’90s alt-rocker Tanya Donelly revives Belly after thinking ‘it was over entirely’
Tanya Donelly has several corrections to make to the popular story lines about her once-popular band, Belly, which is back with one of the best rock albums of 2018 after a two-decade ... standstill, let’s call it.
“It wasn’t a 20-year hiatus,” said Donelly, one of the leading women of the early-’90s alt-rock boom.
“Saying ‘hiatus’ suggests we intended to come back eventually. We really thought it was over entirely.”
The singer/guitarist — whose band returns to town for a special “evening with” concert at the Fine Line on Friday — didn’t entirely quit the music business in the meantime, but she did swear off touring after Belly broke up in 1996. In the interim, she issued a series of solo albums and took up a career as a postpartum doula while also raising two daughters.
Now teenagers, her girls had never seen their mom perform with her band until Belly’s first reunion shows starting in 2016.
“There’s this ’90s revival thing, and kids their age are into that music, so they were very excited,” Donelly happily reported in a phone interview last month from her home near Boston. However, she added with a laugh, “Now, they’ve passed on a couple of these latest shows. I think they’re kind of over it.”
Hopefully, though, Belly is just getting started again.
After a well-received reunion run last year, the quartet — including former L7 bassist Gail Greenwood and brothers Tom and Chris Gorman on guitars and drums, respectively — wound up in a studio planning to just make an EP. Instead, they banged out an entire album, which they’re now out supporting with sporadic “long weekend” tours like the one landing here.
“Making more music together really was the original goal of this [reunion],” Donelly explained.
“When we decided to do it in 2016, we agreed we didn’t want it to just feel like a nostalgia thing or vanity project. So we wrote new songs during rehearsals to throw in the mix. And after the enthusiasm for the shows, we were encouraged to just keep writing.”
Titled “Dove,” the LP boasts the same mix of shimmery guitars and pretty melodies that made Belly stand out from the grungy flavor of their original era while also still rocking hard enough to fit in then. This one even sounds a tad heavier than their original two albums, as evidenced by the single “Shiny One,” with its waves of pulsating guitars and up-and-down rhythm.
“I feel that song most clearly represents the collaborative nature of this album,” Donelly said of “Shiny One,” now in steady rotation at 89.3 the Current.
“Gail set the chorus. Chris came up with an amazing drum loop, which informed the rest of the song. Tom wrote the chords and sent them to me. It’s such a patchwork, it exemplifies the even balance we operate with now.”
‘Like a bodily function’
Donelly was the unequivocal driving force when Belly first emerged, following her influential run in the Rhode Island band Throwing Muses with her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. She also enjoyed a short stint in the Breeders with Pixies bassist Kim Deal.
Belly’s 1993 debut album, “Star,” became a bona-fide hit, landing the quartet gold-record plaques, a Rolling Stone cover and a steady spot in MTV rotation with the single “Feed the Tree.” The band was sadly short-lived, though.
Donelly also wanted to debunk the oft-told story that Belly broke up because of disappointing sales for the 1995 sophomore album, “King.” Sure, the album failed to match the success of “Star,” but it certainly wasn’t a total dud (and in hindsight, tracks such as “Now They’ll Sleep,” “Super-Connected” and “Seal My Fate” rank among the group’s best).
“It sold a few hundred thousand copies,” Donelly remembered. “We should be so lucky to do those kinds of numbers in this day and age.”
However, she declined to discuss what really drove the band apart: “We all decided not to go back and talk about that mess, but just move ahead and stick with the positive.”
While there’s remorse that the band ended with “unfinished business,” she doesn’t regret stepping away from the spotlight and the road when she did, since she and husband Dean Fisher (bassist in the Juliana Hatfield 3) started their family a few years later. That brought up another frequently told myth that Donelly denies: that she quit the music business to become a mother.
“I was more than happy to focus on being a mother, but that didn’t stop me from doing other things,” she said, pointing to recordings she produced over the past two decades. “I especially never stopped songwriting. That’s like a bodily function for me.”
Belly was fully out of the picture, though. In fact, the band had become such a thing of the past that no one noticed when a Canadian rapper named Ahmad Balshe also started using the moniker Belly in the late 2000s, going on to top streaming charts and earn Grammy nominations under the name.
“Basically, neither of us was aware of the other until it was too late and we both had legal claims to it,” Donelly explained. “We’re all trying to be cool about it. Our respective teams monitor it and try to avoid any confusion over it, especially now that we’re touring again.”
With warm vibes all around (the original) Belly’s current tour dates, it raises the question of whether Donelly might also rejoin Hersh in a Throwing Muses revival at some point.
“I really don’t see how that would happen just in terms of schedules and logistics right now,” she said, “but if there’s one thing this [reunion] has taught me, it’s to never say never.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658