Music interview: Tanya Donelly on Belly

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With her thoughts turning to retiring from music as her 50th birthday approached, Tanya Donelly had been signposting her intentions with a quintet of collaborative EPs fittingly titled the Swan Songs Series.

What the American indie star, celebrated for her work with Throwing Muses and The Breeders, hadn’t counted on, however, was the lasting pull of perhaps the most commercially successful of her old bands, Belly.

“That was supposed to be my last splash,” says the Rhode Island-born singer of the Swan Song EPs, “but the last batch of songs that I wrote, I wrote two with Tom [Gorman] and one with Gail [Greenwood] and her band, and that did start to sort of grease the engine a little bit. It coincided with us all getting together again socially and independently in little couples having conversations on the side and finally we just realised now was the time [to reform Belly].”

The practical consideration of “our kids being old enough that we can leave for little stints” and having “businesses we can put on hold for finite amounts of time” also helped, she says. “Everything just sort of aligned now.”

At the time that Belly split, following their second album King and a world tour with REM, Donelly had told one music magazine that she regretted not making another record with the band. Today she says: “There are multiple reasons why we disbanded – I think physical and emotional exhaustion being a big piece of it – but I stand by that. I wish that we had just taken a break or a breather instead of completely throwing the baby out with the bath water, but not to get too hippy dippy, things unfold as they should sometimes and I think this coming together and doing more work now is a better and healthier option.”

She laughs when asked if the door had been open somewhere in the back of her mind to the possibility of Belly getting back together at some point. “No, it hadn’t. I think we’d revisit the subject not all of a piece but every several years or so, but it never felt completely viable until now.”

Belly, back in the 1990s

Belly, back in the 1990s

What did surprise Donelly was the fund of goodwill towards the band after all this time.

“I contacted our booking agent when the American shows started selling out really quickly and we started adding shows over here and I said ‘What if people think this is the rapper [of the same name] and that’s why things are going so well?’” she chuckles.

“We were all really surprised. We knew that there was a small group of people that would be excited but we didn’t expect it to get the reaction that it did, which made us feel wonderful, of course.”

What might please fans even more is the fact that the band have written some new songs. Donelly says: “We’re going to release them at some point. We’re not making any decisions – and this is true, this isn’t the party line – we actually have not made one decision about how we are going to release it. At the moment we just want to road test them a little bit. We’re not really in a position at the moment to be together to work on them faithfully so we’re going to work on them while we’re on tour, basically, and then at the end see what we want to do.”

I wish that we had just taken a break or a breather instead of completely throwing the baby out with the bath water, but not to get too hippy dippy, things unfold as they should sometimes.

The roots of Belly go all the way back to their teenage years. “We went to different high schools but we’re all from Aquidneck Island which is Newport-Middletown-Portsmouth so we knew each other,” Donelly explains. “The Gorman sisters are very close friends of mine and Gail’s always been a close friend of mine so we were all in each other’s orbit. It’s a tiny place so everyone’s aware and in each other’s lives.”

After high school Donelly went on to form Throwing Muses with her step-sister Kristin Hersh then an early incarnation of The Breeders with Kim Deal while Tom and Chris Gorman played in hardcore bands. She feels their diverse backgrounds helped make Belly’s first album Star such a success, reaching Number Two in the UK charts and selling more than two million copies worldwide.

“I think also they’re good musicians aside from their punk rock DNA,” she says. “Honestly initially it was a decision based on personality, we just liked hanging out together and I admired them as musicians. I loved the Rhode Island hardcore scene – Verbal Assault, Vicious Circle, I loved them and went to see their shows regularly.

“We used to play with them all the time because there was much more cross-pollination back then in Rhode Island. We were the ‘art band’ but the art bands would play with the hardcore bands all the time and it was all very useful so I think that’s why people tended to lump us together – ‘let’s put all the teenagers on the same bill’ basically was the attitude.”

By Belly’s second album King the rockier side of the band was more prominent. Though less critically or commercially successful than its predecessor, Donelly looks back on it favourably from two decades’ distance.

“I love that album,” she says. “I think there’s been enough time for the disappointment in its ‘not doing well’. Now we look back and relative to what’s happening now it did really well but compared to Star it felt like the sophomore slump trope. But I love playing those songs, when we get to those songs in our set we’re so pumped about them.”

Belly’s British tour coincides with a personal landmark for Donelly. “I’m landing in Glasgow on my 50th birthday,” she says. “It’s just me and Gail Greenwood – she’s my birthday companion.”

At this stage in life she admits to be conscious of having a musical legacy but says she would also prefer to look forwards. “It’s a little of both,” she says. “It’s hard not to group it into a body [of work] when you’re 50 but, knock on wood, I’ve been blissfully age unconscious my whole life. No age has staggered me yet, including this upcoming very big one. I just don’t feel moved by it negatively or positively.

“I’ve never have been a birthday marker and I’ve never really internalised it, so we’ll see. Maybe on July 14 I may be crying into my Guinness, who knows?”

One thought that is happily banished from her mind is retiring from music. “That was in reaction to not having done anything in a long time,” she says. “I just started to feel like – and I said this to my friend John Wesley Harding, he puts on this Cabinet of Wonders where he brings together musicians and comedians and authors and we all put on sort of a variety show and that’s so fun, and that was the genesis of the Swan Song Series, meeting people through those shows and starting to write with different people – and I said to Wes one night ‘I think I retired by mistake and I need to throw myself a retirement party if that’s going to be the case’ so that’s what the Swan Song Series was meant to be initially then I just started getting extremely energised by working again so it’s become more of a tongue in cheek title.”

Belly play at Leeds University’s Stylus venue on Saturday July 16. For details visit http://bellyofficial.com/news/

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