Spotlight: Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn

Ryan Reed on February 21, 2023
Spotlight: Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn

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 set of more instrumental, atmospheric songs. But one of her goals for Pigments, a breathtaking collaborative album with composer Spencer Zahn, was to say more with less. “I love the concept of sitting back,” Richard says of the project, which conjures the jazzy, gently orchestral soundscapes of late-era Talk Talk.

“I feel like, sometimes, artists breathe too heavy on a records. I was OK with having the composition be the narrator in this—the lyrics and the vocal are just a piece in a larger story. I was unafraid of that. I really wanted to have Spencer help me facilitate that—and to be OK with being silent.”

The duo first worked together on Zahn’s 2018 track “Cyanotype,” which previewed Pigments’ organic-synthetic hybrid by colliding some spectral synth, Auto-Tuned R&B crooning and reverb-speckled piano. Richard had “always wanted” to explore soundscapes, but she doubted the right moment would appear.

“I never [thought] I’d have the opportunity as a Black woman, seeing my own trajectory in pop and electronic and dance,” she says, alluding to her six solo LPs and prior work with the girl group Danity Kane and R&B/rap duo Diddy-Dirty Money. “I thought if I did it, it would probably be something to [fuel] my own spirit. I didn’t know if anyone would receive it, but I got to the point where I didn’t care anymore.”

During what Zahn describes as “the more isolated times of the pandemic,” Richard reached back 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,” Zahn says, “but it was also a good time to explore where the sound could go and how we could expand on the ideas we had previously.” That process ultimately spawned Pigments, a 36-minute piece structured into several crystalline “movements” fleshed out by frosty woodwinds, strings and electric guitars.

It was a painstaking process: “I was just going through the music all morning and relistening to all the things we did,” Zahn says. “For instance, one of the songs ends in G minor. And, to get us from one tonal center to another, I told everyone: ‘Start stripping back everything that implies G minor really strongly.’ We wanted to tumble from one song to another where, all of a sudden, we’re in this new tonal world.”

For Zahn, that “unique ensemble” approach gave the project a vitality it might have lacked in a more pop oriented setting.

“Dawn was part of the orchestra instead of being like, ‘Here’s a pop vocal 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 in select moments for maximum impact—like around 42 seconds into the swirling “Sandstone,” the piece Zahn says “started the journey of this album.”

“I fought for that one,” Richard says of “Sandstone.” “[Zahn] said, ‘I want your voice to be more organic,’ but I said, ‘On this record, I love the fight between the synthetic and the organic.’ I fell in love with that battle. It helped bridge the gap between where I was musically and where I was going. For people who have heard me on prior projects, this wasn’t a far-fetched concept. This was a preface.”

Other tracks use Richard’s voice more sparingly—putting the focus on Zahn’s spacious orchestrations, which often evoke the vintage splendor of ECM Records. “There’s a John Abercrombie album called Timeless with Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer,” he says. “Records like that definitely aren’t New Age, but they play with people’s conceptions of what genre is and what jazz is and what electronic is. With some of those early ECM records—[take] Barre Phillips’ Three Day Moon. It’s electronic, but it’s made in like [‘78], and it’s very much improvised upright-bass music.”

Despite the hip reference points, the duo never discussed any of those stylistic choices. “We come from completely different walks of life and influences,” Richard notes, “but somehow this just fucking worked.” There was, however, a clear focus on her lyrics, which tap into self-love and self[1]discovery through dance.

“During COVID, I was in New Orleans,” she says, praising her home city. “Artistically, I was in the process of really enveloping myself within the culture while we were making this project. Sometimes artists [from New Orleans] have the best of talents with limited resources. But somehow we find a way. Seeing the growth of artists like Jon Batiste and PJ Morton and [Big] Freedia—people have been stifled but figured out a way to get out. I wanted to talk about that journey.”

Those themes are revelatory. But Pigments is also intoxicating on the level of pure mood, reaching an almost spiritual zone. “I love open, free-form music and ambient music,” Zahn says. “I don’t know if this is exactly ambient music, but I like harmony that’s really open and has the possibility of going anywhere. I find it exciting to just let yourself go and zone in and find different moments that pull you out of the meditation.”