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Members include Fred Abong (left group, 1993; replaced by Gail Greenwood [born c. 1960]), bass and vocals; Tanya Donelly (born c. 1967), guitar and vocals; Christopher Gorman (worked earlier as a television production assistant), drums and percussion; and Thomas Gorman (studied architecture at Carnegie Mellon University), guitar and piano. Addresses: Record company--Sire Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10019-6989.
Eric Boehlert, writing in Billboard, described the phenomenally successful sound of Belly as "fuzzy guitars, big bouncy hooks, cryptic narratives, and alluring vocals." The quartet--composed of two women and two brothers--comes with an impressive alternative music resume that belies the breezy, almost poplike accessibility of their work. Leader Tanya Donelly cut her musical teeth in the much-lauded Throwing Muses of the 1980s; bassist Gail Greenwood is a veteran of two bands; and brothers Chris and Tom Gorman, respectively drummer and guitarist for Belly, served time in Verbal Assault.
With the release of Belly's debut album, Star, in early 1993, the band was virtually an overnight success; the record sold well beyond expectations and earned the reluctant alternative superstars two Grammy award nominations. Named with one of Donelly's favorite words, Belly takes some of its melodic cues from the weavy, dreamlike sounds of the Muses--but fuses that with a finely tuned standard pop-song construction. Such a blend of alternative ethos with Top 40 suitability set the group at the forefront of a nineties-era trend that promised mainstream success for other, similarly contemporary-sounding alternative acts.
"More than anything else, the folks in Belly resemble hip graduate students," remarked Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn after interviewing them. "They're well spoken, well read, funny. They are mindful of the truth (and consequences) of fame and dismissive of the myth of celebrity." Donelly grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, in a liberal household united when her father married the mother of a young girl her own age. Close friends before the marriage, Donelly and stepsister Kristin Hersh grew up in a free-spirited family that encouraged creativity. By the time they were teenagers, they had taught themselves how to play guitar and were writing songs in their room. In 1981, still high-schoolers, they formed Throwing Muses and by the time they graduated were local celebrities on Newport's burgeoning alternative music scene.
Throwing Muses was signed to 4AD when Donelly was nineteen, and the act went on to earn a place in the indie rock hall of fame, putting out several critically acclaimed--if commercially unsuccessful-- albums and paving the way for later female-fronted bands. Yet the muse behind the Muses was really Hersh's own personal demons, and hence the artistic territory belonged to her alone; other members contributed only nominally to the band's output.
Eventually Donelly began to seek another outlet for her own creative impulses. She found one in 1990 when she became a founding member of the Breeders with Kim Deal of the Pixies; she left Throwing Muses for good in 1991. Fortuitously, two brothers she had known in Newport, Chris and Tom Gorman, contacted Donelly soon after and asked if she was interested in working with them. The trio recruited Muses bass player Fred Abong and went into the studio to record their debut album, 1993's Star.
Launched with the single "Feed the Tree," Star was an immediate hit on the college charts, then broke through to a more mainstream pop-alternative audience on the so-called "modern rock" radio format. Belly's debut sold 450,000 copies in just under two years, rose to Number 59 on the Billboard 200, became the longest-ranking Number One album on the Gavin Report's alternative charts--and established Donelly's own creative credentials.
"Donelly sings like someone who's been around the block on more than one supporting tour--telling her tales with the savvy and sensuality of a world-weary ingenue," noted Chris Mundy in Rolling Stone. In a later review of Star, Kevin Ransom declared that Belly's leader and her cohorts "render a haunting, avant-folk-rock sound that provides sonic and psychic space for Donelly's surreal meditations on birth, mortality and sexuality." And Jas Obrecht, writing for Guitar Player, asserted that "among a galaxy of early-'90s alternative releases, few shone brighter than Star. Haunting avant folk-rock, Belly's debut set longevity records on college charts and established Donelly as a brilliant, albeit quirky, songwriter."
