The Real Deal
Keeping it real with Ricky Reed, Danzy Senna, and Donn T.
Ricky Reed is an award-winning music producer who has worked with many of the leading pop artists of recent years. He is also a solo musician and the founder of electronic pop group Wallpaper.
Reed was born Eric Burton Frederic in 1982 in Berkeley, CA. He formed progressive indie band Facing New York in 2004. The group toured extensively and recorded two albums with independent record label Five One, Inc. Reed released his first EP as Wallpaper in 2006 and scored a hit in 2012 with a single from the album #STUPIDFACEDD.
He cowrote and produced Jason Derulo’s international sensation “Talk Dirty,” which reached number 3 on the Billboard singles charts and topped the charts in many countries. He has also produced hits for Twenty One Pilots, Meghan Trainor, and Halsey. He received three of his four Grammy nominations for his work on Lizzo’s 2019 album Cuz I Love You, including the Billboard number 1 “Truth Hurts.”
Danzy Senna is a bestselling novelist and essayist whose writing explores issues of race, gender, and identity.
She was born and raised in Boston, MA. Her mother, poet Fanny Howe, is white; her father, editor Carl Senna is African-American. Many of Senna’s novels touch upon mixed-race identity. Her acclaimed first novel, Caucasia (1998), written while she completed an MFA in creative writing at University of California, Irvine, is about estranged biracial sisters. It was nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and won an Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association. Her second book, Symptomatic (2004) details a multigenerational friendship between two mixed-race women. Her most recent novel, New People (2017) features a biracial Brooklyn couple.
Senna also wrote the autobiography Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (2009) about her parents’ marriage and divorce. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, and The New York Times, among other places.
She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.
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.
Coming up on Articulate, in a world where empathy is often in short supply, it is the driving force behind the pop hits of Ricky Reed.
Ricky Reed: I think that I didn’t actually start to have success as a producer until I let my full self be in the room with other people. The same me that’s around my mom and dad, my wife and my daughter is the same me that I bring to every room every day.
You get a unique perspective on race in America when, like author Danzy Senna, you’re a white-passing African-American.
Danzy Senna: My mother is of Anglo-Irish background, and my father identifies as African-American, so I grew up thinking of myself as half black and half white but identifying as African-American because of the time in which I was born, you didn’t have a category of mixed.
And many people go into the family business. After helping her parents write the lyrics to a song at age nine, Donn T. was hooked.
Donn T: I heard they were having trouble, so I came down, and I wrote the song for them.
AJC: Pretty amazing for nine, sorry.
Donn T: Yeah, I was in touch with something.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Producer Ricky Reed has had his share of hits in the past few years. And despite the simplicity inherent in a great pop tune, Reed says there’s no formula for what he does. For him, every song is an exercise in empathy.
Ricky Reed: Sort of a motto we have in here is like, “Write the song of the day—the song that the day wants.”
AJC: But I’m guessing there are days when it just doesn’t come.
Reed: And then that, too.
But Reed wasn’t always quite so serene. While still a student at UC Berkeley, where he studied Western Music Composition and West African Drumming, Reed created an intentionally obnoxious electro-pop project, called Wallpaper.
Reed: The very, very beginning of Wallpaper., it was 100% ironic. I was trying to make a point that I felt like singers and artists were so disconnected from the music, and from themselves, that it might as well just be gibberish. I had a lot of anger at that point in my life.
Reed: As Wallpaper. began to get popular, and even, like, sort of low-level gain some fame, I’m like, “I’m just perpetuating the thing that I set out to…”
AJC: To mock.
Reed: Mock. And I was like, “I just need to be straight with people.”
And it is this capacity to be straight with people that has become one of the reasons artists come to Ricky Reed—that, and his canny ability to get to the emotional core of the music.
