Photo: Clifford Usher
Dawn Richards is a commanding vocalist, equally adept at navigating melismatic neo-soul runs as she is at laying down slippery avant-pop hooks. It almost seems counterintuitive for her to suppress that natural star power and slip into the fabric of a more instrumental and atmospheric set of songs. But one of her goals for pigments, a stunning collaboration album with composer Spencer Zahn, was saying more with less. “I love the concept of sitting down,” Richard says of the project, which evokes the jazzy, softly orchestral soundscapes of late-era Talk Talk.
“I feel like sometimes artists take too much breath on a record. He was fine with the composition being the storyteller in this: the lyrics and the voice are just one piece in a bigger story. I wasn’t afraid of that. I really wanted Spencer to help me facilitate that and be okay with staying silent.”
The duo first worked together on Zahn’s 2018 song “Cyanotype,” which he teased pigmentsOrganic-synthetic hybrid by combining a spectral synth, self-tuned R&B singing, and reverb-dappled piano. Richard had “always wanted” to explore soundscapes, but he doubted the time was right.
“I never [thought] I would have the opportunity as a black woman, seeing my own journey in pop, electronic and dance,” she says, alluding to her six solo LPs and her previous work with girl group Danity Kane and R&B/rap duo Diddy-Dirty Money. . “I thought if I did, it would probably be something for [fuel] my own spirit I didn’t know if anyone would get it, but I got to the point where I didn’t care anymore.”
During what Zahn describes as “the most isolated times of the pandemic,” Richard reached out and sparked the idea of revisiting that “Cyanotype” sound. It was a perfect time to experiment: “We could send things back and forth remotely,” says Zahn, “but it was also a great time to explore where sound could go and how we could expand on ideas we had previously.” That process eventually generated pigmentsa 36-minute piece structured in several crystalline “movements” developed by icy woodwinds, strings and electric guitars.
It was an arduous process: “I played the music all morning and went back to listening to all the stuff we did,” says Zahn. “For example, one of the songs ends in G minor. And, to get us from one tonal center to another, I told everyone, ‘Start stripping away everything that G minor implies really hard.’ We wanted to go from one song to another where all of a sudden we’re in this new tonal world.”
For Zahn, that “one set” approach gave the project a vibrancy that might have been lacking in a more pop-oriented setting.
“Dawn was part of the orchestra instead of saying, ‘Here’s a pop voice on top of a pop orchestra,’” he says. “It was very exciting that she was up for that.” And like a soloist on any other instrument, Richard appears only at select moments for maximum impact, like around 42 seconds into the swirl of “Sandstone,” the piece that Zahn says “started the journey of this album.”
“I fought for it,” Richard says of “Sandstone.” “[Zahn] he said, ‘I want your voice to be more organic,’ but I said, ‘On this record, I love the struggle between the synthetic and the organic.’ I fell in love with that battle. She helped bridge the gap between where I was musically and where I was headed. For people who have heard me on previous projects, this was not a far-fetched concept. This was a preface.”
Other tracks use Richard’s voice more sparingly, putting the spotlight on Zahn’s spacious orchestrations, which often evoke the vintage splendor of ECM Records. “There is a John Abercrombie album called Eternal with Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer,” he says. “Records like that are definitely not New Age, but they play with people’s conceptions of what genre is, what is jazz and what is electronica. Featuring some of those early ECM records:[take] barre phillips three day moon. It’s electronic, but it’s made like [‘78]and it is very improvised double bass music”.
Despite modern benchmarks, the duo never disputed any of those stylistic choices. “We come from completely different lifestyles and influences,” Richard notes, “but somehow this just worked.” However, there was a clear focus in her lyrics, which tap into self-love and self-esteem.discovery through dance.
“During COVID, I was in New Orleans,” he says, praising his hometown. “Artistically, I was in the process of really getting into the culture while doing this project. sometimes the artists [from New Orleans] they have the best of talents with limited resources. But somehow we found a way. See the growth of artists like Jon Batiste and PJ Morton and [Big] Freedia: People have been suppressed but have figured out a way out. I wanted to talk about that trip.”
Those themes are revealing. But Pigments is also intoxicating on a pure mood level, reaching an almost spiritual zone. “I love open, free-form music and ambient music,” says Zahn. “I don’t know if this is exactly ambient music, but I like harmony that is very open and has the ability to go anywhere. I find it exciting to just let go and focus and find different moments that take you out of meditation.”