Tanya Donelly, ‘STAR’ of the upwardly flying BELLY,
wouldn’t sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars
and she wouldn’t throw her knickers at Tom Jones.
But she is engaged and believes in the concept of marriage…
‘Her hmmm goes to your heart,
her hmmm sticks in your head,
hmmm, hmmm, hmmm…’
‘If anyone offered ANY amount of money to sleep with me, I wouldn’t do it’ protests Tanya Donelly with a grin like John F Kennedy left her his teeth. ‘It’s FREE, or it’s NOTHING!’
A good answer, I concede.
‘A good question’ she enthuses graciously. The question being the movie-question – would you sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars.
We are discussing the nature of sexual attraction. Tanya and I. She’s the motivating force behind Belly, a band with its hands in all the right pockets. It’s Tanya who writes all those superficially dippy lyrics and sings the often deceptively fey vocal lines that get buried in Belly’s jostling guitars. But there are veins of darkest distortion in there. Grimm and grimmer fairy tales of confused and confusing emotional debris. An Angela Carter gothic psychosexual ‘Company Of Wolves’
(1984), transfigured by the narcotic of dream.
Belly – tested for the Unexpected. And they do a stylish T-shirt too.
‘CAN YOU CLOSE THAT DOOR’ she yells over her shoulder, as the soundcheck cranks up through the wall.
But Tom Jones! Belly cover his lumberingly inept “It’s Not Unusual” (on the “Gepetto” remix EP). Is his blunt unsubtle sexuality really a turn-on, Tanya?
‘No. Not really. He is totally unsubtle. He’s not sexy in my terms, but he represents sex to a lot of people.’
You wouldn’t throw your underwear at him, in that case? ‘No. No – not at all.’ She laughs that kind of intoxicating laugh you last heard in a Swinging London movie, ‘Up The Junction’
(1968) or ‘Blow Up’
(1966). ‘I’ve never really been a big ‘fan’ person anyway. I’ve never really been a super-‘FAN’ or anybody. I admire and respect loads of people, but I don’t wanna meet them, I mean – I’m not a ‘fan’ in the normal sense of the word. I don’t mean to sound snotty when I say that. I suppose I’m a fan of certain people, but it’s not in a ‘wanting-to-meet-them’ kind of way.’
Whose picture did you pin to your bedroom wall when you were a kid?
‘Hmmm. Let me see. I used to have a Jim Morrison poster, yeah. And I like Iggy, and I liked Paul McCartney actually… this is when I was very young. And – erm, Michael Stipe.’
It used to be said you could psychoanalyse a teenage hippie-chick by finding out which Beatle she preferred. Lennon was for the cool intellectual. George for the weirdly mystic. Paul for the dippy romantic.
‘Well, I am really dippy and romantic.’ Then a moment’s thought. ‘No, I’m not dippy. But I AM romantic.’
There’s a line in Tanya’s Throwing Muses song “Angel”, which runs ‘spastically romantic…’
‘Yep, that’s me’ she grins. ‘It really fucks your life up!’
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‘Do you have a sister?
Would you lay your body down
On the tracks for her?’ (“Someone To Die For”)
Tanya, and step-sister Kristin Hersh were raised in Newport, Rhode Island, home of the famous ‘Folk Festival’, host to Bob Dylan’s finest hours, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger. ‘When I was a little kid my parents used to work at the Folk Festival’ she explains. ‘So I was there when I was, like – in my mother’s belly one year, and then when I was two or three the next time. They were there, but after that I’ve never been. It’s the kind of thing I would love to go to, but it’s just such a mess. It’s such a fucking madhouse in Newport around that time, that if you’ve been raised with it, it’s more an irritant than an excitement.’
Kristin and Tanya were the children of a hippie couple who divorced when Tanya was just seven years old. ‘To this day drugs make me intensely nervous’ Tanya confided to ‘Melody Maker’
, ‘because my parents did so many.’
Was Kristin more of a hippie victim than you?
‘Victim of our parents you mean?’
No, not necessarily. A victim of the hippie ethos – after all, she has a child called Dylan.
Hmm. Oh yeah, but he’s not really named after Bob Dylan. No. Both of our parents were hippies. But none of us are victims. In some ways – yeah, we’re totally influenced by that culture. In so many ways. We were raised IN IT.’
