A Conversation With...

Run for Cover or Run to Win: Tanya Donelly Goes Solo

donelly

From the outside, Belly should have been enjoying life. Their debut album, Star, was a surprise success. Leader Tanya Donelly was finally blossoming into a fine musician and songwriter, her years in Throwing Muses a stepping-stone to greater things.

Alas, looks can be deceiving. “Going into the studio to make King,” Donelly says, with a hint of sadness, “things had started to sour. Relationships were strained, and there was a lot of contention in some of the camps. We were supposed to be a band, but we weren’t speaking to each other. It was not the most enjoyable recording experience, to say the least.”

Donelly, ever the optimist, had expectations that being the leader of a band would be easy. After all, she’d already been in a band for most of her life. “It was heartbreaking, but I look back now and realize that the relationship I’d had with Kristin (Hersh), Leslie (Langston, bass) and Dave (Narcizo, drums) was unique. We were literally a family. We grew up together, and the band was formed after these relationships had been solidified. If you’re going to be in closed quarters for months at a time, you either grow really close, or you get sick of each other. If you’ve known the other people in the van all your life, you can set aside certain things, whereas if you’ve only known that other person for a year or two, you don’t have that bond, and things can get ugly.”

Even though the breakup took place eighteen years ago, it’s still a sore subject. “King is hard to talk about,” she says, pausing. I ask her about a happy memory from that time. “A few years ago I was asked to do a show, and I thought, I’ll touch every base of my career, and I found myself listening to it again. I’ll be honest, I was dreading it, because I knew that some of those songs would evoke painful thoughts, but I was surprised. I found myself liking it a lot more than I expected. I probably hadn’t listened to the album in over a decade. To this day, the issues around King have never been addressed. It’s a specter of unfinished business that follows me around, and so I haven’t been able to wrap it up and put it in a bundle. That being said, I did enjoy it more than I thought. I forget how much I love some of those songs. I love “Silverfish,” and I think “Red” is one of the best songs I’ve written.”

She pauses for a moment. “What I should have done was hire a counselor or a mediator to help us learn how to communicate, but I ran from that. I disappeared into my shell and just let the band fall apart. You know, I think at that point I was just exhausted and I had nothing left to give emotionally. We were all depleted.” She pauses, and while the temptation is there to pry, it’s obvious a subject she’s still uncomfortable discussing.

Ironically, it was the band’s perceived image that perhaps sealed King‘s fate. “There was a level of ‘cute’ around Belly. Cute girl, cute guys, cute videos, cute artwork, cute songs. That’s superficial, but it’s how we were perceived. We took advantage of that to some extent, and I probably wouldn’t have done so had I simply gone solo. Looking back, I think it was that ‘cute’ aspect that hurt us. We went from singing songs about frogs and dogs and dolls—even though those songs were dark in their own way—to songs that are direct, personal, and introspective. Star was seen as “fun,” and King wasn’t ‘fun.'”

“In retrospect, when The Real Ramona did as well as it did, we we were surprised. Yet we had been together for so long and we had a personal investment in each other we weathered that. Even though I was leaving, it didn’t hurt us. With Belly we hadn’t been together that long and when Star was a success, we hadn’t really bonded as a band yet. Allegiances just changed constantly; it changed from here to there and people from outside our circle were allowed into our world, and that really messed things up. I loved those guys and still do, and we had a blast, it was incredibly fun, that initial success.”

With her band imploding as quickly as it began, it would be easy to retreat from the music industry. Was there ever any thought of returning to the Throwing Muses? “I though about it. There was never a closed door. Kristin’s my sister, and we discussed it briefly, but Belly’s split came shortly before Throwing Muses split. They had some money issues—or lack of money issues, I should say—and they decided it was time to call it a day. So it was never really seriously considered, and I don’t think I would have been happy doing so—not for anything about Kristin or the boys, but because I needed to walk away.

She didn’t stay away for long, though.

“I kept writing songs, just for myself, so when I went into Fort Apache to record that first set of songs, it was a completely new experience for me. I had no band. I had no preconceived notions as to what was going to happen next with my music. I wasn’t having to enter into a new set of relationships and I didn’t have anything to prove. It was great! For the first time, I was in total control. My “band” consisted of my friends—actually, I consider them family, I love them all dearly—and if whoever was playing with me didn’t feel like playing on a song, they didn’t have to play, no hurt feelings, no animosity, nothing seething or building up. I was drama-free!”

As she had with Belly, she launched her solo career with a low-key four-song EP, entitled Sliding and Diving. While still retaining the charm of her earlier work, it was instantly obvious that this was a stronger, more confident woman, in control of her destiny. When listening to “Bum,” the EP’s opener, one can hear a happier, freer Tanya.

“It was a bridge between two phases of my life,” she says. “I’ve always liked the EP format, and even with my current series, it’s a wonderful little way to just put yourself out there, and say, “Hey, here’s where I’m at right now.”  Sliding and Diving was fun. Listen to “Bum” and you can hear a happiness in my voice that wasn’t in King. As cliche as it may be to say it, this was my transition into the grown-up world, and it was liberating. With Throwing Muses, it was very much rooted in the adventures and teenage curiosity about what it would it be like to be in a rock and roll band. It was a teenage adventure that I took with Kristin and Dave and Leslie. It was new and exciting. With Belly, I was able to live out my curiosity about  being the leader of a successful, popular rock band, and I learned. It wasn’t always easy, and it ended in a way I wish could have been better.”

She pauses to reflect, with  a perkiness in her voice that had been absent over the past few minutes. “My career was now solo, but my life was changing. I started realizing that I didn’t have to make music if I didn’t want to, and my life didn’t have to be stuck in the album, tour, album rut. I still went on making music for a few years, and when I stopped, it was okay. I lived. I found new passions. I became a doula, and that has given me a lot of happiness. Plus, I was deeply in love, and I discovered that I was ready to trade the complex dynamic of being in a band for the challenges of being a wife and mother, and I allowed myself to accept the gift of my fate.”

4 replies »

  1. Her new project, Swan Song Series, is fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Donelly’s for a long time, and this new series (there are five of them available as of now) is an absolute gift.

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