Interview: JT Donaldson

All house music lovers are well familiar with the name JT Donaldson, the globetrotting DJ/ producer who has his own recording label, Gallery Music Group, and collaborated with other famed DJs and producers, including Spencer Kincey, Lance DeSardi, Tim Shumaker, DJ Heather, Diz, Colette, Chris Nazuka and Cpen. After releasing 3 mixed CDs, 2 full length albums under monikers 2nd Shift and Undercover Agency and having travelled the world spinning at the biggest clubs, JT’s currently working on his 3rd album. JUICE speaks to JT about his visit to Malaysia 7 years ago and his guilty pleasure in music when he rocked out Sultan Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental recently.

You’ve been to Malaysia before. What do you love about our country?
The people are so nice, pleasant and welcoming. It’s a tropical environment and an urban setting which I think is a really cool contrast.

What did you do on your last visit that you wanna do again?
Last time we were here for a week, so we did a lot of things. I don’t think I can do it this time either, but I would love to go outside of the city, maybe a couple of hours away. The furthest we went out the last time was Batu Caves. Malaysia is very rich in culture, that’s what I love and (I want) to get a grasp of that and all the cultural arts and crafts.

The last time you were here was about 7 or 8 yrs ago. What has changed with you?
A lot has changed! I moved from Chicago to San Francisco and now I’m living in Brooklyn. I’ve done the regional jumping around. I’ve started a record label, I’ve done it for about 7 years now… and a lot are still the same too. I’m still doing music and music production, and DJing.

What’s the difference when you spin under diff names or labels?
I produce under a different name, so some of my records are under a different alias. It depends on who I’m working with. I do my own stuff but I also love to collaborate with people. If it’s 2nd Shift then it’s with Tim Shumaker, and if it’s Undercover Agency then it’s me and Lance DeSardi.

Who do you really wanna work with and why?
I don’t even know. I’d really like to explore different styles of music. I’m gonna be collaborating with Lisa Shaw – I’m writing a song with her on my new album. I toured around a lot with her. I’d like to start working with some MCs on some of my hip hop stuff. Anyone that I respect and admire, I love to work with people, so it’s pretty much open season.

What’s the most played track on your pod right now?
There’s this one track, a jazz-ish, R&B, classic rock track – I know it’s really strange – by Archie Whitewater and it’s a song called ‘Cross Country’. It was sampled by Common on his last album. But the original is really beautiful. I have it on repeat right now!

What track do you really like but keep secret because it’s potentially embarrassing?
My guilty pleasure? (Laughs) I’ll tell you what’s funny. I told my girlfriend, there used to be a TV show called Growing Pains with Kirk Cameron. I told her, “Baby I don’t know why but I wake up with this song in my head,” and I started singing it to her, and she starts laughing! But there are some weird little things like that. I think it’s a guilty pleasure because that’s probably the reason why I’m singing it.

Speaking of Growing Pains, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I went to school there. I have an older brother who turned me onto music. He’s 7 years older than I am. When he was in high school, I was still this little kid. He’d be listening to electronic music and that was the first time I had heard it.

Do you still feel like a small town boy who’s made it in the great big world?
I feel that way when I go home sometimes. It’s really interesting because I’ve come so far. When I first started DJing, even when I left Dallas, it took me 3 or 4 years before I started to travel. And once it started, it just continued! I’m really fortunate. I still feel my roots are there, it’s much simpler there. I miss Dallas and my family, but at the time, it wasn’t the right place to be. I needed to expand.

After travelling the world and having spent part of your life in Chicago, NY, and LA, where’s home for you?
Home now is in Brooklyn! Dallas will always have the homey, comforting feel… but then again, I’ve spent 5 years in LA, 4 years in San Francisco, so when I go to those places, I’m so comfortable and I know a tonne of people because I’ve lived there. Those places still feel really familiar as well.

What must you bring with you when you travel?
I’m a really light packer actually. Usually I just need my headphones and CDs and a change of clothes. I always have my laptop. But nothing really irregular. This time on long haul flights, definitely eye mask and ear plugs.

You must have a lot of frequent flyer miles by now, do you ever feel guilty about how detrimental flying is to the environment?
I don’t feel guilty about travelling but I’m definitely conscious when I’m at home. For instance when I’m home I open the windows and I don’t have to turn on the lights. Also partly because I don’t wanna spend money on the electic bill! (Laughs) I also don’t have a car anymore. I travel public transportation all the time in New York which is a great place to be to do that, and I try to be conscious about carbon footprint. You have to recycle in New York so that’s good. They’ll fine you if you don’t recycle. I also have some friends who have started a magazine about green living. It’s nice to see your friends involved in something like that and making a difference. It’s very cool.

Which celebrity do you wanna hook up with?
Scarlett Johansson’s kinda alright. She’s curvy! I don’t think she can act that well though and her album’s terrible, but I see her in the Louis Vuitton ads and she just has that old Hollywood kinda feel.

What’s your favourite era?
Early jazz, like 50s jazz. Not so much big band or swing stuff, but like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie… and what I loved was when they used to go down to Latin America and collaborate with the artists there. Dizzy was big on that. I love the Latin jazz stuff. To me that’s one of the most expressive forms of music. And to see such talented people just put out so much music gives me the push to keep things going and not stop making music.

Do you feel the pressure to keep it moving all the time?
Completely. Right now, I feel the pressure to not repeat myself. I’ve been doing music for 15 years professionally and I don’t want to keep doing what I’ve been doing but I don’t want to lose my audience either. I want to bring them on the journey with me but I feel like I need to try new things, like the hip hop stuff. My new album has a track that sounds like you’re at a jazz club. They’re basically session players who are friends of mine. I’m doing a track that’s completely left from what people know me for.

What do you think of Malaysian women?
They’re very beautiful. I don’t know ’cause I’m not supposed to be looking! (Laughs). But what I noticed about Malaysian women is when they go out, they like to dress up and look clean and polished. There’s a good vibe and a level of class to the girls here, which I think is cool.

Cop a listen to JT Donaldson at