Indeed, much was made about Donelly's ability to shine as frontperson on her own, and critics often saw a thread of resemblance in Belly's quirky lyrical style with the unconventionalities of her former band. "As she wrestles with truths that can sometimes transcend language, Donelly favors oblique images and phonetic intrigue over narrative," noted Ransom, while Village Voice contributor Gina Arnold observed, "Donelly's adept at marshalling the most fragmentary emotion into an entire song." References to dreams, Shakespeare, folklore, and other founts of inner wisdom crop up frequently in Belly's lyrics. "I try not to be purposefully obscure. But whatever comes out, I tend to trust that it means something," Donelly told Boehlert. She noted in a talk with Interview's Nils Bernstein that songwriting is a constant companion for her. "Snippets come at inconvenient times-- in the middle of a conversation, at the bank, at tollbooths-- whenever I'm in danger of losing a song forever. Words pick on me; they think it's funny," she said.
After being nominated for two Grammy awards--best alternative album and best new artist of 1993--Belly toured extensively in support of their debut, playing nearly 200 shows in 15 different countries. They also contributed a cover of "Are You Experienced?"--one of the more well-received tracks--to a 1993 Jimi Hendrix tribute album. When the time came to record their sophomore effort in early 1994, Belly's alternative star status helped them land assistance from eminent producer Glyn Johns, who had albums by the Rolling Stones and the Who on his production resume. The group headed down to the Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record it. "Though it seems really glamorous to record on a tropical island, Nassau is actually kind of boring, which helps you focus on your work," Donelly said of the experience in a press release.
The result of that focus was King, released early in 1995 with the first single "Now They'll Sleep." Overall, the record exhibits a harder, less pop-kindled side to Belly. "The album is tighter, leaner, more aggressive than Star," observed Dunn in Rolling Stone. "King has a timeless, complete feel to it, each song flowing smoothly into the next." Obrecht averred, "Folk-rock anxiety, '60s pop sparkle, and garage-band raucousness reign supreme on King," and, like Belly's first effort, the release "is ... awash with topsy-turvy lullabies, midnight confessions, strange, sweet harmonies, and exhilarating guitar tones."
Praise came easily for Donelly's voice, a "crystalline soprano ... alternately conveying vulnerability and determination," remarked Parke Puterbaugh in Stereo Review. Jen Fleissner, writing for Spin, declared King "a remarkable record.... When Donelly turns the lights down low for a ballad or two, she evokes Led Zeppelin or, at the very least, Kate Bush, back when she sang about bank robbers and magician's assistants."
Reporters have often remarked on the camaraderie and lack of self-absorbed "star" quality evident during encounters with Belly. The brothers Gorman provide balance to the dynamic personalities of Donelly and Greenwood, who likes to compare her bass-playing style to that of '80s rocker Billy Squier. Drummer Chris Gorman also moonlights as the graphic artist for the band, putting together the artistic packaging for their first two releases. Tom Gorman attempted to explain the quartet's dynamic in Interview magazine: "We don't really all have equal say in all things, but we've figured out what we all do best and have allowed a delegation of roles. For the most part our tastes and goals are similar, so we don't have to vote on things, we just do it. Call it an unconscious democracy."
Belly appears to have real staying power in the music business--a power built on talent, not gimmick. "To her credit, Donelly has consistently steered clear of crassly marketing her physical attributes, a ploy for which she certainly has the looks," remarked Gina Arnold in the Village Voice. Coasting toward mainstream success through alternative music--after spending many years on its fringes--has given Donelly a unique perspective, as she explained to Boehlert in Billboard. "It bothers me when bands will say, 'As soon as this starts to feel like a job, I'm outta here, man.' It's like ... what are you talking about? It is a job. It's a great job."
by Carol Brennan
Donelly formed Throwing Muses with stepsister Kristin Hersh, 1981; also a founding member of the Breeders; left Throwing Muses, 1991, and formed Belly with Chris and Tom Gorman and Fred Abong; Greenwood joined Belly in 1993 after stints in the Dames and Boneyard.
Grammy nominations for best new artist and best alternative album of 1993 for Star.
- Selective Works
- Star, Sire/Reprise, 1993.
- (Contributors) Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Reprise, 1993.
- King, Sire/Reprise, 1995.
- Billboard, December 24, 1994; March 11, 1995.
- Guitar Player, March 1995.
- Interview, April 1995.
- Rolling Stone, February 4, 1993; April 15, 1993; April 20, 1995.
- Spin, March 1995.
- Stereo Review, July 1995.
- Village Voice, March 7, 1995; June 6, 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was taken from promotional material provided by Sire/Reprise Records.
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