Generally, reality TV is not a place one looks toward for subtlety. It’s a place for big egos to get into loud fights, with the thrill of rooting for and against “regular” people, especially in a competition. Be it cooking or singing, there’s also the bonus of seeing a person who might not make it through traditional means break through into fame based on merit alone. Think Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle.
You should also think of Dawn Richard. Her new album, Pigments, is one of stunning subtlety. It is an album of healing, of calm passion, it’s the feeling of staring out at a lake on a chilly day, watching your breath rise into the sky. It’s down-to-earth and otherworldly at the same time.
Richard got her start in the second season of the third iteration of Making the Band, when the show’s judge and decision-maker, Diddy, wanted to build out a girl group but was unsatisfied with the majority of the talent he found in the show’s first season. The group, Danity Kane, found commercial success with both their self-titled debut and their follow-up, Welcome to the Dollhouse, but drama took the group apart.
Exactly what happened with Danity Kane is extremely complex and best suited for a Wikipedia rabbit hole if you ever want to remember what a mess pop stardom could be in the 2000s, but in a recent interview with Okayplayer Richard remembers the whole situation as “going into a job as a mail person. You go to your big corporate job, but you are the mail person. So, you’re not going to make decisions on the things you want.”
She’s not the mail person anymore. As a solo artist, Richard has proved to be an experimental wizard, breaking down the music of her hometown, New Orleans, into minimalist masterpieces. But Pigments is something different, a third era for a continually evolving artist.
Working with Spencer Zahn, a multi-instrumentalist from the world of neoclassical and jazz, she has created a sonic landscape. The opening instrumental, “Coral,” flows into the album’s second track, “Sandstone,” with a tenor saxophone carrying between the two. Richard’s voice emerges here, saying, “Dreamer / I wanna love like you / I wanna see the world through your eyes.”
Responding to the request, Zahn, saxophonist and flutist Jas Walton, and the other six members of the band, which features electric and acoustic guitars, clarinets, pianos, vibraphones, and synthesizers, create a dreamlike world for her to exist in. On the betrayal she describes on “Cerulean”—“Are you happy that you hurt me?,” she asks over and over again, an electric guitar wails while a synth provides the atmosphere. Moments of extreme passion drift in and out, making way for the spacey “Opal.”
“I want to do things that feed me, that heal me,” Richard told Okayplayer about why she made Pigments. She’ll always be connected to her reality TV origins, but her new work is something to play to escape the chaos of the world, the encroaching darkness of winter. It’s an album for a yoga class, perhaps, but that makes it sound boring. Pigments is an album that shows that healing can be just as intriguing as pain.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.