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Q&A: D∆WN Talks SXSW 2016 and Her ‘Red Era’

The sun was beating down plenty on SPIN‘s Stubbs showcase at South by Southwest on Friday, but D?WN (a.k.a. Dawn Richard) still brought her own heat. The art-R&B singer got the afternoon crowd bouncing while performing tracks from her two solo albums, 2013’s Goldenheart and 2015’s Blackheart, as well as singles from her upcoming RED•emp•tion, the final installment in her trilogy of albums. But D?WN knows her shows are more than just a sonic experience — the choreography and visuals need to be as on point as the sound or you’re not on the real Red Era frequency. She, of course, didn’t disappoint. SPIN caught up with D?WN after her electric performance to talk about her stage show and her new LP.

So what are you hoping to bring with the “Red Era?”
It’s a mixture of aggression and vulnerability. I think it’s kind of my swan song. It’s this redemption, this freedom that I have. People have watched my growth, and through that process I’m really comfortable with where I’m at right now. It’s like a celebration happening. 

I mean it sounds so much more like a larger concept than just an album when you put it that way.
It’s a concept trilogy, actually. Like from Goldenheart to Blackheart to [RED•emp•tion], it’s all been a culmination of a series of promotions and life. I think giving it to everybody at once can be overwhelming. So to break it up into color, they have an opportunity to take these different feelings and play them when they feel it applies to them. I think that’s something that needs to be done. Not just musically, but visually. That’s what we’re doing.

How important do you think that sort of theatricality is to an artist’s work?
It’s extremely important. I feel like we’ve lost the idea of the story. I just want to be a storyteller, and I think the way to do that is by your lyrics, by your visuals, by your choreography, by your dance. It’s imperative as an artist. I think that’s the only way you can really get satisfaction, and inspiration is if you consistently find it through other avenues, beyond just music.

The choreography during your set was amazing. Is that the level you want to bring that to the table every time you perform?
Every time, absolutely. If you watch this whole process, even from the beginning — me starting with a girl group — it’s always been dance. It’s important, and it’s great because it shows different lanes, different styles. I come from New Orleans, [with] that down beat. That heavy, really sultry, everything-midsection-and-down — that’s New Orleans. That’s what we come from, and anyone who knows the bounce beat, the bounce culture, the Mardi Gras Indians, the second line [parades], and what all that is. You can see there’s this almost, like, tribal dance with Afro-Cuban ancestry.

And how did you like performing down here in Austin for South by Southwest?
I f**king loved it. This was the best stage ever — f**king incredible. And sidebar, but to f**king open for the Deftones? Shut up. Thank you everybody, goodnight.