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Finding Yourself in the Music: Self Expression and Inner Truth

By Sara Flanders

This is the second installment of the Finding Yourself in the Music series.

Dinosoul performing at The Rex Theater. Photo by Sara Flanders

Donny Donovan thought she was a boy at a young age, but as she got older and got assigned to gendered sports teams and activities, she realized she was a girl who liked girls.

For years she felt something was wrong with her and denied her true feelings out of fear of getting bullied. She tried dating guys in high school, but realized that wasn’t what she wanted.

Her first experience openly dating a girl ended terribly when the girl was disowned from her parents. In college, Donovan, 28, was out but tried to keep it on the down-low due to her past experience.  Donovan, with support from family and friends, decided to fully come out after college once the music scene gave her the confidence she needed to accept who she was.

“I felt like I finally found some people who were like me,” Donovan said. “I felt accepted and it was easier for me to become who I was.”

Carolyn Hilliard, Donovan’s partner, didn’t come out until four years ago at the age of 32. She always knew the attraction was there, but didn’t have enough exposure to gay culture to understand or explore it.

After breaking up with her boyfriend of ten years, she met Donovan and something sparked inside her. She says her parents were shocked when she told them she was dating a woman, because it seemed like a sudden change after being with a guy for so long. Hilliard explained to them that these feelings had always been there and she was finally choosing to embrace it.

Although she was happy in her new relationship and had support from her friends and family, she still had an adjustment period and was partially in denial. Music helped her come to terms with her own feelings and find comfort in being herself.

“Being older, it’s different,” Hilliard said. “You have more confidence.”

The duo both had early starts in music. Donovan was always a creative person and learned how to play violin, guitar, and drums. Her early inspirations came from 90s hip-hop, but soon moved on to rock. One of her biggest influences is dark indie/synth-pop band Tegan and Sara. Donovan loved their music and voices, but was also inspired that the twin sisters were both openly gay.

Hilliard started playing music in kindergarten, but never played in an actual band until meeting Donovan and forming their band Dinosoul, which has now become a platform for them to spread their awareness. In general, the duo finds inspiration from expressive musicians and those who speak their truth.

“People in general like people who just own themselves and embrace who they are,” Hilliard said. “[Those are] people we look up to.”

When asked about the inspiration for the band name, both Donovan and Hilliard laughed. Hilliard explained that about a year into their relationship, Donovan cut her hair and had a mohawk that went all the way back and down her head and that she looked like a stegosaurus so she started calling her “Dino-Do”. After that they kept getting signs that the word dinosaur needed to be included in the band name. One night while at the gym, they even found a little dinosaur figurine on the floor. They also wanted a spiritual aspect in the band name and eventually came up with Dinosoul.

“We laughed about it for like two weeks,” Hilliard said. “But I’m glad we picked that name because ‘dino’ means ‘old,’ so it’s ‘old soul’ too.”

Finding inspiration in musicians like Tegan and Sara has led the duo to pursue dark indie/dark pop music that is synth driven and slightly electronic.

Donovan says their music is evolving and their lyrics are very psychological and always focus on inner-self battles and  how you respond to it and let it go. In their song “Ocean” Donovan sings “I’m dying in the ocean. I’m frozen, addicted to the pain; it’s got a hold on me. Wake up, break up to yourself.”

Hilliard feels their lyrics are universal because they are about inner turmoil and life experiences so anyone can relate to them. Overall they don’t do poetic storytelling but more truth statements like how to live for yourself and make the most out of life.

When the band first started they were going through a lot of spiritual changes in both their relationship and themselves and they needed a platform to be able to express it. In their song “Illusions”  they talk about finding your inner truth with the lyrics: “Illusions running through my mind. Feeling all so real, how could I be so wrong? How could this not be true? False it what we knew. The truth will never die. Look to the inside.”

“Writing is just something I do, it just comes out,” Donovan said. “It doesn’t help me, it’s just a part of me.”

As for performing, Hilliard had a hard time because she considers herself to be very shy and introverted; she didn’t even want to sing in front of Donovan at first. However, getting involved in the band allowed her to gain more confidence in herself and she was soon able to relay her messages and inner expression, which has been transformational for her. Donovan feels performing can either help or hurt her because there is a lot of anxiety over the expectations for the show and how there are things that will be out of their control.  

“Performing is tough, sometimes it’s amazing,” Donovan said. “Sometimes you’re just like ‘Yeah we are never doing this again.’”

The duo try to mingle with the audience at their shows as much as they can, although they usually try to wait until after their set so they can save their energy for the stage. Hilliard says they get tons of messages from fans of all ages saying they didn’t know they needed their music but found it. At one show in particular, a women came up to them saying her house had recently burned down, and she was going through a tough time, but their music helped.

“We want to be truthful in what we are doing,” Hilliard said. “Our mission statement is: Anybody that needs our music will find it.”

Hilliard finds the music scene in Pittsburgh to be inspiring because a lot of musicians, especially queer ones, own themselves. Donovan feels the music scene is overall inclusive, but there are times when it turns into a boys club, and she would like to see more support female to female. She feels that there is enough supply of musicians in the area but not enough demand. This leads to a lot of musicians going to other shows to support each other but that it can get exhausting. Overall there needs to be more fans and more promotion to people who aren’t musicians.

“There are people who like this type of music but have no idea we exist,” Donovan said. “If Tegan and Sara came here it would sell out, but there are amazing queer artists right here in front of you.”

Although the band has grown and changed throughout the past couple of years, Hilliard says they haven’t had any extreme highs or lows.

When they started the band, the duo decided not to have too many expectations so that harder times wouldn’t feel like such a blow. Having a record contract fall through was a hard time for them, but they say it opened up a lot of opportunities for them, including recently opening for Le Butcherettes at the Rex Theater. They consider every opportunity as a learning experience.

“You have to stay neutral,” Hilliard said. “Ground yourself with anything you do that has the potential for tremendous success because it can fall at any moment.”

Looking forward, the duo just wants to write, perform and spread their awareness to help others. Hilliard said they don’t need to be famous as long as they have the platform to express and support themselves.

Donovan says they are currently working on finding new band members and deciding how they want the band to ensemble. She would also like to be able to hire a team to help them out with booking because they are currently doing everything themselves in terms of managing the band.

The pair also want to open a sober bar for performers who don’t want to always perform for drunk people. They opened a pop-up sober bar last summer called Empath but would like to have a more permanent safe space for performers and those in the queer community.

“For me personally, I want to spread how powerful being sober is,” Hilliard said. “That doesn’t mean being sober completely, but being mindful and realizing there is more to life than going out every night to drink.”

Donovan’s advice for anyone looking to pursue music is to learn how to do everything yourself. She also said not to let anybody hold you back and make sure anyone who is involved knows their role. Hilliard, in agreement, said to make sure everyone who wants to be involved is in line with your music. She also says to listen to your gut so you don’t get swept up in the excitement because you will end up in a lot of lows if you don’t stay grounded.

For the general public, Hilliard says don’t be so serious, enjoy and embrace art, and try new things.

“Know your space and know not to compare yourself to anyone else,” Donovan said. “You are who you are and everyone has a gift.”

“Everybody has their path,” Hilliard said. “Everybody has amazing things to do on this earth.”
Dinosoul’s music can be found at Read Part 1 of the Finding Yourself in the Music series here. And the third and final installment here.

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