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Belly: Crowning Moment

Tanya Donelly hits the big time with ‘King’

Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly performs with Belly at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, on March 11th, 1995.

Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty

Tanya Donelly is inching up her pant leg to display a thick Frankenstein-style scar that snakes completely around her calf. It’s not so much a wound as it is a flesh garter. “I love my scar very much,” she says cheerfully. “I almost cut my leg right off.”

I sheepishly drop my hand in my lap to conceal the half-inch result of a Lhasa apso bite that I was about to display. Yes, a nearly severed limb will always win the who’s-bad scar contest.

All artists talk about the scars that inspire their work, but this one’s the real deal. “I was in a car accident when I was 12,” says Donelly, the lead singer and guiding force of Belly. “I woke up, and my leg was twisted under me, and the bone was sticking out. I don’t know if it’s because I was young, but my first instinct wasn’t ‘Oh, God, I lost my leg!’ It was ‘Oh, God, cool!'”

So Donelly did what anyone would do under the circumstances. She reached down, touched the bone and promptly passed out. “That did it,” she says.

The accident shaped Donelly’s existence thereafter, fueling an obsession with God that has wound through her life. It’s not a crawly, Jimmy Swaggart-type fixation, mind you. It’s more, as Donelly puts it, “a seeking out, a searching. For some reason, God is embarrassing to people. It doesn’t embarrass somebody to talk about how they got completely bombed the night before and puked all over themselves, but God is a really embarrassing subject, and that’s kind of strange.”

Donelly’s spirituality has sustained her through a 10-year turn in Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh, a stint with Kim Deal in the Breeders and her current occupation in Belly, a critically lauded, Grammy-nominated, benefit-show-attendin’ band that Donelly named after one of her favorite words. At the moment she is waxing philosophic as she digs into some dubious grease-laden ravioli courtesy of an “Italian” restaurant in London. (My doctor says Mylanta.) Clad in a plaid shirt, tan cords and boots, she is delicately featured with huge blue eyes and a frequent smile.

Donelly has that special wine-induced sense of well being, having joined her band mates — bassist Gail Greenwood, an affable cyclone with red, white and blue hair; quick-witted guitarist Tom Gorman; and his brother, drummer, graphic artist and surfer Chris Gorman — in spending the last several hours swilling casks of Merlot and singing bad 70s songs. (“You walked into the party like you were walking into a yacht,” they sing lustily. “Your hair dah dah dah dah doo doo … um … doo.”)

More than anything else, the folks in Belly resemble hip graduate students. They’re well spoken, well read, funny. They are mindful of the truth (and consequences) of fame and dismissive of the myth of celebrity. This isn’t jadedness as much as cleareyed awareness — and detachedness. Talk of any trappings of fame makes them uncomfortable. Mention the band’s 1994 Grammy nominations — Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album for their 1993 debut, Star — and Donelly will say: “It’s difficult, maybe with the exception of Gail, to tell when we’re excited about something. I just like to get excited about it in a healthy way because it’s basically fun. It’s a perk, not a goal.”

Donelly is an intriguing paradox. For instance, she will chat at length about religion — but to deflect more intimate and personal questions. She is an intensely private person. Greenwood has never been to Donelly’s apartment; neither has Belly’s manager, Gary Smith, whom Donelly calls “probably my best friend.”

Donelly will tell you that she has always been drawn to contradiction. Her song lyrics, too, are both startlingly intimate and head-scratchingly oblique, all couched in shinly pop tunes. It’s the bright, unapologetically hooky songs that pull you in, but you’ll be staying for creepy, fairy-tale lyrics straight out of a child’s fevered dreams. It’s like catching a butterfly: You’re attracted to the soaring, brilliant colors of its wings, then you turn it over, and there’s a head with pincers. Wiggling legs. A thorax.

The 28-year-old’s songwriting talents have translated into the minor cottage industry that is Belly. Star sold 800,000 copies — more than the entire Throwing Muses catalog, in fact. Buoyed by a monster hit, “Feed the Tree,” Star enjoyed a long run as the No. 1 college album and helped kick start the mainstream mania for all things alternative. Its successor, King, is musically richer and even more accessible, thanks to a passel of rock-solid potential singles, among them “Super-Connected,” a denunciation of music-biz schmoes; the vigorous “Red”; and the tender “Seal My Fate,” which Donelly calls “my first successful joyous love song.”

