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‘Star’ — How An Album, Destined For The Breeders, Shot Alt-Rock Band Belly Into Stardom

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It was in 1991 that vocalist/guitarist Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders) began playing with Tom and Chris Gorman (guitar and drums, respectively) and bassist Fred Abong. They met while attending high school in Rhode Island. After a time, Fred left the band and Gail Greenwood joined, and Belly became the real deal.

Their debut Star was an instant hit upon its release in 1993, and the album’s first single “Feed the Tree” was a global hit. Its success had the band touring extensively and led to the release of a second album (King), and a breakup in 1996. Since then, they’ve kept busy while broaching the subject of getting back together. But it would be 20 years before they made it official.

Now it's 2018 and they’re back with a new album. Dove is a refreshing release for Belly, one that bridges the gaps between reverbed-out bliss and hook-forward pop. Donelly attributes that balance to the collaborative work put into the project – it was the first piece decidedly constructed by the entire band. Collaboration is a state that you can track Donelly striving for throughout the pivotal movements of her entire career; we caught up with her to talk about that, her deep roots in the Boston music scene, the struggles that come with creative freedom, and how Star was originally destined to be the second Breeders album.

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Donelly started performing around the age of 15.

Initially my sister Kristin Hersh and I started playing Beatles songs together. This was a very brief stage in our music because she almost immediately started writing originals. Our very first gig was a 15 minute set at an art gallery in Newport [Rhode Island]. It gave us the sort of first seeds of confidence to start looking for shows and booking our own shows, and it kind of went from there.

She and Kristin formed Throwing Muses and made the move to Boston after catching the eye of Fort Apache Studios co-founder Gary Smith.

When we got out of high school he started campaigning for us to come here, and so we did and he really took us under his wing. Gary made our first demo. He helped us get an apartment, got us jobs. He ultimately ended up managing Belly and me for years. And he also managed Natalie Merchant and Juliana Hatfield.

Sometimes I feel like I'm making it sound cultish when I talk about it [Fort Apache Studios], but it was such an amazing place and time and community. It was just so special.

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Tanya Donelly holding Kristin Hersh at the beach, photographed by Andrew Catlin.

Donelly and Hersh began communicating with 4AD in the UK...

They made it very clear that they weren’t signing any Americans, but would help us get signed. In a way they sort of were gently managing us and ended up feeling like no one was good enough.

… and were eventually signed.

I think they were starting to feel possessive of the project by that point too.

She feels strongly that English magazines contributed to the success of her bands.

[Throwing] Muses, Breeders and Belly initially all did better in the UK. Part of that is because of 4AD. And also just the press over there was kind of all over Boston to be honest.

As I'm saying it that sounds absurd, but that was absolutely the case! I remember riding my bike to the one store in Middletown [RI] that carried all the Indie mags from the UK. Because it wasn't just English information, it was American Indie information too. The nonstop Boston coverage of NME and Melody Maker and Sounds – that trickled back here and college radio kind of built off of that in a way.

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The Breeders, cir. 1988

Donelly met Kim Deal when performing with The Pixies at The Rat in Boston.

We fell in love with their songs and invited them to open for us again. She and I hit it off immediately and we became super close. We started writing songs. There was no clear goal for it, we were just sort of doing it, and then the songs really started to come together. We're both big fans of the disco and originally we were going to try to make dance music. We quickly found out that we were incapable of doing so.

Together they formed The Breeders and released their debut album Pod under 4AD.

So there was a point where ‘the deal’ was that she would write the first album and then I would write the second. In fact, all of the demos for Star are all labeled 'The Breeders' and she [Kim] played them with me. Those songs were originally going to be the second Breeders album.

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The original demo of Star, with Kim Deal.
Tanya Donelly

In fact, all of the demos for Star are all labeled 'The Breeders' and she (Kim) played them with me. Those songs were originally going to be the second Breeders album.

Logistically, everything started to get tricky for Donelly and Deal...

Our work schedules didn't sync up, and I ended up needing the music before she left The Pixies. I was getting itchy and wanted to get going.

... and that’s when Donelly moved on to create Belly.

