Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting a rising artist who is bringing something new to the world of music and is capturing our hearts and minds (and ears). This week, we’re featuring Diana Gordon, a New York-bred singer-songwriter who has been grinding behind-the-scenes for ages and is finally having her solo breakthrough moment right now.
Diana Gordon loves a good story, which certainly comes in handy as a singer-songwriter. The morning that we talk on the phone, she opens up about everything from her semi-dysfunctional childhood and the struggles of the early stages of her singing career to the experience of writing for Beyoncé and her close-knit bond with Destiny Frasqueri a.k.a. Princess Nokia. More than anything else that she has discussed during our 45-minute chat, she wants to include a special story about her vacation with Frasqueri in Nicaragua because “when people read about me, I want the things that I say to jump off the page.”
It sounds better when Gordon re-enacts the whole story herself, but she and Frasqueri were on a girls trip and staying at a lighthouse in a village up in the mountains. They were mostly surrounded by farmworkers, but there was a school nearby for the children in the area. After randomly throwing a party for them, they gathered all of the kids into a van for a little adventure not knowing what would transpire that night. What started as a kind act of purchasing school supplies and playing on the beach ended with chanting in unison under the moonlight and sending a bucket full of baby sea turtles into the ocean.
“It was such a beautiful moment I shared with her and so pure,” she says. “Even though we’ve both experienced a lot of hardships, there’s this pure spirit that we both have. I found a sister in Des. You don’t do those things with everybody.”
Gordon will also tell you about how she and her five siblings were raised in a strict, Christian home on the Southside of Jamaica Queens where all of their activities were “centered around God.” Even though her mother only allowed them to listen to Christian music, Gordon found a gateway when she discovered the rock band Jars of Clay. Their 1995 album Flood provided an escape from the non-secular music.
Gordon recalls playing with her sister and cousin at the lake in Baisley Park which, unbeknownst to them, contained dead bodies. There were also the family secrets that she’s still working through as an adult, such as the dark script about her biological father – a music industry implant turned fugitive– but that’s a tale from a different book. As a child, all of this seemed normal to Gordon until she branched out and gained a fresh perspective on how the real world actually operates. “We thought everyone’s family was from a Christian cult,” she says. “Kids have a way of finding adventure and innocence still, in settings where it’s kind of crazy.”
The years that Gordon spent at LaGuardia High School would provide the informative foundation for her training as an artist, starting with an introductory course called “New Music Singers.” After winning a songwriting competition for a college scholarship, Gordon realized that music was a way that she could realistically earn enough money to allow her to escape from her mother’s house. Even though her confidence level was on the lower side during that period, she fully believed in her ability to sing, and developed a tunnel vision focus that made her willing to record in basement studios if that’s what it would take to make material. Music provided her with a newfound sense of stability, and at the age of 17, Gordon left home for the first time under the guiding hand of a controlling manager. Unfortunately, she wasn’t given enough breathing room to explore herself and was pushed in the direction of becoming someone else.
“I jumped into doing things professionally,” she says. “I didn’t know how I wanted to wear my hair yet, I didn’t know about makeup, I didn’t know about clothes, I didn’t know anything… But the people I worked with had a good idea of what they wanted for me.”
As a result, Gordon initially made her mark on the music world as Wynter, which she points out was the name of her manager’s daughter. Shortly after, she signed to Atlantic Records as a songwriter and the persona stuck around for the next decade. The way Gordon explains it, she was fortunate enough to achieve some success early on while writing for icons like Jennifer Lopez and Mary J. Blige along with the EDM-influenced music that she was creating, but “it wasn’t necessarily where I wanted my career to go and what I wanted for myself.” Itching to do things differently, Gordon decided to start over by using her real name because “if I fail, I fail as me.”
But everything changed for Gordon in 2016 when it was revealed that she collaborated with Beyoncé on the standout Lemonade tracks “Sorry,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and “Daddy Lessons.” Gordon’s biggest takeaway from the experience of working with Queen Bey on the visual album was her consistency, drive and work ethic. “The hard work doesn’t end ever,” she says. “It doesn’t get easier. The people who really want it work for it and they’re present. They’re always open to learning new things and evolving. I see that when I look at Bey, Mary, and J.Lo even because I’ve worked with all three women.”
Gordon’s formal rebranding comes attached to the Pure EP, a five-track project that she hopes will connect with her listeners as she tells the painfully true story of her childhood. The songs that make up this body of work are like diary entries as Gordon opens up about the members of her family like her older brother, who is currently homeless and had been missing for 16 years. “I didn’t want to make it melancholy or morbid,” she says. “I was like ‘Let me take the pieces of my childhood that I used to protect myself, that I’ve used to survive.'”
Gordon emphasizes that the EP is “for the people” and for “anybody in life who has experienced trauma and they’re trying to keep their head up.” She adds, “I wanted people to understand where I’m coming from” and how “you are who you are.” In comparison to the previous material that she made under her other moniker, Pure is a huge departure as she experiments with a mixture of sounds that take cues from alternative, grunge, and ’90s R&B music. She wrote “Too Young” from her mother’s point of view as a way of humanizing her; gaining a better understanding for the way in which she treated her children.
“I tried not to judge her for it,” she says. “I wrote [‘Too Young’] in her perspective, a mom who is in a relationship, who has kids too young, who’s not very sure of herself. My mom had four kids—a black woman in Southside Jamaica—by the time she was 27… I put myself in her shoes like ‘What what I have done [if] I found out the man I was with since I was 13-years-old did these horrible crimes and left me with four kids by myself at 27? How would I react?'”
Being given the opportunity to watch the creative processes of modern contemporaries like Frank Ocean and Devonte “Dev” Hynes has also shown Gordon the value of recruiting talented musicians and allowing them to contribute as they see fit. Her vocals can be heard on the forthcoming Blood Orange album Negro Swan. “It’s your vision, you can do what you want,” she says. “There are no rules to obey… People reach success independently.”
Gordon still deals with panic attacks and what she describes as terrible, crippling anxiety, but she’s managed to build a safe space for herself in the form of her quiet home in Los Angeles where she regularly practices self-care. In addition to having a garden in the backyard, Gordon “built a studio by hand” and decorated another room with plants and paintings. She confesses that she’s still looking for peace, but what she has found is a sense of independence within herself.
“You can only live for the day, you can’t live in the future,” she adds. “I evolve all the time and maybe for my next project I’ll fall more into where I want to be, but I think everything is in stages. You take it day by day.”
For more of our features on rising musicians, get to know Hong Kong rapper Fotan Laiki right here.