Donn T’s Inferno

Plenty of us will go into the family business. But, after helping her parents write the lyrics to a song at age nine, Donn T was hooked.

(from All Music)

About Donn T

Donn Thompson's musical bloodline runs long. The distinctive alternative R&B singer and songwriter, who goes by Donn T, is the granddaughter of the Dixie HummingbirdsBeachy Thompson, the daughter of Lee Andrews (of Lee Andrews & the Hearts) and Jacqui Andrews (who was a member of Congress Alley with Lee), and the sister of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (of the Roots). In 2006, as the mononymous Donn, she was featured on a tripped-out cover of Radiohead's "Morning Bell" by the Randy Watson Experience (Questlove and James Poyser's Coming to America-referencing side project). Kaleidoscopic, her debut album, was produced by Gilles Peterson favorite Simbad, and was released in 2010 on MoreAboutMusic. She followed it by collaborating with another British producer, Matthew Bandy, on the 2011 broken beat-inspired single "Grass Is Greener." Three years later, she marked the beginning of her D-Tone Victorious label with the release of "Midnight," a full-bodied single replete with a monologue, the rarest of throwback touches. The song anchored the four-track Gramophonica EP, the prelude to a 2015 album, Flight of the Donn T.

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Transcript

The flame of creativity has long burned in Donn T. When she was just a nine-year-old girl, her parents could not find the lyrics for a song. This was a problem. Her father led the acclaimed doo-wop quintet, Lee Andrews & the Hearts, and the show had to go on.

Donn T: I heard they were having trouble, so I came down and I wrote the song for them. The lyrics were:

Nothin' proud, nothin' shamed
Nothin' ventured, nothin' gained
And there can't be no life without pain.

AJC: Pretty amazing for nine, sorry.

Donn: Yeah, I was in touch with something (laughs).

Such acute sensitivity was born of a childhood in which pain and glory coexisted. There was the bewitching appeal of that charismatic father. There was also tumult.

Donn: It was this incredibly beautiful, creative space where music is happening all day long, whether it's being played or rehearsed. We're getting to see a lot of the world. But it was also difficult. My father had not come to terms with his own childhood, and his own pain, and it made life for his children very hard.

It was Donn's mother, a dancer with the group, who recognized the exquisite tenderness of her daughter—Donn's tendency to befriend the child who needed friends, to stand up for those in trouble, to insist on the truth.

Donn: When my mom, in particular, first told me there wasn't a Santa, we had a very serious talk, and I asked her why she would lie about Santa, and how she would feel if I lied to her—like, it was that kind of moment. And my mother always expresses these various conversations that took place that really caught her off guard. It was probably by 10 or 11 that she got, like, “I have to deal with her in a different way.” And she sat me down. She says, “You know, if you ever feel like you wanna lie, I want you to tell me the truth, and you won't be disciplined for it. Just tell the truth.” And that was my childhood.

Quiet intuition has carried the eclectic singer-songwriter forward, through performances with Amy Winehouse, John Legend, David Byrne, and her brother Questlove, into featured song status in films directed by Ava DuVernay and others, and to publication in Behind the Song, an anthology of writing about music. Choice by choice, song by song, she has hand built her career. Her debut album, Kaleidoscopic, offered soul and techno-funk at the same time. 2015's Flight of the Donn T was many years in the making—a celebration, among other things, of her own label, D-tone Victorious. It's not the life of a Billboard-charting pop singer. It is the life she's chosen.

“Clear,” Donn T's newest release, arose out of a lifetime fascination with birds. Nicknamed “Little Bird” by her father, she grew up listening for their songs. They were, she says, harbingers. They even foretold the death of her father, and the long, complicated grieving that followed.

Donn: It was in the middle of the night that a bird woke me up. I live outside of a bird sanctuary, and I hear various tunes all the time. But this one was very unusual, and very specific. And in that moment, I had a knowing that he'd passed, and that the sound the bird made was Do do do do And then there was a beat, and then it went, Do do do do It stopped me. It was moments after that that I got a call, and the call was that “Your dad has passed.”

AJC: This was your father dies, and the bird—

Donn: The bird starts, and it doesn't stop, and it just becomes the backdrop to my grieving. The person that introduced me to art has gone.

The grief that followed was, says Donn, a revelation.

Donn: After having the experience of grief, life shifted for me, and artistically, it got a lot easier. Creating harmony, creating significant times for rest, and really kind of listening—not just feeling the frantic pressure that artists feel of, like, “Okay, I gotta get out there, gotta do something, I got…” Not from that place.

Today, married to the musician Jake Morelli, Donn T. is deeply engaged in building the kind of world she is happiest in—a world in which she soulfully connects through her stories and songs, a world in which she remains endlessly candid about what it is to love, and lose, and hope.

For the full experience, watch the video at the top of the page.