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.
Donn T is an admired R&B singer and songwriter.
She was born as Dawn Thompson in 1962 into a musical family in Philadelphia, PA. Her grandfather sang with gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds; her father was lead singer of successful 1950s doo-wop quintet Lee Andrews and the Hearts; her mother sang with Philadelphia soul group Congress Alley; her brother is drummer Questlove of the Roots and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Donn T began singing and writing songs as a child, playing with her father’s band in the late 1970s. She performed with such artists as Amy Winehouse, David Byrne, and John Legend. In 2006, she sang on the Radiohead tribute album Exit Music with her brother’s group The Randy Watson Experience.
Donn T released her first solo album, Kaleidoscopic, in 2010, and her second, Flight of the Donn T, in 2015. She also records and performs in the group &More with rapper Chill Moody and her husband, guitarist Jake Morelli.
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.