Tanya Donelly Biography
Last updated: 09/30/2013 12:49:54 PM
It's Hard, For a Star... Tanya Donelly is still shining as brightly as she always did.
20 July 2013 at 02:38
How often do LPs secure longevity? Is it even possible to define what longevity is? Perhaps it is the classic album that remains a steadfast in your record collection several decades on from its release. Maybe it's that band who, without fail, put out record after record of sure-fire hits. Or that one-hit wonder that has the same musak value today as it did forty years ago.
Some records make their mark more than others. Subjectivity plays a part, and so do the music press and record labels. How much do we judge a record by its cover?
Andy Warhol and the infamous banana skin artwork of the Velvet Underground and Nico record, Velvet Underground, springs to mind. As does the underwater baby of Nirvana's Nevermind album. Numerous records bear strong on our senses - if not for the content itself, it's for the artwork - the symbolic value that the album carries. So many articles profess to guide our musical tastes - telling us we should own a certain percentage of these albums; or 1000 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die; or the Top 50 Women in Rock.
But who decides?
So there is the traditional talent bench-mark. This is generally what has sorted the wheat from the chaff. Then there's the popular appeal - the boy bands; the predictable chords; the structure of a best-selling pop song. And the radio, press and record industry who define what is worthy of air-play and what isn't. But what about the bands and artists who don't fall into any category? Do these get forgotten, discarded and never reach the enclaves of our auditory cortex?
This is leading somewhere - I promise...
Born on July 14th, 1966, Tanya was born in Newport, Rhode Island. The song to top the US charts in the week post-Tanya's arrival into the world, was possibly enough to instill a sense of the demise of the music in the world around her - that she felt it her obligation to change this destiny. Tommy James and the Shondells gained success with the mass public with their hit Hanky Panky- yes, enough to make you run for the hills...
Step-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly began playing music together as fourteen year olds. Not so unusual, you might say. In their yards; in their friend's yards; and eventually, hauling their gear across the Pell Bridge from Newport to Providence, to play in the rock clubs of their only city in the vicinity. Lupos Heartbreak Hotel would fill up (and sometimes not) with crowds of Brown University students who steadily showed their loyalty and appreciation for this music to have seemingly come from nowhere.
They sang about creepy scenarios, they wrote about religion and adultery; and blow-jobs and homosexuality. At fifteen, they had pretty much explicitly marked themselves out from the mainsream golden syrup pap of the American music industry of the time. Whilst Blondie, The Beatles and Dolly Parton were playing on the radio (not necessarily linked to the previous comment), Tanya and Kristin were focused on defining their own sound -- a sound that can never be boxed in, categorised or analysed. Throwing Muses were born in a Doghouse and were expected to diminsh - but, three decades on and they're still going strong (in their separate guises).
UK based, Ivo Russell-Watts co-founded London independent record label, 4AD in 1979 alongside Peter Kent. Choosing only to represent artists who actively made your jaw clench and teeth grit (kinda, anyway); they signed bands including the Red House Painters, This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. Ivo called Kristin and Tanya up, somewhat out-of-the-blue and their ('official') debut LP, was released on 4AD records in 1986. Several records later, and a lot of on the road touring; Tanya and Kristin parted ways after their 1991 album, The Real Ramona. This record marks the end of an era and the start of a new journey for Tanya, who naturally, had remained in the shadows - choosing to contribute backing vocals, guitar and writing a number of songs and adding her melodic angelic vocals to the Throwing Muses records. Tanya wrote Green, The River, Honeychain and Pools in Eyes - and performed lead vocals on both Honeychain and hit single, Not Too Soon. They also covered the Beatles - Cry Baby Cry; and tried their luck at writing a sure-fire hit with Dizzy. Thankfully, they soon realised this was not where their hearts lay. Ultimately, the songs came from a place that we'll never fully see or understand.
Shortly after leaving Throwing Muses in 1991, Tanya met up with Kim Deal of the Pixies and helped her to launch the Breeders' career - writing and performing on several songs on their debut 1992 LP, Pod. The Beatles' cover Happiness is a Warm Gun seduced listeners with Tanya's feather-light and creepy-tinged vocals; Only in Threes and Do You Love Me Now? all went down the same route. Safari was their debut EP and Tanya and Kim wrote together in anticipation of their, now twenty years old, record Last Splash. However, Tanya left before this was created - and took her songs, that were largely intended to be the Breeders' songs, with her. Forming her own band with brothers Tom and Chris Gorman of Rhode Island; and Fred Abong (later to be replaced by Leslie Langston and latterly, Gail Greenwood) - Belly sprung on to the scene in 1993 with their debut record, Star.
With album artwork by UK graphic artist Chris Bigg (also of V23 designs, the official logo of 4AD records, alongside Vaughan Oliver) Star featured plastic toy soldiers in the form of ballerinas. A dichotomy that sits grace next to strength - and beauty next to ugliness - it soon came to represent the value of the words and sounds
within the covers of the jewel case. Tanya always said, Belly was their name - because it can be both Pretty and Ugly. And just like this contradiction, Belly never wanted to be too easy to define.
