We caught up with the talented Tanya Donelly for the second time, it seems that every time we talk Tanya is either in a different band or solo. Since she impressed us all as lead guitarist and cofounder of Throwing Muses, come to think of it she co-founded the Breeders with the Pixies bassist Kim Deal, before forming Belly in late 1991. Steve Janes catches up with the mercurial one and talks all thing ‘Star’ as well as their breakthrough single ‘Feed The Tree’
Belly have been described as an "alternative rock and based in Newport, Rhode Island”. Yes, Tanya Donelly was born there, but their story is of more complicated than that, you can’t talk of Belly without at least mentioning The Throwing Muses for which Tanya Donelly originally played lead guitar for, or Throwing Muses moving lock, stock and barrel to Boston; or touring Europe The Throwing Muses supported The Pixies. Before the Breeders were formed with guitarist Tanya and Pixies bass player Kim Deal. And that is not half of the story.
Belly was formed in Boston in 1991 when Tanya Donelly (vocals and guitar) left The Breeders and met up with the Gorman brothers, Chris (drums and percussion) and Thomas (keyboard and guitar), and Fred Abong (bass), a fellow musician from her days with Throwing Muses. They released the singles ‘Slow Dust‘, ‘Gepetto, and ‘Feed The Tree’ before they released their debut album, ‘Star‘, on January 23, 1993. ’Star’ was a critical success more importantly the release gained gold status in the US and a made the silver mark for album sales in the UK. "Star" earned Belly two Grammy nominations and two MTV award nominations.
I have managed to escape a busy office and prepare my notes, I seem to be interviewing 4AD band after 4AD band, but no complaints from me, for the label are in fine form The Pixies influence is still reverberating, Throwing Muses and Red House Painters go from strength to strength, The Breeders shinned too briefly and I have researched everything from the label since the days of great bands like Bauhaus, Birthday Party and This Mortal Coil and their individual style courtesy of the V23 design crew.
But today my mind is totally focused on one of the bands of the moment, actually more like the last month or so, and Belly lead singer and guitarist Tanya Donelly. Or at least I would have been if Belly’s US PR company had sent on the interview requests. Instead my magazine is less than sixteen hours from deadline, the computers are all tied up, so I retreat to the kitchen, and set up my pens, pad, my copy of ‘Star’, a tape recorder and phone mics and everything in perfect harmony, everything I need is set up by the microwave. The only disturbance is in the form of Frank Black’s self-titled album being played at volume, in the main office.
Thoughts return, all full of ‘Star’ the album seems to have come along just at the right time – but unfortunately my call to the States did not.
“Hi Tanya it’s…”
“What time is it?”
“Its 5:30pm, are you ok, I’m calling to inter…”
“In the evening?”
We eventually both caught up to speed, I apologised for disturbing her, unanticipated early alarm call, as she only had just a handful of hours of sleep, and thanks to interference on the phone line, which Tanya described as “aliens on the line”. My pause, is due to Tanya’s comments we have both watched too much X Files, know it sounds like I am mankind excuses, but, but…
My phone call comes in the middle of a string of TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic for Tanya and band mates, all of the extra duties are sandwiched in-between their increasingly busy touring schedule, Tonight in the UK, early in the morning on the East Coast, Tanya got off a late night flight, “from somewhere cool, Chicago I think.”
The talented singer-songwriter is now armed with a cup of coffee; all I can come up with is a soon to be chewed biro pen. ‘Star’ seems to reflect the darker side of childhood rather than the trip to the beach, or the first time at a fun fair.
“I think that the moments the album songs are not necessary the darker moments of my childhood. I mean a couple of songs, a couple of instances. I am not really obsessed with my childhood feelings but I do pay attention to other children. In a way, all of the childishness and stuff I never let go, I mean I never forced it out of our system, the way some adults are forced to force out of their system. There are only one or two tracks that refer to childhood, one refers to my childhood but, the other track is about other children that I know.”
Belly was named after Tanya’s favourite word which was chosen because, as she said back in 1991, "it’s both pretty and ugly" a bit of a paradox, not unlike some of the songs on ‘Star’
Could you take me through some of your favourite moments from ‘Star’?