Produced by Glyn Johns, who’s worked with a few English guys (the Stones, the Clash, the Who), King has a timeless, complete feel to it, each song flowing smoothly into the next. “We were really concentrating on making the album … whole,” says Donelly, helping herself to yet more vino. Asked to name a favored track on the album, she says, “I don’t know. It changes all the time. Which is a good sign, don’t you think?”

There is a childhood photo of Donelly and Hersh that documents, as Donelly puts it, “a really horribly awkward disgusting stage.” The two were about 11. “We were cute when we were little, but then Kristin developed physically very young, and I didn’t develop — or grow, really — until I was literally about 16. I was such a runt. So there was this period of time where she looked like a woman, and I was a homunculus.” (Homunculus: a little man, a dwarf.)

Donelly is picking at lunch — vanilla ice cream, and why not? — in a London restaurant whose tall windows showcase the gray afternoon drizzle. “Sometimes people would literally think that because my mother’s name was Kristin that [Hersh] was my mother,” she says. “I know it sounds insane, but it actually happened.” She gazes out the window. “Just lately, though, I can go back and look at pictures of myself, and I have such affection for that child.”

Donelly’s earliest memories come from the first four years of her life, when her family moved around a lot in a Land Rover before settling in Rhode Island. These recollections apparently resemble Blind Melon videos. “I remember lying in lilies of the valley,” she says. Then there are the dreamlike ones: “I remember weird little animal things. This can’t be right, but I remember tigers outside the tent in Arizona and giraffe feet outside the door in San Francisco.” She laughs. “I think those were actually high heels, but because I was raised around hippies, I didn’t know what they were.”

Donelly was exposed to a “Dear Mr. Fantasy” lifestyle at a young age — there were plenty of drugs, a lot of nudity, a parade of people coming and going. She says in a recent book that it left her with a lot of “images that I wish I didn’t have, pictures that won’t go away.” But she stresses that “as far as the parent thing goes, they set us in a place where we felt loved and secure. I don’t feel wounded by my childhood. I’m lucky to have been raised in an environment that allowed me freedom to figure out what I wanted to do. I have a hard time with the blame culture. It’s really boring.”

A waiter offers water. “Thank you,” Donelly says graciously. The best word to describe Donelly is kind, which is reiterated by every person remotely close to the band. She is very aware of the feelings of others. She has a lilting speaking voice and a frequent laugh. When she talks to you, she sometimes reaches over and grabs your arm.

Donelly is a bit shy at first, which is not surprising considering that every morning before first grade and most of second, she threw up. Donelly had been used to being around adults (except for a stint at a hippie kindergarten called the Pink Pussycat), and the pack of kids terrified her: “I was so stressed out by it, I just wanted to be invisible.” In a Dickensian move, the teacher “literally separated me from the rest of the class.” She shrugs. “It was fine by me. I wanted to be back there.”

She found solace in a tight friendship with Hersh when they were 8. “We pretty much instantly became friends.” Donelly says. “It was very romantic because I had a best friend at the time, and she did too, so we used to sneak off together like lovers. Little girls are so territorial about the best-friend thing.” Later, Donelly’s father married Hersh’s mother, which “got a little bit strange because it turned into more of a sibling thing.” Donelly and Hersh shared a room three nights a week (Donelly’s parents had joint custody) and taught themselves to play guitar while listening to the Beatles, the Pretenders and the Velvet Underground. “We had a picture of the Hardy Boys up at one point — very brief,” Donelly confesses. She buries her head in her hands. “Oh, she is going to chop my head off.”

In high school the two became more self-assured, hanging with the art chicks. “Tanya was always ambitious,” says her brother Christopher, a jeweler. “She always hung out with the crowd of people that you knew were going to go someplace. They weren’t necessarily the most popular people, but they were the fastest movers.”

