On her own
Tanya Donelly begins life after Bellyby Brett Milano
The last time I saw Tanya Donelly was about two months ago, when she turned up to do an impromptu duet with Skeggie Kendall during one of his variety nights at the Middle East. Before taking the small stage with Kendall (to sing "Moon over Boston," a song of his that they've recorded but not released yet), Donelly told me a bit about how nervous she was and how she hoped she could carry off the song. It seemed strange that a woman who'd sold many thousands of albums with Belly and headlined halls around the world would be worrying about whether she'd be good enough to sing for free at the Middle East bakery.
"Oh, I'm always nervous, always," she explains. "It doesn't ever go away. Especially at the Middle East, when my friends are all staring at me; that makes me more scared than a roomful of strangers, and I know it should be the other way around. I was talking about this the other night with Mary [former Madder Rose member Mary Larson, now playing in Donelly's solo band]; we decided that it doesn't matter how long you've been doing this. I've basically signed myself up for a life of sweating and stomach aches and nervousness."
The butterflies will likely be back next Saturday, the 30th, when Donelly -- who's lately moved from Providence to Boston following her marriage to former Juliana Hatfield bassist Dean Fisher -- hits the Paradise for her first official show in town since Belly's quiet break-up. She'll be playing new material drawn from her recent sessions at Fort Apache. (The album, tentatively called Manna from Mars, though Donelly says "that pun may be a little too obvious," is set for release by Reprise in February; the four-song EP Sliding & Diving was released as a 4AD import this week.) The line-up she's put together for a brief UK tour and the Paradise gig is a largish outfit including Larson and fellow Madder Rose alumnus Billy Cote on guitars, Fisher on bass, keyboardist Lisa Mednick from Hatfield's band, and Letters to Cleo-turned-Veruca Salt drummer Stacy Jones. (When the album comes out, she'll be back with a new, full-time band who are likely to include Rich Gilbert on guitar.)
And just as she refused to do her old Throwing Muses songs with Belly, she won't be playing Belly songs now. "That would be cheesy, it just strikes me as corny on some level. Maybe someday if I can strip them down and find a way to approach them differently, but for now I'd feel too weird about playing them." As for digging up Muses songs now, "That wouldn't be as intolerable, because it's another step away. Except that I can't remember any of those songs."
Belly's break-up, which began a few months before it was announced in late summer, followed the relative flop of its second album, King (Sire/Reprise) -- which Donelly admits stung a little more than she let on at the time.
"It was bewildering at best, even though everyone's been through something like that. A lot has to do with luck and timing and what people want to hear; nobody's to blame unless your record label is fucking you over, which it wasn't. It's sad, and I don't understand why it didn't do better. When we finished it we were so excited about it and so pumped for the coming year."
Still, she says that's not why the band broke up. "If King had skyrocketed, we probably would have broken up even faster. We just started moving in different directions; that's always the reason bands break up, and any unpleasantness that comes out of that is kind of peripheral."
So this wasn't a Pixies-type break-up where the band "mutually" decide to split because the leader pulls the plug?
"No, it was much more of an equal decision than that." Does she expect she'll miss everybody on stage? "I hope not, but I'm sure I will sometimes. I miss them as people now, the way you'd miss any of your friends." Bassist Gail Greenwood has since joined L7 (now fully confirmed, Donelly says), drummer Chris Gorman is doing graphic design, and guitarist Tom Gorman is playing and recording as an unofficial fourth member of Buffalo Tom.
Given that it's still pop music by the same singer/writer, the sound of Sliding & Diving is about as far from Belly as you can get. Working with co-producer Wally Gagel (also Lou Barlow's partner in Folk Implosion) and playing all the guitars herself, Donelly replaces the lush and dreamy sound of Belly with something sparser and edgier. There's an acoustic, countryish ballad ("Restless," with Gilbert on pedal steel) and a slower and more ominous sound on "Human."
Most striking by far is the leadoff track, "Bum," the only one of the four that will be on the album. It has a processed guitar sound that brings My Bloody Valentine to mind, some surprising turns in the arrangement (at one point everything drops out but the lead voice and drum machine), and a snarling, punkish feel. As with all of Donelly's best songs, the lyric details are never specific but the feeling comes through -- in this case, a post-break-up resentment that's the last thing you'd expect to hear from someone newly married. She says that it's the most obvious departure on the full album, and that she purposely released it as a single. "It's me putting my weirdest foot forward. There are probably four songs on the album that get into that territory, including one called `Lantern' that the Fuzzy girls sing on."
