We’ve all seen the movie. You know, the one with a musician whose stardom eclipsed their personal identity. To the average person, the choice between fame and happiness may seem simple. Happiness isn’t always an acceptable form of paying the bills. But for Diana Gordon, this wasn’t just a plot on the big screen. This was her life.
For 12 years, Diana was operating under the moniker of Wynter Gordon, writing for other artists and imparting her voice to dance music, a detour from the R&B singers she was raised on. After eight years, she struggled to balance between her stage persona and the real one. After what she calls an “iconic” anxiety attack triggered a move to LA in 2016, where she found her estranged brother homeless, Diana Gordon is ready to reveal herself to the world. Today, the 32-year-old singer releases her most personal project, PURE, a five-track EP of breadcrumbs explaining her tumultuous childhood in Queens.
Gordon uses PURE as a montage of the trauma that’s shaped her, leading us through her dysfunctional relationship with her parents. She repurposes the bag full of comic books stored in her childhood basement room on “Wolverine,” recalling her mother’s devout Christian background. “Mama said she had a dream, always banging on her tambourine / And you know she had to make a scene, that’s why I left home when I was 17,” she sings. Throughout the EP, her voice maintains a throaty crescendo, mimicking the emotion of punk bands before her. One of Gordon’s gifts is her ability to shapeshift, adopting whichever style seems fitting for the moment—this one, evoking the memories she’d yet to confront. “Thank You” is a letter to her biological father, whose absence enters her mind at various milestones in her life. “I thought about you at my graduation / Even though we never had a conversation.” Her reflection on those songs culminates on “Too Young,” written from the perspective of her mother, who started her family at only 16. PURE is cathartic and Gordon is processing decades of feelings in under 20 minutes.
Noisey: You have such a heavy background in songwriting and some people might know you as Wynter Gordon. Could you talk a little bit about that persona?
Diana Gordon: I was working in a nightclub in Brooklyn when I was 17 as a coat check girl. It was a wild ass, ratchet ass, Brooklyn nightclub. Mary J. Blige used to roll through all the time and I gave the owner, who was a friend of hers, a CD. She listened to it and was like, “I want to use this song. I want to work with you.” That was the beginning of my songwriting career. It got me out of the club and it paid my bills.
My friend Sickamore, who is a really brilliant A&R, signed me to Atlantic. Six months later he left, and I was there figuring it out. I was on Atlantic for about 8 years and got switched to a different A&R every year. Every year it was a new A&R telling me who I should be and what I should sing. Around the seventh year, I got a new one who said, “You should do dance music.” One day, I had this session where me and my friend were joking around and we were like, “Let’s write a song called ‘Dirty Talk’.” It wasn’t meant to be my big single. It wasn’t my message to the world. It wasn’t what I wanted to say, but they ended up putting it out and it blew up and I became this dance phenom. It really wasn’t the path that I, in my heart, wanted to go down. I was listening to R&B. I was listening to Celine Dion and I was like, “I want to sing! I want to be Whitney and Mariah.” I had this semi-successful, underground career where I toured the world as Wynter Gordon.
I was making so much money. Like, lip syncing three songs a night for $20,000. It was crazy and I was depressed. It felt like musical prostitution. I felt like I didn’t earn it. I called my label president up one night and I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m literally unhappy.” He said, “What do you want to do?” So, I played him a Zulu-pop song I was working on, “Stimela,” and he said, “This is expensive.”
I ended up parting ways with Atlantic. I didn’t know what to do after being on a label for eight years. The world was changing, the internet was coming. I didn’t know what makeup I liked. I didn’t know what I wanted to wear. I didn’t know how I liked my hair. None of that. I finally got to a place where if I’m going to do it again as an independent artist and I’m going to put all my own money into it, I might as well start over.
So would you say you were depressed about being a songwriter?
I wasn’t depressed being a songwriter. Being a songwriter meant I didn’t have to work at McDonalds or an office. That was a great job to have, I was a working musician. It’s allowed me to be nominated for Grammys. I was depressed on the road. I was touring with Skrillex and Deadmau5 and we were doing these shows at 5 am and everyone was high. I’m really straight edge, but I was literally tired. I didn’t want to perform at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. It was not my world. It’s not my scene.
You were just saying you invested all that time and had to get your fans reintroduced to the real you. When you did this reinvention, did it come naturally?
I honestly don’t think I’m reinventing myself. I’m just evolving. I had anxiety where I felt nobody liked me anymore. In my head I was just like, I’m unhappy and no one will give me another opportunity as something other than Wynter Gordon.
The songs I walked away from Atlantic were songs about family, unity, and love. Just real shit. I was on my black power shit when I signed. I put out this song called “Unify.” I was blending genres and languages and that’s the shit I wanted to do. I felt like as Wynter Gordon, people weren’t really listening.
You’re from Queens originally, but you relocated to LA. How has the move affected your music?
