Straight R&B, no chaser. That’s what it’s all about for 22-year-old singer Dondria, who’s gone from YouTube sensation to national recording artist over the last three years. The Sachse, Texas, native was attending Tarleton State University and working at fast-food chain, Sonic, in 2006, when she decided to post a few webcam videos of herself singing popular R&B songs on YouTube -- still in its infancy at the time. Fast forward to 2010, and her soulful, Bryan Michael Cox-penned/Jermaine Dupri-produced ballad “You’re the One” is rising up the Billboard R&B chart.
From a camcorder and a dream to a record deal with Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def imprint, Dondria typifies how the internet has revolutionized the music business.
Check out our interview with Dondria to find out how she got to where she is today, and what she has in store for fans next...
Justin Kantor: You have an album coming out soon called “Dondria Vs Phatfffat”. Can you tell me what’s going on with it, when it’s going to be released, and what was the concept behind the title of it?
Dondria: It’s going to be out in March 2010. The concept behind the name is basically to show everybody that Dondria is more than Phatfffat on Youtube, that was singing everybody else’s songs, having fun, joking, eating pizza. She’s more than that. She has the potential to be her own artist who can sing her own songs and you’ll still love her just as much, so that’s basically what “Dondria Vs. Phatfffat” means.
JK: Did you come up with the moniker Phatfffat, or was that a name that a friend gave you?
D: My friend gave that name to me, a person in college. I was eating a lot. I’m 5’2” and I’m 110, so from all the pizza I was eating, I guess the name stuck with me after all these years.
JK: When I first saw that, I was like, “What is that supposed to mean?” Anyway, let’s go back a little bit to 2007 when life presented you with what I would imagine was an unexpected surprise.
JK: You got contacted by Jermaine Dupri, so can you tell me about the events leading up to that, and how it all went down?
D: Let’s see. In ’07, at this time I had been on Youtube for a year, I had like 45 videos, and I know I had 25,000 subscribers and I did reach a million views I think on my channel, and also on one video, which was ‘Promise’ by Ciara. People were just coming out of the woodwork, subscribing to me, asking me to write a hook for them, or do a collaboration with them, and some people said that they wanted to sign me, but it was labels that I hadn’t heard of, like underground stuff. Most of that was bogus or not real.
JK: Not credible?
D: Yeah. By the time JD wrote me, I was kind of discouraged and didn’t respond right away, because I was like “I don’t think this is him, and I am not about to get my hopes up and then get let down.” It took a while. He wrote me 3 times, like “What is going on? I’m writing you and you’re not writing me back. What is wrong with you? Do you know who I am?” Nobody else was as persistent as he was either, so by the 3rd time, I was like “Okay, he keeps writing me. He is being persistent. Let me just write him back before I just lost out on my life.” I wrote him back, and after he basically cussed me out like, “Are you crazy? I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” He just told me that he found my videos on Youtube and I think he was impressed. He asked me if I wanted to work with him. He flew me and my Mom there to meet him in person to talk about it, not over the phone, and he just asked me if I was ready, and I said, “Yeah!” Six months later I signed the contract and we started working on music.
JK: When you started on Youtube, from what I understand, it was kind of on a whim. If I’m correct, you were working at Sonic at the time, and you had been suggested to go onto Youtube by a friend, but it wasn’t something that you were necessarily having ambitions of making a career out of, as far as singing.
D: Not at all.
JK: So, when you were doing it in the beginning, did you have a way that you went about deciding what songs you were going to post yourself singing, or was it just what you felt like doing? How did you go about that?
D: In the beginning, I think I was just picking songs that I liked, but once the name Phatfffat started floating around Youtube, I would get requests, and I would do it that way. I kind of did have a little method. I tried to do the songs that were hot, that people were listening to at the time, and also when I would tag my video and put key words, I would put key words that I know people are going to search for, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the song.
JK: So it will show up in the related video and so forth?
D: Yeah. I think that’s how I got traffic to me, just by 1) doing the songs that I knew people would be looking for and 2) putting key words so I would pop up even if they weren’t looking for the song.
JK: Were you surprised at what kind of vehicle Youtube turned out to be?
D: I just went on there to see what people would say, outside of family and friends, because I know they are telling the truth, like “You Suck” or “We Hate You” or “You’re Good”. That’s the only reason I went on there. I had no idea. I thought I was going to be a little Youtube local something, and it would just stay there.
JK: So, it took off a lot bigger than you thought. Now, you were studying Music Education at Tarleton State University?
D: Yes, that’s right.
JK: Were you hoping to be a music teacher, and is that something that you’re still pursuing, or can you tell me a little bit more about that?
D: I wanted to be a private voice instructor. I’ve taken voice lessons since the seventh grade, and I did see how helpful it is. Even the most talented person could benefit from voice lessons. It’s not necessarily teaching you how to sing, but I just wanted to be a part of that, to enhance other people’s voices who love music just as much as I do. I still want to do that. Hopefully I can get in and out before 30, but I still want to continue in music education.
JK: Did you have to put that aside when you got the record deal?
D: Yes I did, and I’m upset, because now I want to go back to school, but it will happen. I just want to finish before 30. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but that’s my goal.
JK: Since you’ve been in the industry now for a couple of years since you’ve had your deal, I know it wasn’t something that you were aiming for initially, but have you found it to be different or similar to what you expected, based on notions that you had growing up, seeing the artists you like, compared to your personal experiences so far in the industry?
