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Once my art is polished, I still have to run the four miles, still have to make sure I sing live, still have to make sure I’m giving you a visual that is on par with mainstream artists. Because if it’s not, people are going to say, “This looks like a flop.” Then once that’s finished, I have to figure out how to finance it. I was my own PR, my own booker, my own everything. I had to be great in my art, but also then I had to learn how to build my structure. How do I finance a tour? How do I route a tour?
The hardest thing about being [an independent] artist is how to invest in yourself but get return. You’re not doing stadiums. You’re doing 1,000 to 2,000-seater theaters. Most of the time, that’s going to pay you no more than five grand. You got to figure out how to pay all your people in the venue, and you want to make sure your show is great. I never did shows with just a DJ. I had dancers. I was trying to give people a stadium show—because that’s what they were used to seeing from me—but with a short budget. I did not sleep, but I learned how to do creatively incredible things.
There is, of course, a whole lot of freedom and creativity that makes the independent route worth it. But I have always wondered whether it’s an isolating experience.
Do I miss the funding? Hell yes. Do I miss getting up and just having to hit my mark? Yes. I was very grateful for the money and being able to be a part of something that felt bigger than me. But I also know that I was called “bitch” more times than my own name. I know that I never slept, so much so that I don’t know how to sleep well now. I know that I worked so hard that I was hospitalized maybe two or three times.
When I think about that, even though independence may seem isolated, I would [encourage] artists who want to try it to try it. As an independent artist, I’ve had more people believe in me [at Merge] than they ever believed in me [at a major label]. This team that I have now is the first time I’ve ever felt believed in or loved in this way as an artist. It is rougher, and there are days I want to quit. But I’ll take it.
How did you link up with Merge?
I had gotten over finding a team because I felt like I had gotten so good at being alone. But [my new manager] got me a job with Lincoln doing some branding work, and I thought I’d give it a try. And man, I’m so happy I did. He said, “I think we should talk to Merge.” Immediately I saw Caribou, I saw the indie rock roster, and I was like, “Hell yes. No one would think I’d go there but I feel like I fit so well.”
When you’re a Black woman pushing a lane that isn’t familiar to people, or it’s multiple genres, you’re [pegged as] “alternative R&B” immediately. That’s all they’re going to give you. For eight years, I’ve been saying Black women exist in electronic, but were never on any charts, we’re never getting any awards or nominations. With this album I wanted to be unapologetically going for it, just saying, “Yeah, girls from the South can do this music. If we do this right, we’ll open up a floodgate for other Black girls to feel that they have a lane here.” And Merge understood that.
What do you get from Merge that you weren’t getting on your own?
The biggest thing that any independent artist can get is relationships. I can be as great as I can be, but if I don’t get a co-sign, nobody’s touching me. I had a good fan base, but I never had major labels or big artists say, “Dawn, be a feature on my album,” or “I want to work with that girl Dawn.” Once Puff left, everyone left. I literally went from doing the AMAs, SNL, all of that, to scrounging, like, Dawn, figure it out.