Earlier this year, the internet was lit ablaze when it was announced that '90s alt-rock band Belly was reforming with its classic line-up intact, recording some new music and going on a summer tour. The band had broken up shortly after the release of their second album, “King,” two decades ago. Their debut, “Star” had been a huge alt-rock and college-radio hit, spawning a lot of play the singles “Feed The Tree” and “Gepetto.” “Star” was one of the most buzzed about albums of 1993, so much so that when “King” came out two years later, the band landed on the cover of “Rolling Stone.”
In the mid-'80s, Belly’s leader Tanya Donelly emerged from the Boston rock scene with her stepsister Kristin Hersh in the band Throwing Muses. Donelly would leave the band in the early '90s, in the meantime helping Pixies-bassist Kim Deal establish the Breeders. (She was on the band’s 1990 debut album, “Pod.”) Wanting to establish her own voice, she would leave the Breeders and be replaced by Deal’s twin sister Kelley.
After the breakup of Belly, Donelly had a successful solo hit in 1997 with the song “Pretty Deep” from her album, “Lovesongs For Underdogs.” That album was followed by 2002’s “Beautysleep,” 2004’s “Whisky Tango Ghosts,” and the 2006 album, “This Hungry Life,” which was a live recording. After a prolonged period of silence, Donelly quietly re-emerged, releasing a string of EPs dubbed “The Swan Song Series.” These were songs recorded with various friends and her husband, Dean Fisher, of the Juliana Hatfield Three. From 2013-2014, she dropped five separate EPs. Those five collections plus more material are collected on her new three-disc album, “The Swan Song Series,” which gets released on May 20th.
I talked extensively over the phone with Donelly about the “Swan Song Series,” Belly’s reformation, and her career.
You’ve got kind of a double existence going on right now between the reformation of Belly and the “Swan Songs” set!
Yeah. [laughs] It’s a lot.
I figured Belly would come back because of several things that happened. I saw that you were quietly releasing the “Swan Songs” EPs, your husband Dean did really well with the Juliana Hatfield Three reunion last year and you appeared onstage with the Breeders a few years back. Tell me how the Belly reunion happened.
It comes up every five years or so. This time [drummer] Chris Gorman said, “There’s going to come a time when nobody’s gonna care anymore and it’s not going to be an option, so let’s just do it.” So that’s why we kind of jumped on it. And you know, we’re in a different place now personally, so it is much more peaceful, harmonious and fun again.
You see a lot of bands from the '90s coming back and making records that are as good or better than the records they made in the '90s. The Veruca Salt record that came out last year, “Ghost Notes,” was excellent as was Dinosaur Jr.’s album “Farm” in 2009. I think a lot of those '90s-style sounds are coming back in newer bands as well.
Yeah. I think Buffalo Tom’s last record was amazing! That is true. We aren’t talking about making another album right now. We have written a handful of new songs together and we are going to do something with that. The original plan was to release them one-by-one on our website, but then we sort of felt like maybe we should just hang onto it and see what we’re going to do. So it might be an EP or… We’re really undecided on how the new music is going to be released.
I think it’ll be received by the audience no matter what it is.
If I do say so myself, we’re very excited about the new stuff. We feel like it’s good. At this point, as [bassist] Gail [Greenwood] put it, “we’re circling our wagons around it,” because we’re just thinking, “Let’s do this for us for the time being. The way we would if we were brand new and not think about anyone hearing it,” and then decide when we’re done what to do with it.
Don’t you think that’s the best way to make music?
Yeah! Definitely! But it is so easy to allow yourself to become porous and let everything sort of dilute that and stain it, so we’re trying to get back to more of an early days approach to it.
The “Swan Songs” EPs sort of feel like they were made just following whims.
I mean that in the best way because you get a really good range.
Oh, it’s completely true. I reached out to a bunch of people and as they sent things, I worked on them. Every song is completely different. There’s no “process” to that collection of songs. It’s all just sort of like… someone sent me lyrics on a napkin or someone sent me some chords on a cell phone, or someone sent me a complete backing track. It was completely different every time.
The song “Mass Avenue” is almost stripped-down country.
Yeah, I’ve got some of that in me.
It sort of hearkens back to the “Whisky Tango Ghosts” record and that stripped-down atmosphere.
“Mass Ave” definitely fits in there. There are songs that are actually bridges to older stuff and “Mass Ave.” is definitely one of them, probably because I wrote that with Dean.
