Sometimes it’s only after an interview is finished that you realize that you weren’t all together while conducting it. Going back and listening to it later can make you cringe and think, “Where the hell did that come from?” That’s when you begin to appreciate what an artist sometimes puts up with.
But to Tanya Donelly’s credit, her displeasure with the musician’s trials and tribulations rarely come out publicly. At least until her first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs, was released this fall. A little music promotion cynicism blatantly creeped into the album in “Mysteries of the Unexplained,” which sports the biting lyrics: “I heard the saddest song on WSUK/ They play it every other hour of every other day/ ‘Cause the greaser sent them t’s and toys for regular airplay/ All your heroes are whores.” Ouch.
Of course, she’s been around long enough to know what she’s talking about. Her lineage is pretty much part of the indie rock history book, as she started Throwing Muses with half-sis Kristen Hersh over a decade ago, moved on to co-found the Breeders in 1990, and then founded Belly, her commercial “breakout” band three years later. Said band also had a fair amount of internal combustion and thus imploded after the dismal success of their ’95 sophomore release, King.
So fast-forward to 1997. Donnelley has married Dean Fisher, former bassist for the Juliana Hatfield Three, and released Lovesongs. Admittedly a “control freak,” Donelly was able to make all the decisions herself for this record, a fact that makes Belly’s demise seem pretty logical in retrospect. After all, it was always Tanya’s band. How much so is only evident after hearing Lovesongs, which bristles with the same pop sensibilities — albeit with a few more innovations — that her songs have always had. But they’re still dark underneath, like the squirming ground beneath an uplifted rock.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that this creepiness comes from the same person who writes such catchy hooks and once told a friend and I in a kindly, motherly way years ago to be careful driving a couple hours back home after a late night Belly show. But that’s Tanya for you. After all, her most popular sing-along hit, “Feed the Tree,” was about death.
But perhaps that has been the key to her success. Most people seem to want to be outwardly happy, while also at least subconsciously thinking sometimes about the not-so-pleasant parts of their existence. Donnelley seems to have both bases covered pretty well.
While battling a fun case of pneumonia on the road this fall, Donnelley took some time to chat about her new endeavor.
I had read somewhere that you originally, before getting hooked up with Kristen, were thinking about doing something in anthropology. Do you ever wish you’d ever taken that route at all?
Well, it was really a flirtation with it. Because I went to college for one year and that was it.
Where’d you go?
To URI, University of Rhode Island. Big football school. We had signed to 4AD before I picked a college, and we all kind of made a pact to stay local because we knew we were going to be touring in a year. Actually, sometimes I wonder why I went, because in retrospect I probably just should have taken that year off. But, you know, when you’re young like that, you don’t know what to do with yourself too much [laughs].
I guess you’ve had a little while then to decide what you wanted to do with yourself. And do you see it being music for a long time to come?
Yeah, absolutely. Always, always, I’ll be a songwriter. I don’t know how that will manifest itself in the future, but…
You had an interest at one time in writing books…
Yeah. I’d like to do that maybe in the future. It’s something that I’ve kind of haven’t been exercising, that side of me, so I just need to get back into shape. I’ve atrophied a little bit.
I’d say you’ve been a little busy.
Yeah. That’s true [laughs]. There’s a lot of bus time, though, [emphatically] let me tell you.
What do you do while you’re on the bus?
I read. We watch movies too.
What do you read?
Right now I’m reading a book called Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. It’s about the gypsies in central Europe. It’s great.
Is it . . . what sort of era? Nowadays?
Now, yeah. This woman, Isabel Fonseca, she went over to Albania and to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and interviewed gypsies now. She’s trying to piece together a history because they’re historically illiterate and they’ve never written their history down. There are a lot of conflicting stories and they tend to lie to outsiders. Which is my favorite thing about them.
That’s interesting. And I’m sure their history has been passed down as sort of oral tradition.
Yep. Manipulated oral.
I had read a recent article, and you talked a little bit about it in there, that you had sort of a… I don’t know if “hard time dealing with the world” is the right way of putting it, but just sort of… I got a sense that it was easy for you to get depressed about society, or things that you see.
Yeah. I think it depresses everybody, but they just don’t know it. I think everybody feels the sort of incongruity of our existence on this planet.
Do you ever find yourself not watching the news, or. . .
I don’t watch the news. I boycott the news. I have a friend in Boston… well, I have a lot of friends in Boston [laughs], but this one particular friend inspired me to do a news boycott because his whole take on it was that you feel compelled because you think you’re informing yourself about the world, but all news is slanted anyway, so you’re probably just getting a slice of truth, so… ignore it [laughs]. Boycott it.
