A Sister's Quest

Donn Thompson Morelli, better known as Donn T, is the sister of The Roots drummer QuestLove; she is also on a musical quest of her own.


Donn T will release her new solo album Flight of the Donn T April 21
Photo: Whitney Thomas

The way a musician arranges songs on an album is an art within itself, setting up how the musicians see the work as a whole. This art of creating an album as a theme has been somewhat lost in recent years, with audiences being able to piece out and rearrange albums, creating their own version. This art of album as theme is not lost on Donn T's latest album Flight of the Donn T.

"Flight of The Donn T is what happened between my last album Kaleidoscopic and this release." Donn T said a few weeks after what was reported as her "stunning performance" at Carnegie Hall for a tribute to David Byrne.

"I took flight. I created a vehicle. I constructed wings and built an engine. I re-calibrated, adjusted, made preparation for take-off from a different field altogether. Flight of The Donn T is about me taking a leap into a vast new space. I launched my own label D-tone Victorious. Doing so was a logical next step. Well, maybe not logical. But, I did it."

The album is exactly that, a flight into a new world, over new fields. Rarely is every song on an album worthy of its own wonder while being part of an entire work worthy of listening to over and over again. The anthem quality of the heart-breaker Midnight, which appeared in the Lifetime movie With this Ring, starring Jill Scott, Regina Hall, and Eve. The works are complex, catchy and relaxing, feeling bathed in sunlight while discussing dark topics, as is done in the songs To the moon, Alice and Waiting, a song that appeared in the Ava Duvernay film I Will Follow.

"I am pretty comfortable with layers and things that seemingly contradict. Complexity is interesting. I can observe beauty in the dark. There is sometimes a stain in brilliance. It is not always one thing or the other." Donn says of the album. The complexity of her music is not manufactured, it comes naturally. "I am not aware of purposeful construction. It's simply what my eyes see. I think I gravitate towards that approach as a songwriter because it's who I am. I am layered and unfolding, not a quick and easy read. My songs follow suit."

Part of the reason musical complexity may come so naturally to Donn T is that she has had exposure to excellent musicians much of her life, many of whom just happen to be family members. Not only is her brother Ahmir Thompson, better known as QuestLove, a highly regarded and award winning musician, their parents Jaqui and Lee, were in soul outfits like Congress Alley and the doo-wop group Lee Andrews and the Hearts, and their grandfather was pioneering gospel singer Beachy Thompson. Music has often been in the foreground of her life, but just as Donn T's music is full and complex, her life and way of being are full and complex.

"Life experiences beget creative inspiration. I absolutely respect my family's multi-generational musical legacy. I am grateful for it and participate in furthering that legacy. However, my artistry is broad and extends beyond one creative outlet, music. My life revolves around expression and inspiration, however it shows up. That fits me more. My life revolves." More than music creates music and Donn T understands this to the fullest extent. When asked about her non-musical inspirations she instantly rattles off a few "love, architecture and beautiful exteriors, talenti, the dark and light, bliss, passion, robins that show up where I am, human nature and specifically what makes us connect and disconnect, the beginning and the end of things, clowns, science fiction, angels and crime. That's the short list." In short, living and being aware of life inspires Donn T and it is making for some amazing music.

The complexity of her inspirations also affects the complexity of her involvement in her new release. For the album, Donn explains, "There are so many hats I'm wearing...: artist, label owner, writer and co-writer, co-producer it's all in there." There are many more hats for Donn, including veils and caps. She and husband Jake Morelli married recently, and have a family. "Beyond my career, I also took the big leap into love. Being newly married and being "bonus" mom are the cherry on top. I'm incredibly grounded right now but, I'm boosted to soar higher. It's this beautiful melding of opposite energy. A normal day for me looks like early rising and sorting out the label, segueing into writing music and studio stuff, wife-ing, soccer mom-ming and maybe rounding the day off performing. It's intense but, it flows."

Photo: Whitney Thomas

While clearly important, more than family occupied Donn's time since her debut solo album in 2010, Kaleidoscope. She has written songs for and performed with an array of talent over those five years while simultaneously working on Flight of the Donn T. Some of those artists include Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Common and Jill Scott. Along with her husband, the Morelli's and their associated acts credits are too extensive to list here. This time, they are putting exactly what they hear in works they get to express in a way that is all their own.

The release show, April 21st at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia, PA, will feature performances by other complex female musicians who are forging their own way with their own sound. They-Say Vision and Steady singer Res, who is working on a new album after her acclaimed release of Fleetwood Mac covers in 2011. Rounding out the show is Kate Faust, who is "very excited to celebrate Donn T's release and also to reunite with one of my favorite musicians, Res. Res brought me on Reset back in 2011 or so and has been incredibly supportive of me ever since." Faust is not the only one excited to celebrate the release of Flight of the Donn T.

"My first studio album took 7 days to make. Flight of The Donn T took 5 years." Donn said "It had to happen that way. I was using the critical side of my brain and the creative in a way I had not done before. I just hoped in the end something musical and worthwhile would result. It's gratifying because the process wasn't easy." Not easy at all, but just as it is said, nothing worthwhile is.

Donn T, Res and Kate Faust perform Tuesday April 21, 9pm at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia, PA

Donn T will also appear at the 8th Annual Roots Picnic May 30th in Philadelphia, PA
at the Mixed Remixed Festival June 13 In Los Angeles.