With Belly's second album, Tanya Donelly is poised to become rock's next (and most unapologetic) star
Even alternative rock has its Melrose Place. The world of feedback’s lank- haired citizens are no strangers to envy, avarice, betrayal, addictions, and gossip. And there are those who might mistakenly cast Tanya Donelly, leader of the buzz band Belly, as an alterna-Amanda Woodward. Consider this remark about the demurely sexy redhead’s determination to succeed, courtesy of a fan in the music biz: ”If you told her she had to hang from her teeth by a rope over Times Square, she would do it.”
Being the subject of envy is nothing new to the 28-year-old Donelly. Before the media excitement over Belly’s 1993 debut, with the gold album Star, Donelly was already a music- scene fixture, as part of the eccentric pop band Throwing Muses, which she cofounded at age 15 with stepsister Kristin Hersh. Formed when alternative rock was still ”college rock,” the Muses girls were big fish in a sometimes snarky little pond. ”I was in a girls’ band back in the early ’80s,” says Belly bassist Gail Greenwood. ”We were so jealous of (Tanya and Kristin).”
But once you meet Donelly, it’s impossible not to like her. In Melrose terms, she’s actually more of an Alison Parker than an Amanda. She’s tiny and cute, wears little makeup, and drinks diet soda. She does not give off rock-star attitude. She often laughs out of nervousness — or maybe just because she’s happy. Only her lyrics — poetic, twisted, and filled with an almost mystical sexuality — hint at a darker side to this girl next door.
Songs of lust, love, and betrayal are all over Belly’s second album, King, which is being released, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day. It’s also the poppiest album the singer and guitarist has ever played on, and quite a leap from the more avant-garde music of Muses. ”Belly is more of what comes naturally to me,” says Donelly. ”So when the pop stuff happens I don’t try to weird it out, maybe, which I used to do. I have more straightforward instincts than Kristin.”
Donelly and Hersh were growing up in Newport, R.I., when they started Throwing Muses in 1981. By the time they were 19, they were signed to the British label 4AD and were touring in support of their self-titled debut. Revered for their obtuse lyrics, quirky song structures, and unabashed female angst, the duo were the darlings of clove cigarette-smoking art history majors.
Back then, Donelly was shy and introverted, writing only one or two songs for each of the first six Muses albums, and hiding behind her hair on stage. She had a habit of trying to make herself invisible. ”It’s something I learned young, to avoid getting beat up or picked on,” admits Donelly, who was a seeker of white-picket-fence normalcy in a bohemian family. ”My mother used to — I don’t want to put this on her, but I used to dress oddly as a child, like a little hippie.”
In time, Donelly gained confidence and was writing more, turning out so much that she needed additional outlets for her music. She helped found the Breeders, back when that was still a side project for then Pixie Kim Deal. But by 1992, Donelly was ready to start her own band. ”In Throwing Muses Tanya was living in Kristin’s shadow, unfortunately. It kept her from being as decisive and assertive as she could be,” says Gary Smith, Belly’s manager and a former Muses producer. ”She’s gotten a sense of herself.”
If there was any nastiness during the split from Hersh — rumors of fights circulated — Donelly is silent on the subject. ”I miss [Kristin] as a person,” says Donelly. ”We’ve been best friends since we were 7. We’ve been through a lot more than the breakup of a band.” Donelly’s father and Hersh’s mother met through their daughters; they married when the girls were 16 and have since split. ”It was nice because we got to spend a lot of time together and share a room, but beyond that it was kind of a stressful atmosphere. They weren’t necessarily supposed to be married to each other.”
After leaving Muses, Donelly remained in Newport, hooking up with guitarist Tom Gorman, 28, and his brother, drummer Chris, 27, both formerly of the hardcore band Verbal Assault. Fellow thrash vet Greenwood, 34, also a Newport resident, joined the band as bassist after Star was recorded. ”When I went to audition, I was, like, ‘I rule these kids.’ But then I heard the tape and I got nervous.”
If Star was straighter than anything Donelly had done before, it was also not your standard pop record. How could it be, with songs like ”Slow Dog,” about a Chinese woman who, as punishment for her adultery, was forced to carry a dead dog on her back until it decomposed? But it didn’t shy away from melody or catchy choruses, which made it a bigger seller than any Muses record. Still, says Smith, ”I was angry that it wasn’t more successful. The face of radio has changed since then. Belly was ahead of schedule as far as that. If it had been released eight months later, it would have been a million seller.”
Which is, of course, what everyone associated with Belly hopes for King. It’s highly possible the album will go platinum, and not only because it’s the most memorable music the band has produced. It’s because Donelly, who started out in life wanting to be invisible, now has a keen desire for success — in her own unpretentious way. ”Tanya is not embarrassed about being ambitious,” says London Records Director of A&R/Publishing Ken Friedman, who signed her to a publishing deal. ”She’s not afraid to be known as wanting to make it.” However you describe her, Tanya Donelly is not hiding behind her hair anymore.