If you are looking for cold objectivity when it comes to Tanya Donelly and Belly, you won’t find it here. A few years ago, when I decided the time had come to get brutal with my vinyl and CD collection, almost all of my singles went apart from Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses and Belly. Donelly’s restlessly inventive, sometimes surreal but always emotionally resilient song-writing has taken up permanent residency in my brain. Hers is a creativity dealing in danger, humour, imaginative flight and survival – oh, and killer riffs, lush guitars and multi-tracked harmonic delights.
Tanya Donelly has a legitimate claim to be indie royalty. Co-founder of Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh, she cut her teeth during the band’s febrile, genre-defying early years, until in 1991 she left to form Belly. By this time, Donelly had already joined forces with Kim Deal (Pixies) to convene The Breeders and record their influential debut Pod, still a shining alt-rock minimalist statement. Belly produced two lauded albums – Star and King – before disbanding in 1996. 23 years after King, they are back with Dove. I spoke with Tanya ahead of Belly’s UK tour:
The new album sounds so fresh, it doesn’t sound like a band that’s been apart for such a stretch. What do you put that down to?
T: I really don’t know! We did sort of mysteriously and happily click back into a muscle memory with each other, and our chemistry returned pretty quickly, and I think there’s also a feeling that this might have been similar to what we would have done had we kept going!
What were the circumstances of Belly’s split in 1996?
T: For one thing I think we had ourselves surrounded by too many external voices, which we’ve gone to great pains to avoid this time around, and also – from the second we hit the road [. . .] we didn’t slow down for a second. [. . .] and then also we had a lot of influence reinforcing this feeling that if we sat down for a second we were going to lose everything.
Which is a lot of pressure to live under.
T: Yeah, and it’s actually a pretty classic model, to be honest, and we were certainly not alone in that – I can point to many bands and peers and friends of mine who went through the same thing, and some manage to salvage their team and some don’t.
Do you think the split had positive outcomes?
T: Yeah [. . .] the past twenty years I’ve learned and grown [. . .] and I’ve made the right mistakes –
‘The right mistakes’? That’s an interesting phrase…
T: Yeah…and I think this has led to this place of no regret, and the main reason I’m in that place is that Belly is [. . .] recapturing what we lost. And I feel like everyone else in band feels the same way, that the breakup led to places in our lives that we are grateful for and so we can’t really feel regretful about the breakup, especially now that we are having this moment.
So, the ‘songwriting system’ you used on this album, can you describe how that worked? It must have taken a lot of time and technical know-how to put together.
T: Yes, and a lot of trust, because we were sending each other extremely raw little baby birds saying ‘here, love this and help me with it!’ So that was something we all had to cross over to, that point of being so vulnerable with each other [. . .] So the three of us, Chris [Gorman] and Gail [Greenwood] and myself can get things up to a certain point and then we send it to [Tom Gorman] and he is the Dr Frankenstein of the whole thing, he pulls all these little scraps/scruffs [word unclear] together [. . .] and by the time we were actually all together in a room we had something with some depth to work with.
Can you tell me how the focus of your songs has changed?
T: I think I tend to have a more universal perspective [. . .] I just think in general, living hardens and softens us in different ways, and I think that comes through – y’know I’m still deeply moved, there’s just endless material for any kind of work, everywhere, you never run out of inspiration in my opinion.
I think I read somewhere that you’d name-checked Leonard Cohen as a recent influence?
T: I’ve always been a fan – he’s arguably my favourite word-smith of all time, lyrically – there’s somebody who I feel lets people in very freely, and I think that’s what I mean, I let people in on a level that I did not as a young person, and that impacts hugely on what comes out.
I’m struck by the groundedness of the lyrics on Dove, it feels as if you’re giving us the benefit of your life experience, passing on those life lessons, while wrapping them up in an accessible, indie-rock kind of way.
T: Yeah, I hope that that’s the case.
I hear echoes of Leonard Cohen in the line [from ‘Human Child’] ‘nothing ever dies, but we still gotta let it go. Let your beauty sing across time’ –
T: …he’s someone who has had a lifelong search, and I really lock in with him on that, his journey really resonates with me, and I feel like the way he explains that journey, and his practical spirituality is really appealing to me.
If you were sitting on the shoulder of Tanya Donelly in the early 90s, what might you whisper in her ear, by way of comfort or advice?
I would just say ‘don’t worry – just don’t worry’, because that was all I did for years. I made decisions based on worry, and I withheld myself based on worry, and so I think that would be what I would say.
What I really love about Belly’s first album – and it’s still there in the lyrics today – is a sense that there’s a spirit that is filtering the worry, the fear, the risk, through the imagination, it’s making something of it, making your life survivable but also giving others the opportunity to go through the same process, to turn the worry, the doubt, into something shiny.
Oh, thankyou, you’re gonna make me cry! Using the word survivability is perfect because, for whatever reason, in my late teens and 20s I just thought that my death was imminent, and I honestly can’t put a finger on [why] [. . .] it was really a preoccupation of mine at the time, so definitely surviving is in there!
Belly’s new album Dove out now