Coming from a family lineage deeply rooted in successful musical endeavors and lush talent is a blessing that many envy. A legacy built upon that sort of foundation blossoms some beautiful souls, and Donn T is an embodiment of that. The Philadelphia native is the daughter of Jacqui and Lee Andrews of classic soul group Congress Alley. Her grandfather was part of The Dixie Hummingbirds, and she is the sister of Grammy-award winning musician, drummer, and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
We got the chance to speak with Donn T, whose new album Flight of the Donn T drops April 21st. She immersed us in inspiration.
Rock On Philly: What’s been your biggest influence while working on Flight of the Donn T? How do you feel it compares to your first studio album?
Donn T: Flight of The Donn T was strongly influenced by my heart, well, by my world being transformed by love. Love came. I stumbled on, tripped over and fell in it. It surprised me. If meeting and marrying the love of my life was no small life shift, meeting my love’s beautiful 8 year-old daughter (now 12) was seismic. My heart exploded, expanded. I had a wider space to create from while at the same time feeling incredibly grounded on this album. I let each song occur, I allowed the idea of a full album to blossom. Kaleidoscopic, my first studio album took 7 days (and no sleep) to complete. Flight of The Donn T took 5 years. It simmered. But, there was still another big influence while working on Flight. I launched my label D-tone Victorious. Today, I’m at the helm of my career in a way that I had not been previously. I’m wearing every hat. If Kaleidoscopic was the outworking of my travels abroad, jetting back and forth to Europe and frenetic energy, Flight Of The Donn T is about homing, soulfulness, the place you go when you are preparing to launch, what nurtures, challenges and inspires you to soar.
ROP: What’s your relationship with your brother like? Was there ever a (loving) sibling rivalry? Who played the best jokes?
DT: My knee jerk reaction is to say we’re typical brother and sister but, there is nothing typical about us. We spend life on stages. We’re private. We’re fiercely protective of each other. We each have a wicked sense of humor and I think he’s funnier but, he thinks I am. We were on our own a lot as kids. We’ve had experiences that only we know about. We come from this creatively-rich, musical family where the height of inspiration was often matched by its opposite. Growing up Thompson wasn’t a soft experience. The gift, it carved into us was depth and story. There’s a loyalty and a generosity we express with each other. We have a soft spot for each other. I also believe we have a pretty intense intuitive connection. My brother and I can make each other crack up without speaking. The way that would play out is we might be in a room full of people, observe something from different angles (not be facing each other), then face each other and have the same response. It’s bizarre actually. We have a lot of private jokes that only we get. It might be a bit alienating if someone doesn’t know us well. Humor is a big deal in our family. I don’t identify with having sibling rivalry. I’m fiercely competitive but, not with him. I am his #1 fan.
ROP: When did you have that a-ha moment that told you have to be a singer? When did you decide to turn it up a notch?
DT: The a-ha moment was at nine and it was in regard to being a singer-songwriter. It was also when my first work was published–and then I went to recess.
ROP: While getting better at your craft and what you do, what’s been the hurdles? What advice would you give to people trying to find their voice that you wish you had at the beginning?
DT: The most difficult hurdle is believing that if you are different or if you don’t fit in “the box” as an artist that you should give up. Innovators and game changers are those who persisted. If doors aren’t opening or if things aren’t happening quickly become a better version of yourself so, you are prepared for when they do. Sometimes on the road to becoming a better you, you discover a way to build your own door. Afterwards, be courageous walk through it. Love what you do. Only do what you love. Be authentically you. Find out who that is. Additionally, some artists and musicians get stuck and have “getting signed” as their primary goal. Yes, it is every musician’s dream to have the machine behind them. But, if God has given you an undeniable gift, bless it, use it, let it out. The internet has demanded the music industry recalibrate. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else’s journey or achievements. Einstein said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Be patient. Laugh a lot when it’s funny and when it’s not.
ROP: Last year was a great year for music. For Donn T, what was the most important album of 2014?
