We recently caught up with singer and songwriter Donn T. to talk about music, hometowns, childhood heroes, and the world’s best albums. Read that conversation below, and look for Donn T. tonight as she sits in with The Roots on The Tonight Show.
Last.fm: Who were your biggest musical heroes when you were a kid?
Donn T.: My biggest musical heroes as a kid were the artists that I discovered in my parent’s stacks. My mom and dad (performers themselves) had a pretty extensive record collection. It taught me pretty early on about sonic diversity. It broadened my musical pallete and started me on a road to think more about a song’s musicality and less about it’s genre.
I discovered I was creative through my writing (poetry) first. So, I also favored artists that wrote their own lyrics. The written word in song was a big deal to me as a kid. It was storytelling and it provided me a window into an artist’s soul, their mind. I’m pretty cerebral, I’m a thinker. For something to enter my heart it has to enter my mind first. So, ideas in music, in the “literal” way move me.
Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, David Bowie, Phoebe Snow (her self titled debut Phoebe Snow and sophomore Second Childhood lyrically??… rocked my world!), Stevie Wonder…my list is endless.
LFM: What makes Philadelphia such a hotbed of musical talent?
DT: There’s something in the water. Well no, maybe it’s in the cheesesteaks and pretzels. The Philly mystique is real and can’t be defined.
LFM: What is your very favorite thing about performing live on stage?
DT: I am a very present performer. Every time I perform it’s different than the time before. If you’ve seen my show on Friday and come to see it again on Sunday it’s different. Every venue is different, no two audiences are alike. I simply allow my awareness of that to show up on stage. I want it to feel undeniable but, surprising in some way. I need to connect with my audience to have something real pass between us so, it’s very authentic. I want folks to leave with something. But, with the intensity that my performances carry, there is lightness and some humor because I love to laugh and people find me funny.
I guess my favorite thing about performing is the wonder of it all – being rehearsed yet, not having every single moment planned and allowing something new to occur in real time.
LFM: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your music career so far?
DT: The challenge of any indie artist is always getting your music heard. Without big labels and big budgets (aka The Machine) that process takes some time and patience. It takes resilience. I’ve got that. I’ve got an inner rebel, I’m not allowing anyone to tell me what I can’t do artistically at this point, or what I can’t create. I don’t faint easily.
For Flight Of The Donn T, I needed to create a vehicle. It was after being invited to meet Bob Morelli at RED (Sony’s distribution arm) a few years ago that I answered the call to start my own label.
That’s the short version.
What actually happened was I returned to the US from London after releasing my 2010 debut album Kaleidoscopic with plans to do shows. The Roots manager, the late Rich Nichols put a backing band together for me. A year later of doing shows, and after a performance at the TLA in Philly where I opened for Marsha Ambrosious, my then guitar player Jake Morelli approached me and asked if he could set up a meeting for me. He asked me if I knew who RED was. I didn’t.
Months later, I went to NY and met Bob Morelli (Jake’s uncle and the president of RED) and Alan Becker (VP at RED). Because of a scheduling snafu, the meeting was supposed to be brief… a hello and a handshake. 45 minutes and 8 songs later, I knew that our meeting was transforming into something special. They were visibly impressed by my music and by me. What followed was mind bending. Bob Morelli said something like this, “This is incredible music, you are a phenomenal artist. Amazing songs. I can do nothing with you. You are not a label, we sign labels, not artists.” And that was it. I was having both the best moment of my music life and the worst. I kept thinking someone was going to jump out from behind a curtain with a hidden camera. It was very surreal. I left that meeting and went back to Philly.
In the weeks that followed, I wrestled with the idea of starting my own label and had a couple tough love conversations with my mom Jacqui and my homie (and music engineer) Karl Hicks. Is this what it would take to get my music into the world? I put one foot in front of the other, launched my label D-tone Victorious and requested another meeting with RED. To be clear, it was nearly two years from the first meeting to the second. When meeting day arrived, I pitched my new label to RED and the rest is Flight of The Donn T history.
Certainly, being owner of D-tone Victorious while being the label’s first artist is the biggest music industry challenge I’ve faced so far but, I’m up for the task.
LFM: What are the most rewarding parts about being a singer & entertainer? What drives you to keep going?
DT: The most rewarding parts of being a singer-songwriter is creating something in quiet (an idea) developing it, then later having it affect people. What drives me? I’m on a mission to shift the musical environment, bend the rules and do this while showing up as undeniable and musical. There are alot of us and especially women who need someone to pioneer. I don’t need that title, I just need to do my part so that the musical landscape shifts to include those of us who may be musically magnificent but are outside the boarders of the pop music industry.
LFM: What are the Top 3 things you want music lovers to know about your Flight Of The Donn T album?
1) Flight Of The Donn T is an experience, a musical journey. It’s the story of how I got from there to here.
2) I write or co-write all songs. The lion share of Flight Of The Donn T is co-produced by me and my guitarist, producer and new husband Jake Morelli (Yes, that happened too…a funny thing happened on the way to the Fair). Jake’s credits include Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, The Roots, Roberta Flack, Jennifer Hudson, Grace Potter, Esperanza Spalding, and Hunter Hayes.
3) Mike McHenry (Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, Madonna), Ray Angry (Christina Aguilera, Mark Ronson, Mick Jagger), DJ Danophonic and Steve McKie (Bilal) and Questlove each take a turn at the wheel on Flight of The Donn T and share additional co-writing credits.