Then you have more of the more electronic-sounding tracks which is sort of a surprise. I don’t think I’ve heard a lot of that kind of music from you. “Flying At Night” and “VivaKaraoke” are both really fascinating.
I can’t make that kind of music myself. So that’s why I reached out to both Chris Ewen and Kraig Jordan [respectively] because they are both excellent. I love their version of “electronica,” because it has an organic element and it feels very human to me. Both of them. So I feel it’s a good balance. And I love both of those songs. I was so excited to do those.
Both “Star” and “King” really hold up now. I find myself going back to those albums quite often, actually. I do find it interesting, however that you are one of the only bands I know of with a two-album-discography, but your “best-of” that Rhino put out [“Sweet Ride: The Best Of Belly”] is actually really excellent because it has a lot of extra songs from soundtracks and from other places.
I have to say, I love that batch of songs a lot. We’re doing a bunch of tracks from that. We’re doing several B-sides. We’re doing “Spaceman,” “Broken.” What else are we doing live? “Thief,” “Dream On Me,” “Sweet Ride…”
Wasn’t “Sweet Ride” [the song] your biggest hit in Israel?
Yeah! [laughs] It was.
How did that happen?
I don’t know. It was so exciting to me, though. It did get used in some sort of Israeli lingerie commercial or something, which I signed off on because I was like, “Yeah!” That’s a pretty benign product. It was a radio thing, though. We toured twice over there just on the back of that one song. We’d play our whole, full set and then I would play “Sweet Ride” and people would go crazy. And I just thought, how wonderful that a song like that could be a radio hit there and wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case everywhere? There was room for such a quiet thing.
You’ve worked with a lot of really interesting producers over the years.
Mmm hmmm! Interesting is the word! [laughs]
Between working with Steve Albini on “Pod” with the Breeders to working with Gil Norton… I’ve always joked with a friend of mine that Gil Norton records have a “sound.” “Star” was partially a Gil Norton record.
Gil only did four or five songs on there and then we did the rest with Tracy [Chisholm] but yeah, Gil has vision. He has a very strong aesthetic of his own, which is very different from a producer who comes from the back side of it, listens to the songs and says, “Well this one needs this and this one needs that.” It’s just a really different approach. Gil has a sort of “Gil-ness” that he brings to everything. And you can hear it! It’s kind of remarkable, actually.
Yes, you can even hear it on his work on Counting Crows’ “Recovering The Satellites.”
Steve [Albini] has that, too. It’s a little more subtle but you can hear it in the drums, in particular. You can hear it in the vocal-treatment, if you’re familiar with his stuff.
There’s a wonderful bluntness to Albini’s production where you really feel like you’re in the room with the musicians playing.
It’s true and I love that. He likes to say he doesn’t produce or engineer but he does. And he did a lot of pre-production with us which is huge. Gil is big on pre-production, too. Spending a couple of weeks in the room with the band, listening to the songs.
What do you think about the way the music industry is going? Your former band, Throwing Muses did something really fascinating in 2013, in the way that they released their album, “Purgatory/Paradise” through [book publisher] HarperCollins.
Yeah. I love it. [laughs]... If my sister could completely circumvent the music industry, she would.
That album made my best-of list at the end of that year.
I love that album. We toured with them for that album. I opened and then I also played with them a little bit. It [the release method] was such a smart thing to do. The guy that managed that project did approach me about doing “Swan Songs” that way, too, but I wanted to go with American Laundromat because I have a relationship with them. And American Laundromat is so unbelievably ethical and transparent in all their dealings.
But I love the HarperCollins thing. It’s such a great idea! It ties in with the fact that Kristin [Hersh] is an author as well. It really makes sense. In the context of her life and her work, it’s not really as anomalous as it would be if some other artist did it. She already has relationships on that side of things.
Yeah, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary [for her] but it did seem like a really clever move when the record labels are going the way they are going.
She did say to me at one point, “I’m playing a lot of Borders. Which is really weird. In the middle of the day.”
There is kind of the idea that if you have something in that format, it gives people a reason to buy it. [Note: The album was packaged with a hardcover book.]
Exactly. And she also is a fantastic writer so that’s another thing that supports doing it that way that might feel forced in another artist’s hands.
What music are you listening to now? Are there any bands that excite you?
Right now I am listening to a lot of singer-songwriters. Elvis Perkins. I love him. He’s one of my all-time favorites. Lisa Hannigan. I love her so much. Her solo stuff is amazing. I’ve almost exclusively been listening to her for the past month or so.
