Futuristic Soul Singer Donn T
Donn T is different. Within seconds of easy introductive conversation, the glowing rarity of her soul pours out like sun rays. On the eve of releasing her first album Kaleidoscopic, it is quite clear the stars aligned perfectly to bring us to now. An explosively galactic force has worked to develop Donn T, the artist, as well. Set to be released in June, Kaleidoscopic is vintage soul. It’s futuristic as well as trippy, upbeat, optimistic and full throttled house.
Having grown up in a musical household where 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. Donn T’s brother is Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer for the world renowned Grammy winning group, The Roots. Donn T has not been a stranger to the industry either, having shared the stage with Alice Smith, Amy Winehouse, Zap Mama, Jill Scott, Nelly Furtado, Les Nubians and Floetry. On a Tuesday evening from her home in Philadelphia, Donn T speaks about her journey over tea.
This album is a lot of things but at its core, it is a mix of soul music and house. What comes first for you, beats or lyrics?
At my heart, I’m a writer. I’ve had experiences with bands. Experience with musicians without a band, and have had to communicate music out for musicians. I’m still doing that. I wrote for the Showtime Network TV series Street Time. That project began when I submitted some songs to the director. He was impressed and told me to write my own ticket. He told me that whatever I wrote, he would put it on the show. It was overwhelming. I hadn’t done that kind of writing on a dime. I’d have a meeting with three producers from eight o’clock to twelve and record around the clock for two weeks.
How did Kaleidoscopic come about?
It was one of the most complete writing experiences I’ve ever had. It just flowed. It was very fluid and the story tells itself. I had not previously met DJ Simbad [a London-based DJ and producer]. A lot is magical about Kaleidoscopic and I wasn’t expecting it. Wasn’t planning on it. I met DJ Simbad through DJ Junior [a Philadelphia-based music connoisseur] who orchestrates a leadership program out of Philly. We were introduced at a party where King Britt was spinning. On Monday, DJ Simbad and I got together and eight days later the album was written, recorded and mastered. When you have a writer’s heart, I think you’re given unique experiences to write about. I think there’s something about those experiences that feels like a blueberry. Something keeps squeezing out of you.
So, it’s more about words?
A thread comes through for me. What is most authentic for me is coming from such a musical backing that draws from all kinds of musical sounds. Kaleidoscopic is soulful futuristic house music and it’s layered from the way I express through words. It’s very important to me and the album is layered in simplicity but there is complexity in that. Growing up, music was always in my home. My dad was a recording artist in the late 50’s, at the age of thirteen. My mom was a recording artist with him later. They brought a musical mixture to our family home such as soul, country, gospel, rock and roll and jazz. I grew up with all music. It was very intentional and that experience informed my life with music. When you have an experience like that it makes an impression on you to be an individual and to be okay with being you. My parents were eccentric. We are all pretty eccentric and quirky. I was born in an open and free environment. If I got up one morning and wanted to wear two different colored socks, it was okay. My household was very rich in that way. It made me a little avant-garde.
You do a wicked version of Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” What artist would you like to cover you?
I would love Bob Dylan to. I think he would take a song of mine in a whole different direction. What is most important to me is taking a song to an interesting place. That would make it live for me. Having my words live for someone else. Also, Marvin Gaye. His authenticity is inspirational for me and others as well as how he expressed that authenticity in song.
Having grown up in such a successful musical household, what do you like most and least about the industry?
What I like most is that in some ways it’s very wide open, not necessarily with mainstream but there is a lot of variety. In the mainstream aspect of the industry, there is more promotion. A lot of people get to experience you and that is what an artist most wants to happen. What I like the least is the political element. One cannot afford to be just an artist. Earlier on you could just be an artist, now it’s imperative for an artist to balance business and politics.
What instruments do you play?
Piano and guitar. I play enough to know where I am going.
Geography is an interesting subject when it comes to you and your projects. Of Los Angeles, London and Philly, what do each of these places mean to you?
I love London. It is the combination of all my favorite cities. I love London, that’s just it. It’s rich ethnically and it’s about the way people express themselves. There is so much eye candy. London feels like my next place, my best place and I love the food. London resonates deeply, I feel like I fit. With LA, it feels slower, however that is where the maternal side of my family is. My paternal side is in Philly. In Los Angeles, it’s something about deals happening over a lunch. When you talk to people, amazing things can happen. The whole “I know this person and we’ll have lunch and decide.” You get that more so than in New York or London. Philly is musically so progressive. The sound of Philly is that its music slashes through musical genres, for example, the artist, Santigold. I enjoy being home.
You’re touring soon. What can we expect?
I will be bringing the live element and the electronic element. I’ll have a drummer, keyboards. And I’m very animated. I’ll have back-up singers.
Will you be bringing anything special on tour with you? Any superstitions or good luck charms?
My grandma had a ring she gave to my mom. When my mom was born, she put a stone in it. My mom gave the ring to me. It’s my good luck charm.
Do you have any hobbies we would not expect?
I have a fascination with stars, moons and planets. In my pastime I essentially study astronomy and astrology. Very much of it is just knowing general facts and is not very useful. The other day I discovered that one of Saturn’s moons looks like Pac-Man. Astrology is not just about signs. I’m a closet baby astrologist. And bowling. [Late night talk show host and actor] Jimmy Fallon had a bowling league. My brother didn’t want me to be on his team, so Jimmy tells me to be on his team. Jimmy and I beat the pants off the others.
The unexpected outcome with a chance meeting created Kaleidoscopic’s range of mesmerizing basement beats, Donn T’s rich vocal dynamics and the bubbly optimistic tone to words. It is easy to want to study the skies to see where this intergalactic traveler and closet astrologist who happens to be a bowler will go. Follow her on Twitter and by the looks of things, wear protective lenses because no matter where she lands, her future will be bright.