We’ve Got A File On You: Tanya Donelly

Ann Sullivan Cross

We’ve Got A File On You: Tanya Donelly

Ann Sullivan Cross

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Speak to any Boston-based musician and they will tell you: The city — home to about half a million — is much more like a small town. Michael Tedder discussed Boston’s interconnectedness in detail in a 2017 Stereogum piece; the phenomenon has now led to the Loyal Seas, a Boston duo comprising Tanya Donelly (co-founder of alt-rock greats Throwing Muses, Belly, and the Breeders) and Brian Sullivan, who is best known for his long-running indie project Dylan In The Movies.

Donelly and Sullivan actually met back in the mid-1990s at Boston’s famed Fort Apache Studios, and they’ve collaborated many times since then, notably on a cover of “The Lovecats” for a 2009 Cure tribute album and a cover of “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” for a 2011 Smiths tribute album. In 2010, Donelly also teamed up with Sullivan on a Dylan In The Movies single “Girl With the Black Tights,” among other collaborations.

Over the last 15 or so years, Donelly has made a series of exits and re-entries into music itself: In 2010, she started a new career as a postpartum doula and released a series of online-exclusive EPs that she deemed a way of controlling her exit from the music industry. Still, Donelly has repeatedly returned to the fold, and not just with Sullivan and the Loyal Seas, whose indie-pop aesthetic presents a sharp contrast to Donelly’s history of grittier outfits (the Muses, Belly). In the last 10 years, Donelly has released a 2020 covers album with the Parkington Sisters, performed live with former Muses bandmate and step-sister Kristin Hersh, and in early 2016, she reunited with Belly for a series of live dates Europe and North America. In recent months, Donelly has also joined in the fight to remove Belly’s catalog from Spotify.

Ahead of the Loyal Seas’ debut album, Strange Mornings In The Garden (out 5/20 via American Laundromat Records), Donelly and I spoke on the phone about her latest musical venture, dealing with gendered questions in the ’90s alt scene, and the ongoing process of reclaiming the rights to Belly’s catalog.

The Loyal Seas (2022)

The Loyal Seas seems like the culmination of a longstanding friendship with Brian Sullivan. Could you describe the evolution of your relationship with Brian and how it led up to this project?

Tanya Donelly: I met Brian when he started interning at Fort Apache [Studios] after he graduated from Emerson, and then he became a full-time employee. Fort Apache had a brief imprint label for a while, and he went from interning to becoming one of the label managers there. [He’s] one of those people that you meet and you’re instantly comfortable with. Within a couple of months, we were family. It was maybe a year or so after he started working at the Fort that I became aware of what a strong songwriter he is. I became a fan of his project, Dylan In The Movies. At dinner parties, we would start writing together. That evolved into guesting on each other’s projects. And then we just decided, “Let’s just take this impulse to co-write and turn it into something full-length.”

How you and Brian arrive at the dreamier sound for Loyal Seas?

Donelly: A lot of that is coming from Brian. The initial musical bed was him for all of [the tracks]. And he’s just dreamy. That’s his aesthetic. That’s his heart, to be honest. That’s who he is. All the sound of this album is my dear friend, it’s who he is. And I just love it. It’s perfect for his voice, which is just this deep, rich, beautiful thing. His voice to me is my favorite instrument on the album.

It’s like a cello. When you play live, I can feel him in my feet and my legs like he’s a cello. When he sings, my body vibrates. Everything on stage kind of starts moving a little bit. It’s just how the landscape of who he is is really why the song sound like they do.

“Soul Soldier” With Throwing Muses (1986)

Looking back to your first album with Throwing Muses — does “Soul Soldier” count as your first music video at the time?

Donelly: Our first music video was a song called “Fish” that we submitted to the American Film Institute. And at the time, Mike Nesmith was actually offering a grant. And so we submitted “Fish” to them and we won the grant, and that went towards the making of “Soul Soldier.”

What did you set out to accomplish for “Soul Soldier” with the grant money?

Donelly: At the time, videos were everything. The door was wide open, it was very freeform back then, and it was really fun to do. It still felt exciting to match visuals, to match film to music. For “Soul Soldier,” we felt like we won, obviously. It was very focused on 120 Minutes. That was the show we watched and “broke bands” at the time. I’m not being critical of anything that happened after, but at the time that two hours of programming just felt so exciting. Then [we wanted the video to air] on local indie versions of [120 Minutes] across the country. We just wanted to do it for ourselves. And it’s such a cinematic song. There’s so much movement, and so much that lends itself to visual.