Dean studies African drumming. He studies it and he teaches it, so we’ve been listening to a lot of that as homework and for fun. I’ve been listening to Syd Barrett, mainly because I never really did that particular homework. I’ve always been an early [Pink] Floyd fan and a Floyd fan in general, but I never really listened to his solo stuff before. So I’m learning that.
It’s really experimental and really out there.
Yeah. It’s bizarre sometimes. My youngest daughter was listening to “The Bicycle Song” [Pink Floyd’s “Bike”] and was asking, “Is this a real song?”
That being said, that sort of makes sense when I listen to your songs because you always combine a musical sweetness with subversive lyrical imagery.
Yeah. That’s how it ends up. I think that’s the landscape of psyche, unfortunately.
You’re also not afraid to experiment vocally, which creates some interesting, fun sonic atmospheres.
Formatively, such a big influence - that I have to watch because I copy her - is Mary Margaret O’Hara. She’s so woven-in. I think in terms of my influences, she’s probably the biggest besides the Beatles. And she just has that one album. And she’s very vocally experimental, which I love.
Going back to the “Swan Songs” collection, I really liked the fact that on “Tu y Yo” you really rocked out.
Well that’s my song with Gail’s band. I do this benefit with [Buffalo Tom’s] Bill Janovitz every year, “Hot Stove, Cool Music.” It’s the [Boston] Red Sox and a whole bunch of local musicians. Peter Gammons runs it and they raise money for scholarships and Horizons For Homeless Children. I started asking Gail to join me for those four years ago. From that point we started doing other stuff and I asked her to write a song with me for “Swan Songs” and she and her partner Chill [Mott] wrote “Tu y Yo” with me and really from that point we started doing Belly songs with other people and we thought, maybe we should do it with the guys [Chris Gorman and guitarist Thomas Gorman] and I’m not going to say that was the genesis for the reunion, but it definitely tilled the soil.
Was it hard to get the Gormans on-board?
Oh no, no no! Chris has wanted to do it for a while and we’ve just all kind of danced around each other. As it turns out, they had been talking about it and Gail and I had been talking about it and it kind of, sort of just came together. And I love writing songs with them. I love writing songs with Gail and I love writing songs with Tom and he and I actually wrote two songs on the “Swan Songs Series” together. That actually happened before the reunion, but the reunion was hot on the heels of that happening.
You seemed to be amazed at the response your reunion got. It was picked up by just about every music site.
I was totally shocked. We were really, really shocked! And we still are! There are calls for lots of bands to reunite and we’ve had a smattering of that over the years but no real ground-swell. For some bands there are websites formed, begging them to reunite. We weren’t really feeling that. It was definitely surprising and exciting. At one point when all the shows in the States started to sell out, I called my booking agent and I asked, “Do people think we’re that rapper?” I genuinely was concerned. He just laughed at me.
Whether you see it or not, I think many people see you as an important figure in a scene, given your ties to Throwing Muses, your ties to the Breeders and your legacy with Belly. So the idea of Belly coming back may be big for all three of those fan-bases.
Yeah. I do think there is affection now. Affection for that whole era. It’s not just us. I think the reason why all these reunions are doing so well is that not only my demographic but my 17-year-old daughter’s friends are extremely into nineties music.
And there are a lot of '90s bands that are still around and there are some who have really changed. I saw an acoustic set by Tracy Bonham last year where she was playing piano and violin and that was way different than, let’s say, “The Burdens Of Being Upright,” but still excellent.
Being able to experiment stylistically is one of the luxuries of being somewhat out of the spotlight because you don’t have anyone telling you what your next move should be or how you should proceed. We [in Belly] weren’t very good at listening to those suggestions, anyway. But being able to do a piano set or being able to do some electronica songs… [laughs] There’s a freedom in being able to move forward the way you as an artist want to move forward, and that’s kind of nice.
I can tell from the “Swan Songs” set that you are continuing to grow as a writer. What do you think is your legacy? What do you hope it will be?
I would hope [and I mean this genuinely] that it would have to do less with me and my name and have more to do with the body of work I’ve contributed to. And I mean contributed to because everybody I’ve ever worked with… Even my solo stuff involves other amazing players and huge contributions from other people. This is not false humility. I mean it! I feel like just focusing on the music and having been a part of that and having it one day be seen, not as a movement but a big, collaborative effort by many, many people. I would like to be part of that.
Belly is on tour this summer. The expanded “Swan Song Series” collection is out May 20.