As a founding member of college-rock heroes Throwing Muses, Tanya Donelly has been crafting skewered pop gems since she was a teenager. After a stint in a pre-“Cannonball” version of the Breeders, Donelly and her band Belly helped lead the charge of the Nineties alt-rock explosion, edging into the mainstream with their surprise hit “Feed the Tree.” After recording two records, Star and King, with Belly, Donelly went solo, recording 1997’s Lovesongs for Underdogs with support from her husband, ex-Juliana Hatfield 3 bassist Dean Fisher, as well as drummers Dave Lovering (ex-Pixies) and David Narcivo (ex-Throwing Muses) and American Hi-Fi frontman Stacy Jones. After a lengthy absence, Donelly returns for her second solo record, Beautysleep, packed with melodic songs that might be quieter than some of her previous work, but no less beautiful or memorable.
It’s been about five years since your last solo record — how much of that time was spent on this new record?
I had a daughter [Gracie] about two-and-a-half years ago, so I’ve been really very focused on her during that time. The bulk of the songs were written and recorded when I was pregnant, with the exception of probably five of them. I initially had planned to release that as the record and then tour a few months later after I gave birth — completely oblivious to what having a child actually does to you! So that few months turned into a few years. In the years prior to my pregnancy — that unaccounted-for year and a half — we were touring Lovesongs and took some time off. My husband and I went down to Central America for a while and explored. It’s all been pretty filled, but it seems, from other people’s perspective, that I just disappeared for a long time.
Do you feel that having a child changed your approach to music?
Oh yeah! Logistically, it changed the way I recorded, in terms of being in the studio — there are no all-nighters for me anymore. It doesn’t mean I’m minimizing my love of music at all because it’s still a huge part of my life, but Gracie took a lot of my focus. She’s my priority and you kinda need a telescope to see everything else from where she’s standing. But a weird thing happened because of that — I relaxed! I enjoyed [recording] again, for the first time in years. I didn’t have the external pressures, because I’m not on a major label anymore, but I also am not doing that to myself either. [There’s no] internal pressure to be successful, to write a pop song, or to try to achieve something that didn’t come naturally to me anymore. I think that, as a result, my voice relaxed and I think I could sing better than I have been able to in the past.
You’ve worked with your husband on both of your solo records. How do you think your personal and creative relationships affect each other?
They’ve become so intertwined it’s almost impossible to know at this point. Our musical life really continues in our house. We co-write together now. He plays guitar while I’m playing with [Gracie] and singing. Then the burden of responsibility sort of just naturally progressed into the studio where he helps out in there as well, in terms of making decisions when I would be taking care of Gracie. It’s much more harmonious and works a lot better than I thought it would. We’re not angels, we fight like anybody, but it’s been really good for me because it allows me to be the mom that I want to be to Gracie.
It seems like you’ve always worked with family, having also been in bands with your sister and other pairs of siblings. Are you drawn to this dynamic?
I think I like a childish environment, and siblings bring that into a situation. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Every band that I’ve been in, for the most part, has been very playful and very high-spirited. I think that siblings bring that vibe along, if they’re good to each other for the most part. When there is tension, it’s out immediately because that’s how you deal with things in a family. You fight, but it’s your family, you know?
You have David Narcizo from the Throwing Muses playing drums on your new record and you’ve done some shows with the Muses in recent years — will you work with those folks again in the future?
Kristin [Hersh, singer/guitarist and Donelly’s half-sister], Bernard [Georges, bass], and Dave just made another Throwing Muses record and I sang on it. I think it’s supposed to be ten or eleven songs, and I sing on six. [Kristin] writes like fifteen songs in a minute, and she had this body of songs that didn’t feel solo to her. They’re very, very rock and they really remind me of early Muses songs, some of them, so she wanted to just do it in this context. Plus, we all get homesick for each other. I think that the older we get, the more often that happens. David lives in Newport, I live in Boston and Kristin lives in Seattle right now, but she’s moving back to Providence, so we all try and hover nearby. We grew up together, we’ve known each other since we were five, the three of us, so we try and find each other again.
What do you think would have happened if the Muses had formed today in today’s teen-driven marketplace?
I think we’d be much weirder now than people thought we were then, which is funny, because people thought we were pretty weird then! I think we’d be complete freaks now, but it’s a much more conservative musical climate now than when I was coming up.
After leaving Throwing Muses, you suddenly garnered Grammy nominations and magazine covers with Belly. What was that shift like?
It was pretty surreal. That [first] year was wonderful; we had such a blast and I think we did a good job of enjoying every second of it without putting a cynical bent on it. It was a strain, I think, on my relationship with Kristin for a while — how couldn’t it be? I think she probably, rightfully, was resentful for a while, so that was kinda tough but we got over it. It started to get darker, though. We then toured for two years straight with like one Christmas off. It was very hard and long with many interviews each day, plus shows, plus in-stores. We really worked very hard for a couple of years and it took its toll. We became estranged from each other, plus I just fell apart physically, and it wasn’t my scene.
What are your tour plans for Beautysleep?
It’s going to be an abbreviated tour. It’s a week in the U.K., then ten days West Coast, ten days East Coast, and that’s it. This time around, I just want to enjoy it, and I don’t want to put my daughter through too much. I’d like for just once to preach to the converted, not win over a new fan base.
So will there be five years before your next record?
No! We’ve written a lot of it already. What I usually do is let the well dry out and then get it going again when I need to, but this time I kinda just kept writing. It helps co-writing with Dean as well, because there’s another source to keep things going. I think it’s just going to be me, Dean and Rich [Gilbert, guitars] and it’s just going to be very stripped down. Not necessarily all acoustic, but that would probably be the foundation.
A final pun question: How does your belly feel now that you’re a breeder ?
[Laughs] Much softer!