Photo: Naomi Yang

“A Joyful, Very Happy Feeling”: A Conversation With Tanya Donelly of Belly

Donelly discusses her solo work and the much-anticipated Belly reunion -- and hints that the band may have more than a summer tour in the works.
Tanya Donelly
Swan Song Series
American Laundromat

Since Belly disbanded two decades ago, Tanya Donelly has methodically and quietly assembled an impressive — and impressively diverse — body of solo work. Having already run through founding stints in both Throwing Muses and the Breeders, Donelly decided to embark on a solo career after Belly’s second album, King, crashed headfirst into a musical landscape that was drastically different from the one that saw the band’s debut, 1993’s Star, ride the top of the modern rock charts.

What she did not know, and could not know, was that the path she was embarking on would eventually circle back around.

In the late ’90s and throughout the aughts, Donelly released a series of albums that continued to reveal her gift for constructing punchy pop-rock songs, but they increasingly revealed her desire to write songs of a more singer-songwriter nature, songs that skewed closer to folk, jazz, and even country than alternative rock. By the time 2004’s Whiskey Tango Ghosts was released, Donelly’s sound was dramatically softer but much more nuanced, relying more on acoustic guitar and piano than electric guitar.

In 2013, Donelly began releasing a series of EPs dubbed The Swan Song Series, a series that would, to a large extent, explore this more nuanced approach. Rather than working with a single band, however, Donelly chose to work with a diverse cast of friends whose backgrounds and tastes didn’t necessarily overlap.

“I love writing with other people,” Donelly says. “I love being in the same space as other people and working on music. It’s just how I function; I’m not really a loner musically. I mean I can do that but I just feel that everything flows more easily and more happily for me when I’m working with other people.”

This May, Donelly released The Swan Song Series as a single set comprised of the five original volumes plus seven previously unreleased tracks. As a unified collection, it’s sweeping and expansive, moving from one genre to another with each song. Songs like “Blame the Muse”, which possesses a breezy, retro pop vibe, share space with “Flying at Night”, an arty, atmospheric fusion of lounge vocals and glitchy electronica that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Portishead album. The folk fingerpicking and jazz percussion of “Mass Ave” eventually give way to the lumbering heavy metal of “Tu Y Yo”, a track that Donelly’s Belly bandmate, Gail Greenwood, wrote with her band, Benny Sizzler.

This diversity of styles is largely driven by the collaborators that Donelly worked with throughout The Swan Song Series, collaborators that range from John Wesley Harding to author Rick Moody to Robyn Hitchcock to Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz to musicians from Magnetic Fields and Calexico, to name but a very few. The overall impression The Swan Song Series leaves is of Donelly having a series of musical conversations with her friends, adventurously exploring where those conversations might take them.

“That was the entire purpose of it for me,” notes Donelly, “to collaborate with a wide variety of writers and musicians, very few of whom have any common DNA musically. So that was the purpose of it — for my own fun for one thing but also to stretch myself. I love the fact that there’s no connective tissue from song to song.”

So why did Donelly decide to cull together the various EPs of The Swan Song Series and release them as one set? Was it purely a marketing decision, a way to make the songs available in a physical format in which they didn’t exist previously? Or, perhaps, was she marking an ending of sorts and beginning a new period of her career — maybe even returning to a previous period of her career?

“It’s definitely marking the end of the series,” Donelly offers. Then, after pausing to think through her answer, she adds, “And probably, I would say — although I’m learning not to speak definitively as I grow older — I would probably say it also is the last body of work I’ll put out under my name, you know, just my solo name? From this point on I think I’m more interested in doing projects.”

Donelly slips into silence here, knowing full well what question her response will elicit. “Yes,” she continues, “one of those projects being Belly.”

This summer, two decades after they decided to disband, Belly will reunite for a tour that begins in Scotland, winds through England and Ireland, and then takes the band to both coasts of the States. In the run-up to the tour, Donelly and her bandmates — bassist Greenwood, drummer Chris Gorman, and guitarist Tom Gorman — are reacquainting themselves with their songs, a process that she describes as both exciting and scary.

“I think we all went into the first practice pretty nervous about playing together again. But it came together pretty quickly, knock on wood. I feel like there was a lot of muscle memory involved. It’s funny because the ones we played the most were the hardest, for some reason, for me, in terms of recall. Then we had B-sides that we played maybe three times live that, for some reason, just came together immediately. But at this point we’ve practiced several times and everything is feeling really good.”