The First Solo Female Guest On Alternative Nation (1993)

In an early interview on MTV’s Alternative Nation, Kennedy can’t stop exclaiming over the fact that you’re the First Singular Female Guest she’s interviewed for the show. As alternative music becomes more and more of a mainstream commodity, did you develop any feelings around having to discuss your gender on television? And did you feel like you were being packaged into something more palatable to have to spell out what “alternative” means to an audience that might not be familiar?

Donelly: Yes. Absolutely. That was definitely something that we had to finesse around. I always had a real understanding of why it was important to discuss, but there’s no way that I can pretend it wasn’t wearying for [my gender] to be such a focus. I clearly wanted to talk about the music. Now I have a much more measured emotion around it. I feel like, okay, now I understand why it was such a touch point for so long. With the luxury of time and looking back, I can say, I can see like, “Yeah, that was important.”

I’m glad that I never expressed my fatigue on the subject. Especially now that I see all of the young women who were inspired by that era. Because it was also a time of real variety, and women were landing in a lot of different genres, which did inspire a couple of generations after. It’s so gratifying.

Forming The Breeders With Kim Deal (1990)

When you originally formed the Breeders with Kim Deal, what did that conversation look like? Was there something that you wanted to explore musically that you weren’t already doing?

Donelly: It wasn’t so much what I wasn’t getting to do. In fact, I would flip that and say that the Breeders experience opened something up in me that turned me into a more prolific writer and want to kind of branch out from the Muses a bit. So it was less about me looking for a new space as it was the Breeders really opening up a doorway.

The first time [Kim and I] started playing together, a lot of that was just because we wanted to hang out together. And we really bonded on that first Pixies-Muses tour. Then we got home and wanted to continue to hang out together, and that turned into playing together.

We went through so many phases. It started very originally. We had this five-minute plan that we were going to make indie-dance music, and we could not pull it off. Fifteen minutes into our first session, we were done with that idea. We did some covers and abandoned that. And then we just started writing. Kim was really coming into her own as a songwriter at that time and became very prolific. The plan back then was that she would do the first Breeders album and I would write the second Breeders album. All of the songs from the first Belly album, when they were demoed, it actually says “Breeders” on the reels because those songs were supposed to be the second Breeders album. But then the Pixies went on tour for a year and a half and I couldn’t wait that long, so that’s where Belly came from.

Attending The Grammys (And Being Nominated) With Belly (1993)

Coming from the ’90s alternative scene, what was your impression of attending the Grammys in 1993?

Donelly: That was a very fun night, I will say. We really did know we weren’t going to win. Like, we knew. We just knew because of who we were up against.

You were up against Nirvana.

Donelly: I know. And U2 also, who won. And then Toni Braxton, who won the other one [Best New Artist]. So things were moving in a certain direction at that point — we really knew that it wasn’t going to be us. And then of course, the way they seat you when you get there, you can really tell. So we just enjoyed the night and it felt very surreal and exciting. Basically, it was an opportunity. Our friends came, they couldn’t go to the ceremony, but we had this party at the hotel after with our family and friends. It was a celebratory night for us regardless.

“Gepetto” Soundtracking Yellowjackets (2021)

I feel like Belly has experienced a zeitgeist spike recently, what with soundtracking the extremely ’90s show Yellowjackets.

Donelly: Oh yeah! I’ve seen part of the scene [Belly is synced to], but I don’t have a — what’s it on? I don’t have a subscription to whatever it’s on… [Ed: Showtime.] The other Bellies have watched. I think Chris and Gail have watched it and said it’s a really great show. They are enjoying it. The soundtrack looks great. I’m very excited to be on there, very pleased to be part of that.

Performing Live With Thom Yorke (1993)

You performed “Untogether” with Thom Yorke on a joint tour with Radiohead. Do you recall what your relationship to Thom was in the early ‘90s, and what that tour experience was like?

Donelly: I’m trying to remember. I think it was just as simple as he said he loved that song. And I asked him if he wanted to sing it with me and that went from being a one-off thing to us doing it every night. By the end of that tour, both bands in their entirety were on stage playing a Belly song called “Stay.”

It’s a funny video to re-watch because you and Thom have the exact same hairstyle.

