Born on July 14, 1966, in Newport, RI; married Dean Fisher, mid-1990s; children: Gracie. Addresses: Record company--Beggars Group/4AD, 580 Broadway, Suite 1004, New York, NY 10012.
Tanya Donelly rose to prominence in the alternative rock world of the 1980s and 1990s in a series of increasingly visible bands. With her half-sister Kristin Hersh, she formed the band Throwing Muses in the mid-1980s. In 1990 she formed the alternative "supergroup" the Breeders with Pixies bass player Kim Deal, and, in 1993, she formed and served as bandleader for Belly, a group that significantly outsold its predecessors and received a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Group of 1993. She disbanded Belly in 1996 in order to pursue a highly regarded solo career in which she has developed her popular music sensibilities, creating songs more melodic and soothing than those of her former bandmates.
Donelly was born on July 14, 1966, in Newport, Rhode Island. She described her parents as 1960s bohemians who divorced when she was seven years old. "There was a lot of drugs and sexual stuff with that whole lifestyle," she explained to Melody Maker writer Jim Arundel. "To this day, drugs make me intensely nervous because my parents did so many." She formed Throwing Muses with Hersh, who recalled the band's early 1980s formation in an April of 2002 article in Mojo magazine: "I don't actually remember the first practice--Tanya and I were 14. David Narcizo wasn't in the band yet, though. He joined the night we made our first recording.... We used our babysitting money to pay a local engineer to park his mobile unit outside our house and record us while I was down with [a] broken leg." The band's initial recording of the songs "Steal My Car," "Lizzie Sage," and "Catch" were interrupted when their guitar amplifiers picked up Citizens Band (CB) radio transmissions, and when the younger brothers of the two teenage girls threatened to get them in trouble. The band recorded demonstration songs by such bands as the Meat Puppets, the Dead Kennedys, X, Violent Femmes, and R.E.M.
Throwing Muses became the first American group to sign to London label 4AD, and they released their critically acclaimed debut album, Throwing Muses, in 1986. Produced by Gil Norton, the album was noted more for Hersh's vocal and compositional style than for Donelly's contributions. Norton also produced their EP Chains Changed, which was also critically lauded. The band's popularity on college radio stations prompted American record label Sire to sign them to a contract. The band continued to release its albums on 4AD outside the United States. Sire, however, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records, wanted the band to pursue more commercially viable music. Hersh believed that the label intentionally caused rifts within the band, which caused Donelly to leave during the 1992 recording of The Real Ramona.Hersh told Uncut writer Chris Roberts, "By the time we did The Real Ramona, they got us this producer that was a total Nazi--he was in cahoots with them, and we had no focus. They were trying to start fights between us, I think." On her last album with the Throwing Muses, Donelly contributed two songs, "Not Too Soon" and "Honeychain," which have been noted by critics as among some of the band's strongest material.
Donelly, who had already recorded the Breeders debut album Podwith Pixies bassist Kim Deal in 1990, decided to leave Throwing Muses. Hersh told Roberts, "Tanya wanted to be a pop star and I had no ambitions that way at all. So I was keeping her down, and she was dragging me up. We were all great friends, but arguing, and it was heartbreaking." Donelly explained to Musician writer Evelyn McDonnell, "It had been two songs per album for me for years. That was the formula. And then all of a sudden I had ten songs instead of two to contribute and it became an issue. Minimal, but it was enough that I knew that issue was going to gain in power at some point. So I cut it off at the pass."
Throwing Muses often played with Boston-based band and 4AD label mates the Pixies, which featured Kim Deal on bass guitar. The two groups toured Europe together in the late 1980s, and Donelly and Deal decided to form a side group, taking the name the Breeders from a Dayton, Ohio, band that Deal and her twin sister Kelly had formed in the mid-1980s. Their initial recording attempt was unsuccessful, however. "We hired out a drum machine and got [Pixie] David Lovering and David Narcizo to the practice space. We sounded okay for about five minutes," Deal told McDonnell. Donelly continued, "We tried to do it for about three days, though. It just got boring. At that point we bagged it." The group eventually recorded Pod, with Shannon Doughton (nee Britt Walford) on drums and former Perfect Disaster bass player Josephine Wiggs. Produced by Steve Albini, Pod featured songs about abortion, group sex, and death. The album outsold records released during the same period by both Throwing Muses and the Pixies. After working on The Real Ramona, her last album with Throwing Muses, and an EP, Safari, with the Breeders, Donelly formed Belly.
