Tanya Donelly has a long and distinguished career in music stretching back three decades. Having formed Throwing Muses with half-sister Kristin Hersch back in 1981, they eventually signed to revered independent 4AD five years later, releasing four critically accaimed albums during Donelly's time in the band.
Towards the end of her time in Throwing Muses she joined The Breeders, contributing heavily to their first couple of releases before leaving in 1992 to form Belly. Their first long album Star came out to widespread critical acclaim the following year, spawning a top 40 hit single in 'Feed The Tree', a song that's gone on to become something of an indie disco anthem ever since. A second album, King came out in 1995, earning the band a top 10 album and top 30 single ('Now They'll Sleep') in the process. Sadly, by the end of that year, Belly were no more.
In 2016, the band announced they were reuniting for a handful of shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Enraptured by the response from both the live shows and four new compositions they played throughout the tour, Belly went into the studio to record their first album in over two decades. Now, 23 years since their last record, DOVE is finally with us and it's a cracker.
With a new album to promote and the bit between their teeth once more, DiS caught up with Donelly prior to Belly's recent show at Nottingham Rescue Rooms.
DiS: You're playing a lot of shows on this tour. How's it been so far?
Tanya Donelly: It's been going really well. We're playing a lot of dates in the UK which I guess is kind of odd but it's been great so far.
Has the reunion been receiving a better reception in the UK than everywhere else?
No. I'd say it's probably been received best in the US, although it probably depends on what city we're playing. We're only hitting the big cities in the US because it's so big! So we're only doing five shows on the whole West coast, some of the Eastern seaboard cities then a couple in Chicago and Minneapolis. That's it. They've done the best in terms of ticket sales but it's still been great here. It always is. In terms of enthusiasm, the level here is so high and people are just really lovely.
What's been your highlight since Belly reformed?
The album, which is something we did not plan. We had four songs written for the reunion tour, just to inject some energy into it for ourselves. And to make it feel less like a vanity project. Less like a nostalgia trip. Something more current to us, and the response to those new songs was really enthusiastic - just the feedback from people in conversations after shows and online. It was just so positive that we decided to expand it to an album. That's the only reason, otherwise it would have just been an EP on Bandcamp.
You've written and recorded a number of solo records since Belly split first time around. How was the transition from writing as a solo artist to being part of a band once more?
Had I not just done a collaboration project for five EPs that lasted a couple of years right before Belly got back together, I think it would have been difficult. As the Swan Song solo stuff was all collaborative I was right there. If the third Belly album had happened in the nineties I think that would also have been a more collaborative piece of work.
Were there any plans to put out a third album back then as the band seemed to end quite abruptly?
No there wasn't. There were no plans to record. We'd actually made the decision to split before the last US tour.
Was it easy getting the other three members on board for the reunion?
I didn't pitch it to them. It's something that's come up several times in conversations over the years. Then Tom (Gorman, guitar) and I wrote some songs for my Swan Song solo series. Gail (Greenwood, bass) and her partner and I did also, then Chris (Gorman, drums) got in touch and said you guys are all writing together so let's take the next logical step. So we got into an email loop which was immediately fun and everyone was enthusiastic again. So we decided - in very traditional New England fashion - to not readdress any of the issues from the past. Just draw a line under it. Move forward. No mediation, no therapy, no conversations, and so far it's been incredibly effective.
It's interesting you say that as there didn't seem to be any animosity within the band, certainly not compared to others from the same era whose splits were well documented with an inference of bad blood between certain members. Was the advent of Britpop a catalyst for Belly splitting up?
No, Britpop had nothing to do with why we split. The musical climate has never had anything to do with any decision we've ever made. It was all just our own personal stuff.
When did DOVE start to take shape? At what point did you start to believe there was enough strong material for a new album?
The four songs we played on tour were 'Army Of Clay', 'Human Child', 'Shiny One' and 'Girl'. Once we decided to write more songs we started sending each other very rudimentary sketches. Which was a funny and almost vulnerable way to begin again. Tom would send us whole pieces of music then me, Gail and Chris would add bits onto it. Others were just me singing into my iPhone and sending it to Tom, Gail and Chris. I think it was nice to have that vulnerability of sending each other these extremely raw, embryonic little pieces. It was a further bonding experience.