Reed: This kind of goes back to me studying West African music and drumming from Ghana, when I was in school. And my teacher taught me how drums, how rhythm can be emotional—just raw rhythm, no singing, no chords… Even the most simple rhythm, how you can put emotion into it—or not! And I started to realize that, if you really make the drums deep, you make the drums funky, and you have that feeling that makes you have to move in your chair or jump out of your chair. And that’s a feeling, you know? That’s like a real sentiment. And I kind of got to the point where I was like, “No matter what the genre, or the singer, or the subject matter, let’s make the rhythms, let’s make the bass and drums feel like people. It’s irresistible.”
But Ricky Reed doesn’t only make music with other people. His own songs are both deeply personal and, in many ways, fundamentally different from his works for hire.
Reed: My “fences” are my abilities as a singer. There’s some kind of records that I can carry as a vocalist, and some that I can’t. I’m not gonna try to sing a High C or rap or something. I can find this smaller world to live in as an artist. But that’s gonna allow me to communicate the feelings that I think are important. And, for my music, that’s the most important thing.
The song “Joan of Arc” is a love poem to his wife, Laura. He credits her with changing him for the better, as an artist and as a man.
Reed: I think that I didn’t actually start to have success as a producer until I let my full self be in the room with other people.
Reed: The same me that’s around my mom and dad, my wife and my daughter, is the same me that I bring to every room, every day.
AJC: That’s quite a revelation, though.
Reed: It’s big. And it didn’t happen overnight, but I started to understand that.
The novelist Danzy Senna is perpetually distracted by the world in her head.
Danzy Senna: I think in stories. I think, every time something happens to happen to me, I start to imagine the story that didn’t happen, and I start to think of it as a “she” and not “me.” And, since I was little, that’s been a sort of source of survival, and a compulsive need to tell stories.
Growing up in 1970’s Boston, Senna used her stories in part to help process the prejudice she constantly saw being aimed at her mixed race family.
Senna: My mother is of Anglo-Irish background and my father identifies as African-American, so I grew up thinking of myself as half-black and half-white, but identifying as African-American because of the time in which I was born. You didn’t have a category of mixed. You were either one or the other. And I grew up in a household where, in the midst of “Black Power,” and for both of my parents, it was very clear to them we were gonna identify as black—in a city as racist as Boston, in a country as racist as America, that the identity in us that needed protecting and shoring up was our black identity. It wasn’t the white side of us.
Senna: I feel very lucky that I was raised with such a feeling of connection to my black identity, and also a sense of never having any shame or sense of negativity around it—because I think everything could’ve gone in that direction, given the time I grew up and the racism that I faced every time I went out of the house. So, my formative experiences were of white people making racist comments to me as a kind of conspiratorial connection to me as a white person. And that happened to me so many times in my childhood and my adolescence that—
AJC: And would you immediately go, “Uh-uh, I’m black?”
Senna: Very early on, I learned to, I’d say, “Ruin the dinner party,” and that became something. I think of that as my origins as a writer, actually, was that I learned very early on that I was going to disrupt, and that I was going… My presence was not going to always be comfortable. And then I had to get comfortable making people uncomfortable. And so, for me, on the act of coming out as a black person in white spaces was where I think the seeds of that came. And it was about learning speech over silence, ’cause there was a very easy solution, which was just not to say anything. And having my parents’ politics drummed into me from a very early age—
AJC: That was never gonna happen, right?
Senna: No, I wasn’t gonna be that girl at that space, where I would not speak out.
Indeed, Senna has become something of an accidental spokesperson for biracial identity. Though different in many ways, each of her published works to date features a female protagonist with a mixed race background. But, she says, none of them are her.