Hersh and Donelly formed Throwing Muses in ’81. One of their first gigs was a fund-raiser at the Cushing Gallery, in Newport, R.I.”It was a sit-down event, a lot of parents,” says Christopher Donelly. “It was almost like you were going to watch an orchestra, and then this rock & roll band comes on.” He laughs. “It was daytime, too. The sun was coming in.”

By the time Donelly hit 17 — when most girls were decorating lockers for the pep club — the Muses were a fixture in local clubs. “When I think of myself then, I don’t think of myself as being young,” Donelly says. The band built up a rabid following enticed by swirling songs that lurched and shifted and by Hersh’s unmistakable voice and obtuse lyrics whose images often hinted at her struggle with a form of schizophrenia known as bipolarity. When Donelly was 19, the Muses were signed to Britain’s 4AD.

Onstage with the Muses, Donelly was a less-than-commanding figure; all eyes were usually drawn to Hersh’s spellbinding presence. Offstage, Donelly would write for each album one or two songs that glinted through the mix and gained their own following, but there were plenty of other tracks yearning to breathe free. “I definitely liked Tanya’s songs better than Kristin’s,” says Chris Gorman, who knew Donelly in her Muses days. “Only because Tanya has more of a pop sensibility than Kristin does. I’m more of a pop sucker.”

After the Muses’ 1988 album House Tornado was released, Donelly joined Kim Deal of the Pixies and Josephine Wiggs of Perfect Disaster in a side project, the Breeders. “I remember seeing Kim for the first time and thinking, ‘She’s either a complete freak or the coolest person in the world,’ and she’s both,” Donelly says, shaking her head. It was during a Pixies gig, and Deal had come to it straight from work, where she was a secretary in a doctor’s office. “She had on pumps and a white ruffly blouse, and her hair was hair-sprayed up — curled and sprayed,” Donelly recalls. “That was so cool.”

The Donelly-Deal union lasted through one album, 1990’s Pod, and a 1992 EP, Safari. Donelly’s departure from the Breeders was relatively painless “except one night, when [Deal] got upset,” says Donelly, “because I wasn’t going to stay. She dragged me to the ladies’ room of this bar and wouldn’t let me out.” Donelly still keeps in touch with Deal: “The last time I talked to her was maybe two months ago. We definitely love each other and have a lot in common to a certain extent. But we’re not the same person in any way.”

Donelly began feeling her oats during the recording of the Muses’ The Real Ramona in 1991. “Kristin and I weren’t really good for each other anymore,” she sighs as her ice cream turns to soup. “The producer actually set up a system where Kristin would come in during the day and I would come in at night. He said that we’d walk into the room as individuals, and there was musicality and energy, and if we were together, it just sank.” Donelly planned to scram after recording was done. “I sat down with Kristin, and I just burst into tears. As soon as I started to cry, she knew what I was going to say.” Since the split, Hersh has hinted in articles at tensions, but she would not comment for this story.

“Jeez,” Christopher Donelly says carefully when quizzed about his stepsister. “Kristin was …” He stops. “I can’t comment on Kristin. It’s just that the articles I’ve read lately, things she’s been saying, I just have absolutely no comment. She’s been slashing out a lot, and I don’t want to fuel her fire.”

I‘m now hiding behind a potted plant at the hotel. A pack of record-label folk hovers around Donelly. Is she a closet bitch? I gots to know. Here is what follows.

Label Guy: Um, Tanya? How ’bout something to drink?

Tanya: No, thanks. [Smiles.]

Label Gal: [Gets up] Do you want to sit?

Tanya: No, no, no, You sit.

Label Gal: Ready to go to the [photo] shoot? Need anything?

Tanya: I’m all set. Let’s go. [Smiles again.]

Christ, forget it. It’s official: Donelly and Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries have nothing in common. Says Bill Janovitz of Boston’s Buffalo Tom: “Actually, I was just talking to a drum tech who said that Belly is the nicest band he’s ever met and that everybody in the whole organization, down to the T-shirt sellers, has winning personalities. The star trip can easily get to people, but they’re just regular folks.”

The wonder that is Belly began in 1991 when Donelly got a call from old pals Chris, 27, and Tom, 28, late of respected hardcore outfit Verbal Assault.

