Q Magazine

The Q Interview: Tanya Donelly

The gifted guitarist and vocalist who helped shape the sound of alternative rock can still make you feel everything

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The genre that gave rise to more than a few important figures in what was marketed as alternative is now past the 30-year mark. Not that anyone is truly counting off each album, each person who was there. Yes, there are stalwarts who will gladly argue the point. However, Tanya Donelly knows where she fits in. As co-founder (with step-sister Kristen Hersh) of Throwing Muses and then frontperson for Belly (and a tip of the guitar to The Breeders), the familiarity of her work is comfortable. The deeper narrative, however, is profoundly moving towards something different. That journey is where we step in. [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted before Belly undertook the shows noted below].

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qtanya donelly press photo bkelly davidson
Source: ©Kelly Davidson

There's a little bit of nostalgia here in the present day. You're going to do some Belly shows, supported on a few fall dates by the Parkington Sisters. But then Belly is going out to support The Breeders. How did you get to this algorithm?

I made an album with the Parkington Sisters, and they're very good friends of mine. They also have played with Belly. I could spend the entirety of this interview talking about how much I love them. It's really five East Coast shows and four West Coast shows. But on the East Coast the Parkington Sisters are opening for us, and I will be doing some songs with them, and then they will be playing with us.

And then on the West Coast we are opening for The Breeders, and then I'm going to be doing... I don't know yet! I'm waiting for Kim [Deal]. I just said, 'Give me a week's notice what I'm doing. Give me a heads-up. What am I playing with you guys?' [Laughs]

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Do you have any sense about what is drawing a lot of those bands back together as far as reissues and doing gigs?

This is like purely anecdotal. My children and their friends... there's a little bit of a Nineties renaissance.

In the instances of the Breeders and Belly, the people who bought those albums were sometimes a decade younger than we were. And there were a lot of people who, I think, feel they missed a stage. So they're very excited to be present for it. Now, when people reunite — I know this is the kind of word that many of my peers are allergic to, but there's a nostalgic piece to it. I don't mean that in the sense that people are trying to relive their childhood. It's more like being homesick for music and for shows that meant something to you.

I was also wondering three years on from the pandemic, did we miss something in that time and now we're so hungry for it. Does that catch you at all?

I think there's a pretty significant percentage of people my age who feel "Okay. The pause of lockdown gave me permission to be choosier about what I do." And some don't want to go experience everything anymore. I think it depends on who you're talking about in terms of the long-term psychological impact.

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You have navigated some interesting paths. So if you want to talk for the next hour about the Parkington Sisters album, I'm all for it. Because for wont of a better description, the album [2020's Tanya Donelly and The Parkington Sisters] is gorgeous. You wouldn't even know if you weren't familiar, that they were all covers because your delivery is mesmerizing.

Thank you. I mean, credit where it's due. [American Laundromat's] Joseph Spadaro reached out to me on the heels of Juliana's solo covers albums [2018's Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John and 2019's Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police]. He said, "Would you ever wanna do something like that?" I said, "I don't know how great that would be." He wouldn't give up, and he kind of came back again and said, "What are the songs that you just can't go a week, a day, without them?"

And that appeals to me hugely because I do love those songs, and they are on that album. But my main concern would be cohesion, having something that sounds like an album. So, the Parkingtons came to mind for me in terms of laying a cohesive, strong personality that would take all of those different artists that we would be covering and give them a home that sounded like one place.

Did you go into the studio all together?

Yes. With Jon Evans who has a studio, Brick Hill, in Orleans on the Cape. He's an incredible musician. He's Tori Amos' bass player. He's played with Sarah McLachlan. He's very close to the sisters. So they suggested that we that we do everything there.

Did you find the atmosphere very inspiring?

Absolutely. And you know, experiencing Cape Cod with the Parkington sisters is — that's where they grew up. That's where their community started. All five of the sisters would busk in Provincetown and Wellfleet from toddlerhood on. Their parents are musicians. Any room they enter becomes a musical environment.

It was woven so beautifully, that you were not the outsider.

We were really excited every day. It was just a beautiful experience.

Source: YouTube

Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters - Automatic (2020)

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It's funny that you talk about covers and making it your sound. How did the The Smiths tribute start?

The Smiths tribute album [2011's Please Please Please], The Cure tribute album [2009's Just Like Heaven]... these are his [Joseph's] love projects. He sent out a widespread email to all of the artists that he's been involved with and asked them if they were interested. And then everyone fights for the songs they want! [Laughs]

I don't know if a lot of people would say that they really are truly into The Smiths unless they were from our timeframe. Or do you find that they are relevant?

I feel like for some it's The Cure! Beloved from my generation to my kids! Every song is extremely familiar. The Smiths, less so a little bit. Some people in the continuum continue on the highest bandwidth and then others have to be... [thinks a moment] There needs to be some schooling and I don't know why. I feel like those are two examples where, for me, they inhabit the same space in terms of importance and vibe.

I don't know if it's the prevalence of terrestrial radio as far as say, SiriusXM where you're not having to push yourself in different markets, different radio stations. Whereas back in the day you made special trips and you were given counsel on "this market is alternative or rock."

