Tanya Donelly

Written by Jeff Keibel on Thu, 18 Sep 1997 18:25:35 -0400.
CMJ New Music Monthly (Oct. 97)
Tanya Donelly: Simplify
by Glen Sansons

Tanya Donelly is pacing around a posh, well-decorated apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side on a sweltering summer day. Her husband, former Juliana Hatfield bassist Dean Fisher, is close by, looking less preoccupied, but his posture reflects his wife's concern. He's by her side, like a personal assistant, as she sorts out her agenda surrounding the release of "Lovesongs For Underdogs", her solo debut and her first record since the breakup of Belly. Donelly politely asks her husband to vanish as she sits down, large coffee in tow, on a big sofa. She looks as though she's just landed in a dentist's chair and is awaiting surgery.

It's hardly a secret that Donelly is no fan of the interview process. She's slow to open her heart, disinterested in stardom and perplexed by fans who idolize the singer instead of the songs; obscure and imagistic, each one like a Rubik's Cube of personal references, dreams and observations, keeping listensers at arm's length. "Sometimes I'm not even talking about myself, which should always be kept in mind," she says, "Sometimes it's coming from a perspective that has nothing to do with me and it's coming from something I read."

"I'd like to be [more direct]," she continues. "I'm trying to simplify my life in many ways. And that's one area that I do concentrate on... and it does concern me sometimes. Part of the problem is I'll forfeit the story for the sound of the words, for the way the actual vowels and consonants move. I always envy those people that get the stories in those vowels and consonants. There are people that do it so well - it's not abstract at all, and it sounds so perfect."

Donelly is at a crossroads in her recording career. After only two records - the gold selling "Star" and the star-crossed "King" - Belly had suddenly lost its way. "We had always said that this isn't a permanent situation, we're not a U2-type band or an R.E.M.-type band. There's gonna come a point, because our tastes are so divergent, that it's gonna stop being healthy and start being unhealthy - we knew it when the tour started... It didn't have anything to do with the failure of "King". I think that if "King" had done really well, we would have broken up sooner," she notes.

"I cope by avoiding everybody!" Donelly says, perking up. "'OK, bye, I'm invisible now! I can't hear you, I can't hear you, I can't hear you!'... We fought. There were fights. When I'm in one, I definitely contribute to it. I can scream, that's for sure," she laughs. "The way we dealt with it was to just let everything fall apart. And then once it had, we realized it. Now we have rubble."

Emerging from the rubble, Donelly recorded her solo debut in small batches last year, co-producing it with Wally Gagel (Folk Implosion) and her manager Gary Smith. She assembled a cast of new musicians, including her former Throwing Muses bandmate David Narcizo on drums. During the recording of the spazzy "Landspeed Song", shre notes, "Gary said, 'Um, don't you think that sounds too much like Throwing Muses?' And David and I were like, 'Well, I was IN Throwing Muses, and so was he! We're allowed to sound like that for a SECOND!'"

"Lovesongs For Underdogs" is, at first listen, noticeably different from Donelly's earlier records. New sound sources, arrangements and textures, including tasteful touches of strings, all flatter the album's varied mix of songs. Her voice is more expressive and dynamic than ever before; her lyrics are still deliciously obscure and dusky, but you can sense a stronger personality behind them. And, though Donelly has said in the past that she hasn't written a perfect love song, the album's title suggests that she's tackled that dilemma. Not so. "It's funny - there are only two love songs on there," she says, "I like the title just because it just sounds good. I think it's sweet and sad, but it's funny, too."

Still, she's not all happy. "All your heroes are whores", the mantra of the bittersweet "Mysteries Of The Unexplained", suggests she that she's opening the scars left from Belly's end. "When I wrote that song, I was very aware of that was probably going to be the perception," she notes, "and, unfortunately, it's bad timing for me to start complaining about radio butt-kissing, because it didn't work out last time. It sounds like sour grapes, which is not really the point. That song is more about American media in general, and how filthy it can be. But in the chorus I'm saying other stuff - images of fish raining from the sky (an actual natural phenomenon) and crying statues, classic Donelly fare. "[You have to] remember the world is not solely pop culture, especially when you're part of the problem, like I am to a certain extent," she says. "You do have to really make sure you don't let your mind atrophy. There are other things going on outside of pop culture." CMJ

...in the same issue of CMJ, "Lovesongs For Underdogs" is reviewed and "Pretty Deep" is included on the free CD that comes with it...

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