“Chris said, “Uh, we hear you left the Muses and wanted to know if you’d be interested in playing with me and Tom,'” says Donelly. “I took it as a sign.” She took the plunge.

“The day after we decided,” says Donelly with a grin, “there was a huge hurricane, and we went to a restaurant — Ok, I’ll be frank, it was a bar — and there were candles everywhere, and it was so dramatic, and we just talked about the band. I’ll never forget that night because it seemed so out of time, all of us just huddled together.”

It was typical of Donelly to fish from the musical waters of Newport, a community with an intricate web of connections that extends to Boston, envelops the Fort Apache Studios gang (the Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Come, Juliana Hatfield) and sounds like a bad Melrose Place script. Gary Smith heads Fort Apache Studios. Smith’s grandfather is Chris Gorman’s landlord. Donelly lives with Hatfield’s bass player, Dean Fisher. Janovitz met Donelly after his little brother was in Belly’s “Gepetto” video.

“There are a lot of interconnections,” says Janovitz. “There’s like a whole family tree of people we know. Our drummer, Tom Maginnis, shared a floor freshman year with Bernard Georges, who’s now in the Muses.”

Once the Gormans were in place, it was time for Donelly to shed the title of second banana. Although we should point out there is not a thing wrong with being second fiddle. Ask Ed McMahon. Which we did. “I loved being second banana,” he proclaims. “I never felt the longing, the yearning to take Johnny’s place. One of the keys to my job was to be in there when you’re needed and out of the way when you’re not.” Yes! “You’re supportive, you’re helpful, but it’s like Michael Jordan sinks the baskets. You can help him get down the field [down the court, Ed], but he sinks the basket.”

In 1991, Donelly assumed the Jordan role, assembling the Gormans and former Muses bassist Fred Abong in the studio to record Star. Says Donelly: “We didn’t really know what we were doing, and we were nervous around each other. It was fun to make, but it didn’t have any rock & roll spirit to it. It was careful and sort of… civilized.”

That didn’t matter a hell of a lot — Star exploded on alternative radio and MTV, propelled by “Feed the Tree” and a slew of smart, catchy pop songs with chilly, paradoxical lyrics lurking in the crannies. It’s likely, though, that many of the 13-year-old girls who snapped up the album after seeing the group on MTV missed out on some of the subject matter: decapitated dolls (“Dusted”); a child slamming her bike down some stairs (“Feed the Tree”); decaying dogs strapped to the backs of adulterous Chinese women (“Slow Dog”).

While the album won admiration from fellow musicians, it also, truth be known, had its detractors. “Henry Rollins once said he didn’t understand how young bands like Belly can come along, drop a hit record, and that’s it, they’ve made it,” says bassist Gail Greenwood. “When he’s been in a band for years. It was kind of funny because I don’t think he knew Tanya was in a band for 10 years. The Muses got critical acclaim but probably made less than poverty level as individuals. So we wanted to have some words with him backstage at the acoustic Christmas show at KROQ [in Los Angeles]. I was like ‘I’ll show you some fuckin’ dues!’ But he was surrounded by so many models and beautiful women that there was no getting near him.”

“We were really surprised, given what’s happened to the landscape of mainstream music since then,” says Tom Gorman. “Put the level of success of Star against the level of success that other alternative bands have had since then, and the success of Star was fairly modest.”

What happened in its wake was not. There was the arrival of Newport’s Greenwood, 35, who brought a frantic energy to Belly’s stage show (“I’m doing the Billy Squierisms, I’ve got the legs spread open with the bass settled against the pelvis, and there’s no other way I can play,” she says); two Grammy nominations; a slick Gap ad featuring Donelly, which brought her a world of shit from the indie-cred police; a phone call from Paul McCartney’s office congratulating the band on Star‘s U.K. chart debut at No. 2 (he was stuck at No. 3). And let’s not forget Belly’s Tonight show appearance with Rush Limbaugh.

“We were trying to think of all these things we could do to him,” Tom Gorman says thoughtfully. “For instance, in a show situation, Tanya can pretty much vomit at will, so we were thinking something with vomit. But he was whisked on and whisked off.” Weaving throughout the year was an exhaustive tour schedule that seemingly included every alternative benefit concert in the country. “By the end of the year we were shadows of our former selves,” says Donelly.

