Tanya Donelly (born , 1966, in Newport, Rhode Island) is an American Grammy-nominated singer songwriter and guitarist based in New England who co-founded Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh. She then went on to work in The Breeders and Belly in the 1990s. In the late 1990s, she settled into a solo recording career, working largely with musicians connected to the Boston music scene.
Donelly is best known for her Grammy nominated work in the mid-1990s as lead vocalist and songwriter for Belly, when she scored a national radio and music television hit with her composition "Feed the Tree." Belly recorded on Sire/Reprise Records and 4AD Records; Donelly's solo works have been released on Warner Bros. Records and 4AD.
Over the years she has listed several musical influences. In one interview she named her guitar playing influences as Marc Ribot, The Beatles, and former band mate Hersh. More recently she mentioned Leonard Cohen as a songwriting hero, citing her then current listening favorites as Lucinda Williams and Joan Wasser, and listing Boston-based groups like the Dambuilders, Pixies, and Count Zero as past favorites. Although Donelly mainly performs her own original songs, she has in recent years added covers of songs by Robyn Hitchcock, Nina Simone, and The Beatles to her repertoire.
In a 1994 book by writer Liz Evans, Donelly said that her parents, Richard and Christine Donelly, shuttled the family "between Rhode Island and California" for the first four years of her life. Donelly has described her early school experience as including bouts of nervous shyness from fear that what she has called her family's "hippie" background was different from that of her classmates.
Donelly has said that she met Kristin Hersh in school around age eight, quickly becoming close friends. Donelly's father later married Hersh's mother after both divorced in the Eighties. When she was 12 years old, Donelly and her mother were injured in a traumatic car accident that led her to carefully weigh for the first time her spiritual values and her concept of what "God" was. Previously her upbringing had been an atheist one, but after the car accident a family friend introduced Donelly to the Hindu traditions of Krishna, in which she immersed herself for a brief period.
Throwing Muses band beginnings
Around age 14, Hersh's and Donelly's fathers both gave them their own guitars and they initially started playing along with Beatles songs. Soon after, the two started to play along with songs written by Hersh's musical father and then began to write original songs of their own. Donelly has dated her co-founding of Throwing Muses with Hersh and other members like Elaine Adamedes as starting around age 15.
Throughout the 1980s, Donelly worked as lead guitarist and secondary vocalist/songwriter, complementing the work of Throwing Muses leader Hersh. The group moved from Rhode Island to Boston around 1986, recording albums for the British 4AD label. Although the band's work generally employed complex rhythms and offbeat chord structures, Donelly has said she eventually accepted that her compositions were simpler and had "more traditional songwriting sensibilities" than Hersh's, by the last two years she worked in the band. Some of her tunes from this period include "Green", "Reel," "Pools in Eyes", "The River", "Giant", "Dragonhead", "Not Too Soon", and "Angel".
1990s: Breeders and Belly
By 1990, Donelly had additionally begun working in a side project called The Breeders with Kim Deal of Pixies, a Boston-based group who had opened shows for Throwing Muses in the 1980s. Working with The Breeders increased Donelly's versatility as a guitarist, although the first album's vocals and songwriting responsibilities were centered on Deal. The group released Pod with Donelly in 1990.
The Real Ramona, Throwing Muses' last album with Donelly, which included her "Not Too Soon" and "Honeychain" originals, was released in 1991. In May 1991, Deal and Donelly were asked to contribute vocals to This Mortal Coil's Blood album on 4AD, with a cover of Chris Bell's "You and Your Sister," a month before Donelly officially left Throwing Muses.
In December 1991, Tanya Donelly formed Belly as lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, with Thomas Gorman on guitar, Chris Gorman on drums, and Fred Abong (previously with Throwing Muses) on bass guitar. This group would become her primary creative focus for the next few years, as Donelly's participation in The Breeders faded after the 1992 release of the Safari EP.
In 1993 Belly released the Star LP, with Gail Greenwood soon replacing Fred Abong on bass after the release for touring. The album soon peaked at number two on the United Kingdom music charts and featured a single and music video, "Feed the Tree", that quickly was rated number one on the Modern Rock Tracks Survey. The album scored commercial chart successes and was certified as a gold record in 1994 by the RIAA. The band was also nominated for two Grammy Awards (Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Performance) and won two Boston Music Awards the same year.
