Back to Star: A conversation with Tanya Donelly on the return of 90s alternative faves Belly

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Belly | photo courtesy of the artist
Belly | photo courtesy of the artist

On an MTV set in 1993, Tanya Donelly was interviewed in support of Star, the debut record she’d just released with her new band Belly. She exchanged several minutes-worth of witty banter with Kennedy, the mononymous veejay who always seemed to face the challenge of having to concurrently contain her effusive enthusiasm and her runaway ADHD. By contrast, the singer shows a unique guile and sly introspection, an unassuming administrator of a remarkably sharp tongue. Dressed in dark clothing and smoking a cigarette, Donelly is clearly a little uneasy in the spotlight, as she humors the host’s exuberant if erratic interrogation. Prompted early in the interview to address her place as a frontwoman in a predominantly male industry, Donelly responds almost immediately, as though she’d already given it plenty of thought, “Kurt Cobain’s allowed to be Kurt Cobain, and Michael Stipe’s allowed to be Michael Stipe, but it’s really hard to find a niche as a female. They have to put you somewhere.”

When asked about that quote during a recent interview with us, she debriefs about the industry’s evolution over the last two decades, in that regard. “I do think that’s updatable now, happily.” Twenty-three years on, the singer has rallied her seminal ‘90s dream pop band Belly for a new record and a reunion tour – which makes a much anticipated stop in Philadelphia this Sunday at Union Transfer – and when asked to reflect again on the role she played in several ways as pioneering female voice in a generally male-dominated industry, she seems glad to revisit. “I don’t think that the glass ceiling is totally smashed, but I do think that women in music are sort of taken much more individually now than back then. And I also think it comes in cycles, you know, that that waxes and wanes for women. And so there will be spaces sort of where everything feels like it’s moving forward, and then there’ll be a step back. But I would say for the most part I think that the playing field is much more level now than it was in the ‘80s.”

The Kennedy interview serves as a time capsule that distills a snapshot of the attitudes and aesthetic of what the early 90’s called “alternative music,” which at the time was something of a revolution. Several prominent flannel-clad rockers from Seattle infused thrash and punk with pop and even psychedelia, creating a sound that spawned like a Phoenix from the smoldering ashes and combustible excesses of hegemonic hair metal. Meanwhile, their East Coast counterparts built on the foundations of the lo-fi indie-rock and pop craft of bands like Half-Japanese, Beat Happening and The Replacements. The results served to rally alienated audiences and mingle the margins with the mainstream across genres, and the new sounds mounted a grassroots groundswell that invaded American college radio stations everywhere.

“I’m gonna use a really dorky and potentially lame analogy,” warns Donelly, when asked to describe in her own words her place in the context of that cultural tapestry, “but I feel like the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s were like several tributaries, sort of all coming together into this big river. And then the doors got kicked open by The Breeders and by Nirvana, and the plains flooded.” She laughs as she dismisses her own metaphor as cliché.

When pressed for more of a first-person narrative, Donelly acknowledges with grace and modesty almost as fast as she can redirect the veneration back to her forebears. “It feels great,” she says, “when there’s a genuine connection, and someone comes up to me now and says ‘that meant so much to me,’ I immediately go to my place, my personal history, of the people who have held that position in my life. So it feels amazing. And I think that that contributes to a continuum, a music continuum, and I’m very grateful to be part of that.”

Twenty-three years later, and it seems she’s still a little uneasy in that spotlight. But her genuine humility aside, Tanya Donelly was a trailblazing postergirl of a quintessentially American cultural movement, a sort of standard-bearer of a burgeoning music scene who had an indisputable hand in guiding its evolution and influence from its opening chords. Where any aspiring rockstar would been thrilled to find just one, Donelly came up with three record- and trend-setting, genre-bending bands, all in the span of ten years and beginning at the age of 15. And, like a Beatle, she did it all by her 30th birthday.

Will The Real Ramona Please Stand Up?

