Dondria Nicole on name change, "Coattails," and life after being signed.
You hear that it happens but you never see it for yourself. It’s the proverbial ‘Loch Ness Monster’ or the story about how a group of survivors were stranded on an island and had to catch fish with their bare hands and eat it raw just to survive. But chances are you have heard of a YouTube sensation that built her fanbase one cover at a time: Phatfffat. Of course that was her YouTube username back then but as an artist she is known as Dondria Nicole.
Dondria would post her rendition of current songs and favorite throwbacks, leaving her fanbase anxious for more everytime. Her views started to go from hundreds to hundred-thousands quickly and one of those audience members happened to be mega-producer/songwriter, Jermaine Dupri. Dondria played it safe when JD first reached out to her online as she could not verify if it was really the So So Def CEO trying to reach out to her. She returned his call about a month later and the rest was history.
Dondria Nicole has been cited for exceptional vocal ability and a signature 90’s R&B sound. She has released a few mixtapes, the “Dondria Duets” series that features her on the same songs as Maxwell, Jon B., Dru Hill, Chris Brown. She worked with top producers and writers on her debut album Dondria vs. Phatfffat, such as Johnta Austin, Bryan-Michael Cox and of course JD himself. It was a tribute to her old fans but also an introduction to her new ones and featured all original music including the hit “You’re The One,” a gospel-driven but contemporary R&B track that solidified her vocal ability, reaching #14 on the Billboard Charts – gaining her performances on Good Day ATL and the Monique show.
She currently has a single, “Coattail” which she debuted at NYC’s longest-running R&B/Soul Showcase, Sol Village on Feb 19, 2014. Below Dondria Nicole speaks about her experience as a signed artist and the transition from YouTube star to one of the most promising R&B artists of today.
You had the amazing opportunity for your first tour as the opening act for the Passion Pain and Pleasure tour with Monica and Trey Songz. Tell us about your experience and what it was like to perform on the same platforms with two accomplished artists…
It was an awesome experience; I had the pleasure of opening for two great artists. They helped me a lot with just adapting to everything – being the new artist, the opening, and finding what works for me and what doesn’t. You don’t get all the privileges that they do [laughs jokingly] but they really did look out for me and make sure that I was taken care of and it was a great experience. Also, not many opening acts can say that the audience knew their song - it was awesome.
How has this tour shaped your performances? We know you’re used to performing in front of a camera for thousands of people but this is live and in-time – it must be a different type of rush!
Yes it’s definitely different but it’s amazing to perform live and feel the energy of the crowd. It has taught me that whatever I think in my head, do it ten times bigger because the people all the way in the back should be able to see and hear exactly what the people in the front row do.
What advice did Monica and Trey Songz give you while out on the road?
They told me to not be afraid of my gift. I had a tendency of holding back, being safe. And it was my first tour so I did not want to mess anything up. Trey was like “you can sing – show them… show off” because being on radio is one thing but when you perform you can show them who you are really.
The Passion Pain and Pleasure tour was cross country to about 24 cities. What city was your favorite to perform in and why?
My favorite place was to perform was Philly. They’re just like – I don’t know! They showed a lot of love! I felt like they knew all of the songs, not just “You’re The One,” even stuff no one else knew. It’s like “how do yall know this?!” [laughs]. New York was good too cause we did two shows back to back and the energy was crazy and amazing.
Jermaine Dupri discovered you on YouTube. You have since been signed to his label So So Def. Would you ever sign with another label or is So So Def home for you? / How has your relationship with JD changed over the years?
It is home for me. I definitely, in a perfect world, would love to stay there and just hope for the best. My relationship with Jermaine Dupri has gotten better – it grows everyday as far as communication. I’m a lot more vocal now about what I want and what I think I should do instead of just doing what people tell me. It’s like a brother/sister thing. I look up to him as a mentor as well but it’s like the big brother you look up to but don’t tell him.