Do you prefer working in that way or would you much prefer writing and jamming together as you did on the first two albums?
Because we all have day jobs and two of us have families - two of us run full-time businesses - it's easier this way. I wouldn't go back. After the initial process of remotely sketching ideas individually, we did go into the studio. So it's recorded like we were all in the studio at the same time with Paul Kolderie, old-school style, for the most part. Then Tom took it away, tweaked with it and worked some magic.
How many songs were written in total?
Basically just what's on there. There are a few new ones floating around now but we don't know what will happen with those. We aren't planning beyond six months at a time at this point. We learned our lesson the first time round. No five-year plans!
Is there a possibility a fourth Belly album could happen at some point in the future?
I don't know. I really don't know. We'll have to play it by ear. Personally, I like the format of slowly releasing things so we'll see.
With so much material to choose from, is it difficult putting together a setlist? Are there any songs - particularly from your back catalogue - you're reluctant to play live nowadays?
Oh my God yes! There are some words I've written that will never come out of my mouth again. But then there are others we're really excited about playing. Also on that Venn Diagram there are some we'd love to do but just can't. We've played a few in practice that we really love but it's just not happening. I don't know? Some songs work and others just don't. We could beat and beat and beat the horse but it's just not going to happen. We're still tweaking what works and what doesn't. 'Silverfish' is one of my favourite songs but we've never been able to nail it. It just has this weird, linear, non-event feeling when we do it live and its one of my favourites so I don't know why we can't. But we can't.
Was it daunting to revisit songs that in some cases were written over half a lifetime ago?
I thought we'd struggle with the likes of 'Gepetto', 'Dusted' and 'Feed The Tree' especially but hand to God - as they say in Boston - I don't ever get sick of those songs. I did back in the day. I was sick of 'Feed The Tree' by the end of the King tour. Very very sick of it. Yet coming back to it was great. I still like playing that song. Even though that particular kind of energy and that particular place where those lyrics sit would be difficult to revisit now as a writer. So it's great to be able to drag them out of the closet.
When you played Nottingham on the reunion tour in 2016 the audience demographic was split almost equally between older fans who'd probably seen the band back in the day and a newer generation who'd clearly read about Belly or got into the band after they'd been cited by current artists. Did that give you a sense of pride?
Definitely. It's great. When we first blew up in the States we'd do record signings and kids as young as eight would be there! Really little kids who couldn't come to shows back then but now can, so they're all there which is really, really sweet. It's great for them too because there are so many people from that generation, a couple of steps down from us that couldn't get to see us first time around so now they can. Which means so much to them and means so much to us. People also bring their adult children which I think is hilarious! I can pick them out. There's a dad and a son. There's a mum and her daughter. It's great watching them dragging their adult children to our shows now.
Back in the day Belly were signed to 4AD yet released DOVE via Crowdfunder. Why did you choose that route to put out the new record? Was there much interest in the reunion from labels?
We wanted to try it. There was interest from labels but by the time they started coming to us we'd already decided to go down the DIY route. A huge part of that is because we're very self-protective right now. One of the things that went wrong first time around was having too many external voices, so we really have a tight fence around ourselves right now. It's just us. There are some things we can't do where people are allowed to come in but for the most part, we did everything ourselves. We wanted to do the first tour ourselves, the artwork is, the recordings are, pretty much everything is, and we wanted to keep that spirit. Now we're at a point where everything is so healthy for us the thought of parcelling out is actually frightening to the point where I can't imagine us ever changing that.
Did it feel less pressured going the Crowdfunder route rather than doing the album with a label?
Definitely. We do have a project management team in the States because it's more untenable over there. Mainly because of the pure top heavy insanity of it. So we have a short-term project management company there called Missing Piece who are amazing. We go to them with a list of the services we need - basically streaming and marketing because we don't know what the hell that is. I wouldn't know how to begin to deal with that. How to approach it, or monitor it. It's just something I don't get at all and I'm completely unashamed of that. So you get to pick and choose what you need then pay accordingly. They've been really helpful. They have recommendations so if we've been pretty lax on social media for a week they'll give us little nudges. There's stuff we like doing anyway, so it doesn't feel ugly to get those kinds of recommendations. We also have a radio plugger and she does her own thing but it's not the same kind of do or die vibe as we'd get with signing to a label.