As teenagers living in Rhode Island in the early ‘80s, Donelly and step-sister Kristin Hersh cofounded Throwing Muses, who just a few years later would become the first American band signed to influential British indie pop powerhouse label 4AD. The Muses’ music was uniquely trademarked primarily by Hersh’s rich warbles and quirky melodies, cast against Donelly’s characteristic lead and rhythm guitar style and backing vocals. Their lyrics spin surrealism, and Donelly’s pop rhythms — by all counts more conventional by contrast with Hersh — served to ground the abstract poetry that at the time was primarily in Hersh’s command. Their first few records document the process of two sublimely gifted songwriters composing in complement while at the same time feeling their ways toward independent artistic voice.

Deal-ing

By 1990, Donelly had started a side project with Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal and that year, The Breeders were born. Their wildly innovative debut record Pod offered promisingly spare and gritty rock and pop balladeering too, with a uniquely insightful Beatles cover included for good measure.

And with that, Donelly packed up her latest demos, originally destined for the Breeders’ second effort, and moved back home. Insert abrupt record-screech noise here.

“That decision was based just on logistics,” she clarifies in defense. “It had nothing to do with not being in The Breeders.” It was as though she were used to hearing the same requisite but blameless question. “[Kim] was about to go off on like a year-long tour with The Pixies, and I didn’t wanna wait. So, that’s when I decided that I would just form my own band, at that point.“

At just 24 years old, the singer who had already enjoyed some commercial success and critical acclaim with two bands had decided consciously to step out on her own. And she concedes, ”It was scary. Definitely. And it felt somewhat foolhardy at the time!” She laughs intermittently, as she recounts the feelings around that crossroads. “Yeah, it did. Definitely, believe me — I was aware of the fact that I was doing something super weird by leaving The Breeders! There was NO question that I was aware of what a risk that was.” She adds, warmly, “And I loved playing with Kim and [her sister] Kelley and Josephine [Wiggs], and I love [them as] people, too, so it was an emotional risk as well as, you know, a musical risk.”

Past The Window Sideways

Looking back though, the singer explains the rationale that helped set the stage for Belly to happen. “I really wanted to play at the time with Fred Abong, who had left The Muses when I did, and Tom and Chris Gorman, who I’d always wanted to play with — they’d been in bands that I really loved.” As Donelly describes it, what she felt most fortunate about at that point was having been afforded the cherished support of her hometown, which she credits for having lent her all the confidence she needed to put her band together. “It really kind of gave me the foundation to do it. Whereas I don’t think I would have had the balls if it had just been me, you know, sort of just leaving The Breeders and doing something solo under my name, which there was some push for from the label.”

Fred Abong and the Gorman brothers had come out of Newport’s hardcore scene, and the three of them, says Donelly, greatly impacted and influenced the recording and production of her demos, and the ultimate shape that their first record would take. ”I’m a collaborative musician, in general. So I welcome input, I always have. And I think that they were ready to do something more melodic, and I was ready to do something more straightforward, and so those two yearnings came together nicely.”

The result of that collaborative spirit and the first band helmed by Donelly was Star, an inspired, haunting, sprawling dreamscape of a debut album. The record’s fifteen tracks are each pieces of a broader mystical mural, almost a concept record in its cohesive motifs and capacity for storytelling. That it’s so frequently described in terms of fairytale may be testament to the soaring and infectious pop hooks with which the band package the poetry. But Donelly’s vibrant, evocative and often ominous lyrics describe family gravesites, full moons and blood moons, decapitated dolls and a woman who walks with a dead dog tied to her back. Over the spare guitar lead in “Witch,” she harrowingly admonishes, “you’re not safe, in this house.” Often far from fantasy, much of the material is convoluted, dark and disquieting, the stuff of the most disturbing kind of horror films.