DT: Too hard. I so can’t answer this question with a single answer. I don’t experience music as having one definitive voice. For 2014 in no particular order, I liked Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings’ Give The People What They Want, Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear, Gary Clark Jr.’s Gary Clark Jr. Live, Ed Sheeran’s X, Mary J Blige’s The London Sessions, Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour, and Prince’s Art Official Age. That’s 7.
ROP: Who’s the one ‘celebrity’–musician or actor or whoever–that you think you might lose your cool if you got to meet them?
DT: First Lady Michelle Obama.
ROP: It’s a Saturday and you’re on vacation. You’re taking a break from your projects and there’s a hot tub. You get to pick three other people to be in there with you–absolutely anyone. Who’s in your hot tub?
DT: Comedians are in my hot tub. Aziz Ansari and Hannibal Buress have to “rotate.” Recording artist FKA Twigs and author Tony Morrison. That’s 3, sort of. I think I’m breaking the rules in this interview.
ROP: Looking forward, what do you want to work on? What challenge is up next for you?
DT: Looking forward, folks should expect more releases (from me and others) on the D-tone Victorious label. Also, I am an artist whose songs show up on TV and in film.
I will tour this Spring and Summer beginning with The D-tone Victorious Flight Of The Donn T release party at Johnny Brenda’s on April 21st with RES and Kate Faust. I am part of The Roots Picnic in Philly next month.
I head to LA for festivals and shows right after that. I also have an amazing writing project on the horizon and am teaming up with esteemed young adult author K. M. Walton for her next project. My greatest challenge will be wearing many hats and juggling to keep all the balls in the air.
ROP: Tell us about your experience at the Talking Heads/David Byrne Tribute at Carnegie Hall.
DT: It was inspiring to share the stage and be surrounded by so many artists who have such a high level of respect for music. 20 artists were featured in all. We each covered a Talking Heads song that most represented us. What an honor.
I performed “Born Under Punches.” At the end of my performance I received a standing ovation. To experience that, on that stage, was entirely crazy. It was a very cool night.
ROP: Who’s been the most eclectic person that you’ve gotten to work and/or perform with?
DT: CeeLo Green is pretty eclectic and he too, appeared on The Carnegie Hall show. Esperanza Spalding, Sharon Jones, Antibalas, The Roots, Santigold and David Bryne performed as well. I think that show could’ve been aptly renamed Night of The Eclectic Performer.
ROP: Philly is an up-and-coming city that’s been plagued by the stigmas of bad neighborhoods, cheesesteaks, and the Fresh Prince theme song. Not many people (even those in Philly) see that it has so much to offer. Having grown up here, what would you say about Philly that you think most people don’t know and should know?
DT: I’d probably take issue with anyone having just that perception of Philly. Philly is a cultural and culinary mecca. Philly is thriving, it’s always thrived. In Jan 2015, the New York Times ranked Philadelphia 3rd in the Top 52 places to visit in the world just behind Milan and Cuba. Beyond that, I simply cringe a bit at the term “bad” neighborhoods. It’s code. Poverty exists in the world for very layered and complicated reasons. In places where it is perceived that crime doesn’t exist well, in “good” neighborhoods it exists behind closes doors and in different forms. I’d encourage anyone having a limited perception of Philly to expand their thinking, turn off the TV, leave their house and embrace what is amazingly rich, diverse and unique about our city.
My own family has made their mark on the music world for several generations. We’ve hailed from Philly, it’s been our launching pad.
My new husband guitarist/producer Jake Morelli (a Philly import, from NYC) co-produced the lion share of Flight of The Donn T with me, from our studio in Philly (Jmotone). Jake’s other performance credits include stints with Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, The Roots, Roberta Flack, Jennifer Hudson, Grace Potter, Esperanza Spalding, and Hunter Hayes. We share additional writing credit with Mike McHenry (Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, Madonna), Ray Angry (Christina Aguilera, Mark Ronson, Mick Jagger), DJ Danophonic and Steve McKie (Bilal, Jill Scott).
Music has enabled me to travel the world. I’ve spent significant time in Europe and South America, I’ve traveled the US and have seen most of it. Having that perspective, I’d say Philly is an awesome city.
Photography provided courtesy of the artist