Donelly: We do look like twins. That tour was really a great experience, they are the loveliest people, and we just had really, really wonderful time with them.

First Solo Single “Pretty Deep” (1997)

I read in a 2002 Billboard interview that your first solo single, “Pretty Deep,” was basically the result of the label telling you to write a pop song: “That was a song for the radio. And I wish I hadn’t done that.” Was there pressure to fit a certain mold?

Donelly: I was kind of playing with stuff back then. I feel like most of the time I was in control of what I wanted to put across. I would say there were a lot of compromises — things that started with saying no to something that became a back and forth until we were in a place where we still felt comfortable. But it wasn’t our initial impulse. There are some things that I look back and say, “Well, I wish that I had just been stronger in that.” But for the most part, there’s nothing that makes me cringe.

It was a fun experience making that video. It’s not exactly what I had in mind — initially, I wanted to have me not moving much and have the tattoos all moving. And just have me in a spotlight singing. But the logistics and the time that would’ve gone into that, and the money that would’ve gone into that, just became untenable. So that’s where the compromise came in.

It was just like, “We can’t have illustrations running over your body for the full three minutes. It’s too expensive and it’s going to take forever.” I mean, I like that video. I’m going to be honest with you. Videos are a tricky one for me, I’m never 100%… There are three or four that I’ve made that I’m like, “Yes, I love that one.” And the rest of them…

To find a common language with someone when you’re trying to describe what you’re seeing to accompany your music is so… To find someone who speaks that language is so difficult. And sometimes, someone will take my awkward words around visuals and get it or improve on it, and those are the videos I love. A lot of the time though, you run up against really different visual sense from brain pan to brain pan.

Especially back then, I feel like the labels really were involved in talking to the video directors. They were in a weird position a lot of the time. The artists had a clear thing that they wanted to do, and the labels had a clear thing that [they] wanted to do. One thing that we quickly figured out is that the labels were in the ears of the directors behind our backs a lot in terms of where they wanted things to go. They left it up to the director to try to talk musicians into… It was a weird time.

How have your feelings evolved around your initial solo output?

Donelly: Well, because that [pop song] request actually came from 4AD, surprisingly. Not Warner. We were all surprised. Because it came from people that I know and love and trust, because 4AD was really a family to me, I understood. I felt safer with them having that conversation than I would have with Warner. And honestly, the songs that I — how can I put this word? There was something about it that appealed to the craftsman in me. I was given an objective and I rose to the occasion. It made me feel good, and those are songs that I really like. I really like 
”Pretty Deep.” I really like “The Bright Light” and “Landspeed Song,” especially to play live. They’re very dynamic, and it wasn’t an exercise that I regret. That’s how I treated it: as an exercise. It didn’t feel gross to me, and that’s entirely because of the relationship I had with the people who asked for it.

Covering The “Josie And The Pussycats” Theme Song With Juliana Hatfield (1995)

You and Juliana Hatfield covered the theme song to Josie And The Pussycats with your now-husband Dean Fisher on bass. Would that have been your first time recording together?

Donelly: Yeah, it was in the Juliana Hatfield Three. Oh, my gosh. I don’t know. I mean, we always write around the house — by that point we had written together probably, but maybe nothing had been released yet. Yeah, that might be. I don’t know. I should ask. He’s the chronologist, the two of us. He might know the answer to that. That could very well be our first thing that we did together. 

Kay Hanley did a bunch of stuff [around Josie]. We’ve always said: “It’s so funny the whole Josie thing,” because we’re the generation that grew up with the original cartoon.

And the 2001 film featuring Hanley’s vocals is a bona-fide cult classic now.

Donelly: I know. Everyone has such nostalgia for it. Kay and I do this fundraiser every year. I think it was for this year, she’s like, “I think we should do Josie because there’s a whole Renaissance around it right now.” It’s like a renewal of appreciation.

Becoming A Postpartum Doula (2011)

I wondered if we could just spend a few minutes talking about your career as a postpartum doula. I saw that you do it a bit more on an on-call basis these days?

Donelly: Yeah. And actually at this point, it’s more resources and referrals that I’m doing now. Since the pandemic, I haven’t been into a home. Well, that’s not 100% true, I did a friend, but that’s different. But yeah, it was something that I just became really interested in after my second daughter was born. And part of it was that I had a little bit more of a difficult time in the hospital with her in terms of what I wanted and advocating for myself, and that stuck in my craw. And so for a couple years after I had her, I kept coming back to, like, “What I could have done differently? How I could have handled it? How I could have been stronger?”