I know obviously now you’re touring around and you’ve got a band touring with you. What is the difference for you in a band like that, or working on your album with a “band,” as opposed to being in a full-fledged band, like Belly?
Once you’re on the road, it feels like a band. And the people that I’m with — well, Dave Narcizo, I’ve been in a band with him before [Throwing Muses] so we have sort of a touring history. And then the other people are close friends, so it sort of feels like a band even though the record kind of covers a whole variety of musicians. This is a band. It’s a touring band. It’s different in the studio, very different because that wasn’t a band at all, with the exception of four songs, which were done more sort of traditional than my live band way.
Did you find that you enjoyed that more?
Yes. I like having the power of veto, for one thing, and just having the freedom to play the melodies and counter melodies in my head. I don’t have to edit myself anymore because I’m afraid of stepping on someone’s toes. Now I just play it.
So are you a bit of a control freak?
One of the things that struck me about this album, when I was looking over the lyrics, was that it was sort of an oxymoronic album. A lot of the songs are very catchy, very upbeat, almost make you feel pretty happy — especially “Pretty Deep” — when you’re listening to them. But lyrically, they often have a dark edge to them.
Yeah. That’s always sort of been my thumbprint, I think, to a certain extent. I’m not sure why that is. The music that comes out of me is relatively on the pop side. But those aren’t the words in my head. So I don’t why that happens. I don’t do that consciously, it just happens. Although a lot of bands have been like that. I don’t know. A lot of music that I love is like that. The Zombies for one. The Beatles.
It’s certainly not an uncommon thing. I wonder if it’s not cathartic for some people. Sort of as an outlet for anything dark or introspective or alone feelings that they might be having. Just sort of put them out there in a form like that.
I think I’m moving more towards a closer relationship between the music and the lyrics, so… I’m hoping.
As long as it’s good, I guess it doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re happy with it. I know you wrote “Acrobat” with your husband. I wasn’t sure how the writing process went on that or if it was similar to how you worked with people in the past; was it weird at all writing a song with your husband?
No, not at all. It was a really good experience. He wrote the music and I wrote the melody line and the vocals. It’s sort of the way things worked with Tom [Gorman, the guitarist] of Belly.
Something else that I noticed too was that I hadn’t realized before was that you had an amazing vocal range.
Oh, thank you.
I don’t think that a lot of times, that gets demonstrated. That you reign it in.
I think it’s kind of relatively new.
Yeah. I took some breathing exercises a few years ago that changed everything.
What did it entail?
Just learning how to make the notes come from deep within me as opposed to straight from my throat. So I can hold those out longer, they’re clearer, it’s not so damaging.
If nothing else, it sounds much healthier for your vocal chords.
Yeah. Definitely [laughs].
What was your history in singing when you grew up? Did you ever have any training or sing in choirs or anything or did it just pop up?
Yeah, I sang in choir. Kristen and I both sang in chorus in high school.
I was a band guy. It was always like there were three distinct groups for us: the PE kids, the chorus people and the band kids. I think we were the low ones on the totem pole. The chorus kids always seemed to have more fun. You just kind of sit there and talk.
Dean was in the band too.
Tell me a little bit about “Bright Light.”
That’s about… well, sort of… that’s about abduction. Alien abduction.
I couldn’t decide. I thought it might be about UFO abduction or it might be about death.
Both. That’s good. That’s very good. Yeah, it is. I’m sort of using one analogy for another.
Of course, now abduction is a hot thing.
It sure is.
Are you an X-Files fan?
Yeah, I am. I’ve been like into this for… Dave Narcizo, my drummer; he was joking because when we were in Throwing Muses I was so into it. I’ve always been. Ever since I was little I’ve been very interested in it. I’m not gullible about it; I have a healthy dose of skepticism. But he was joking the other day about how the world has caught up with me. Like now I’m living in the world I’m supposed to live in [laughs].
I noticed that there was a bit of a cynical media tone in this one that I hadn’t heard in any of your previous work. What kind of brought that about?
Just frustration. Ummm. . .
It was sort of radio and movies.
Yeah. It’s in a segment of everything that goes into that though. I mean, just as much the people that support it as the people who are responsible for it. Well, the first verse [of “Mysteries of the Unexplained”] is just about the whorish details of doing this for a living, which not a lot of people are aware of.
Yeah, I’ve been a radio and record promoter, so I know just what you’re talking about.
Yeah, radio extortion shows. It depends on the station too. There are stations that know how to do it and it’s great and everybody is happy. But then there are other times when you end up in some fucking carnival next to the kissing booth and they don’t play your single anyway [laughs].