The former Danity Kane singer previews what's ahead for her third solo album.
Credit: Sasha Samsonova

When Dawn Richard announced in 2012 that her first major solo project would come in the form of a trilogy of albums, more than one person told her that she was taking on too much. In interview with one particular, well-regarded outlet, she was even laughed at. “They were like, ‘That’s too ambitious,'” Richard tells EW. “It was like, ‘Oh, poor girl! Good luck with that.'” Following the two widely acclaimed releases, Goldenheart (2013) and Blackheart (2015), the 32-year-old is having the last laugh and finishing up the third and final installment of the collection, RED*emp*tion. “It’s cool to see the transition of when you prove people wrong.”

Richard’s formal introduction came in 2004 on the third season of MTV’s reality-dance-pop-bootcamp Making the Band. She emerged a member of the all-female pop-outfit Danity Kane and was signed to Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records. Later, she joined her label boss and Kalenna Harper (Love & Hip Hop) in the much-loved Dirty Money collective. But Danity Kane broke up in 2009 (minus a short attempt to reform in 2013 that ended quickly due to conflict between the women) and Richard left Puffy’s label altogether in 2011, deciding to launch her solo career, well, actually solo.

With no label, PR, or manager, Richard released the critically lauded Armor On EP, a collection of 10 R&B stunners, in 2012. Immediately after, she began on the Heart trilogy. GoldenHeart was warrior-Richard, waging battles in love while Blackheart was dark and deeply paranoid. Richard says she’s left that “dark place” behind and “Not Above That,” the first taste of the third album, would agree. With lyrics like, “If I beg for it, will you get me off?,” a skittering beat, and breathy vocal loops, the tune is the best bedroom jam of 2016 so far.

The singer says the song’s cheeky attitude is representative of the album as a whole. “All my other songs have had this Joan of Arc-feel,” she explains. “[But] I wanted this to be about being content in the struggle that I’ve had. This is when I was really stepping into my own and what I created as a brand and businesswoman. The lyrics are super sexy and strong. I want to dance. I want to get up and celebrate something — and why not celebrate being a woman?”

She’s teamed up with producer Machinedrum (born Travis Stewart) for production help. One of the first things they worked on was “Above.” “The track was different as I had written it,” she recalls. “It had this ’80s vibe and was kind of cheesy. So we sat down and it was this crooked marriage between soul and trance, soul and jungle.” It was then that the project’s ethos emerged. “It was vulnerable and intense, but if I can sum up the sound of what I’m creating, that would be the perfect definition: An extreme hybrid of vulnerability and intensity.”

Richard speaks three creative languages — song, dance, and video — and credits her childhood in the Big Easy for educating her in each. “Music and dance is part of everything in New Orleans,” she says. “So I grew up appreciating it all.” That was certainly true of the her home life. Her father is the ex-frontman of ’70s soul/funk band Chocolate Milk, while her mother owned a dancing school in town. “My dad has a masters in music — I would wake up and go to sleep underneath his piano if he was playing.”

As for dance, “It was a no-choice thing,” she remembers with a laugh. “I couldn’t really even walk but my mom was like, ‘Take these tights, I gotta go to work so you’re coming with me.'” As a result, her music almost always arrives with highly-produced videos and dance routines. “[They’re] all married,” she says. “I couldn’t do a record without knowing I’ll translate it into something visual.”

Becoming a household name without a label behind an artist is, at this moment, still unprecedented. And while only time will tell if Richard becomes the first, fame is not what motivates her. “I write for myself. It’s therapy. Right now, I just want this era to be my best work ever. I think this is going to be our riskiest moment, and also our best.”

RED*emp*tion does not have a firm release date; Richard’s upcoming live dates are listed below.

3/16: Austin TX @ SXSW

3/17: Austin TX @ SXSW

3/18: Austin TX @ SXSW

4/21: Minneapolis @ Cedar Cultural center

4/22: Chicago @ Reggies

5/20: North Carolina @ Moogfest