By Marisa Torrieri Bloom
When I call Tanya Donelly for our 2 p.m. interview in mid-June, I’m armed with questions — about her new record with the Parkington Sisters, her journey through motherhood, and her legacy as the lead singer of Belly, one of the most influential bands of my youth. But about 30 seconds into our call, she pauses to ask me a question. “So how are you doing with all this? What are you doing with your kids?”
I nearly drop the phone.
Is this Tanya Donelly, as in TANYA DONELLY, LEAD SINGER OF BELLY, asking me — little me — how I’m coping with everything going on right now?
I’ve interviewed dozens of rock stars, but rarely do any inquire about my children. This isn’t a big deal — yet it’s heartwarming that Tanya Donelly seems genuinely concerned.
That small exchange told me everything I needed to know about Tanya — a bright, twinkling, thoughtful voice that stood out in the angst-ridden, 1990s alternative-rock era. Even with decades of experience in one of the most hard-knocks industries on the planet, Tanya’s nurturing maternal instincts shine through every professional endeavor she pursues, as well as her personal roles as a wife (to bassist/producer Dean Fisher) and mom of two daughters (ages 21 and 14).
Tanya’s instinctual, intimate approach to songwriting and performance shines especially bright in her most recent, collaborative project: a covers album with the Parkington Sisters, a Boston-area siblings trio. The album, which comes out August 14, reimagines classic rock n’ roll tunes (from The Go-Gos, Leonard Cohen and others), through Sisters’ pretty, stringed arrangements and Tanya’s still-high-range, whispery vocals front and center. The common thread, or “connective tissue,” as Tanya puts it, is the Parkington Sisters’ beautiful music, flowing naturally from one song to the next.
The first single, a hauntingly cool cover of The Go-Gos’ “Automatic,” invokes a certain nostalgia for me — but not for the ’80s all-girl group so much as the sunny, summer day when I first heard Belly.
It was the summer of 1993, and early July, when I headed to RFK Stadium for the HFSTival — an annual, all-day music event in my hometown of Washington, D.C. I remember showing up with a few friends, my nose freshly pierced, to hear Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Bush or some other dude-infused grunge band I (still) can’t recall.
Yet the only memory that stands out after all these years involves Belly: We were walking along a corridor, when suddenly this piercingly sweet voice cut into the air. A surge of electric guitar noise and a thunderous drumbeat reverberated across the entire stadium and — heeding the Siren’s call — we rushed to our seats. On stage, Tanya Donelly with her blonde bobbed hair is armed with her guitar, belting out the verses to “Angel.”
“Wow,” I thought, as I stared at the stage. “That girl is so cool.”
Later that summer, I bought “Star,” Belly’s debut album, at Tower Records. But the cassette tape almost never left my Dodge Omni console. I’d mark my 20-minute trips to my then-boyfriend’s house — from Silver Spring to Lanham, Maryland — by singing the first side, which included hits “Slow Dog” and “Gepetto,” the freewheeling “Dusted,” and the eerie “Someone to Die For.” I’d take my time parallel parking so I could sing along to the sweeping choruses of “Low Red Moon,” which is still my favorite Belly song (closely followed by “Red” from the band’s 1995 follow-up record “King”).
Post-Belly, in the late 1990s, Tanya went solo with Loversongs for Underdogs. Her life’s journey led her to marriage and motherhood, and service work as a post-partum doula, and back to music again for various projects.
Finally, in 2018, Belly reunited for a tour and released their first new music in decades. I’m so bummed I missed it (my kids were 4 and 5, so I missed a lot of things). But had I known that 2020 would kill live music, I would have made more of an effort.
If this were normal times, Tanya and the Parkington Sisters would have spent the summer of 2020 playing shows in support of the new album.
But instead, the singer has spent the last several months shuttered in the home she shares with her husband, daughters, and dog, doing her part to #flattenthecurve. Days are spent caring for loved ones and doing her best to parent mindfully. In her spare time, she’s sitting in front of her Snowball microphone, home recording vocals on GarageBand for virtual projects with her musician friends, which are posted to her Bandcamp page.
She’s also spending her time trying to impart change (for example, by masking up and marching against racial injustice in June, and donating proceeds from Bandcamp sales to charities), while coping with cancelled tour plans.
But that’s just the beginning.
When Rockmommy caught up with Tanya last month, she shared some of her wisdom around parenting, why she’s still hopeful for the future of live music, and how she’s supporting social justice.
Rockmommy: Hi Tanya, how are you doing, right now?
Tanya Donelly: Like everyone, we’re coping. With our kids, you know, we’re finding ways for them to have some normalcies. Our youngest one is 14, and she’s the one we’re most focused on. My older one is 21 and is here with her partner and they have each other, and Dean [Fisher] and I are here, so we’re trying to focus on letting [our younger daughter] keep her friends … see some people at a distanced way. Fourteen is a tactile age too, they’re just hanging off each other all the time. I keep saying to her, ‘you are allowed to feel sorry for yourself.’ This is a safe, nonjudgmental place for you. We’ve been going to the protests, too, so there have been long conversations around that too. It brought up these whole other conversations because we unanimously decided to go to them but the logistics was challenging.”
Rockmommy: You recently covers album with the [siblings trio] Parkington Sisters. Can you tell us about how this record came about?
