Lisa Donnelly (aka Mama D) has been crafting songs for 15 years and counting. A gypsy traveler at heart, she's penned tunes in Sweden, Nashville, San Francisco, and now Los Angeles, where she lives. After her songs appeared on ABC's wedding episode of Bachelorette star Ashley Hebert to JP Rosenbaum, she also launched a side business called songforus.com, in which she custom-writes love songs.
Whether she's in San Francisco singing with her friends Papa Bear and The Mowgli's, in Los Angeles recording, or backpacking through South America, Donnelly always brings her guitar with her—because she never knows what might spark a song. I caught up with the multi-talented musician to learn more about her roots and what it's like to be a female in the industry.
How has your music evolved since your first album?
I was in a band for four years called AM Pacific. That was my first full-length album that I ever did. One of the songs actually was put in a feature film, and that was my first paycheck for music beyond playing at a club or something. That introduced me to a different world in the music industry. That band started to dissolve, and I started to move into making a solo album. It was a crossroads for me. I thought about going to grad school, but my soul wouldn't let me do it. I have two college degrees, so I thought at some point I would get realistic, and thought of this as just a journey of my soul. But music has just become such a part of my being, and it's what I want to share with the world.
I've become a stronger musician in the full sense of the word. When I first wrote songs, I wasn't a musician. I was more of a poet who had a good sense of melody. I now have a better grasp on songwriting because I've written with so many different songwriters from different places. Something that's been cool in my past is that I've explored a lot of styles of music, but in the past few years, I've decided to lock in on a sound. I think sometimes when you explore the world you come back to your roots. I still like singing all kinds of music, but what I do now is more bluesy, and my background is in the blues and Americana.
Where did the name Mama D originate from?
My San Francisco nickname Mama D originated from my friend, singer, and songwriter Papa Bear because of two things. I tend to take care of people, especially when I'm working with 22-year-old band members who have maybe had too much beer and need to eat a burrito. There's that maternal force in me. I also love to sing the blues, and Papa Bear really recognized that blues mama in me. It was a joke at first that stuck.
What is it like working solo compared to being in a band?
There are totally different benefits and challenges. When you're in a band and it's going well, you have the support of the whole crew moving together. As a band, you're sharing. For example, Papa Bear and I have a great history as friends. That was a pivotal relationship for me. When I moved to San Francisco, I had been burnt out on the music industry and wanted to get back in love with it. That's what he's all about. I moved up to San Francisco, and lived with him and three other people. We would wake up, eat oatmeal, and write a song at the kitchen table.
As a solo artist, you really have to be a leader and have to do a lot more work as far as scheduling. It's your music and your vision, and you often hire people. Although my players are amazing friends who believe in me, it's like you're a boss of your own project and you have to hire people to carry that out. You have to be organized and strong to be a solo artist.
Both are totally rewarding. Any time I get to play with other great players, it's the best feeling in the world.
What was it like writing a song for the Bachelorette wedding? Can you describe that experience?
The whole experience was wonderful. Basically, I got the call that I had the opportunity to possibly do this. When they decided they liked my voice, they gave me information about the couple and said I could try to write a song for them and appear on the show. So I wrote three love songs in a couple days, and they liked one of them. It was definitely stressful because I only had a couple of weeks to get all of it together: the hair, the makeup, the wardrobe, the press, and getting the song produced. I don't think I slept much. Also, singing in front of 20 million people was definitely a different experience. I'm glad it happened at that point in my career where I was grounded enough to handle the pressure, but it was nerve-wracking for sure.
Then from that, I've started a side business where I custom-write love songs—whether it's a song about proposing or saying sorry. Mostly men hire me to write these songs. I Skype with them, get their story, put it into a song, and record it for them. Some people use it for the first dance at their wedding. Doing it, I've learned a lot about love—for instance, soldiers that had PTSD who were healed by love. I've had 40 clients so far, but it's building.
How has travel inspired your songwriting?
I do prefer to write my songs based on real experiences and feelings, so when I travel I get to see a completely different perspective on life. You go to a different culture and everything's different—the way that they look at life, how they define happiness. Having a different perspective gets me out of my box and my norm, and sometimes a really good song comes from that. It gives me the opportunity to connect with cultures. Travel reconnects you with that feeling of being so alive and teetering on the edge of the unknown.
What are some of the key challenges you face as a woman in the music industry—and how do you overcome them?
There are a lot of women in this industry, but it's still a man's world ultimately. Even beyond that, the male-female dynamic is tricky. With music, you're working on something so intimate and emotional. As I've gotten older, I've understood how to set clear boundaries from the get-go. There have definitely been times where it's hard to know what people's intentions are sometimes. As a woman, you want to believe that whoever is supporting your music is doing it for the right reasons. I've learned that the most important thing is to believe in myself first. As an artist, a lot of times we're waiting for validation. I've made strides with my music by putting my big girl pants on and believing and supporting what I do first, instead of waiting for the right label or manager. When I've done things on my own, the best things have happened.
What are you currently working on?
I've been singing backup for Shelby Lynn. She was one of the people I listened to growing up. It's been a really interesting year for me between the love song project and singing backup for Shelby and getting songs on television this year. I've just been building my career as a musician, and I'm going to continue doing that. Probably in the next year, I'll make another album. For the time being, I'm just writing with different artists.
I'm also going to travel. Music connects you with everybody. It's a universal language, and it's the fastest way to connect with other cultures. I'm embraced anywhere I go because music is this fabulous connector. If I bring my guitar, I can play music with the local musicians. People tend to watch music in Los Angeles with crossed arms. I just have to remind myself that wherever I go, the music is going to be.