraft herself, and so she can change her sets to fit the music she’s performing as D?WN. On her current tour, she’ll sing cuts off her latest album, Redemption, released last November as the conclusion to a trilogy of albums that also included 2013’s Goldenheart and 2015’s Blackheart. The trio complete, Richard’s been focusing on pouring everything into her live set, bringing her boundlessly ambitious performances to clubs, concert halls, and summer festivals.
“We do a stadium performance in small venues,” Richard says. “I always treat shows as though they could belong on either platform. I always design it for the bigger stage, but I love it on the smaller stage.”
After making a name for herself as part of the girl group Danity Kane, which got together on season three of MTV’s Making The Band reality series, Richard struck out on her own. Her career path is an unusual one; she’s gone from topping the Billboard 200 with a major label band to fighting for her own space as an independent artist. Without the backing of a label, she’s had to work harder than ever to realize her ambitions outside the traditional infrastructure of the entertainment industry. But if the crowd at Pitchfork was any indication, all that labor is paying off.
In between albums, Richard has also been issuing a few free B-sides from Redemption on her SoundCloud. During a phone conversation a few days after the festival, Richard and I spoke about the challenges of navigating the industry independently, the symbology of her stage work, and her protective love for her queer fanbase. Read a Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: I know you build and design your own sets. Do you have a background in set design?
D?WN: I do not have a history in set design. I have a history in art. I draw. But I learned set design when I couldn’t afford to have a team and I didn’t want to look like I was indie. I wanted to give fans the visual. The albums I was creating were so cinematic; my fear was when I got onstage it would be underwhelming because the music was so grand. So I thought really hard. I was making no money off the tours, and I was literally putting everything into the set design to make sure that when people went to the shows, it didn’t look like I was an artist who didn’t have anybody behind her.
It got better as it progressed. When I started out, it was just floors that lit up. I was having LED floor systems built in for the Goldenheart era. And then for the second era, I got a little bit more innovative and we built the nine-foot triangle, so we were literally in 200 to 300-capacity venues with a nine-foot triangle. We were giving stadium-level shows with a shoestring budget. And then this final design, I wanted to play with the idea that the triangle evolved so that it was imperfect, because Redemption to me is about loving as you are. So instead of a pristine, perfect triangle, we created broken triangles that were coming from the ground. It’s rooted in its own idea, rooted in what you are and all its imperfections. It’s still a triangle, but it’s unique.
STEREOGUM: You’ve used the triangle onstage for a while now, and it’s also in your stage name. What drew you to that symbol to begin with?
D?WN: Growing up, my parents were Roman Catholic — strict Catholics — from New Orleans. I understood the idea in the principle of spirituality. I noticed it in the stories that I read. The Trinity was something that was brought up consistently: the power of three. Things happened in threes, and I thought that was brilliant. My grandmother has a Ph.D. in Library Science, so I lived in the library a lot. A lot of the things I would read, again, were trilogies, three things happening in three parts, whether I’d read Shakespeare or whether I’d read Poe. Three would come up a lot. As I traveled, I realized the power of three in different stories, like the Quran. The power of three, no matter where you were, was something that everyone agreed on. So I thought it would be clever to break up the story of my journey in the music industry into three and use the triangle for the aesthetics.
The triangle has three points: the beginning, your naiveté, which is the start of the triangle, and then your very peak where even though you think you’re at your highest, when you fall, that’s the hardest you fall. And then connecting them is the end where you find this equilibrium. Your trials and tribulations make up the balance in who you really are. I really wanted to have that connect in all places. I wanted that story to ring true, so we put it in the name, we put it in the look, the aesthetic, and pushed people to see the point that even when you think you’re at your highest, you’re at your lowest because the more you have, the more you realize you can lose everything. The end of the triangle is never about being at your highest, but being at your redemption, your equilibrium, where you’re your most comfortable. We really wanted to push that idea.
STEREOGUM: Pitchfork is a big, open-air festival, and your set was during the day. How do you tailor your performance so that you bring the full energy of your club shows to the festival?
D?WN: I don’t think of them being different. I go at it the same. We go big or we go home. Most people probably would have thought, “Don’t build the lights because you’re during the daytime so the lights won’t have an impact.” But for me, it’s not just about the lighting. It’s about the aesthetic. Even if you don’t see the lights, you still see the framing of the tubes. I’m still going to build it regardless of whether or not it’s raining, it’s daylight, it’s fucking 9AM. We’re going to build it and we’re going to perform.