It was in 1982 that Kristin heard the voice of the muse, and it sayeth Yea, heavy on the bass, get on the good foot and the bad foot too. And the result was Throwing Muses. In “Devil’s Roof” Kristin wrote ‘I have two heads…’, perhaps a reference to her own fractured bipolarity, but for the sake of this article it could also refer to the band. The Muses’ other head belonging to sixteen-year-old anthropology student and part-time short story writer Tanya Donelly. Tanya wrote one song – “Green”, for the debut ‘Throwing Muses’
(September 1986) album, extending her ambitions to grab two prime slots on the acclaimed January 1989 ‘Hunkpapa’
. “Dragonhead” is a complex mosaic of guitar changes riddled with spaced dream-state ‘I swallow creepy things’ lyrics. It’s only marginally less odd than the already mentioned “Angel”.
Two more Tanya songs made it onto their final collaboration, ‘The Real Ramona’
in February 1991, “Honeychain” and the ‘breathtaking Surf Pop’ “Not Too Soon” with its solo driving like it’s alive. But by then the creative pressures of playing second guitar-string to Kristin were becoming so restrictive that Tanya was moonlighting with the Breeders. At first she played part-time with Kim Deal (of the Pixies) and Jo Wiggs (of Perfect Disaster) overlapping her time with the Muses. But following the split, the Breeders went full time, breeding one Steve Albini produced LP called ‘Pod’
in May 1990, but Tanya again found her compositional contributions overshadowed, this time by Kim’s songs. ‘The Breeders were heavier than Throwing Muses. Melodically, Kim is one of the strongest Pop songwriters I can think of. Like, it’s very chorus and melody orientated. But she does have really strong guitar sensibilities as far as sounds go. So there is a heaviness there too. Which I learned from. I learned a lot from her.’
For Tanya, looking forward to a bright shiny new career in sonic insurgency, there’s no Norman Lamont-style retroactive savaging of former colleagues. The process from Breeders to Tree Feeders was part of a natural evolution.
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‘I was friendly with this girl who insisted on
my face, she told outrageous stories,
I believed them till the endings were changed
from endings before, she’s not touched me anymore’
The name of “Feed The Tree”, Belly’s first Top Thirty hit of 1993, is a death euphemism similar to ‘pushing up the daisies’.
“Star”, the title-track of the hit album that closely followed is allegedly about a TV-documentary on the bizarre sex-appeal of the macabre serial killer Ted Bundy. All that, mixed into a roaring riff-led hook-laden Pop fired by Tanya’s Belly cohorts – guitarist and drummer brothers Chris and Ted Gorman, with manic bassist Gail Greenwood. Thank your gods for CD mere mortals – ‘Star’
(January 1993) is an album with a stylus-blunting tendency to demand repeat plays. So it’s maybe best not to buy it in its vinyl format.
Tanya’s favourite album track is “Low Red Moon”, the song she wrote for her fiancé Chick Graning – former singer with Anastasia Screamed, who dubs slide guitar onto it, and who provides his ‘strong arms for a skinny girl’. But fiancé – that’s an odd word seldom used these days outside of Barbara Cartland novels. Surely the only people who get engaged now are members of the Royal Family – and look how they wind up.
‘We’re engaged… technically. But we don’t have a wedding date set, and we probably aren’t going to settle for a while. It’s just – hmmm, yeah, it IS a weird word. But I know a lot of married people. And the concept of marriage is important to me…’
‘CAN I HAVE ANOTHER SECOND’ she yells over her shoulder as the soundcheck lurches closer.
Does her ‘concept of marriage’ indicate traditional values towards Sexual Politics (adopting a psychoanalytical approach), perhaps like her nervousness with drugs it’s a reaction to observed excesses?
‘I’m in a kind of privileged situation’ she admits, ‘because I’ve really honestly never come across any problems being female and working in bands. I mean, no-one’s even ever really yelled at me to take my shirt or anything like that. So I don’t think I’ve really been exposed to a lot of bullshit that women still have to put up with. I’m aware of it, but I’ve never seen it. I live my life well. And I’m a Feminist in the way that I live my life. But singing about it, and taking a very direct political approach in my lyrics does not come naturally to me at all. So I can’t make it that way.’
So you prefer to work by example, in much the same way that Patti Smith might do it?
‘Right. Yes, I think that’s the strongest way. The strongest message is to do it by example.’
We are discussing the nature of sexual attraction. Tanya and I. But is it possible for men and women to work together without an element of sexual frisson?
‘Oh yes’ – then a considered pause. And more emphatically, ‘yes, I do. I mean most of my male relationships are free of that. And I have a lot of extremely close male friends. And there’s no tension, and there’s no problem. Sometimes it can be nice if that buzz is there. But I have that buzz with women too. I mean – there are women that I have this relationship with, and with female friends there can be more physical tension than there is with some male friendships. So – alrightee, Sex Makes The World Go Round!’
