with Manuel McDonnell Smith
Celebrating another year of “friends across cultures”, the West Park Arts Fest returns to West Fairmount Park on June 14, 2014. This year, the festival promises to be even bigger and better including a main stage performance from the emerging musical fusion artist Donn T. She recently met with the Parkside Journal, to talk life, musical inspiration, and offers an exclusive preview of her “homecoming show”:
PJ: Donn T, thanks for taking a break from your busy schedule, to talk with the Journal, and headline this year’s beloved Arts Fest. How are you feeling about taking the main stage in West Fairmount Park this summer?
DT: Music has helped me travel the world. I’ve spent significant time in London, Paris, Stockholm, and South America. I’ve lived on both coasts of the U.S.A. (L.A. and N.Y.C.) and right square in the middle of the country, Chicago, but Philadelphia is my hometown. It’s home base. I grew up on 52nd & Osage, went to Lea Junior High on 47th Street. One of my favorite memories as a kid involves family picnics in Parkside. Playing West Park Arts Fest is like coming home. Philly is the place where music began for me.
PJ: We’ll get out of the way early that you’re the sister of the fabulously funky Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Your father is Lee Andrews of the 50’s “doo wop” group “Lee Andrews and The Hearts”, and you’re a grandchild of Beechie Thompson of “The Dixie Hummingbirds.”, also known as the founders of Gospel Music.
But beyond the family brilliance, is there another artist that has particularly inspired your music?
DT: The late Phoebe Snow and specifically the album Second Childhood inspired me. She was a bit more underground than Roberta Flack and Nina Simone (who I also admire). Fact is, Phoebe was not easily defined; she was a soul and blues artist, a Jewish woman with an Afro who wore glasses and looked very much like a schoolteacher, but she sang, and wrote poetically about the underbelly of life.
The music industry didn’t know what to do with her. As a lyricist, she was layered and brilliant.
PJ: Your description of Snow, sounds a lot like your style, layered and brilliant. So in terms of the music store aisles, which genre fits your sound best?
DT: My parents were musicians who had Phoebe’s album Second Childhood in their record stacks. When I first heard the album as a kid, something in me shifted. It woke me in a way I hadn’t been prior. Like Phoebe Snow, I don’t fit squarely into one genre. My debut albut “Kaleidoscopic” was a soulful house style. My upcoming album, “Flight of the Donn T” is a soulful alternative, with jazz, pop, and EDM elements throughout. I blend quite a bit together, and at the end of the day, strive to make undeniably good music. That’s what I’m reaching for.
PJ: Your upcoming show on the main stage at the Arts Fest, is another large scale performance for you this year. Tell me, before you take the microphone, what is the feeling you hope the audience walks away with after the show?
DT: When an audience experiences my music, I am hoping it alters them, impacts them in some way. I want them to feel engaged. I am by no means a cookie cutter performer. So, if by watching me on stage someone else is inspired to embrace what makes them unique and like no one else, that would make me feel happy. I certainly have high expectations for what art might accomplish. But I have also been affected by others’ “live” performances in exactly the ways I am describing. Plain and simple, music heals.
PJ: Wow, healing. Sounds like that’s a joint cause shared by the Arts Fest team, and you personally.
DT: Children and the arts is an issue dear to my heart. When a child develops creativity early on, they learn to view life through a broad spectrum and to explore the possibilities. Even if the child will later go on to pursue a science or math major, an arts background gives a child a foundation for creative problem solving.
Additionally, I recently launched my own indie label “Dtone Victorious” with distribution through RED/MRI. Necessity was the mother of invention in this case, as major labels found me enigmatic. To them, that’s considered a bad thing. Undeterred, I decided to create my own platform. Since I don’t know any African American women label owners, the move felt groundbreaking for me. I am figuring it out as I go along. Because I am a woman, empowerment for women and young girls is a cause that also moves me. I am passionate about wanting to provide a platform for women artists (and artists in general) that allows for the unique in the music industry.
PJ: We are so excited to see you on stage, but we know people will be ready to hear even more of you after the big show. How can we do that?
DT: The first single from “Flight of the Donn T album will drop in September. The full length album comes out in January 2015. Also this year, I am a skit songwriter for “Inside Amy Shumer” on Comedy Central. For those who enjoy something more soul stirring, you might join me on Sunday at church from the congregation, enjoying my musical-beast of a husband Jake, as he plays guitar with a worship team comprised of Pharrell’s drummer, Jill Scott’s keyboarist, and a host of powerhouse players. They all inspire, and I draw from them in creating my music.
PJ: Thank you very much for taking the time and I look forward to seeing you on stage.