A Chat With Jazz Singer Roberta Donnay

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I met jazz singer Roberta Donnay more than 10 years ago through West Coast Songwriters, discovering one of the Bay Area’s most multi-talented singers, songwriters and producers in the process.  Soon after meeting, I sought out the Washington, DC native’s help producing an EP and received an education in musicianship, studio work and Buddhism as well as a finished project.

Having written for film, TV and the UN, Roberta has an abundance of songwriting and vocal chops, working as a music supervisor for film and singing with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks when she’s not fronting her Prohibition Mob Band. However, Roberta’s first musical love was jazz, and for the past five years she’s been focusing her energies on the genre.

On November 13, Motema Music officially releases her latest CD, “A Little Sugar,” a showcase of vintage jazz, blues and swing. Roberta discussed her latest project as she got ready for her CD release and tour with her Prohibition Mob Band.
Q How was the process of making your new CD different from your other productions? What can listeners expect?
RD: “A Little Sugar ” is meant to transport the listener back in time, to educate, to inspire. Back to a time in music which is the roots of almost all of what we now listen to.  Born out of the blues, this was the music of the people, reflecting a time of great creativity, new inventions, the breaking away from stagnant thoughts and rituals of the past, the beginning of a certain freedom for women… and, of course, a time of great struggle, not unlike now.

Q What led to your decision to go back to focusing on jazz? How did your Prohibition Mob Band come together?  

RDI grew up listening to Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin and Broadway shows as a young child.  But when I discovered Billie Holiday and the early women of jazz, this had my full and complete attention.  I’ve based my own sound and my own place of study on this era of music since the beginning of my musical life. I was always a huge jazz fan.  I was singing and studying jazz when I first moved out west.  My goal was always to become a great jazz musician.
My vision with this band came together organically. This music just made me feel happy. And I wanted to work with my friends, and with those whose style and ideas I admired.  I searched high and low to find some songs which weren’t as well known, and picked the songs on this record from that perspective.  But the band itself was years in the making.  We experimented with the music in our live shows for two years before recording anything, and I based much of what we ended up recording on the reactions of the audience.  This project was literally focused on our audience more than anything else.  And being able to create a project with a great musical partner and bassist Sam Bevan, well, that made the whole thing easy.
Q How do approach balancing life touring with Dan Hicks and Hot Licks with doing your own material and shows?
RD: Carefully.  And I work long hours!
Q You’ve truly spent a life in music. Who and what keeps you inspired?
RD: Studying Buddhism, philosophy, history, the writings of Nichiren Daishonin (a 13th century monk) and the writings of Daisaku Ikeda has been a major inspiration for me for many many years.  I have always had a seeking spirit to discover the truth.  I would not have lasted this long in music if I hadn’t found a way to grow as a human being and to be able to focus on the inside as my primary goal.
To raise my life condition and to become the person I wanted to become and fulfill my true potential, well, that is a struggle against my weaknesses, my doubts, my fears, and the eternal struggle of good against evil.  I finally found that I had all this unlimited potential but when my major focus was on external things, I grew more dissatisfied with my life.
I believe that when we grow closer to our core existence, when we focus our energies on this relationship first, then the superficial existences have a tendency to melt away and what we find is an energy of pure light which is at the core of our being. If I feel joyful, hopeful and inspired, then maybe I can help another just by being there, to help make this feeling possible for another person.  But one has to be willing to dig deep, to throw off the transient outer layer of ego, and focus on (possibly) a higher purpose and create who we truly want to be.
If one can do this, then that is absolute freedom.  And so that is my goal for myself and others.  I wish  freedom for every living being equally in this world.
Music which saved my life and inspired me to go forward.  Other great musicians inspire me and I’m thankful to all of them…  I believe that my musical ancestors—Billie, Ma Rainey, Bessie, Louis, etc —  are the ones who truly raised me, [and] I feel I owe a huge debt of gratitude to them.
The great, great musicians who I’ve had the honor of working with, cause me to listen, [and] add to the joy I already feel.  Imagine being able to perform in an environment such as this!  I am very grateful for this life in music.  I actually can’t imagine a more wondrous existence here on planet earth.  And, of course, having a wonderful partner to share this life with, that makes everything a million times sweeter.