I remember when we did SXSW, we were in the Pitchfork showcase at a small fucking club. It had to be 150-cap. And the ceiling had to be like 8.5 feet, and the triangle was nine. We built that shit and we put it in there. Everybody kept saying, “I felt like I was in a fucking stadium. The lights were so aggressive.” I fucking love that. I love bringing that to the table because it means if it can fit there, it can fit anywhere. For me, the design is not about triggering it to work in each space. You make your show, you build it for something massive, and you put that massive thing in a box and you attack people with it. You give them the experience. I always designed it to be on both platforms from the beginning. Everyone’s going to get a different feeling from it. It may not have made the same impact as being in a dark room with those lights, but you still saw the aesthetic of the triangles, you still understood what we were trying to say, and you still saw the frame of it all.
STEREOGUM: If resources were no object and you could build any set you wanted, what direction would you go?
D?WN: I would never tell you that out loud. That’s for me to know and then you guys can be surprised when you see it. I already know what it is, but I’ve got to keep that to myself. I do think that it would be ridiculous. My thoughts are way bigger than my pocket. I think that’s true for every artist. My biggest thing as an artist is I just see it so much bigger for myself and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to innovate and push on a shoestring budget.
I talk about this because I think independent artists should have their own awards shows or their own platforms because we get lumped in with everyone else. We’re expected to have the same visuals, the same quality as everyone else when we don’t have half the machine that other artists have. I feel like we’ve got to go twice as hard because people are not going to say, “She’s awesome even though she’s independent.” They’re just going to say it looks cheap. They’re not going to recognize the difference. So we have to go twice as hard to go into a situation knowing that we’re going to be classed with those who have way more resources than we do. It’s up to us to get really creative and not complain about it but rather get innovative and make it make sense. I do think at the end of the day, at some point we’re going to need a place for people to see that we have our own platform and we should have our own category because it’s quite hard to do that a lot of times.
STEREOGUM: People don’t realize you’re doing it all yourself from the outside.
D?WN: No, they don’t. They look at you and they say, “Oh that video was whack” or “That shit looked cheap,” not realizing we’ve got to figure that out. So it’s interesting. It makes me push harder. I appreciate it. Pitchfork Fest told me that we were on the right track.
STEREOGUM: At the end of last year you put out Redemption, which was the conclusion to a trilogy of albums. You just put out a few new songs on SoundCloud. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in your music?
D?WN: When I get inspired, I give out free music. If you look at my track record from the beginning, that’s always what I’ve done. I’ve never changed. I’m always going to be me. You look back when I first started, I was always throwing music out there. There’s always these unreleased one-offs where I’m in a place where I’m shifting. A little bit of that is a new era, but it’s not a concrete sound. It’s just talking. I’m getting reacquainted with everyone because I’m getting off of the trilogy and I’m in a different place. I’m no longer this girl fighting for something. I’ve found my redemption, my peace.
Right now I’m just talking to my movement. I’m talking about issues and getting comfortable with them and getting acquainted with them as the woman that I am now. It’s just one-off [singles] for right now, but if you know me, you know I’m never stagnant long. Whatever I do and whatever I’m leaning towards, it is going to be a story that is going to be told in a way that will always have you guessing. I really like that. I work to get people out of their comfort zones a little bit. I am building, but those are one-offs. Those are unreleased records right now.
STEREOGUM: What are you looking forward to the most on your upcoming tour?
D?WN: I’m just excited to show everybody what we’re creating and what we’ve done on our own. The best part is touching your movement, touching the people that get you. All I have is my fanbase. They’re the only ones that believe in me when everyone else kind of rejected me. And a lot of people rejected me. They believe in my songs and they’ve watched me transform. My story is so unconventional. Coming from the reality TV show and somehow making my way to Pitchfork Festival? To have the respect of the industry, to have the love that I have from that underground world — it’s cool, man.
I’m shocked at the way they’ve received me and I’m very grateful because I feel like I work really hard to show people that I’ve always been this girl. It’s a really cool and unconventional journey, and they’ve been with me through it all, so all I want to do is touch them. [Tour] gives me an opportunity to touch and dance with them, and for them to be whoever the fuck they want to be. I have a huge gay and trans fanbase. That’s my fucking base. They hold me down. They get scrutinized and killed and beat and shot and disrespected, and I just want to create a place for them where they can just fucking dance and be whatever they want to be and know that they are loved. So whether you’re the misfit kid, the nerd, the geek, the gay, the black and unique, the white who doesn’t fit in, I’m creating a space for you to be able to be in that avenue and just dance. That’s what I’m looking forward to, is them letting their fucking hair down and being exactly who they’re built to be.