A fitting punchline?
‘Good Timing’ she grins. ‘You said that just as I was being called to go back into the other room.’ The soundcheck is accelerating towards critical mass. ‘So – Okeedokee, thank you so much. And… take care.’
Tanya confides that Belly’s next cover version for their next B-side, will be their version of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon”.
Following the success of ‘Star
’, Belly issued second album ‘King
’ (February 1995) produced by Glyn Johns. It’s commercial failure led to the band splitting, after Tanya concentrated on a solo career. Tanya married former-Juliana Hatfield bassist Dead Fisher in September 1996, with whom she had daughter Grace Bee Fisher in April 1999. Belly reformed in 2016 with the original line-up, and issued a third studio album, ‘Dove
’ in May 2018. To the best of my knowledge, their version of “Fly Me To The Moon” never emerged!
After splitting from Tanya, Chick Graning formed a band called Scarce, but after supporting Hole on a 1994 tour he suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm, from which he recovered after extensive rehabilitation
BELLY live at ‘The Irish Centre’, Leeds
Tanya Donelly was a Throwing Muse.
Then she was part of Breeders with the mighty Kim Deal.
In December 1991 she formed the first
line-up of her own band – Belly…
‘Are you in REAL
PAIN, or just FUN
PAIN?’ asks the Last American Virgin with touchingly sincere concern, to the crush-packed slam-danced stage-dived huddled masses compressed to rupture density beneath her. Despite the press feeding the Family Tree and the winsome pastoral video, despite the ‘Fast Food’ smile (‘HELLO – MY NAME’S TANYA, HOW CAN I HELP YOU?’) this ain’t no Throwing Muesli audience. This is a reverbstorm roaring like it’s French-kissing a rusty car-exhaust, with Tanya Donelly as the heart of the noise – yet still finding time to bob a cutesy curtsey at each number’s end. I know all this, and more... ‘I feel a moron in this dress’ she confides. An abbreviated high-necked swirl of near-paisley, worn with suede boots. ‘Tell her she looks red hot’ jeers the bass-player from hell to the huddled masses.
Originally slated for the more low-rent ‘Duchess’ on Vicar Lane, a charting LP and a Top 30 single lever Belly up-market to this bigger venue – but they’re still turning kids away at the door. Belly go through their ‘Star’
album (Sire, January 1993) and beyond on maximum warp and minimum delicacy, opening with the highs and lows of “Don’t You Have Someone You’d Die For”, into the white powder “Dusted” at their most darkly electric, through the zip-gun power-pop of “Gepetto”, and finally the acoustic “Untogether” – an apres encore solo treat, Tanya’s most lightly shaded yet movingly intense piece.
Belly have guts, if you can stomach the pun. Bass-player Fred Abong – also formerly a-Muse-ing, quit Belly shortly after recording the album, so instead we get Gail Greenwood who shares a talent to a-muse. She’s the extrovert ‘Bass-Player From Hell’, a visual shock like a refugee from L7, with tartan kilt and backwards baseball cap pegging in torrents of head-shaking blonde hair. She apes the Rock ‘n’ Roll animal with two-fingers in the air, lurid squats and grimaces with much cock-rock phallic guitar waving, the macho bombast that only a female – in the spirit of affectionate piss-take – can get away with in the caring sharing Nineties. She forms the ideal female double act with (what we’ve been misled to believe is) Tanya’s more twee affectations. Lead guitarist Tom Gorman, by contrast, is the straightman, a still-life sketch of smudged blackness, studiously ignoring it all and concentrating on his fret. I know all this, and more...
Gail pruriently investigates some scuffed boxer shorts hurled from the masses, holds them up gingerly. ‘Fred Flintstone’. ‘Are ‘Fred Flintstone’ underpants still cool?’ Tanya sticks out an acre of tongue. You wonder how the playful radio-friendly sensibility of “Feed The Tree” can be melded into such attack. When it comes chromium-plated, tough and kicking, it sounds better than you ever imagined it could. On stage Belly are lyrical and inventive Trad-Rock, gender-shifting into new energies, parodying definitions and reinvigorating the toothless old whore of Rock. Belly hit all the right G-(for guitar)-spots. Fun Pain, until the Last American Virgin admits she’s ‘hot, tired, and tipsy’. ‘Not bad for a damned Yankee bitch, eh?’ two-fingers the bass-player from hell to the huddled masses.