But you know, there was no drama around it at all. You know what I mean? It was just, ‘I kind of want to get the songs done. OK, that's fine.’ We were both at our most prolific at the same time.

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Belly, cir. early 90s

Most of Star was recorded in Nashville...

I reached out to Gil Norton to ask him to do it initially, but his schedule and amount that he was charging were a little prohibitive. So we made a deal that he would do four songs and the rest of it we would do with Tracey Chisholm in Nashville. And I was actually living in Nashville at the time, so everybody came down to me and we made the bulk of it there.

…but that’s not what originally brought Donelly down south.

It was a relationship. With Chick Graning from Scarce and Anastasia Screamed. We were together for like a year, and I was down there because they were recording. I selfishly made everybody come down to where I was with my boyfriend. But I think it was enjoyable for everybody, we always sort of liked traveling to record.

The album shot Belly straight into stardom, and its first single, “Feed the Tree,” became a global hit.

It's funny because whenever we play this one live I know there are people out there who think I hate playing it. Not for a second. I still love that song and it still means a lot to me. There's no resentment about it being the hit.

The song explores what it means to be connected...

And what does that connection mean later? I was somewhat of a fatalist, in the real sense of the word, not a nihilist. Every piece of the puzzle leads to the next. And that song is sort of a ham-fisted group of words that describe that kind of feeling. And with lyrics you have a limited amount of space to to work with, and I think I was trying to squeeze this bigger picture into, you know, like a miniature painting. I didn't always get where I wanted to go, but I feel like there was enough resonance of what I was trying to say.

...which is exactly what she felt with the Boston music scene.

I hate to be generational in describing this – because of course there are exceptions – but in our little bubble here, the people that I met, male and female, we were all just making music.

Being a female musician in Boston was inconsequential for Donelly, but once she got out into the greater business world she felt the marginalization.

…radio stations feeling like they couldn't have too many female voices, ridiculous stuff like that. And that's ongoing. As if we are not part of the general pool of humanity.

I remember being in interviews and being asked, ‘what's it like being a woman?’ I should have been ready for it, obviously. But I almost couldn't figure out how to answer the question.

She notes the emotional toll of not being heard...

In all of those photo shoots and all of those videos, the mountain of NO that has already been said is not seen. All that’s seen is the couple of concessions that you made because you were so exhausted by saying NO to everything.

Like for instance ‘Feed the Tree,' they wanted to have naked models in the video. We said no – we showed up – and there were several topless women on set. It was like, ‘well, we'll just film it and you can decide later.’ No, this is not going on! And then after that fight it's, ‘we want your hair up, we want your hair down.’ I'd just be like, ‘let’s just film this, please just do this.’

I remember being in interviews and being asked, ‘what's it like being a woman?’ I should have been ready for it, obviously. But I almost couldn't figure out how to answer the question.

... but the biggest issue Donelly has with that time are the things she wishes she hadn't said YES to.

There are photos that haunt me and every time they pop up on the internet, I’m just so bummed. I feel like it just undermines what I've done.

For the most part she felt like she was in control...

I rarely did anything that I didn't want to do. The few times that I can look at a picture and it makes me wince, it’s because it was part of a day of fighting with someone.

… and was able to make the music that she wanted to make.

But you know absolute control and free reign was trickier because of everything I just said. It was just a non-stop barrage of ridiculous requests, and you were just swimming upstream all the time.

But in 1996, Donelly broke up the band...

We were just exhausted. 18 month tours non-stop, then we’d go off into the studio. And there are some sort of personal things that we've kind of drawn a line under. It was very mutual.

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Belly, cir. 2018
Chris Gorman

… and it would be 20 years before they played together again.

We wrote a few songs to play live, and then decided to make an EP. But as we kept writing it was Tom's idea to just make a full album. This one [Dove] is extremely collaborative. The entire project belongs to all of us, and that has been so healthy and positive. This album has been so fun to make.

And now, you know, with age we’re much more tempered, so it's very peaceful now. I'm just so excited we did this. It’s such a blessing to be able to reconstruct ourselves as older wiser people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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