I honestly didn’t move to LA for music. As a musician I’d been working for like 12 years, and I wanted space. Before I moved, I had a huge panic attack. It was a meltdown that lasted for three months. I actually thought I was going to die. I got to a point where it was so crippling I lost the ability to walk and to swallow. I couldn’t eat and I was getting really skinny. It was from worrying about my future.
I come from a place where my parents aren’t involved in my life and I’ve raised my three brothers. I felt like if I failed there was nowhere to go but down and nobody to catch me. I was terrified of going back. I was like, “I’m not married. Where’s my career going? I threw it all away.” There was this feeling of all these old white men at the label, telling me I was getting in my own way. Telling me I’m hard to work with. You know, all those narratives. That if you choose what you love then you’re stupid. If you want to control your own narrative, “She’s difficult.” Then I thought, maybe it’s true. Maybe I am difficult. Maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I lost my chance.
I went to therapy and I checked myself over the weekend. Every 30 minutes they would check on me to see if I killed myself. But, I didn’t want to die. I spent the weekend playing about 70 rounds of Connect Four with some other patients and I got to see the rest of the people in there and what they were going through. I was like okay, I just needed to sleep. This is not the place that I need to be. I saw the doctor and they were just like, “You’re just stressed out.” Then, I decided I was going to move to LA and find some peace.
I read when you got to LA you found one of your estranged brothers, who was homeless at the time. What was that like?
My brother was missing for 16 years. He was put in foster care when I was young. He aged out and had nowhere to go. He came home and asked for help and my parents said no. As a kid I I would always wonder if there was something I could’ve done to save him. I took it to heart so bad. Me and the rest of my siblings always looked for him.
One day, I invited my little brother to visit me. Fifteen minutes later he called me and said, “I think I found David.” He saw this guy at the bus stop and was like, “That guy looks like me.” So he walked up to him and asked his name. His name was David and he was from New York. The bus came and David gets on, and my little brother put his little skinny leg in the door and said, “I’ll give you $10 if you get off the bus.”
He called me and he’s like, “You need to get here, it’s David.” So I’m racing over in an Uber. I’m just crying and as I pull up and I see him I’m sobbing and my legs are giving way. I knew if I found my brother he would either be dead or homeless. I knew if I had anxiety, I knew where his mind could be. I could see his eyes were rolling in the back of his head and he was like not well. I choked my tears back because I knew this was bigger than me. I was like there’s no time to be emotional right now. I went up to him like, “David, do you know who I am?” He wasn’t really coherent. I have a picture of all of us when we were little in my wallet, which is the cover of my EP, and I showed it to him. He said, “The squirrel,” because he called me a squirrel. He looked up and was like “Diana?”
It was hard. When you see someone you know and they smell bad and they look like life has destroyed them. Even now just talking about it, my heart is just broken.
How has that experience changed how you approached new music? You said the photo is the cover of the EP, it must have had a heavy influence.
The project’s been done for almost 2 years, which is when I found my brother. Sickamore used to say to me, “Nobody knows who you are. You need to start from the beginning.” I feel like my childhood’s a little dark and I didn’t want to do that.
I kinda grew up in a Christian cult. All I was allowed to listen to was Disney movies and shit. But, I took the things that were my saving graces—all the things that were most innocent to me. I put them together with my story and tried to tell that story in the music. It was a lot to just regurgitate. On “Kool Aid,” I talk about being a parent to my brother. When I was just a teenager I was going to parent teacher nights. I was literally his mom. “Thank You” is about my dad and how getting bullied in elementary school. I went to an all-white school and thought my lips were too big. “Too Young” is about my mom because she had a lot of kids really young. It’s about her relationship with my birth father. “Wolverine” is about my step father’s collection of comic books. I lived in a basement room that was just cement. There was no tv, and it was just cold and damp. All he had was big, big, garbage bags of comic books. When I was bored and needed something to read I would read comic books. That’s what “Wolverine” is about. This EP, I didn’t think people would be like, “Thats my shit. That’s my jam.” It was more of like a diary moment for me, getting a little closer with the fans I already have.
Your story is incredible, but to lighten the mood, let’s talk about Beyoncé. Who doesn’t want to talk about Beyoncé? You’re behind the infamous line on Lemonade: “You better call Becky with the good hair.” How did that happen and how has life been since?
Beyoncé reached out right when I moved. Right after my iconic mental breakdown. I had been working with this DJ, MeLo-X, and he was a friend of mine from Brooklyn. Six years before, we worked on some tracks that were probably never going to see the light of day. We were just fucking around making music in his house. He ended up becoming Bey’s DJ. One afternoon he got an opportunity to play her some of his music and some of his beats. He ended up playing her the song we wrote together. She was like, “Who’s that?” He’s like, “That’s my homegirl Diana.” And she’s like, “Bring her through to the house.” That’s how that happened.
She was very chill, very cool. It was really amazing. She was very magic, and sweet and she gave me great fruits. I just kept staring at her skin like, “You’re glowing.” She has really clear skin and she smells good.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.