D: I think I won’t really have a true instance of that until I really get deep into it. Right now it’s cool, and it’s like I haven’t gotten to the hard part yet. Right now it’s the fun part. I’ve recorded my album and I do my shows, and I get to party, and I’m meeting all these other celebrities, so it is what I expected. I’ve been busy, busy, busy with the touring, and I haven’t had any drama yet.
JK: Tell me about the songs on the album. Who are some of the songwriters and producers involved in making the album?
D: Some of the producers are of course, Jermaine Dupri, Bryan-Michael Cox, No I.D., The Incredibles, and some of the writers are Johnta Austin, Cri$tyle, and Bryan wrote a few too, and Diddy wrote some.
JK: Wow! You’ve got some big names on there. Who wrote “You’re The One”?
D: Bryan wrote “You’re The One”. Bryan-Michal Cox.
JK: So, is this considered your second official single, because of “Can’t Stop” last summer?
D: We did put “Can’t Stop” out, but I think “You’re The One” is the official single, the first single. “Can’t Stop” was the one to get you going.
JK: I was going to say, it’s still changing, but it’s so different from how it was for a long time, the concept of a single, because we don’t have any physical singles anymore, it’s all digital, so you could have 3 or 4 singles floating around, and I guess whichever one becomes the most popular, that becomes the official single, I guess?
D: Mmm hmm.
JK: You mentioned the setbacks, because I know that originally, your album was supposed to come out last summer, right?
JK: What happened there, that made it go back a little bit?
D: We were originally under Island/Def Jam, which is Universal Music Group, and I think the passion wasn’t matching. The passion that me & Diddy had for the record and the project was not the same as what they had, and I guess they weren’t really supporting us. We just decided to leave, because if you’re not going to help me, then why am I here?
JK: So, his label was still being distributed by Universal at the time, and he decided to take it away from that?
D: Yes, and now we are independent. There’s another music group called Malaco, which is a smaller, more intimate situation, so I think that we’re good to go now.
JK: That’s cool. So, Malaco is involved in the distribution?
D: Mmm hmm.
JK: Well, they’re a Classic Soul label, so that’s good company to be in, I guess. Do you have a certain direction that you want to go with your music, or a mission? I mean, to me when I listen to “You’re The One”, it has that Classic Soul kind of vibe, but it’s still contemporary. I wondered, because I know on Youtube, you can view the demographics of who is watching your videos most and all that, so is that something that comes into play for you, or is it something that you don’t think about that much?
D: I always say that I’m trying to do my part to bring the real R&B back. Everything right now, and prior to right now, has been R&B/Pop or R&B/Hip Hop, but nobody has done just real soulful R&B in a while. I want to be a part of bringing that back. I don’t want to put down the other section, but it’s going to be appreciated, because it’s been missed, and people are still looking for that.
JK: So, you’re an R&B purist, I guess you could say.
JK: You have an album that’s online for free called Dondria Duets. Can you tell me about that, because I know you’re calling it a mixtape. What is the difference between that, and your official album that’s coming out in a few months?
D: Dondria Duets is 10 of the male R&B songs that are on the top of the charts, and I just re-mixed them. I put a female perspective on it. It’s the songs that everybody is playing on the radio still, and I thought it would be different, because not a lot of people really do R&B mixtapes. Most of them are usually Hip Hop or Rap mixtapes, so I thought it would be different. I wrote everything myself, and I think people are liking it. It’s getting a lot of downloads, and people are always saying the words on Twitter.
JK: So, is that something that you actually recorded with JD, or was that something that you just did at home?
D: I did it with him. We actually talked about doing it, and he brought it to me. I picked the songs, and then he gave me like a week to write everything, and we just went in and did within 3 or 4 days.
JK: Wow! That’s fast. When you do something like that for a project that’s available free for downloading, and since they’re all re-makes of other songs, do you have to go through the whole licensing process, as far as getting the publishing clearance, and making royalty percentage deals for using those songs, or how does that work?
D: First, we didn’t charge. It’s free. Because it’s free, we didn’t have to go through any of that. If we were to sell it, then we would have to do all that stuff.
JK: I wasn’t sure if it was free, if you had to still do that, because it’s almost a new medium, where people are doing that a lot more, having albums out for free before their album comes out. That’s cool. Who would you say, if you have them, are 2 or 3 of your pivotal influences, like singers or musicians that you admire, that you appreciate their art or what they’ve done?
D: I guess I really have to say Whitney Huston, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Beyoncé, and Karen Clark Sheard; she’s a Gospel artist. The first thing that drew me to them was that they all have powerful voices, number one, and number two, there is so much emotion behind it. All four, five or however many I just said, all of them can just stand onstage and sing, and you’re going to feel it. They don’t have to do anything else. They can stand onstage and their music consumes you. That motivates me, and I want to be able to do that. I am going to dance, but I want to be able to just stand there and sing, and just consume everybody. That shows power and real talent.
JK: Focusing on the voice.
JK: I know on one of your older Youtube videos where you were talking about yourself, you had mentioned that you wanted to learn guitar and that you played a little bit of piano. Is that something that’s still part of it for you?
D: Yeah, I want to learn. I haven’t really done much in that area right now, but I still want to do everything. I want to be able to learn as many instruments as I can, just to say I can play them, and when I do a live concert, to be playing them. I might be on the guitar, playing a song, and then I’d run over to the drums for the next song, and then come out with a harp. I just want to play everything.
Transcription by Nathan Stafford - You can e-mail Nathan here for transcription service info
Justin Kantor is a freelance journalist based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He has published his own magazine, The Hip Key, as well as contributing prolifically to the All-Music Guide and Berklee College of Music’s The Groove. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.