When Donn T plays Johnny Brenda's on April 21 - the same day the soulful singer/songwriter releases her sophomore effort, Flight of the Donn T - she's going for a familial vibe.
But not because she's Donn Thompson, the Philly-born sister of drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of the Roots, the acclaimed hip-hop group and Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon house band. "I write moments," said Donn T on Wednesday morning, fresh from having rehearsed until 5 a.m. "And this moment involves my family."
Donn T is referring to her new guitarist/collaborator Jake Morelli, who doubles as her husband (their wedding was previewed on TLC's Say Yes to the Dress); her "bonus daughter," 12-year-old Soren, who inspired one of the new album's key songs; and Bob Morelli, Jake's uncle. He's the president of RED Distribution, an umbrella distribution company for indie labels. Bob Morelli pushed Donn T to start her own label, called D-Tone Victorious, through which the eclectic, acoustic-electro Flight was released.
But make no mistake: Flight is a Donn T production. Like her debut, 2010's house-folky Kaleidoscopic, Donn T took her time getting to Flight. Five years between albums is an eternity in the pop economy.
"Yeah, but I recorded Kaleidoscopic in five days," she said with a laugh about the record she made with French producer DJ Simbad in a London studio.
Donn T pushed Flight's funky-flightiest tunes in front of TV producers, landing songs such as "Midnight" on Lifetime's With This Ring. (She's done the same in the past with shows on Showtime and UPN, as well as the 2010 film I Will Follow from Selma director Ava DuVernay.)
Ultimately, it's Donn T who decided to forge forward with her own label. "RED loved my work but they don't sign artists, they sign labels," she says. "So I became one. I'm self-starting and self-creating. Why not one more mountain? It's a vehicle for my art."
With Kaleidoscopic, she spoke fast. With Flight of the Donn T, there was more to consider, such as meeting the man of her dreams. She met Morelli through the Roots' late manager Rich Nichol, who put the two together when he was creating a band to help her tour Kaleidoscopic. "That introduction was life-changing, artistically and personally," she says of meeting her husband, with whom she co-wrote and produced much of the new album.
Before they got to the altar or the new album, they had to go through TLC's wedding-day diary Say Yes to the Dress, an idea conceived by Morelli's daughter, Soren. "We did the show together. Ahmir even got me the dress, which I think revealed to people another side to his personality. Soren and I had our own side ceremony besides the one I had with Jake," Donn said.
Soren even inspired one of Flight's most poignant cuts, "To the Moon, Alice." The song started with a fireside chat between the two. "She was talking about life and asking me personal advice and I had just heard 'Hey Jude' on the radio and it all just came together in a moment. But like I said, that's what I write."