Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Tanya Donelly is an American singer/songwriter and guitarist based in New England who cofounded Throwing Muses with stepsister Kristin Hersh, 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.
Born on July 14, 1966, 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; Donelly's solo works have been released on Warner Brothers 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 bandmate Hersh. More recently she mentioned Leonard Cohen as a songwriting hero, citing her then-current listening favorites as Lucinda Williams and Joan as Policewoman, 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 has in recent years added covers by Robyn Hitchcock, Nina Simone, and the Beatles to her repertoire.
Tanya Donelly's parents, Richard and Kristin Donelly, moved the family Newport, Rhode Island, shortly after Tanya had begun kindergarten elsewhere; she has said her family shuttled "between Rhode Island and California" for the first four years of her life. Donelly has described her early school experience as having had bouts of nervous shyness from that fear her "hippie" family background, as she has called it, was different from those of other classmates.
Donelly has said that she met Kristin Hersh in school around age eight, quickly becoming close friends. Donelly's father eventually married Hersh's mother sometime after their birth parents had divorced when they were children. When she was 12 years old, Donelly and her mother were injured in a traumatic, life-threatening 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 initally 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 cofounding 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 the busy Boston rock scene 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 came to be at peace with the realization that her own 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 hypnotic, pop-tinged rock tunes from this period include "Green," "Reel," "Pools in Eyes," "The River," "Giant," "Dragonhead," 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 group who had started out opening 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 ended up centered around Deal. The group released their Pod album with Donelly aboard 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 ethereal lead vocals to This Mortal Coil's Blood album on 4AD, with a duet 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 keyboards, 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 its 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 several commercial chart successes and was certified as a gold record in 1994 by the RIAA. The band was also nominated for two Grammy awards 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 patronizingly portrayed her as "sweet" and "doll-like," than was her intelligence as a writer. This media attention putting her on an angelic doll's pedestal in turn led to dismissive comments made about her by Riot Grrl feminists, resulting in frustration for the singer.
In 1995, Belly released their 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 crticically well-received, this album, produced by Glyn Johns, did not match the commercial success of Star. The band eventually 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 November 1996, Donelly put together a group of musicians with whom to tour internationally 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 Larson and Billy Coté. The album release featured Donelly on vocals, guitars, and keyboards, Rich Gilbert (of Human Sexual Response, Goober & the Peas, Frank Black, Blackstone Valley Sinners) on pedal steel, Fisher on bass, and drummers Dave 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.
Watching her stepsister work hard to combine a demanding career with raising young boys influenced Donelly to consider the practicalities of her profession in planning when to have children herself. In 1999, she gave birth to a daughter, Grace Bee Fisher.
Career since 2000
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 "Live is But a Dream" and "The Night You Saved My Life" on her 2002 Beautysleep release. The late Mark Sandman , of Boston's Morphine indie-rock group, lent his vocals on this album to the song "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.
Also in 2004, Boston post-punk legends Mission of Burma included Donelly's backing vocals on their reunion album, Onoffon. The same year, she released Whiskey Tango Ghosts, a sparely arranged, acoustic album highlighting her vocal strengths. 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 and Joan as Policewoman) on violin and backing vocals, Joe McMahon (of Señor Happy and Smoke or Fire) on bass, 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 same concerts. The live album resulting from the concert recordings is due out in 2005.
Solo works discography
- Sliding & Diving (EP, 1996)
- Lovesongs for Underdogs (1997)
- Sleepwalk (EP, 2001)
- Beautysleep (2002)
- Whiskey Tango Ghosts (2004)
- "About The Windham". (2004). Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
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- Krinsky, David (February 20, 2002). "Tanya Donelly Gets Her Beauty Sleep: College rocker grows up on second solo effort". Rolling Stone. Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
- Le, Vinh (1996–2005). "Tanya Donelly Timeline". Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
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- Milano, Brett (November 21, 1996). "On Her Own: Tanya Donelly Begins Life After Belly". Boston Phoenix. Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
- Obrecht, Jas (March 1995). "Belly Up! The Rise of Tanya Donelly & Tom Gorman". Guitar Player.
- Phares, Heather (2002). "Beautysleep Review". All Music Guide. Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
- "Tanya Donelly biography at 4AD and Whiskey Tango Ghost". (2004). Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
- "Tanya Donelly official Slumberland message board". Retrieved Apr. 13, 2005.
- White, Timothy (January 16, 1993). "Discovering Belly's Personal Politics". Billboard.
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