It was a difficult pregnancy and birth, and I felt so depleted by the time I got there. That’s when I started to focus on doulaism. And feeling like, well, maybe I could be there for someone. I trained as a birth doula initially, and I did attend a few births, but I still had my own toddler at that point and an 8-year-old by that point. I couldn’t weave it into my parenting in a way that was healthy for me or my kids. So I went back and I trained for postpartum and became a postpartum doula exclusively after that.

I’m less familiar with postpartum doula work as opposed to birth. Can you go into specifics around what a postpartum doula specializes in?

Donelly: A lot of it is just real support. I mean, to be honest, 80% of it is breastfeeding support for those who choose to breastfeed. And if not, then working with pumps and keeping things clean and getting on a schedule and then sleep. Getting used to the new reality of the nest, which is your child’s sleep schedule. I’m in there so early though that sleep training has never come into it for me. The longest gig I’ve ever had was three months with someone who had triplets, so that was a long time in the house. But otherwise, I’m usually not around for sleep training, it’s more just supporting.

Every postpartum doula chooses their own list of offerings, but I would cook a lot and I would do housekeeping to help out. And sometimes, just advocating for the mom with family, stuff like that. I mean, you’re trained for a multitude of things and then you just sort of figure what the family needs when you get there.

I don’t have kids, but I get the sense that new mothers are expected to just launch themselves into the process and not utter a complaint.

Donelly: Oh, well, let me just tell you… I don’t know if this is just purely Northeastern American culture or what, but the there’s a real “I got this” [mentality] people have here. I can be sitting with a mom who is in tears because she just feels so thrown off and trying to juggle everything. And that doesn’t help. And then they’ll turn down help from someone offering right in front of me. And I say that with all understanding because I was the same with both of my kids. I just said, “No, I’m good. Oh, thank you anyway. Nope, I got it.” There’s something pre-exhaustive about figuring how you’re going to include help in your system.

Reuniting With Kristin Hersh (2018)

What does your present-day relationship to Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses look like?

Donelly: I mean, I will always jump up with them when invited, I’ll say that. We did this really lovely tour in 2014 where I opened solo with a band. I opened for the Muses and then I joined them for a few songs. It was a really wonderful tour. So Belly and the Muses, we all come from a very small community, which is, for whatever reason, very musician-rich. People our age. Because it’s so tight and we all grew up together doing this, there’s a real relationship. I mean, I’m not saying that there haven’t been issues between people. Of course there are. Any small town has it. We tend to be protective of each other.

My leaving the Muses was relatively drama-free. We have families that are close and we’ve had parents that have been married to each other and people who have been involved in relationships. There’s a real web, and so the option of never seeing someone again isn’t there. People tend to work things out as a result.

Boston’s so small. I think smaller than anyone realizes. It feels tight here in a nice way. I think that’s why I ended up staying here. Because I found here the same thing I had had in Rhode Island growing up.

Belly’s “Delete Spotify” Banner (2022)

Earlier this year, Belly joined in the chorus of musicians wanting their music pulled from Spotify. How has that process been going?

Donelly: Right now, [we’re] just trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves, which is ongoing. We have an attorney advising, but we are actually in the long process of reclaiming our catalog. It looks like we’re going to be successful in that. And if we are, then we make the decisions about where it’s streamed and at that point [we’ll] have control. I think at this point, the greater issue is getting our catalog back and then we can take charge.

Pretty much every musician that I know is vocal about not being paid by Spotify, etc. To turn around and give a hundred million dollars to someone who we view as being a chaos agent, it was just insult to already preexisting injury.

Just ballpark, how much income does Belly see from Spotify streams?

Donelly: It changes, but it’s shockingly, shockingly, shockingly low. Actually, hang on. I can give you a number. It’s like 0.000347 on the dollar or something like that. It’s just a phenomenal amount of plays that you have to get even a dollar.

It’s too bad too because I feel like streaming… The education that my kids get from streaming is wonderful. Just one thing leading to another, and they’re [getting an] encyclopedic knowledge of so many forms of music. They’re not on Spotify though. But it’s such a potentially incredible form if they would just pay a fair wage.

And it’s not like they’re going to go hungry if they pay us either, you know what I mean? They have a hundred million to throw around.

Strange Mornings In The Garden is out 5/20 on American Laundromat.

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