Your original fans know you as Phatfffat and as a signed artist you have been going by the moniker of “Dondria.” Explain to us why the name change to “Dondria Nicole.” Is this a power move, something strategic or is it an artistic change?
I’m going to say that it’s artistic. It can go along the strategic lines, but it’s more about me becoming a new woman. I don’t want to be known as the same ‘Phatfffat’ or Dondria that people saw me as. It’s about evolving and progressing naturally as an artist.
You are coming out with a brand new single for this year. Tell us what it’s about and how it reflects where you are in life…
It’s called “Coattail.” It’s uptempo but it has an old-school feel. I love it. You can just jam to it. It’s basically celebrating being confident, knowing you are, and what you want in life and just owning it. It’s dropping tomorrow. We’re in the promotional stages now and I am really excited to give it to the media outlets.
TheNext2shine will be first though, right?
Of course [laughs]. We’re going to let you hear it today!
Your YouTube account now has over 35 million views. How does that feel to know that that many people have seen your videos, heard you sing and many of them are die-hard fans? Do you still get requests?
It feels amazing. YouTube is where I got started so I hold it very close to my heart. I’ll always put stuff up. So to continue to grow and see those kinds of numbers – it touches me. I still get requests all the time. All of the requests lately have been “Drunk In Love.” Some people have said some of Sevyn stuff.
You have a great following that started through YouTube but so many others have come to love your music and celebrate your gift. What is the difference between your old fans and new fans that you notice when you interact with them personally or online?
My old fans don’t care if I trip, crack on a note – they don’t care. They are die-hard and love me for whatever. If I put a song out and they don’t like it, they are still going to buy it because they love what I do, you know. The new fans [laughs]… can be a little bit more harsh! But it’s cool, I welcome it all. I’m a big girl and at the end of the day I believe in myself and my talent and believe that I deserve to be here.
So you’re single is coming out but what is the next project you are working on and what can we expect from this body of work? Dondria Duets 4?
I don’t know about another Dondria Duets right now… but I am working on an EP, working on an album, working on singles, but the EP is next about 6 or 7 songs. This EP will be all original music this time cause people know that I usually include covers or remixes of 90’s R&B songs and it’s just the new me. All new, all mature, grown, sassy, new music. It will be a mixture of ballads and uptempos. Definitely have 2 or 3 ballads but I want to be more diverse and be able to appeal to everyone – not everyone wants to hear a ballad all the time!
But I like my ballads…
I do too… I do too! [laughs]
Who are some of the new writers and producers you are working with on your new music?
So far I have worked with a producer by the name of LT Moe and writers Carmael and Tre Ace. Also producer Fem 9 Music is someone I’ve worked with and… myself as a writer!
How much more involved are you with writing and what is the process like for you?
I am much, much more involved. I can’t say that I was even confident in it before. But being in this industry and knowing that this is what you want to do, you have to find ways to stay in it and constantly grow with it. It can be a very rewarding thing, not just monetarily. If you write about things that you believe in or things that you’re passionate about then you can really enjoy it – that’s what makes me enjoy it. Personally, I like to come up with a melody first and listen to it then put words to that. I am more vocal now too – especially if I am in the room with the writers I’ll suggest and say like “let’s try this.”
You released your first Christmas single “Ain’t No Way” this past holiday and it was received with great recognition. Tell us about that session with songwriter TC and how you decided to do that song…
TC is a great friend of mine and we were talking randomly when I had the thought: “I never did a Christmas song. Let’s do one.” I initially thought I was going to do some cover of like Silent Night or something. I didn’t plan on doing an original but when were in the studio together he pulled up a track and I was like “Oh, we’re doing this from scratch?!” and it was just magic to my ears – I had to do it. He did not reference cause we literally wrote it line by line. We wrote a line then recorded it and so on. TC is not normal, I mean he’s just amazing as a songwriter and vocally.