There’s an effortless cool about women like Lianne La Havas and St. Vincent that make them such perfect objects of our audio affection; their brilliant musicality is only bolstered by the sense that they’ve got style and grace. Donn Thompson—known by audiences as Donn T—has got that, too, and thank goodness. Less than you’d think, yet still too often, she’s promoted just as the sister of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson rather than as an artist in her own right. With an impending sophomore LP, Flight of The Donn T, on the horizon, she’s poised to get her proper introduction to the world beyond Philadelphia. But not before some showing off and showing out at this month’s installation of Free at the Kimmel: Sittin’ In.
Doesn’t seem too surprising that anyone growing up in the Thompson household would turn out musically-minded. At age nine, Donn (her given name) was contributing ideas to tracks her parents were producing, earning her first arrangement credits and outperforming her peers. “I was a brilliant kid, they said. So they took me seriously,” Thompson says of her extremely musical mom and dad. “That kind of experience as a child gives you a pretty strong sense of self and of who you are in the world. I didn’t know any other nine-year-olds doing that.”
Her music delicately jumps from genre to genre to suitably communicate a song that she’s developed, often, fully in her head. “I typically build an idea track vocally before anything else,” she explains. “I often hear the melody and lyrics in my head at the same time.” Thompson’s primary pool, though, is a delightfully complementary mixed bag of styles: soul, R&B, folk, pop, funk and jazz, channeling folks like Raphael Saadiq, local heroes a la Jill Scott and Bilal, but also stretching towards retro-soul champs like Kindred the Family Soul, Floetry or THEESatisfaction. Her impending single, “Viva,” is a smoky, sultry moment that aptly uses a quiet organ dirge and constant snare to give it a slight timelessness. “To the Moon (Alice)” plays on a simple acoustic guitar bounce with an unobtrusive European presence.
While she’s spent a fair amount of time in London, L.A., Stockholm, Paris and South America, Thompson is proud to rep her hometown. “I’m a Philly girl, she says, “who takes the long way home.” And for a little while, it was a constant back-and-forth between PA and L.A. Fortunately, she’s found a lot of work in TV and film, and that industry’s been putting food in her belly. Flight features her song “Waiting,” first heard on Showtime’s urban crime drama Street Time, and more recently in the last scene and end-title credits of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2011 film I Will Follow. A gig’s a gig, and while Flight could transform Thompson into a full-time musician, getting her material woven into pop culture’s subconscious through other mediums will no doubt get her something other than paid.
One of the coolest things about this album, though, is that Thompson saw an opportunity and boldly went for it. It’s getting in stores via Sony’s RED Distribution—but only because she formed her own record company, D-tone Victorious, to release it. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” she reminds PW. “I needed to get my music out, and I walked through the door that was open to me. In the spring of 2012, RED took a meeting with me. RED’s president, Bob Morelli, and senior vice president Alan Becker loved my music, but their company signs labels, not artists. After some advice from a couple friends, and my mother, Jacqui Thompson, I [set up my company].”
By the way, Quest’s brotherly love was not employed in producing Thompson’s new record. Nope, that’d be her husband of 10 months, guitarist Jake Morelli. “Jake is a total musical beast,” she gushes. “[He] has played with artists such as Ne-Yo, Grace Potter, Roberta Flack, Esperanza Spalding, the Roots, Lauryn Hill, Bruno Mars, Nicole Scherzinger, K’Naan, Kindred the Family Soul, Musiq Soulchild and Floetry.” Still, don’t get it twisted: She’s the captain of this ship. However, there’s no denying the romance of making something original with a brand new spouse.
“Creating a new album in that space was intense, magical, risky, surreal and a bit revealing,” Thompson says. “Time slowed. It’s like I landed to make a connecting flight, and he was in the boarding area, and now I’m off again, refueled, new engine, souped up. Flight of The Donn T is me fearlessly launching into life from another adventurous place.”
Wed., Oct. 9. 8pm. Free. With DJ Lil’ Dave. The Kimmel Center’s Innovation Studio, 300 S. Broad St. 215.893.1999. kimmelcenter.org
PW's Music Issue 2014