Donelly, professing a love of analogies and symbolism dating to her college anthropology studies, displayed a bent toward vocal harmonies, pop hooks and lyrics combining surreal stories, fairy-tale imagery, nature references, and personal metaphors on various subjects including death in her songwriting for this group. As she gained increasing attention in the media, her airy, feminine vocals and small frame were at times more focused on by some male journalists, who portrayed her as "sweet" and "doll-like," than was her intelligence as a writer. This media attention led in turn to dismissive comments made about her by Riot Grrl feminists.
In 1995, Belly released a second album, King, which progressed the avant folk-rock influences, power-pop jangle guitar sounds, and vocal harmonies of the first album into a direction driven more by vocals and driving rhythms, varying the pace within the songs to create tension. Flangers and chorus effects were evident in the guitar sounds. Though critically well-received, this album, produced by Glyn Johns, did not match the commercial success of Star. The band broke up in 1996, with Greenwood soon joining L7 and Donelly marrying former Juliana Hatfield bassist Dean Fisher in September.
1990s solo career begins
In 1995, during her post-Belly/pre-solo career, she recorded a track with Catherine Wheel entitled "Judy Staring at the Sun," which appeared on Catherine Wheel's 1995 album Happy Days. The single version featured Donelly and Catherine Wheel's lead singer Rob Dickinson singing in trade-off vocals, but after the final Belly album, Catherine Wheel's record label insisted that the song be re-recorded to remove most of Donelly's vocals, replacing them with Dickinson's, although Donelly's voice can still be heard during the chorus of the reworked version.
The 1995 tribute album Saturday Morning: Cartoons' Greatest Hits, produced by Ralph Sall for MCA Records, included the cover of Josie and the Pussycats performed by Tanya Donelly and Juliana Hatfield.
In November 1996, Donelly put together a group of musicians to tour internationally with, just prior to her first solo release, the Sliding & Diving EP on 4AD. Included on the tour were husband Fisher on bass, keyboardist Lisa Mednick (formerly of Juliana Hatfield's group), drummer Stacy Jones (formerly of Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt), and Madder Rose guitarists Mary Lorson and Billy Cot?. The album release featured Donelly on vocals, guitars and keyboards, Rich Gilbert (of Human Sexual Response, Goober & the Peas, Blackstone Valley Sinners) on pedal steel, Fisher on bass, and drummers David Lovering (formerly of the Pixies) and Jones.
After the 1997 dual solo release of Pretty Deep with two different B-sides, she toured North America with Fisher, Throwing Muses' drummer Dave Narcizo, Gilbert, and keyboardist Elizabeth Steen. She soon released her solo debut LP Lovesongs for Underdogs, recorded with Gilbert, Fisher, Jones, Narcizo, and engineer Wally Gagel on assorted instruments. In April 1999, Donelly and her husband welcomed a daughter, Grace Bee Fisher.
Career since 2000
In 2000, Donelly performed live in her first reunion with Throwing Muses at a special fan gathering called "Gut Pageant" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at a Rhode Island festival.
She continued to record and release symbol-laden, alternative folk-pop solo EPs and full-length LPs on 4AD in 2001, 2002, and 2004. Belly's Sweet Ride: The Best of Belly retrospective was also released in 2002.
As Donelly's writing continued to mature into a softer rhythmic vein than with the Belly material, allusions to motherhood were heard in songs like "Life is But a Dream" and "The Night You Saved My Life" on her 2002 Beautysleep release. Mark Sandman, of Boston's Morphine indie-rock group, sang on "Moonbeam Monkey." Donelly's background vocals are heard on several tracks of the 2003 self-titled Throwing Muses reunion album, which she helped promote with public performances as backing vocalist and guitarist for a few concerts in 2003. Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma included Donelly's backing vocals on their reunion album, Onoffon in 2004.
