Music interview – Tanya Donelly of Belly: ‘I feel like I do my best work when I’m writing with someone else’

Belly. Picture: Chris Gorman
Belly. Picture: Chris Gorman
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Tanya Donelly sounds like someone who can’t quite believe her own good fortune. Ever since the Rhode Island singer, songwriter and guitarist decided a couple of years ago to reconvene her 90s band Belly, things have gone remarkably smoothly.

After testing the waters with a few gigs in the UK, Ireland and the US in 2016, they found themselves on such a roll that they’ve written and recorded a new album – and last month, thanks to a successful crowd-funding appeal, it was released.

“It’s been easy – that’s really the word for it,” Donelly says with a gentle laugh when considering how things have turned out with her old bandmates Gail Greenwood and Tom and Chris Gorman.

“It’s funny because I think we entered into it with some element of trepidation but as soon as we were playing together and writing together again everything just fell into place. Like putting the tour together, the writing was similar. We just slotted back into our groove.”

The band’s initial songwriting aims had been modest. Two singles were talked of, then an EP, before things quickly snowballed into a full album. Donelly, 51, says the “enthusiasm” of fans towards the handful of new songs they aired at their 2016 shows helped spur them on. “They easily got the best response in some ways, so we felt ‘Let’s just extend this into an album’, really inspired by the people at the shows.”

Donelly has described Dove as the band’s first fully collaborative body of music. She remembers the group’s first album Star – a Number Two hit in the UK in 1993 – had been “a pre-existing batch of songs even before the band formed”.

Belly released their third album, Dove, in May.

Belly released their third album, Dove, in May.

On King – which came out in 1995 – there was some limited sharing of songwriting duties. “Now They’ll Sleep and Judas, for instance, I wrote with Tom; Super-Connected and Puberty with Gail, so there was some collaboration but not to the extent that Dove displays. This is 100 per cent collaborative.”

Donelly thinks it’s a way of working that they might have edged towards in any case. “Like if this was the third album and it was 1998 or whatever I think it would have been a collaborative effort then as well because I feel like that’s where we were heading.

“So in some ways we’re not reinventing anything in terms of our chemistry. I think we would’ve headed in a more collaborative direction whatever the year, but personally and anecdotally I would say in the past 10 years I’ve realised that I am a collaborator by nature. That’s my happiest place, work-wise. I love writing with other people, I love playing with other people, I’m a very social player. I feel like I do my best work when I’m writing with someone else.”

She thinks the title of the record “landed on a place of significance”. “We weren’t earnestly looking for any sort of weight in the title. Of course we were aware that we wanted it to mean something in that we wanted it to be another four-letter word,” she laughs, “a G-rated four-letter word. There are a few birds on the album so at first we said, ‘What about Bird? Then Girl was in the running for a bit then we landed on Dove because it’s in there lyrically but it also represents hope, however fragile, and peace, however fragile. So I feel like the dove represents a qualified hope for peace.”

I think the level playing field breaks down that weird feeling that you’re always onstage, that you’re always separate. That’s been really eroded in a way that is very healthy.

Tanya Donelly

The bird theme is carried over into the video for the album’s first catchy single Shiny One, which the four band members all sporting bird masks. The idea came from drummer Chris Gorman, who for the last 15 years has worked as a photographer. “Chris and Gail are pretty much fully responsible for our visuals,” says Donelly. “Chris takes all the photography and does all the videos. Gail and her partner Chil [Mott] do a lot of post-work – they deal with the package design and all that, and then they collaborate on merch together. The video was Chris’s [idea] – he found these bird heads, they’re actually beautiful and really well-made, which I don’t know that you can tell in the video, but they’re these beautiful masks in rubber-moulds. Chris kind of assigned us our bird roles.”

The song itself is a good example of how closely the band now works. “There’s going to be a different pie-chart for each song but that one is 25/25/25/25 right across the board,” says Donelly. “I can trace the trajectory of that one because Gail sent this chorus to us, Tom wrote some verse chords, I wrote lyrics over the verses then all of us added the bridges and Chris’s drum part really drove the direction of the song, which changed everything that the remaining three of us had done, so that one is completely collaborative which I think is why we chose it to go first and also because it’s near and dear to us for that reason.”

Donelly is glad that some of the old barriers between musicians and their audience have come down in recent years. “One of the things that really used to go up my spine the wrong way was the dynamic between artists and listeners,” she says. “I’m not naive, I know that dynamic will be the starting point in any conversation which you’re having for the first time, but I like the breakdown of that, so it feels more like a partnership now, a relationship, instead of just a dynamic. Dynamics and relationships are very different things. I love the fact that, like through the crowdfunding campaign, we’re sitting around Gail’s kitchen saying, ‘What colour should everything be?’ And we’re just like, ‘Let’s ask them what they want’. I like the co-op vibe of that. Rather than saying, ‘Here’s the stuff you’re getting’, to be able to have people participate in what they’re paying for or what they’re buying into, what they’re supporting, they are participants in the making of everything and that’s exciting for everybody.

“From the 2016 tour alone I’ve made some beloved friends from that openness and I think the level playing field breaks down that weird feeling that you’re always onstage, that you’re always separate. That’s been really eroded in a way that is very healthy in my opinion.”

With each of the members of the band now having families, jobs and other projects that they’re involved in, Belly’s long-term future seems open-ended. Donelly says they have yet to have a conversation about how often they might tour and record. “I think we’re really taking everything in sort of six-month chunks,” she says. “I would imagine that after this round we’re going to step back for a little bit and reassess and have that conversation.

“I think there’s no such thing as the five-year plan any more, which in your fifties is probably wise, that should be the first thing to go. I think we’re just all in very different places now.”

Belly play at Leeds Beckett University on June 13.