After a brief recharging period, Donelly began to write for the new album. Often her band mates — like her fans — are unsure of her lyrics’ meaning. “Sometimes ‘I’ll ask her point-blank, ‘Is this about so-and-so?’ ” says Greenwood. “Sometimes she’ll say, ‘It could be,’ and sometimes she’ll say, ‘I’m not tellin’.'”

After Donelly put pen to paper, enter the formidable Glyn Johns, who accompanied the band to Compass Point studios, in the Bahamas. Johns proposed that Belly record King live in the studio, which turned out to be a capital idea. The album is tighter, leaner, more aggressive than Star, which was patched together by two producers. “Glyn had a reputation for being volatile — he’s really not,” says Donelly. “He’s just cranky in the same way we are — a flareup and it’s gone. He has absolutely no patience with rockstar crap, and that’s why he has the reputation that he does.” More to the point, “He’ll tell anyone to fuck off.”

Tanya Donelly is not the only one in the band who has scars. No. The Gorman brothers bear their share of wounds — East of Eden style — from each other. Usually they get on just fine. As kids they shared a bedroom in Newport, hanging with the local skate rats, trading Bad Brains records, discovering pot. Chris was the homecoming king in his senior year of high school: “I used to carry a comb in my back pocket, whip it out and run it through my feathered hair.” He also started a one-man trend. “I had a pooka-shell necklace with my wisdom teeth on it. Big, impacted gnarly ones.”

Tom now admits to having “all the Electric Light Orchestra records. Years ago I wouldn’t be caught dead saying this, but I’ve grown.” A former architecture major at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, he looks slightly abashed when informed that his demeanor is that of a groovy young English professor: “Really? That’s not very rock & roll. Well, it seems there are a lot more nerds in bands than there ever were. The nerd quotient is really high. Which is kind of comforting in a way.”

The boys have made it through the years without a squabble, save, says Tom, “the occasional fight over one of the more rare and unique Lego pieces — the slanted clear one or something.”

But there was that dark night a while back in New York when Tom, Chris and Chris’ then girlfriend were sharing an apartment. “I was working as a production assistant for a TV show called Law and Order right before we joined Belly,” says Chris. “It was a strife-filled year. Anyway, I got really drunk at the show’s wrap party. Tom wouldn’t let me drive and took off with the car.” Chris, who had a full-on problem buzz, was furious.

“I got back to the loft,” says Chris, “and attacked Tom, more or less. We had a real violent episode.” He rolls his eyes. “I was also so loaded that he got the best of me. But I think he might have a bite mark on his forehead from it, and I’ve got a tattoo on my shoulder with a big scar that runs down the middle of it.”

Greenwood joined the band in ’93, following the recording of Star, after a stint in what she wryly calls the “sweetest little pop band in the world,” a Newport outfit known as the Dames. “Also referred to as the Lames,” she says. “We hated Throwing Muses, jealous beyond belief. Went to every show, of course.” Greenwood tried out for Belly in her own basement. “I was nervous, straightening up the place. First thing Tanya does is walk in and burp into the mike. So funny, so normal.”

Greenwood, who co-wrote the music for “Super-Connected” and “Puberty,” provides a manic yin to Donelly’s serene yang. Listen in on this story, which she fires off in a dizzying 10 seconds. “This is what Tanya is like OK? We shared rooms for like a year, OK, and we got along great. Well, I snore like a fucking motherfucker — like a trucker. I have an adenoid problem. I can’t help it. I’m usually very dainty. Ha! Or so I thought that one fateful morn — I think it was in Munich — ’cause I woke up early to take my morning jog, and I see poor Tanya sleeping, not looking restful, and on the night stand next to her is a cosmetic pad ripped to fucking shreds. I’m like ‘Wow, what the hell did she do last night?’ And I have the horrible realization that she’s got little pieces stuck in her ears to block out my snoring.”

As the new kid in the band, Greenwood says she senses “a little delineation. Probably no one feels this way but me, but when it gets to be 4 in the morning, and everyone’s drinking, it’s like ‘Hmm, heard that story in Detroit.’ I can only stay up so late with my bottle of water.”

