It was hard to resist keeping Tanya Donelly on the phone for 12 hours straight. A founding member of Throwing Muses and the Breeders, as well as frontwoman for her own band, Belly, and a subsequent catalog of solo work, hers is a storied biography, full of flowers and not a few thorns. Now practicing as a post-partum doula, Donelly is still writing songs, in the past months releasing a series of collaborative EPs called Swan Song Series, marking an unofficially-official retirement from the industry. The last volume will be issued in December, though Donelly qualifies, “There will be songs trickling out after that.” Before the end comes, we look back to the beginning as part of our “Holy Hell!” series. It’s been 20 years since “this little squirrel I used to be slammed her bike down the stairs.” Join us as we contemplate the life cycle of Star.
Thinking back to 1993, what are some of the first flashes that come to your mind about that year?
Oh my goodness, I don’t know! It was such a crazy year. I mean, it just really felt surreal to me. Because there really weren’t – from either label and from myself and the band – any expectations of [Star] doing that well. We wanted it to do as well as I had previously done in my other bands, but we had no idea that not just that record, but alternative music in general would explode that year. A lot of the success of that album had to do with a lot of other things that were going on, just timing in general. For some reason that was a gate-opening year.
When we’re looking at what led up to the formation of Belly, obviously your work with Throwing Muses and the Breeders –two huge, revolutionary alt-rock bands – comes up. The narrative often is that you were in a deferring role to Kristin Hersh in the Muses and Kim Deal with the Breeders. Kind of like a John Oates phenomenon. And Belly was your liberation from that. How accurate is that? Or is that a misconception altogether?
It is a misconception because it had more to do with the logistics of everyone releasing their songs. We had our outlets for that. There was never a point where I ever expected to start releasing those kinds of songs with Throwing Muses specifically. The Breeders was a different story. The genesis of that band was going to be that Kim would have an album and then the next one would be my songs. And in fact all of the demos for Star say “The Breeders” on them. Like, on the reels and on the boxes. Because that was supposed to be the second Breeders album originally.
So Star was going to be the follow-up to Pod?
Yeah, it was unnamed at that point, it wasn’t called “Star,” but those songs were all demoed under the Breeders name and Kim actually played on a few of the songs.
How did that not come together then? Was there a crystallizing moment where you were like, “You know, I’m just doing this”
Yeah, it was in Dayton, Ohio with Kim, and we were trying to figure out how we were going to make it work, timing-wise. I had left the Muses and she was not at that point going to play with the Pixies, and they had a ginormous tour coming up [supporting U2’s Zoo TV Tour, in 1992]. At that point I said, I think it probably makes more sense if I just do this solo. And originally I was just going to start off on a solo gig but then I just really wanted another band. So I went home to Rhode Island and started Belly.
Getting back to the “secondary songwriter” idea, I had read that some of that had to do with your introversion?
Definitely. I think Belly somewhat cured me of a lot of shyness. But I was still terrified, too. There was something about having it be my name that felt wrong. And being very shy was part of that. And also just being very afraid of how things were gonna go, and what was gonna happen, and if I was making the right choice, and I wasn’t quite ready to take ownership of that by putting my name on it. And I really wanted to start that band with those people.
How did you manage your shyness? What were some of the coping strategies you used?
A lot of vomiting (laughs). And unfortunately, probably some drinking. There was definitely too much of that going on. Although I have to say, when [bassist] Gail [Greenwood] joined, she’s straight-edge and has been her whole life, and I didn’t stop completely but I was inspired by her honesty and bravery. She was a huge part of reeling me back from that.
At some point do you just become brave, or is it something – then and throughout your career – you continue to struggle with?
It was not so much gaining confidence as immunity.
In terms of publicity, in going back and reading reviews and interviews from that time, how in control of your image were you? With the ethereal quality of your voice, there was this sort of elfin, wood nymph thing you were getting. In the interviews it always seemed like you were having to push back against that, especially too because the riot grrrl scene was in full force. How did you deal with that?
That was very upsetting for me. I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t break that image. It’s certainly not the image I have of myself, I’m about as far from elfin as you can possibly be. I tried really hard not to engage in the attack posture [the riot grrrl scene] was taking against me, against Kristin, against at one point PJ Harvey. I mean, why???