“My favourite songs? Tanya reflects, “I think ‘Low Red Moon’ is probably my favourite cos that’s a king of good love song, a good successful love song. So that one. ‘Full Moon Empty Heart’ I do like although I wish we recorded it a little differently. I think those two are my favourites on the album.”
I have never known a band go through so many bass players.
“We are not trying to make it a theme! Fred Abong left to start working on his own stuff. Lesley was never a member of the band; she was very specifically filling in until we found somebody, so we did not actually lose her.”
Splitting hairs I think, band member or no, to have two bass palters in as many years it’s almost minus the drumsticks ‘Spinal Tap’.
The recording of ‘Star’ tweaked my interest. Eight of the albums songs recorded in Nashville with the remaining four recorded in North West England, in Liverpool.
“Nashville, that was to be near Chick (Graning, former lead singer of Anastasia Screamed and her betrothed) and we recorded in Liverpool because the studio there was one that Gil Norton wanted to use, so”
I decide not to push the Liverpool decision by Belly, as the bands lead singer had already told me, the North West studio was the choice of British producer of The Pixies 1989’s ‘Doolittle’, 90’s ‘Bossanova’, ‘91’s ‘Trompe Le Monde’ and Gil also worked with Throwing Muses a couple of times starting with the first untitled work back in 1986. He was the logical, familiar choice that had produced some amazing results for Boston’s or should I say, adopted Bostonians Belly.
I have heard your getting a little tour shy.
“No, I mean I am homesick definitely, but I am not tour shy necessarily.” I put that one down to a draw, I am dubious from another Boston guitarist that had had a few beers and was trying his best to give an honest appraisal of his contemporises, in the process saying some good things about Throwing Muses and The Breeders and Belly. I state all of this just so you don’t think I am being too divisive or negative.
What about the reaction to the album in America. 50,000 copies of ‘Star’ sold in seven days.
“Wow, that’s a lot, I haven’t talked to anybody. The first I heard about how well it was going was when I read it and that would have been Rolling Stone or whatever. That’s pretty awesome if it’s true.”
Well at the moment your No.2 in the Indie Singles Chart with ‘Feed The Tree’. No 1 with the album, in the Independent Album Chart and No.6 in the Network Chart, which is pretty impressive.
Are you at all surprised to the amount of press attention and the overwhelming successful reception to ‘Star’?
“Yeah, I am, it kind of unexpected and I am kind of unprepared for it as well.
Talk stays in the United States, with Belly’s deal with Sire Records in that ‘territory’.
“They are working really hard on ‘Star ‘and being really attentive and careful. But it’s hard to tell, do you know what I mean? Right now they’re paying attention but let see how long it lasts.”
And there speaks a voice of reason, Tanya Donelly, has survived three successful bands, toured every corner of the world. She has not lost her innocence or curiosity but she has also gained a more balanced, relaxed and, dare I say it, pragmatic view of the music industry.
Tanya informs me that tomorrow she’s in Scotland playing Glasgow, “I can’t remember where we are tomorrow; so far the reaction has been pretty good.”
The bands video for their breakthrough single ‘Feed The Tree’ is all over MTV and has been aired across Europe and The States, it’s has gone down well, it seems to be a big production, any worries?
“A little bit, just because of the money spent and cos the guys that made the video were kind of idiots in some ways. Well… I mean the director of ‘Feed The Tree’ was very pretentious and very LA.”
Time catches up on us, as I wish her and the band much success, my final goodbye is in the form of, hope the tour goes well. “I think it will” Yeah so do I.
Belly would go on to sell over 800,000 copies of ‘Star’ and have a very successful American tour with Radiohead in support, making early in roads across the water and seemed never-ending European Tour which also graced these shores.
Pixies In Profile http://www.withguitars.com/just-gigantic-the-tale-of-the-pixies/
4AD Belly Profile http://www.4ad.com/belly/profile/
Radiohead In ’93 – http://www.withguitars.com/radiohead-pop-is-dead/