At the moment she confides this, Greenwood is guzzling her beverage of choice backstage at the Garage, a London dive where Belly are about to take the stage. Tom is inspecting the backstage sandwiches, which have congealed into one large loaf; Chris is contemplating “whether to get high or not”; and Donelly is pacing. “I’m straight edged,” Greenwood says. “Never drank, never smoked. Fuck that. I can get happy by running.” Indeed, she has one of the more well-cut bods in the music world. “Although everyone looks at me and thinks, ‘Recovering alcoholic,'” she deadpans. Her vice, instead, is candy. “Fuckin’ circus peanuts! Those dots on the piece of paper! Shit candy!”

Donelly, combating a case of nerves, grabs a fat Magic Marker and scribbles down the set list. From the stage below come the uninspiring sounds of the Pale Saints. Nobody cares. The audience is yelling, laughing and schmoozing with abandon. The lead singer tries to tussle with an audience member. “Fuck you,” the vocalist says halfheartedly. No one budges. The show might as well be in mime. The audience is here to see Belly.

Donelly ducks into the bathroom to put on more makeup. “Ugh, nerves,” she says. Outside someone says in a cheery voice, “Time to go on, folks!”

“Here we go,” Donelly mutters.

Onstage the band, never one for shallow spectacle, dispenses with the stage patter and launches into “King.” It’s a little wobbly, as is the next offering, “Puberty.” Greenwood is whirling her hair and bouncing around the stage. The band is exchanging furtive looks. Not even the standby “Feed the Tree” puts them on steady ground.

“Not doing well,” someone observes dryly behind me.

“Mm, pity,” says his companion.

Then the group rolls out the evocative “Judas My Heart,” a song about the hopelessness of the slacker mystique. “Low hangs the moon inside this room,” Donelly croons, and the audience is still. Belly have found their footing, and by the time they unfurl the kinetic “Red,” Donelly is loose and playful. They’re rolling.

“Better,” concludes the voice in back.

“Mm, yes,” raves his companion.

We have just adjusted our seats to the upright position and secured and fastened our tray tables. The captain has turned on the no-smoking sign. We are heading home to Boston. I am seated between the brothers Gorman, who are having sinus trouble, sniffing and gacking in stereo. Donelly, meanwhile, is reading a book. Hmm, is it her favorite writer, Jeanette Winterson? Close. It’s Jackie Collins’ Lucky. As for Greenwood, she has three photos and is giving herself a slide show: parents, dogs, the Boyfriend Whose Name Is Chill. Parents. Dogs. The Boyfriend Whose Name Is Chill.

I am asking the band to fill in the missing word: “In Belly, I am the ‘blank’ one.”

Donelly: “God. I don’t know. I’m very maternal, but that’s with everybody, not just them. Hmm. How about, ‘I’m the tired one.’ Honestly, that’s probably the most accurate answer.”

Tom Gorman: “I am the pessimistically optimistic one.”

Greenwood:”I am the most nice.”

Chris Gorman: “I have sinus trouble. Can I be Sneezy?”

Upon arrival in Boston the band almost immediately goes back into the trenches. After two blissful days of downtime (“I can’t wait to molest my boyfriend,” says Donelly with gusto), there are more interviews, more touring and more fans, who, disturbingly, often ask Donelly for a hug.

“Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t like to be touched,'” Donelly says, opening her tray table as a stewardess slaps down her vegetarian meal (it looks just as ghastly as the chicken or lasagna, FYI). “That’s a way of getting out of it and being semienigmatic. I’m getting less and less polite as the years wear on.” For a while she had another trapping of fame: her very own stalker.

“The way he was harassing me was so typical and unimaginative,” Donelly says. “I ended up doing something in retrospect that was probably dumb. I wrote him a threatening letter saying, ‘I will hire someone to hurt you if you contact me again.'” It worked.

Most of the fans, however, are of the eager-to-please ilk, which touches Donelly. “I’m older than most of the people that come to our shows,” she says. “But that’s OK.” She settles into her seat with her Jackie Collins opus. “I like being in a position of, you know, Mom with a guitar.” She smiles. “There’s something strange about that, but there’s something sweet about it, too.” 

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