Part of the legendary Boston scene that also spawned Throwing Muses, the Pixies and The Breeders, Belly were fronted by Tanya Donnelly, who was a member of both Throwing Muses and Belly. In the early 90s they released two albums, Star and King, both commercial successes, as well as a number of minor hits in the UK. All of these were released through the 4AD label, home to all the aforementioned Boston acts. The same line-up as for King – Donnelly, Gail Greenwood, Tom Gorman, and Chris Gorman – came back together in 2016, and released Dove earlier this year, their first album in 23 years. Tanya Donnelly spoke with Brightonsfinest.
Where am I calling?
I’m at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I’ve been around this area off and on since I was 18. I was from Newport, Rhode Island originally.
When and why did you make your way to Boston?
When we were in high school, Throwing Muses started booking shows here in Boston, and we started to get a following here, and a lot of press here while we were in our last year of high school. And so we ended up moving to where the interest was. We moved to Boston for the music scene, when we were 19.
You still like it then?
I love it. I’ve lived in other places. I went back to Rhode Island for a bit. I’ve lived in London. I’ve lived in Nashville, and LA, but I always come back here.
You formed Belly while in The Breeders, is that right?
Technically when I was in The Breeders, Belly was still something of a side project. I left the Muses and Kim carried on with the Pixies for a while, and that’s when I formed Belly. Actually, the first Belly demo, it actually says The Breeders on it. Those songs were supposed to be for the second Breeders album. But I got antsy, because Kim (Deal) was off on an 18 month tour or something.
I’m loving the new album, Dove, your first Belly album for 23 years. What were doing in the meantime!?
I’ve been in rehab for 20 years. Only kidding! I made solo albums; I put out a whole bunch of solo albums. For the first couple of albums I was still focussed on it as a full time gig, and then I decided I wanted to stay at home more. Basically, that’s what it came down to. I had been on the road from 18, and I wanted to settle a bit. At that point I continued to make music, but in a more domestic setting, and focussing on Boston and New England in terms of playing shows.
I became post-partum doula, although that has been on the back burner while Belly stuff has been happening. I also had two kids.
A what doula?
I’m a trained birth doula and post-partum doula. A birth doula is like a birthing coach, for lack of a better word. A partner to aid in the delivery. That was not easy for me to blend into mothering my own children. So, I switched to more post-partum work, which is easily more scheduled, where you go into the new home, supporting the parents, but primarily the mother, who is settling into motherhood.
Dove features the same line-up as the previous King album, 23 years beforehand. Tell me how the reunion came about
We had sporadically over the years toyed with the idea, but we’re in a place where our kids are old enough to be self-cleaning, and all of our primary day-job businesses can be suspended for short periods of time while we tour and record. It kind of all lined up. Those were the pragmatic reasons, and the other reasons are more personal and we’re kind of drawing a line under that! And also I just think we’re at the age now, where we’re all so fraught with peril and fraught with tension, and we’re re-calibrated now in a different mindset, more relaxed and with a better perspective.
Tell me about the first show back.
Our first show was in Newport. We wanted to recreate our first show ever, which was also in Newport. It was basically a room full of people we grew up with. It’s both a friendly, and a constructively critical room. The perfect place.
Oh god, yeah. We felt ready, but we also felt really nervous. I’m so glad we did it though. We did two nights there. It was sort of an 11th hour move, but it was the smartest decision we could make, and we really did feel ready by the time we got to Glasgow, for our first proper out-in-the-world show.
Was it always the plan to make an album?
No, initially it was a tiered process. At first we just wanted a handful of songs to play, just to make it feel less like a vanity project, less like a nostalgia trip. And we decided we would do an EP. The response to the new songs was just so positive at the shows, and we felt so good playing new stuff, we decided to expand on that and turn it into full album.
Dove is another four letter word, to go with King and Star…
It was coincidence the second time around. This was a little more pre-meditated. It’s not a band rule necessarily, more of a preference. It was that or the longest word in the English language.
‘Shiny One’ is one of my favourites, can you talk us through that one
Gail wrote the chorus, Tom wrote some music, I write some verses. That song was basically a four-way split. Lyrically, it’s me and Gail. Without getting too trippy there’s a Gaia theme to it, a female divine speaking to the male, in a way. Speaking to our better angels, and our fallen angels, and the relationships there. It’s a complicated one. Gail sent me the choruses and she said ‘Bless me, my Son’, and I said that feels to me more ‘Honour me’ rather than ‘bestow your light upon me’. I kind of flipped it. It sort of became the Luciferian story, of the difference of our better angels and our fallen angels, and how we make peace between the two. It’s got a very Milton vibe to it.
There are some country flavours on the album…
We moved away from the country vibe for King, but Star had that. We all come from such highly diverse musical backgrounds. Tom and I tend to slip into country a little bit, both as players and listeners, and then Gail and Chris are set up a bit! In some ways I would call it more Americana than country. It’s what we hear all the time.
Country is still king in the States?
For better or worse!
I love Gillian Welch and people like that
Oh my gosh. She’s actually one of my favourites.
And the kids, what happens to them when you’re on the road?
I miss them terribly. But, they’re going to be flying over to England for a bit. I try and get them out on the road with me as much as it makes sense for everybody.