Donelly's debut as a bandleader and lead vocalist in Belly resulted in a million-selling album, Star, and a Grammy nomination for Best New Act of 1993. She recruited Throwing Muses bass player Fred Abong and brothers Chris and Tom Gorman on, respectively, drums and guitar. The group worked with producer Gil Norton on the EP Slow Dust, which critics note resembles the moody, atmospheric recordings of the Cocteau Twins. The band achieved mainstream success with Star, which features the hit single "Feed the Tree." A song that takes its name from a Southern expression for a family graveyard, "Feed the Tree" propelled the band to popularity. They recorded a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" for a tribute album to the guitarist, and the group's cover version of the Tom Jones hit single "It's Not Unusual" resulted in the Welsh singer asking Donelly to write material for him. Other songs on Star reflect Donelly's social concerns, including "Dusted," which is about a drug addict who is raped, and "Slow Dog," a song inspired by a Chinese tradition of forcing female adulterers to carry a dead dog on their backs.
Following Star, Abong was replaced by Gail Greenwood, who helped the band craft a rougher sound. The band's second album, King, was released in 1995. It was produced by classic rock producer Glyn Johns and features more group songwriting efforts. Stating that King "isn't a record for green-haired 'alternative rock' dabblers," Musician critic Tom Lanham noted, "This is serious, smartly fashioned music, meant to be appreciated and, ultimately, thought about with a certain modicum of intelligence." Lanham also opined, "Donelly pens songs like a good magician performs tricks, palming her pretty hooks, letting the suspense mount, then releasing them with a dove-flap flourish. The rest of King is a stunning exercise in oblique strategy that grows more impressive and delightful with each successive listen." The record fared less well than Star, however, and Donelly disbanded Belly to pursue a solo career and family life with her husband, bass player Dean Fisher, and daughter, Gracie.
In 1997 Donelly released her first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs. Critics noted that her vocals are stronger on this album, the result of voice lessons. She told Musician critic Jon Young, "I've always had a problem listening to my voice, because I sounded bored in the past." She continued, "There's something attractive about detachment--up to a point--but I don't want to do it forever. I don't like a lack of emotion, especially in emotional songs." Donelly's vocal range on the album prompted Young to compare her alternately with Kate Bush and T. Rex singer Marc Bolin. She toured to support the album and took a break from the music industry to tour Central America with her husband.
In 2002 she released the EP compact disc Storm, and the full-length album beautysleep. She told Uncut writer Sarah-Jane that the aural qualities of beautysleepwere inspired in part by Emmylou Harris's album Red Dirt Girl. "I like the way [Harris] brings together the spiritual and the visceral. Not many people manage to do that." Donelly continued, "Personally, I tend to be influenced by books more than records, but when I listen to my new album, I can hear Emmylou's influence. There's a lot of pedal-steel guitar on certain tracks and some of the vocals are so low, whenever I hear them I think 'Oh, she really got in there didn't she?'" Critical reaction to beautysleep was varied. Unimpressed, Q critic Matt Allen faulted the album for blandness, while Mojo critic Stuart Bailie wrote, "A few tracks sound blunt and under-realised, but mostly this is the sound of a champion artist getting good again." Perhaps Donelly's staunchest critical supporter, Roberts wrote in Uncut, "beautysleep is a wicked, weathered steam of sinewy, shadowy songs.... I could spend days going on about how much genius drips from every second of this."
by Bruce Walker
Tanya Donelly's Career
Formed band Throwing Muses with half-sister Kristin Hersh, early 1980s; Throwing Muses was first American band signed to the London, England, 4AD label, mid-1980s; released 4AD debut album, Throwing Muses, 1986; formed the Breeders with Pixie bass player Kim Deal, 1990; formed Belly, released debut album, Star, 1993; disbanded Belly, 1996; released first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs, 1997; released sophomore solo effort, beautysleep, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Lovesongs for Underdogs , Reprise, 1997.
- Storm (EP), 4AD, 2002.
- beautysleep , 4AD, 2002.
- With Belly
- Slow Dust , 4AD, 1992.
- Star , 4AD, 1993.
- King , 4AD, 1996.
- With the Breeders
- Pod , 4AD, 1990.
- Safari , 4AD, 1992.
- With Throwing Muses
- Throwing Muses , 4AD, 1986.
- Chains Changed , Sire, 1987.
- The Fat Skier , Sire, 1987.
- House Tornado , Sire, 1988.
- Hunkpapa , Sire, 1989.
- The Real Ramona , Sire, 1991.
July 27, 2004: Donelly's album, Whisky Tango Ghosts, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, August 5, 2004.
- Buckley, Jonathon, and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1999.
- George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 2001.
- Melody Maker, July 4, 1992.
- Mojo, February 2002, p. 5; March 2002, p. 116; April 2002, p. 162.
- Musician, April 1995, p. 69; September 1995, p. 34; November 1997, p. 90.
- Q, February 2002, p. 107.
- Uncut, April 2001, p. 80; March 2002, p. 12, 102.
- "Tanya Donelly," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (June 15, 2002).