The same year, she released Whiskey Tango Ghosts, a sparely arranged, acoustic album laced with Gilbert's pedal steel guitar touches. The album's personnel included Steen on piano, Narcizo on drums, and Fisher on guitar, bass, and drums. The album's lyrics explored, in part, marital relationships and family life. Donelly has said the album's minor-key tone was influenced by "a horrible war, a horrible administration, a bleak, mean winter."
She then followed that acoustic album release with three weekend shows of old and new songs performed in 2004 before audiences at The Windham, an old hotel in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Backing Donelly in concert were Fisher on guitar, Gilbert on pedal steel and acoustic guitar, Joan Wasser (of the Dambuilders, Joan as Policewoman, Lou Reed, Antony and the Johnsons) on violin and backing vocals, Joe McMahon (of Se?or Happy and Will Dailey) on upright bass, Bill Janovitz (lead singer of Buffalo Tom) contributing vocals, and Arthur Johnson (of Come) on drums. The performances were recorded by Donelly's manager, veteran producer Gary Smith of Fort Apache Studios, which helps operate the small concert space and recording room in The Windham's lobby. While Donelly included some of her longtime lyrical allusions to nature imagery, such as bees and honey, in the songs recorded at the Vermont concerts, she said that some of her new material reflected a more direct approach, relying less on symbolic analogy. The topics of religion and spiritual hypocrisy, which first began to interest her after her childhood automobile accident, were reflected in the lyrics to "Kundalini Slide," performed at these concerts. The album of the Vermont performances is titled This Hungry Life and was released by Eleven Thirty Records on , 2006, in the US and , 2006, in Canada.
In June 2005, Donelly mentioned on her official "Slumberland" message board that her future plans included working on a children's compilation album with Boston musicians such as Chris Toppin, writing a book, working with Mark Eitzel and Greek songwriter Manolis Famellos, and occasionally performing live. She planned to focus future performance plans on a few cities like Boston, New York, and London, playing live when time permitted as she raised her daughter. In March 2006, she gave birth to another daughter, Harriet Pearl Fisher.
In early 2006, Donelly sang on two songs on the debut EP from the Boston-based band Dylan In The Movies. In October 2006 she recorded a cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" with producer Paul Kolderie for the American Laundromat Records benefit CD titled Cinnamon Girl - Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity.
She wrote four songs for the pop girl group Girl Authority for their second debut Road Trip, one of which is titled "This Is My Day". Her daughter, Gracie, is a fan of the group, according to an article in The Phoenix.
Two shows at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on , 2007, were a musical reunion of sorts, as Donelly co-headlined with Hersh.
In 2008, Tanya teamed up with Dylan in the Movies to cover The Cure's "Lovecats" for American Laundromat Records tribute compilation "Just Like Heaven - a tribute to The Cure".
Solo works discography
Josie and the Pussycats, duet with Juliana Hatfield, is included on LP Saturday Morning: Cartoons' Greatest Hits (1995)
Sliding & Diving (EP, 1996.11.25)
Lovesongs for Underdogs (1997.08.09)
The Bright Light, disc 1 (EP, 1997.10.06)
The Bright Light, disc 2 (EP, 1997.10.06)
Pretty Deep, disc 1 (EP, 1997.07.21)
Pretty Deep, disc 2 (EP, 1997.07.21)
Sleepwalk (EP, 2001.11.19)
Whiskey Tango Ghosts (2004.07.26)
This Hungry Life (October 2006)
Heart of Gold (7" Gold Vinyl, July 2007)
All Tanya Donelly lyrics
- Another Moment
- Breathe Around You
- Bright Light (live)
- Bury My Heart
- Butterfly Thing
- Divine Sweet Divide
- Every Devil
- Goat Girl
- Golden Mean
- Head For Math
- How Can You Sleep
- Just In Case You Quit Me
- Keeping You
- Landspeed Song
- Life Is But A Dream
- Life On Serious
- Life On Sirius
- Moonbeam Monkey
- My Life As A Ghost
- Mysteries Of The Unexplained
- Pretty Deep
- So Much Song
- Story High
- The Bright Light
- The Center
- The Night You Saved My Life
- The Promise
- The Shadow
- The Storm
- The Wave
- These Days
- Whiskey Tango
- Wrap-Around Skirt
All lyrics are property of their respective owners and are strictly for non-commercial use only.