The Art of Storm Chasing With Singer/Songwriter Donn T
When I last caught up with Donn T in 2010, it was to talk about her debut album Kaleidoscopic, a refreshingly soulful, electro-funk album that was organically fresh and sounded like nothing else out at the time. Since then, a lot has changed for Donn T but a lot has also remained the same. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with her, you’ll know that Donn T has such an inspirational tenacity and clearly possesses an artist’s heart. However, for this conversation one of the first things she says is, “My life is like being inside of a tornado.” After further elaborating, it also becomes quite obvious she could easily be one of the best storm chasers on the planet, if the scientific study and appreciation for storms were her mission in the world.
After having appeared on TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress with her brother, legendary drummer Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson of the Roots, since 2010 she’s experienced the glittery reality of being a newlywed and finds herself excitingly at the precipice of new territory. After releasing Gramophonica, a vibrant R&B heavy 4 song EP in mid-November ahead of her soon to be released full-length album Flight of the Donn T, due out in early 2015, she also finds herself the owner of her very own label, D-Tone Victorious.
How are you?
Most days I feel like I’m inside of a tornado. It’s a different place, not only as an artist but also as a label owner with a new release coming out. A few years ago at a show in March or April I was approached about taking a meeting with a label. At the meeting, they were floored with what I presented. I was told that it was a rare day when someone embodied what I did and that I had made such an introduction. They talked about loving the journey that I had taken and about loving the mission that I was on. They respected my story. And after all of that they said, “Yeah, this is great. We can do nothing with you.” I thought we were all in love. They said, “We are a distributor. We sign labels, not artists.” I thought it was the end. Later I had a conversation with Karl Hicks, friend and manager and my mom. They tough-loved me. They reacted with, “You’re going to start a label, right? You’ve been self-managed for most of your career. Just do it.” It was one of the first times I’ve been intimidated by my career. Fast forward, I took their advice. Artists that are left of center, not clearly defined and not recreating the wheel need a label that supports them. I decided to take myself on and experiment before inviting others to join me and that is also the goal. The new album, Flight of the Donn T, is about flying and about operating in a broader place.
I find it interesting that 2010’s Kaleidoscopic and its sound is so now. The EDM heavy nuances in mainstream R&B and pop is all that you hear right now but Gramophonica, your new EP is more of a distinct absence from the electronic arena and more of a vintage, R&B sound. Was that detraction purposeful?
For me, it’s more like a spiritual process with myself. I don’t look and say the soulful, singer/songwriter is coming back. I don’t do it consciously. I just happen to be in the place where things are going. Coming from my background and writing for TV and film, I had to think out of the box. I approach music from a very broad place.
From your EP, Gramophonica, the lyrics to “Rainbow Girl” are very thought-provoking. What inspired the song?
“Rainbow Girl” is about experiences with the music industry. It’s about going to labels and not being understood. The rainbow is saying ‘it’ll be fine.’ It’s saying ‘still have hope.’ I’m always going to be hopeful. There was a meeting where someone at a label was watching football while listening to my music. There are artists out there who haven’t come into focus and are hoping to spark others. Today it’s all beauty. I know I am an artist. I have a lot of control and these experiences are what brought me here. I don’t think I’d be here without having those experiences. Of what’s ahead, my responsibilities at the end of the day are terrifying and exhilarating. I’m hoping that by just being around, hustling and doing what I love will raise awareness and visibility. I am going to figure out a way to create my vehicle. Create your own vehicle. My bigger message is that we can each have individual voices. We have a path that’s not always corporate. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to do at 25, or 28 you’re not a late bloomer. Apply yourself at the moment. Have success in the present. There is hope and happiness to be had and it’s not going to come in the package we’re told. If I can inspire that in an artist, and not necessarily only an artist, I’ve done my job.
You are an integral part of such an enormous musical legacy [her father, Lee Andrews sung doo wop and was signed to several major labels, his first at the age of 13. He later went on to play in Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Her mother, Jacqui Thompson, a singer and a ballet dancer, trained with The 4 Step Brothers and Charles “Honey” Cole.] What is music to you?
Life. Air. It’s everything I’ve always remembered. From day one, it was always around. Growing up, my home was never silent. Without making any kind of judgment, there was always music. One of my first memories was music and being at home with my parents in the living room of a two-story row home, and hearing them in harmony and belting doo wop. Within that, music is life and air. The answer to our pain and what brings us our joy.
Donn T’s EP, Gramophonica is available now.