I'm not saying this in any advocacy because I actually don't feel like it was healthy, but you identified by what you were listening to: "This is the music I listen to because I am this person." There were obviously vast exceptions to that. But watching my kids and how they experience music, it's not genre-based. It's song to song.

Like with anything, there are pros and cons to every media and how you experience something, and there are pros and cons to the listener. I feel slightly envious of the way my kids don't have generational bias when they're listening to music. To your point, like college radio. Which was important at the time because there was a very real need for alternative. The reason it's possible now is because of the groundwork that was laid out by college radio. That network was all based on enthusiasm and love. It elevated music that ended up impacting everything ultimately. That being said, I do sort of love the extreme porousness that exists now. It's not about what does this mean, about who I am. It's much more like what do I love and what's impacting me. I feel like the windows are wider.

qthrowing muses
Source: Sire

Throwing Muses, 1987: Leslie Langston, Kristen Hersh, Tanya Donelly, David Narcizo

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I know you spoke to the Women of Rock Oral History Project with Tanya Pearson. The objectification of women has obviously changed in the last 30 years. When you look back, did you have a bunch of people surrounding you that were supportive?

When we came up, Rhode Island at that time and to this day, was a very musically fertile place. It was home to a very strong art rock scene, hardcore punk and folk. Rhode Island has always been very supportive of musicians and in particular young musicians. Every club in Providence and Newport had an all-age category, like Sundays and Saturday afternoons or evenings.

This is going to sound naive, but the first time anybody mentioned to us in an interview that there should be a spotlight on our gender was when we started playing in Boston. "What does it feel like being a woman in rock?" When we started getting attention and going out to the world and playing outside of Rhode Island, that's when we started having to learn how to speak to this and we did. But early on we were grappling with how to have that conversation. What is our perspective on this? And once we started to tour and we would walk into clubs where they were surprised that it was us! Then we started to realize 'is this something that we need to internalize fast?'

We were raised in a full hippie environment where a lot of the work had been done by the time we were conversational around it. We had all the talking points but we had yet to experience it. A lot of it was learned from our parents. This is their experience and I'm going to be the mouthpiece for that. Once we were out in the world, we started to realize this is important that there are three women in this band. It's important for people to see and it's important for young women to see. Pick up an instrument, get on the mic. That poetry that you're writing in your bedroom, that's a song.

Really, I think we belatedly understood what we meant, which is sometimes unfortunate to me that I wish that we had been able to experience that in the moment. I feel like now and in the past few decades, is when I have young women coming up to me and some of them notable, who say I started playing because I heard this song. I started playing because I saw you in Muses or I saw Belly. It means everything to me and I can barely get through the conversation without weeping. [Laughs]

And those are some positives. You don't have to worry if you live in Tacoma, Washington, or Bangor, Maine. You've got the music.

That's such a beautiful point to the fact that the music desert doesn't exist anymore. That is such a gift.

I've read that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with streaming because they don't want to be told what their interests are. It's not just that vinyl is making a comeback. It's the physicality of your music.

We are tactile! We want a physical relationship with the things we love. The love of vinyl does not surprise me because it feels good to hold and it's beautiful. They want that weight in their hands and to hold the thing and to open it like a book.

I think a lot of artists of this peer group have finally decided that they have to take matters into their own hands, and either that means touring or it means doing it small scale and doing the tactile 'stuff.'

Yeah, and it's really satisfying to have a big percentage of one's musical life back in your hands, both literally and metaphorically, that you've invested in. It's a good time for people in terms of reclaiming what you want to do and how you want to do it.

But at what point did you say 'I can't do this. This is not important to me anymore.'

It was the first stage when Belly broke up. Our reaction — and there's some mea culpa in this — was we just didn't feel like we could say no. We come from hardworking families and the idea that you would turn down work was just anathema to us. It was always 'this' opportunity and clearly, we're going to say yes to that!

We just burned out [growls deep] hard. And, yes, there was pressure, outside pressure, but we were adults. We could have controlled that. We could have figured our sh*t out.

It took me a very long time to feel okay with saying no to work. To this day I have a moment where something comes my way or something is offered and I don't have an easy facility with it in terms of just being like "Yeah!" It's always a dark night of the soul with me! [Laughs hysterically]

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Source: YouTube

Belly - Feed The Tree (1993)

If we come to the present day with the resurgence of nostalgia, what, if I may ask, besides doing your legacy work, what does it hold now? You've had a few releases in the last seven or eight years and you've got a couple of compilations and you've brought out B-sides.

I'm constantly recording and working with people and collaborating with people. Belly-wise, we recorded in 2017. We released our third 'long-time coming' album [Dove] in 2018. We're recording number four.

There's a real deliberation and the process is extremely thoughtful. We're having a lot of conversations right now because the new music is really different than anything we've ever done. It feels very good if we're not thinking about ourselves historically. That's the space that I would love to constantly be in. But it's hard sometimes. We can't do a full overhaul, a brand overhaul.

You could conceivably go out and just play Star for the entire set.

Let me be clear. We do! [Laughs uncontrollably]. There's liberally Star, some King, some Dove and some new stuff. I still love those songs and I love tapping into that with people. And we have a great relationship with the people that come to our shows. Extremely tight. I look at them and I know these people! We're going to play the old stuff because that's our love language with you.


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