Enigmatic performer Donn Thompson — known by audiences as Donn T — defies categorization playing and recording in a diverse range of styles from house and trip-hop, to acoustic soul and pop.
Over the years, she has shared the stage with and opened for a diverse array of artists such as Marsha Ambrosius, John Legend, Nelly Furtado, Amy Winehouse and Zap Mama. Thompson is a noted vocalist, live performer and songwriter whose work is continually captivating. Her second studio album, “Flight Of the Donn T,” was recently released on the artist’s own D Tone Victorious label, distributed by MRI/RED.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” explained Thompson when asked why she underwent the arduous task of starting her own label. “It was also one of those things, where on a spiritual level, I got real quiet with myself, and I got real open with the folks who were around me. My mom said, ‘If someone can do this, you can do this and go ahead, and figure it out. I’m an indie label. Everything that I am doing is blood, sweat and tears. I am the staff, the president … the things that people hear, and what they see, is me pulling it all together.”
The Philadelphia native comes from a storied musical lineage. Her grandfather, Beachy Thompson, is of the pioneering gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds. Her father, Lee Andrews, was leader of the legendary doo-wop group Lee Andrews & The Hearts. Her mother, Jacqui, is a classically trained ballet dancer. And her brother, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, is the Grammy-winning musician and bandleader of “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.” Family ties notwithstanding, Donn T is a unique talent in her own right.
“Music just is for our family, I think,” said Thompson. “People ask sometimes, ‘When was it that I knew I would be in music?’ I didn’t ever not know. It was something that was always there. And, it wasn’t pressure from my parents or grandparents; I never felt like I had to do this because it was a requirement — my home was always very musical and very diverse in that way. My parents were big record collectors with stacks for days. We had everybody on the shelves from Roberta Flack to Nina Simone to Phoebe Snow to Rosemary Clooney; big band stuff, jazz, and Miles Davis and classical because my mom was a classically trained ballet dancer for most of her life.
“So [what] influenced me to be eclectic is not just some ‘cool thing,’ it’s just what I emote. It is a very natural progression — when I hear a pop song it filters through all of my channels and it comes out as a Donn T thing, which is very different than what may be expected or considered traditional …There was no limit. It was a very open experience, So, growing up and experiencing music in that way, I never felt limited.”
Steering innovation, Thompson is the quintessential independent artist and do-it-yourselfer. Her previous album, 2010’s “Kaleidoscopic,” received international acclaim and led to stints performing with a diverse array of artists, including Amy Winehouse, Marsha Ambrosius, Zap Mama and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. Donn T has racked up songwriting credits, including “I Am Music” by Common featuring Jill Scott.
“As a writer, at heart, of course, I can write a traditional pop song,” said Thompson. “But being my truest self, when I am performing the song, I would have to bring all of what influence me into it. And, I thought the only way to make that happen was to launch my own label.”
On “Flight of The Donn T,” the avant-funkateer shares co-production credit with her husband guitarist/producer Jake Morelli. Two tracks from “Flight Of The Donn T” have already received notice via visual media. Her first single, “Midnight,” was featured in the Lifetime television movie “With This Ring,” which co-starred Regina Hall, Eve and Jill Scott, while the haunting ballad “Waiting” appeared over the closing credits of the Ava DuVernay-directed film “I Will Follow.”
In March, Thompson joined The Roots at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall for a tribute to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Talking Heads, where she performed “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On).” This weekend, she will perform at The Roots’ Picnic, curated by her sibling, who is currently one of the most famous drummers in the world.
“Normally, I don’t personally show up to Roots Picnics until exactly four minutes before we go onstage,” explained ?uestLove in a recent SPIN interview. “But I might have to just break — well actually twice, my sister’s performing. She rapped with us at Carnegie Hall when we did the David Byrne Talking Heads Tribute. She’s a really incredible performer so I’m probably going to go early and watch her perform.”
“I’m proud!” said Thompson of her equally musically experimental brother. “And, I just expect it. Based on what I know, and based on where we have been, it is expected. I never had a doubt that he would be in the position that he is in, and greater. This is not it. We have a lot of story to tell, from a lot of different angles and we don’t stop. I expect this and more. I am his biggest fan.”
Donn T will perform at 12:30 p.m. on Stage 3 of The 8th Annual Roots Picnic on Saturday, May 30 at Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing. For more artist information, visit donn-t.com.