Donelly laughs at the observation and counters, “like the twins in the hallway, from The Shining?” In another interview, she had described proverbially the process of writing Star as killing her childhood, and when asked about that clarifies, “I think what I meant by ‘killing my childhood’ is that I was sort of maybe putting that piece to bed. It’s almost like putting my childhood to bed. It’s a lullaby!,” she laughs, “like, go to sleep now… forever…”

“You know,” she continues, ”I’m a very weird processor of my experience, and so I never do it head-on, I always have this sort of, as you said, convoluted and somewhat opaque — even to myself, sometimes — way of processing my experiences. And so Star was my way of navigating at that point twenty-plus years of stories that needed to be wrapped up.” Still, the mysticism, she says, was no passing phase. “No, it’s still very much part of who I am. That’s the landscape of my psyche, and it always will be, that curiosity and that interest and that research.”

Star was an immediate and international first splash for the band, charting at number 2 in the UK and attaining gold-record status. That year Belly would tour as joint headliners with Radiohead, where Donelly sang duets live with Thom Yorke on her country-colored breakup ballad “Untogether.” A year later, the band was nominated for a pair of Grammys.

Too Many Women

Being a female, though, in that scene wasn’t without its hurdles. When asked whether she’d encountered sexism, she was quite candid about her experience. “Oh, absolutely. I mean, I would say that we noticed it actually more in the industry, in two ways. There were not even close to as many female executives, first of all — and so that sets a tone, you know?” Referring back to the 1993 MTV interview with Kennedy, she continues, “And absolutely, when I talk about the people that were most actively trying to categorize us, that’s where a lot of it came from. There was just sort of like a ‘where we gonna put her?’ kind of vibe, you know, ‘what are we gonna call this?,’ whereas I think historically — at that point, anyway — men kind of were much more allowed to stand on their own, and carve their own space.”

Regarding their 1993 hit “Gepetto,” the singer recalls, “I mean I’ve actually had someone say to my face: ‘there are too many women on the radio right now, we can’t put the single on.’ They basically said ‘we’re gonna hold this one. We’re gonna hold it, and we’re not gonna push it right now.’ Completely unapologetically, he said it to me!,” she laughs, “as though it were just this, like, unfortunate fact… That was a record company quote! Obviously we somewhat successfully pushed back on that. And unfortunately, the person who it’s coming from, that perspective, they don’t view that as sexism, do you know what I mean? They just view it as sort of the hard reality of the business. And that’s very difficult to combat, when it’s a perspective shift. When you’re coming at somebody saying, that’s unhealthy, and they don’t view it as unhealthy, there’s a fundamental sea change that has to happen in that perspective that’s much more difficult than someone who views themselves as being sexist, and that’s unapologetically sexist, you know what I mean? When you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t think of themselves as being fundamentally gender-polarizing, and you have to say, ‘yes you are being gender-polarizing right now!,’ that conversation is lengthy, you know? It’s not a short sit-down.”

When asked whether it was difficult to overcome tendencies toward introversion and to confront the record company decision-makers about that, Donelly said, “well, yeah, I mean I definitely am shy — not so much anymore, but yeah, back then. I think that there was a real sort of schism in me where, yes, I was initially a wary person and a nervous person and a shy person, but something like that would definitely push a button where I was happy to rise to the occasion.”

Puberty

King was the band’s 1995 sophomore follow-up to Star, and in many ways represented a new direction for Belly. While Star was produced by Gil Norton and Tracy Chisolm, the band tapped rock ‘n roll legend Glyn Johns for King. Fred Abong, who had quit the band during the recording of Star, was replaced by former L7 bassist Gail Greenwood. “[Gail’s] got a very heavy punk rock background, and so she brought even more of that,” remembers Donelly. “But you know what, I say that, but she’s also I have to say one of the most melodically interesting bass players that I’ve ever played with, so even though she has that hardness, she also writes beautiful parts. Which I think Tom and Chris also have in common, which is kind of perfect, the best of both.” Beyond those evolutions, the music and lyrical subject matter shifted too, away from psychedelic dream pop as the band forayed toward bigger, more polished pop hooks.