Donelly's always been reluctant to explain her lyrics, but she does offer one clue: the better you can understand one of her songs, the less personal it's likely to be.
"That's the way that I talk as well as the way I write. Whenever I'm talking about something intensely personal, it comes out in riddles. A lot of that happened on King. Oddly enough it happened on the songs Tom and I wrote together; his chord structures were like therapy for me. Lately I'm trying to move away from myself, to tell other people's stories and make more things up. Yet get past a certain point where you can hear only so much about somebody's psyche. I think I've done enough of that in my lifetime. I want to write songs that are more interesting than I am."
Working with Gagel was also a change, especially since Belly's last album was done with veteran producer Glyn Johns, who basically recorded the band live. "He introduced me to the concept of using drum loops and sampled sounds, and I came to realize that in this day and age that approach is just as organic as guitar-bass-drums. We ended up concentrating on the guitar sounds and bringing the bass and drums in later; I know that's an ass-backward way of doing things, but it worked."
The Fort Apache tracks were intended as demos but were polished up for release. By that time, Donelly had decided she'd be recording under her own name. "Going out with another band name would be ridiculous, it would look a little whorish at this point. Using my own name is fairly frightening, though. It's weird to think that the name I sign my checks with and have my mail delivered to is the one that's going to be on the record."
The one thing certain about her eventual line-up is that she intends to keep Fisher along as bassist -- breaking the old rock taboo against putting your significant other in your band. "The other option would be to do like we did for the first couple years of our relationship, when we toured in different bands and were separated all the time. We've had enough of that." Donelly's marriage was also the impetus for her move from Providence to Boston three years ago; though she's been spotted at various gigs since then, she's not quite as visible a scenester as she was when she lived in Allston and played in Throwing Muses. "There was only a five-year period when I didn't live here; I must have been 23 when I left and I'm 30 now. It does feel different, though, since most of the people I knew way back don't live here anymore. I keep to myself more than I did in my 20s, as do we all."
Would she do anything differently if her solo album reached the commercial heights of Belly's first album, Star(Sire/Warner Bros.)?
"I wouldn't drink as much this time. After Star there was a celebration that went on for a year and a half."
TONE-COOL PARTYTone-Cool Records started out as the most modest of local labels, when singer/harmonica player Richard "Rosy" Rosenblatt wanted to put out an album by his own group, the 11th Hour Band. For its first six years, the label averaged just one album a year. But Tone-Cool had a breakthrough of sorts in 1991, when it released the popular Boston Blues Blast anthology, and it's grown into one of the city's leading blues labels, with Rounder distribution and a roster including crowd pleasers the Love Dogs, Paul Rishell and Annie Rains, Monster Mike Welch, David Maxwell, Kid Bangham, and Susan Tedeschi (the last three will all make their label debuts next year). And the label had both a packed house and a packed stage for its 11th-anniversary show at the House of Blues back on November 11.
Nearly everyone who's ever recorded for Tone-Cool showed up to play, including eternal bar blaster James Montgomery, early signing T Blade & the Esquires (fronted by Steve Berkowitz, in real life an A&R honcho at Columbia/Sony), and Ronnie Earl (who's signed to Rounder on his own but has played on Tone-Cool albums by Paul Rishell and Maxwell). Also appearing, to do an uncharacteristic B.B. King cover, was Dennis Brennan, whose old band Push Push was the label's only non-blues act ("We were their failed pop experiment," he said with a laugh beforehand). And Rosenblatt took a break from frantic stage-managing to play an opening set with the 11th Hour Band, who've been together on and off for 15 years now and who embody the sweaty late-night groove that's Tone-Cool's signature sound.
RIP: WENDY WILDDuring the mid-'80s peak of Boston's garage-rock scene, New Yorkers the Mad Violets were frequent visitors to the Rat, playing with locals like the Prime Movers and the Lyres. Their dyed-in-the-wool psychedelia was always spiked by frontwoman Wendy Wild, who could often be found tripping and hanging from the ceiling pipes by her heels as she sang. A remarkably free spirit, Wendy had previously been in the cult girl group Pulsallama and was also a member of punk-polka outfit Das Furlines. More recently, she'd been known for her performance art in the downtown Manhattan scene. She recently died after a long battle with breast cancer.