The artwork on DOVE is very similar to that of your previous records from the 4AD era. Were you conscious of that?
We worked really hard to make sure there was continuity so Chris, who does our artwork, was very conscious of that. The cover of DOVE is Chris' photography then Gail and her boyfriend Chil do all the graphics. They do all the design then we all vote on everything. Every cover starts off as one of his photographs same as back in the day. Chris was very conscious of making it our thing but also working with Vaughan (Oliver) so it fit the 4AD template as well.
Did the political climate in the States have any impact on the new songs? 'For example, 'Faceless' and 'Suffer The Fools' feel like they could be about the Trump administration, albeit indirectly.
Honestly, most of the songs were already written by the time this administration came into power. We had a conversation afterwards about whether we should be more topical as our country is completely flushing itself down the toilet and taking everyone else with them. It's just not something I would do. It would actually be self-defeating, although I do have something brewing right now about the children being separated from their families. Something will come at some point because we're all very angry and despairing. It's all we talk about in the van and Gail and I have already said where are we getting arrested this summer! Because it's gonna happen. To say that these are dark days doesn't cover it.
Are you aware of The PRS Foundation's International Keychange body initiative whereby 45 international music events have pledged to achieve and maintain a 50/50 gender balance by 2022? Have you noticed anything change from when Belly first started out?
Oh my God, that's fantastic. I don't know if it was worse when we started out which kind of makes it more sad to me that it's not better. I still have young female artists telling me they hear the same narrative about there being too many female voices on the radio right now! I had a radio plugger hold one of our singles back in the early nineties for that very same reason. It was shocking to me that it could be so easily presented as a viable reason. That's still the case now and I think it's in people's minds when they're booking festival lineups. It's not sensible. It is worrying, but it's also a growing pain. There's a learning curve for every one of these forward-thinking, painstaking motions we're fighting for right now.
Yet the scene Belly emerged from in the early nineties was arguably the most progressive at the time with a number of females playing in bands back then. So why do you think it still hasn't been properly addressed?
Too many females on the radio! I don't know. A lot of music industry administrators have a quota. Whether they would admit to it - even to themselves - is another thing. So as soon as they get to the high end of that quota they start capping. So many female artists get shunted to the side because of that bullshit and it's tragic. It happens in every entertainment media. We're learning a lot in the United States in 2018 about how we haven't moved forwards.
Belly have been cited as an influence by a number of artists over the years. How do you feel about the band's lasting legacy?
It feels wonderful whenever someone mentions us. I'm grateful and I'm moved. I do feel we're a bit like that Amanda Palmer song ('Gaga, Palmer, Madonna') about the music continuum because that's what it is. We're part of a river, the music continuum. That's the natural place. We had our people that got us going which gets other people going. So many tributaries come from even just a song.
Are there any new artists you're particularly fond of at present?
Laura Kidd of She Makes War. I love her work. Colour Me Wednesday too. They're one band who are like my nieces if that makes sense! I see us in them a little bit and when I say that I'm embarrassing myself because I think they're wonderful.
What advice would you give to a new band just starting out?
Keep your unit tight. Keep as much in-house as you possibly can. Trust each other. Listen to each other first above all others. Don't let anyone take you aside and start whispering in your ear. Be a band and support each other. Try not to let natural occurrences turn into an earthquake.
If you could have your time with Belly all over again with the benefit of hindsight is there anything you'd do differently?
Probably everything I've just said! I think we could have benefited from facing inward more. Just the four of us. We had a lot of employees with differing opinions that did start whispering, and you get these earworms from people. It wasn't dramatic. There's no great big explosive story. It just kept drip, drip, dripping away.
Will there be another Tanya Donelly solo record in the foreseeable future?
Yeah, definitely. We've all got other things going on. Tom's writing stuff for his own project. Gail's in another band on Rhode Island. I'm working on another project with a band called Dylan In The Movies that's been four years in the making. I love that project and can't imagine breaking from the collaborative thing at this point. I still write songs by myself but I want there to be some musical sociability around everything I do from now on.
DOVE is out now. For more information about Belly, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.