BEFORE WE CAN talk about Dumblonde, we have to talk about Shannon Bex's former group, Danity Kane.
Here's the short version: Bex (an Oregon native) and four other women made up Danity Kane in 2005 as part of MTV's Making the Band reality show, with Sean "Puffy" Combs as the mastermind behind the whole deal. Danity Kane released two albums in 2006 and 2008, sold millions of records, and disbanded in 2009.
In 2013, the group got back together, released a third album, and was gearing up to promote it when things went sour. In August 2014, a fight between members Dawn Richard and Aubrey O'Day ended Danity Kane for good. Bex doesn't really want to talk about it. She calls the incident "unfortunate circumstances," but says she and O'Day—her partner in the new dance-pop duo Dumblonde—have "moved past it" and are "not holding grudges."
But the split affected Bex and O'Day deeply. Bex lives near Bend, Oregon, when she's not working. When she's in Los Angeles, she lives with O'Day, sometimes for months at a time. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, they wondered if they'd missed a massive opportunity.
"For a good week, we were literally lying in bed crying [because] we were on the upswing of it, we thought, and then... nope," Bex says. "So we were devastated because we put in all this time and work, and all of a sudden it was like, 'Now what?'"
The answer turned out to be Dumblonde. During their time in Danity Kane, Bex says she and O'Day formed a personal and musical bond they believed could fuel a new endeavor.
"We learned a lot about how much we like working together and how similar we are," she says. "We have a nice balance. So we were like, 'Why do we have to stop doing stuff together? Just because DK's over doesn't mean we have to stop.'"
Dumblonde started out with a song. And another song. Then, the duo made a video. And another. Before they knew it, they had enough music for an EP, a handful of videos on YouTube, and record labels lining up to meet them.
"It just kept evolving as people kept wanting more," says Bex, who grew up in Portland before moving to Bend for her freshman year of high school. She also danced for the Trail Blazers for five seasons in the early 2000s.
Bex and O'Day spurned label offers, however, and decided to go independent, forming their own company, Double Platinum, to release Dumblonde's self-titled debut album in September. They kept their production team tight, working with Troy "Radio" Johnson, Candice Pillay, and Dem Jointz.
The intimate work environment was refreshing compared to the way Danity Kane made music. "With DK, we had so many amazing producers—Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, crazy great people—but it was such a hodgepodge. The music didn't have a theme or a nice streamline to it. It was just a massive body of work without it being a journey," Bex says. "I hated how we would go in and they'd say, literally, 'Here's your song. This is the demo. This is how you sing it. Here are your words.' You don't get excited over it."
Conversely, Bex and O'Day poured themselves into Dumblonde, not only writing and recording, but, as Bex says, "staying up 'til three in the morning" Photoshopping artwork or perfecting a video edit. (Bex designed the group's logo.)
"Here, you're getting a piece of us. It sounds like us and that matters, and I think that really transcends in music," she says. "I think fans really connect with it when you give that kind of time and effort to a project. It's very powerful."
It helps, perhaps, that Dumblonde's debut album is terrific. At its core, it's futuristic dance-pop, slinky and synth-y and glitchy and globally inspired. It's totally weird in spots, but also relentlessly catchy. It's the kind of stuff that can set off a dancefloor, but it doesn't sound much like anything else at all.
Bex says she and O'Day worked on Dumblonde without giving any thought to scoring a radio hit. "We really had the freedom of creating however we wanted to create, and we wanted it to be our own thing," she says. "It evolved. It was experimental. We were making sounds with our vocals that we never even imagined, and pushing ourselves to limits that we'd never thought of before. We didn't want to have an idea of what it was going to be, going in. We wanted to start from scratch with each session."
If that sounds like a cool, low-pressure, and creative environment, it was also a lot of work, Bex says. The pressure was on not only to make a high-quality album, but also to showcase what the two women could do outside of Danity Kane. To that end, Dumblonde is a heck of a bow for Bex and O'Day.
"We're humbled. We're grateful. We're proud of this project and we couldn't have done it without our team," Bex says. "But we knew it was in us and it was something we're capable of, and I think we're just really grateful that now we can show it."