Star received Grammy nominations and Gold status with its record sales. It also sent them into mainstream celebrity status when Tanya was asked by clothing outlet GAP if she would agree for them to use her song, Feed the Tree, on one of their advertising campaigns. Sales boomed; radio air-play caught on; interviews and promotion sky-rocketed and MTV plugged them in. In fact, Tanya and Gail presented an episode or two of MTV. Throwing Muses were always warmly welcomed on British soil and so the same definitely remained true for Tanya's new band, Belly. Playing in rock clubs and dueting with Thom Yorke whilst on tour together, on the
track, Untogether - Tanya Donelly was no longer hiding in the shadows; but had been well and truly catapulted into the big bad world of stardom.
Star was recorded across two studios - Sound Emporium in Nashville and Amazon Studios (then known as) in Liverpool. Produced by Gil Norton, it harboured undisclosed desires; guilty pleasures and dark observations of life and the creeps who create it. Slow Dog was written partially about a Chinese proverb/myth that indicates that any person (woman) caught for adultery, must be made to carry a dead dog on her back through the streets. Likewise, Full Moon, Empty Heart, was written after a news story revealed that a woman had committed suicide by throwing herself from a sky-rise with her child. Not your everyday themes. And that's what makes Tanya who she is.
Talking about her own EP, Corinne Bailey Rae covered Belly's song: Low Red Moon: "Belly were one of the prime influences on my first band, Helen, where we had a real indie/DIY ethic. I was addicted to their album Star as a teenager and learnt loads about guitar playing just listening to them. They made me realise the most important thing in music was to express yourself and get your ideas across, without worrying about playing like a virtuoso."
But as fickle as the business is, Belly folded shortly after their second album, released in 1995. King was not received as enthusiastically as Star - and the industry being the hit 'n' run driver that it seems to be; didn't take many prisoners. Despite King being a more edgy, louder, and perhaps more political record - with its song, Super Connected (with a video to go with it, ripping apart the voyeuristic, exploitative sides of the music industry) voicing an honesty that was necessary.
Tanya and her band took this as their cue to leave.
A few years later, Tanya re-emerged as her own solo artist - releasing Lovesongs for Underdogs in 1997. She toured globally with this record and released EPs/singles of Pretty Deep and The Bright Light. Dean Fisher, Tanya's husband featured on the record - as did Bill Janovitz and Fuzzy members. Since 1997, Tanya has taken time out to become a mother to girls, Grace and Hattie - and to train and practice as a post-partum Doula. In between these responsibilities, Tanya has managed to write and record three full-length LPs (Beautysleep, 2002; Whiskey Tango Ghosts, 2004; This Hungry Life, 2007) and has contributed to many charity records released under the record label, American Laundromat Records (including covers of Neil Young, The Smiths and The Cure - alongside her friend and musician Brian Sullivan of Dylan in the Movies) as well as performing at many live events in her home-town area of Boston, with Bill Janovitz and other great musicians - in both a fundraising capacity and other guises - including British-born musician (now residing in NYC) John Wesley Stace and his Cabinet of Wonders shows. Tanya has also contributed vocals to friend, Bob Kendall's own projects, with his band The Bob Kendall Band - in particular, on LP Midnight Flower.
And this is where it gets even more interesting: 2013, twenty years post-Star release, Tanya Donelly has just announced that she will be releasing a cluster of her new songs, as digital downloads via her official website (www.tanyadonelly.com) and as previews on Pandora Radio. Beginning on July 29th and officially beginning with a handful of songs to be made available for download starting on August 6th, Tanya's new work includes collaborations with musicians, authors and comedians - including Cabinet of Wonders buddies Wesley Stace, proclaimed authors Mary Gaitskill and sonically-motivated writer and musician with the Wingdale Community Singers Rick Moody; as well as members of the Magnetic Fields - and Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz; Cornershop and Calexico - and, even, The Breeders.
Tanya Donelly is one of those artists who you will believe in and know right from the word go. Working alongside artist Sue McNally (artwork) and Naomi Yang (music film production), there are many reasons to look forward to Tanya's new (albeit awesomely fragmented in its distribution) record. There is also a graphic novel in the works, a collaboration with friend and all-round talented artist, Louisa Bertman.
Who said that longevity was only orchestrated? This story is proof that longevity comes to those who wait. Two sisters thrown together through (perhaps) fate, never imagined how their lives might evolve. And not only did they stand the tugs of time and the conflicting tides, but they thrived. This year, sees Tanya emerge like
the butterfly she is - the beautiful creature who has sometimes slept a simmering slumber within her chrysalis shell. And this year, Kristin continues to write and perform with Throwing Muses, alongside Dave Narcizo and Bernard Georges - as well as her band Fifty Foot Wave and her own solo work. Kristin has also chosen her own way and rejected the ruling dictators by setting up her own listener-supported platform, CASH (alongside REM's Michael Stipe and her husband and Manager, Billy O'Connell) - Kristin now releases a song per month via her website - funded by her listeners (aka Strange Angels).
Both Tanya and Kristin are now on Twitter, Facebook and also have their official websites where you can check in for news and interact with listeners who have loyally stuck by them, through their entire journey. There are no tours planned for Tanya as yet, but nobody knows what might happen...
Thanks to Melz for submitting the biography.