Although twenty years later the record still stands out as an underrated ‘90s music gem, King wasn’t received at the time by fans or critics as well as Star had been. Combined with the stress of eighteen months of non-stop touring that led invariably to infighting, the band ultimately collapsed under that weight, and in 1996 called it quits. As AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine put it succinctly, “the album and the group deserved a better fate.”

“Originally,” recalls Donelly about putting King together, “we hadn’t really come to a point where there was too much stress yet, and we actually really enjoyed writing that album together. It was really when we got into the studio where things got a little trickier and stickier. Nothing to do with Glyn — he helmed it the best that he could — and we all decided going in that it was gonna be a “live” album. And you know we left that studio feeling really good about it, and to this day I feel really good about that album. It was just a real stew of label pressure that we were escaping from, we basically said no one gets to come and listen to it ‘til we’re done, because we were nervous about that input.”

Regarding the strains of being on the road, the singer notes, “It was also, we had come off a very long tour, we were still kind of exhausted from that. The politics and the dynamics were tricky at that point, but when I listen to it now — I never listen to my catalogue, but when I’ve been listening to stuff to relearn things for this [reunion] tour, there are points when we’re actually laughing, and it sounds so joyful to me now! So I’m glad that that’s there. Like even “Judas My Heart” to me has such a positive feel to it, you know?”

Martin Aston’s epic narrative of that era, The Story of 4AD, quotes company co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell’s perception of King: “it wasn’t the album Tanya was hoping for.” Donelly, though, takes issue with that dismissal. “Mmmm, it’s more complicated than that. I think that maybe had we walked away from it and then come back months later, there are things that we would’ve tweaked. There are songs that I wish we’d put on and songs that I wish we hadn’t — or I should be more specific, there’s *a* song that I wish we’d put on and *a* song that I wish we hadn’t — and things like that, rather than just, we all walked away, went home, and didn’t come back together again ‘til it was time to tour. So, revisiting it, perhaps, afterwards would’ve changed a couple of things. But honestly,” she laughs, “you know — and I might be glossing over now because things are so peaceful and wonderful between us now! — it’s very difficult for us now to trace the reasons for why we had negative feelings after that album, because we’re all so proud of it now.”

Reflecting on their fate, the singer notes, “We probably coulda duked it out for another album if we had done something — mediation, or if someone had just stepped forward and said, ‘let’s not lose this,’ you know? We just were all wiped. And then the King tour was just so, so long, and that kinda put the nail in it.” She adds, “it was a tricky time, I mean, you put anybody together that tightly for an extended amount of time… it’s a very rare band that can, maintain their mutual love.

Re-Together

That makes Belly a rare band. Even if they weren’t able to keep it together after a pair of remarkable albums in the 1990s, the four have remained friends and even contributed to one another’s projects over the years. To hear Tanya Donelly talk about it, the reunion with Greenwood and the Gormans that they’d been considering for some time now was almost a natural evolution, and has been fulfilling for all four of them. The announcement reverberated on all the major music news sites, and tickets to the tour began to sell quickly.

When asked whether writing and recording an album together again for the first time in two decades felt new, or more old and familiar, the singer answered quickly, “oh it feels very new. Very very new. The songs are all very different. Everyone has been writing, every single one of us has been playing music for the past twenty years, everyone’s bringing their new experience into it, and the songs are all very different to each other, which I really like, because that’s kinda what I’m used to now. And so that’s super fun, and we’re really loving the new stuff, and really focused on it, actually. It does feel very new.”

Anticipation for that new material is high, and they’ve teased fans at their recent shows by airing out cuts from the upcoming record. That said, with the first few weeks of their reunion tour behind them, Donelly and company have set expectations for these shows  – including this Sunday’s Union Transfer gig – to celebrate their most beloved catalog. “Settle in,” the singer advised at a recent UK show, “we’re going to play almost everything.”

Belly performs at Union Transfer on Sunday, August 14th; tickets are still available, more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

Belly | photo courtesy of the artist
Belly | photo courtesy of the artist

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