Senna: Everything I write is fantasy. It’s not me. It’s a character, who I’m using to imagine a world that doesn’t exist. It can resemble me in 10 different ways, but the moment I write it as fiction, it becomes not me. And actually, that is required for the fiction to succeed—for me—is for me to depart from what I know. So just because the character is mixed race, is a female born in the same era that I was born, she can be from a family that resembles mine, she can be from Boston, where I grew up, but it is not me. That’s the paradox of fiction, is the moment you write it down, it becomes fiction. And I teach fiction, and I’ll have students hand in a story and I’ll say, “You need to find the point of departure from you, because your work is not free yet. You haven’t allowed it to become somebody else. And the moment you allow this character to become someone other than you is the moment you can find the truth in the story. But if you’re still loyal to your own position, you’re gonna be hemmed in on the page.”
AJC: Do you ever have a mission to have a voice that’s completely unrelated to your origin? There’s no gender shared, there’s no ethnic origin shared, there’s no nationality. Is there any way to start from something that’s absolutely unknown to you?
Senna: I’m a, you know, thief, as all fiction writers are. So it has to come from some deep, you know, psychic wound for it to have any pulse as a story. And I’m not just looking for stories out of the blue. You wanna write about the thing that has kept you up at three in the morning, or scarred you, because that’s where the life is, in your story. It’s not from something abstract, in my experience, so—
AJC: But is the writing about it doing anything to heal the wound?
Senna: Once you begin to turn something into a story and characters, and you become the god of that universe, and that’s a kind of power and a kind of distance that allows you to live with it. So, for me, it’s been everything, creating art, and I can’t imagine what I would do with these experiences and this material, and how I would make sense of it in any other way.
Senna: When I was in college, I was a really serious political activist, and I hadn’t really embraced that I was a fiction writer yet. And I would write these editorials, and I spoke in a language that was highly strategic, political language. And, for me, I found truth in fiction—in that space of no answers and in telling… The language of fiction was the most honest language I could find to talk about the things that I was obsessed by, that were personal and political at the same time. And so, for me, going into fiction was where I found a kind of freedom to explore, and to ask questions of the world, without feeling the need to answer them.
And the world has embraced this insatiable questioning, beginning with Senna’s graduate thesis turned breakthrough novel, 1998’s bestselling Caucasia. It was a coming of age story about a young biracial girl, who’s forced to live under a false identity. Senna’s next book, Symptomatic, came six years later. Her third, five years after that. To date, Danzy Senna has published just five books in a nearly two-decade-long career.
Senna: I’m not a fast writer but I feel comfortable with my output, because I think each book has time to percolate, and the world doesn’t really need just more books. It needs a good book. So, I don’t feel, like, in a rush, and it’s kind of nice to publish this last book—because it’s my fifth book, and I can see, you know, there’s a body of work that’s all speaking to each other. But it’s, somehow the number five… I feel, like, confident that there’s gonna be other books. But I don’t feel in a rush about it. It’s gotta be the slow cooking of writing. You have to go and be very, sort of, organic about the process, and feel the obsession rise in you, and the character come to life for you, and find that quiet space to create it.
AJC: And also just spend more years passing through the world.
Senna: Yeah, everything… I mean, my children were great for my fiction.
AJC: How so?
Senna: Well, I love that my children see me work, and they know that I’m interested in things other than them. I think that’s important. I think that’s healthy. But I think also that children… You’re born again with your children and you suddenly see the world from their perspective, and you see the world from the mother’s perspective—which, I’d always been a daughter. And then I became a mother, and you’re, you know… That’s a much less morally pure position, to be a parent. The moment you have a child, you’re guilty. You’ve brought something into this world that you will fail to perfectly take care of, and perfectly… It’s imperfection, you know, the imperfection of being a mother.
AJC: That’s an interesting perspective.
Senna: You know, Samuel Beckett said, “Fail better.” And that’s all you can do as a mother, and that’s all you can do as a writer. But it kind of brings it home to you, when you have children. “This is gonna be messy, and you’re gonna do this wrong, and you’re gonna try, and then you’re gonna let them go.”
And it is thus, with a healthy understanding of the imperfections of the world, that Danzy Senna continues the slow churn of creating and writing her world.
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.