Those “gender traitor” accusations were getting leveled at us. I really tried hard not to engage in that but it was difficult. And Melody Maker was constantly quoting these women who were SO angry at other women. It bummed me out. Because I came from a community and a mindset that everyone makes their own art and that that’s a journey everyone was doing individually and you held that as sacred. It was a sad time, it just really made me… bummed out.
It’s funny, because I’ve always thought Star had a lot in common with [Hole’s] Live Through This, at least in respect to its totems: dresses, dolls, witches, stolen children, mother/sister/daughter themes. Did you ever feel a sense of sisterhood with that album?
I do, and I did, and I doubt that she feels the same way. I think she’s a wonderful songwriter and singer and performer. I think that album is amazing. I love it. I don’t really come up on her radar much I’m sure these days, but there were a couple of times where she stuck up for me. She said, “Well, whatever you think of her, at least she’s writing her own songs and playing her own instrument.” That could be seen as damning by faint praise! (laughs) We actually had a funny moment the first time we met. She said, “You’re not so little and cute…” And I said, “Well… you’re not so big and scary!”
“Witch” is emblematic of these themes, the first line of what sounds like a lullaby is this cooing whisper of “You’re not safe/ In this house.” It’s like this angelic warning of dark, dark possibilities. Star almost feels like a concept record in this regard, with this nightmare secret fairy tale mythology and magic at the core of it. What inspired you to tap into the occult aspects of childhood?
That comes from my childhood, I felt all of those dark undercurrents very acutely. I think children can go there very quickly. Halloween has become really child-owned because of that. They’re so right there. It’s frightening, but I think as a child people see the beauty in it too, and the power and the mystery. Sometimes we’re afraid of things that are actually quite necessary to pull into your personal ecosystem.
You can hear that in the music of Star, the coexistence of opposites. The balance between safety and danger is always very emotionally close on that record. Is this something that you were intentionally going for?
Not intentionally. But that album was really me killing my childhood. I think that’s where I was able to process a lot that I hadn’t really up to that point – a little late at [age] 24 when I wrote those songs! But it was still an important thing for me to do. I don’t want to sound all Psych 101, but it was very much me as an adult taking care of that person.
Can we talk about “Slow Dog”? For years I was dying to find out the meaning behind that song – until I did.
That one’s almost an embarrassing story because it was one of my most manipulated lyrics ever. Usually they just come and I work with it a little bit to make it more listenable, but that one was a story I read about ancient Chinese culture. It was a piece of fiction about a woman who was an adulteress, and as punishment had a dead dog stuck to her back until it decomposed. That image – I couldn’t shake it. So I started to write it as a poem, and it took on this Southern Gothic character to it, so I framed it there, in the American South.
But it’s a jubilant song! How…?
Oddly, it ends up being about her liberation. Once the dog is gone – and I put it so that the dog was some sort of metaphor – she’s free.
“Maria, carry a rifle/ Maria, carry a dog on her back” – certainly “Maria” is not a name from a Chinese folktale…
I used to actually say “Mariah.” And it was the Pavement guy who pointed it out to me: “Did you write a song about Mariah Carey?!?!”
No, it was Bob [Nastanovich]. It was when I had just done the demos and I gave him a copy. And I said, “Who’s Mariah Carey?” (laughs)
In the past week, I came across a few Belly references coincidentally – both from the AV Club. One was in a “Hatesong” interview in which Dean Ween rails against 4 Non Blondes, but agrees with the interviewer that “Feed the Tree” was an alt-rock single that worked. Another was a bit they did about songs about ghosts where they revisited Kristin Hersh’s duet with Michael Stipe, “Your Ghost.” Tangentially, Belly gets a lot of love in the comments, and those folks are tough customers. It seems to me that Belly has done well against the test of time, especially a band with a two LP discography, which is more than you can say for a lot of ‘90s alt bands. How do you view Star after everything else you’ve done in your career, these 20 years on?
I love that record and I loved making it and I loved touring it. The whole year was a halcyon year for us. We loved each other so much at that point! It was so fun and exciting and scary and nerve-wracking. But I am proud of that one. There was a chunk of time there when, if I was making a guest appearance somewhere or doing an interview, they would say “formerly of Throwing Muses” or “the Breeders” and stopped having Belly in there. There was some erasure that was happening. But recently I noticed it’s back in there! Apparently, we’re okay again. It’s okay to like us now! (laughs)