DAWN Talks Hurricane Katrina, Homelessness and New Orleans Roots on New Album 'new breed'
Published Jan 30, 2019By the time DAWN (fka Dawn Richard) sat down to write her new album new breed, the rigours of being an independent recording artist had left her burnt out — but it wasn't just that.
"I always wanted to make this record," Richard tells Exclaim! by phone. "The problem was when Katrina happened, I had to pass on it. When I was starting my musical career, just when I wanted to pay homage and do more, I was homeless. I had to figure out my career and my life, and so it then became harder to do."
Over a three-year period in the mid-2010s, DAWN took her solo career to new heights with her acclaimed "Heart" trilogy of genre-bending LPs: 2013's Goldenheart, 2015's Blackheart and 2016's Redemption. In their wake, she further developed as a multi-disciplinary artist, with roles in film and television and as an animator for Adult Swim.
Her hectic schedule had all started to catch up with her when she paid a visit to her native New Orleans, to which her parents had recently moved. Having grown up in the city's Ninth Ward, Richard's family was left homeless by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and soon relocated to Baltimore. Her visit marked her first time in New Orleans in a decade; she began conceptualizing new breed soon after.
"By the time I looked up, ten years had gone by, and my parents decided to move back to New Orleans. The first time I went back, just sitting at home with my parents, I realized I never got to tell that story. I had this opportunity and I wanted to do it right."
Richard describes new breed as a "love letter" to a city she's still deeply rooted in. Largely eschewing the futuristic sounds and scope of her aforementioned trilogy, her fifth solo album truly finds her right at home, continuing to effortlessly fuse her former sound with the distinct timbres and style of her hometown. While noting that outsiders such as Drake have brought these sounds to wider audiences, she looks to follow Bounce pioneer Big Freedia as a NOLA native that had a discernible impact on the city's culture.
"I love this album more than any other album I've ever done because it's the most 'me,'" she offers. "I'm proud that people can see that New Orleans can have one foot in tradition and the other in the future, because we have so much to offer.
"The memories that I have pre-Katrina, they'll never fade. They'll always be there. But anyone who's been there knows there's an energy, it's a lifestyle. And though things change, there's no place like it; the people, the food, the culture."
Having enlisted the talents of New Orleans natives Trombone Shorty and PJ Morton on past releases, Richard's latest slate of collaborators includes the likes of Hudson Mohawke, Cole M.G.N. and Kaveh Rastegar. To bring them into her latest musical world, Richard first recorded basic album tracks alongside longtime engineer Derek Bergheimer. Afterwards, it was time to get everyone up to speed with the influences that had been the soundtrack of her life in the city.
"I played a lot of my father's band, Chocolate Milk. I played a lot of stuff from Dr. John, zydeco music, Afro-Cuban music, for them to hear sounds so that they knew where I was coming from," she recalls. "I wanted to keep it deeply rooted in the culture of New Orleans, but also the ancestry. I also introduced them to [Big Freedia], Katey Red, [Partners-N-Crime], things that I was inspired by growing up."
new breed also marks the largest share of producing Richard has done on her full-lengths to date, an experience that she recalls initially came with some nerves.
"Women don't get their credit as producers, it's hard," she expresses. "I put together the trilogy with some of the most incredible producers I've ever worked with, and it was so sick and heavy and layered. I was worried that coming in solely on my own, it would be too empty. It was important for me to stay true to who I was and what I wanted."
Despite admittedly being "nervous as hell," DAWN felt taking command of her city's musical roots when it came get behind the boards was "the only way I thought I'd be able to do this." It's a challenge that in retrospect she's glad to have taken on.
"I love the pressure; I'm such a Leo," she concedes. "I say that I'm burnt out, but the buried truth in that is I love the challenge of figuring out how to get out of that. I also owe that to New Orleans. We are a people that survive. We've been through a lot of shit, man. We still came back home; we danced and built our city back up with pride, with the blood and tears of our own culture."