Tanya Donelly: So when Joe from American Laundromat approached me, in reaction to how well Juliana Hatfield’s cover albums are going with them …and asked if I wanted to do something like that, at first I felt like, ‘I don’t want to have a hodgepodge of songs, that are all sort of fragmented, sewn together, a Frankenstein sort of situation. But then, I thought of the Parkington Sisters. I’ve known them for years and I’ve always wanted to do some collaboration with them, and I just thought, ‘if it sounded like a Parkingtons album, I would be so excited to do this.’ I wanted all of the songs to feel like a real album, with cohesion and some connective tissue since it was such a mixed bag. They’re some of the most talented people I’ve played with so I knew that they would kill it. It was one of the few times, when I listened to it when we finished, I was like, ‘wow! It sounds like I thought it would.’
Rockmommy: How did the recording process go?
Tanya Donelly: The Parkington Sisters and I picked all the songs out, and we were all recording together. About 90 percent of this album was made in Brick Hill Studios in Orleans on the Cape. The sisters are from Well Sweep, and the guy who owns this studio is a former touring musician, who’s toured with Tori Amos, Paula Cole, and others. He opened this beautiful studio. It’s sunny, and there were cats and dogs running around … and there was a baby.
Rockmommy: How did you select the actual songs, though? Was that hard?
Tanya Donelly: These are just songs that run through my head all the time for whatever reason. They just are kind of on the playlist at all times, and I think part of that is because I’m attracted to a great or interesting vocal performance. Though, once we picked them, in my mind, I was like, ‘Oh my God, these are all songs that are perfectly sung,’ so I set myself up for an anxious experience. The Sisters are singing with me and they brought a newness with them.
Rockmommy: Your voice is unique in rock. So I have to ask: Do you have a secret low range you’re not letting out?
Tanya Donelly: ‘I have a new middle-age low range [laughs] that I’ve found. On the Belly reunion tour we had to drop a couple because I was not going to get there. It’s a tradeoff — for every high note, I’ve got nice, low raspy notes. My oldest daughter and I went to see Stevie Nicks and she doesn’t even try to hit those notes… she has backup singers, and she has this new timbre. It’s nice to see that embraced.
Rockmommy: Can you talk about early motherhood, and some of the work you do with other mothers, as a postpartum doula?
Tanya Donelly: Both of my kids had different postpartum experiences, and the second one, I felt like, ‘oh I got this — I did this,’ But it was a brand new experience. I hadn’t planned to use a doula or become a doula but as I started to talk to women who had and read a book my friend Rachel Zimmerman wrote about it, I became more interested in it. I also decided that I was a time in my life that I wanted to do something that wasn’t about me, aside from parenting. I wanted to be helpful and it fit the bill and it was good work in terms of my music and touring schedule. I’m a postpartum doula and I can work that around music work. Everything about it was so appealing and so I trained and started doing that, and slowly I became the ‘music themed’ doula. Most of my work’s been word of mouth.
Rockmommy: Do millennial moms know who you are?
Tanya Donelly: Most clients have no idea who I am, but I have had people who do. When I started ten-ish years ago, there were more people who knew, but now they don’t. I’m 54.
Rockmommy: They definitely need the support!
Tanya Donelly: They really do. As much as you can hear that it’s going to be a challenge, you don’t believe it will be until it happens. And both of my kids were different feeders, and I needed an LC for both of them. I’ve been with clients who will be talking about feeling isolated and not having support, and I will witness them turning help down. I don’t know if it’s a purely American cultural thing, but I do feel like there is a pervasive ‘I got this’ culture.
Rockmommy: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in having a music career when you became a mom?
Tanya Donelly: Whenever I do talk about this, but I have to be clear that because my husband [Dean Fisher] is also in music, I have more support than others might. But when my children were little I had to make an effort to carve out the time to work, and the main thing was that an album that would have taken six months from writing to finished would take two years. I think the timing is what changed most radically for me… having come from years and years where the process of putting out an album might have taken a year — would suddenly take much longer. I had to reframe my expectations when I had [my first child] Gracie. And in some ways that really pulled me and grounded me. Some people are self-grounding and don’t need the birth of a child to get there, but her appearance on the scene brought me to my own life and my own skin and family.
The more profound changes in my life were not music related. I wouldn’t leave them to tour, but we took Gracie on the road when I would tour, but that was just kind of exhausting for three of us back then, and by the time Hattie [my second child] came along, we weren’t doing that kind world touring anymore.
Rockmommy: Are your kids into your music?
Tanya Donelly: They’re curious about it. Because every project I’m doing is different, they’re curious as to what the new thing will be. They were definitely excited to come to the Belly tour [a few years ago] so they could come to London and Paris. But if we’re playing in Boston or doing a local tour, they’re not usually there — they have musical interests but they’re very different than mine. They’re both theatrical … and they dabble in instruments, but they’re not interested in being [professional] musicians.
Rockmommy: When you say you had to ‘carve out time’ for creativity, what does that mean?
Tanya Donelly: I’ve always had a relatively blue collar approach to music work … obviously when a song comes to you, it comes to you whether you are sitting down with a guitar or breastfeeding… but once the inspiration piece has been filtered, then I had to be much more ‘9 to 5’ about working, and how that fit into the kids’ scheduling. Dean was working and touring, too. As a parent, he’s very hands on. With any solo work that I’ve done, he’s in that band, so that’s how we made it work for a while — we’d both be making the same record and touring the same tour. And then as he started playing with other people again, by then the kids were old enough that I could handle working from home and taking care of them. Also, if I go on tour with Belly, he’s here with them fulltime. Or if he goes on the road with Juliana [Hatfield], I’ll be here.
Rockmommy: Speaking of touring …
Tanya Donelly: Yeah, we just rolled out the reopening phases here [in Mass.] and entertainment, you could barely see it. Like, you need binoculars to see it. I’m so deep-tissue worried about this. Behind the scenes, musicians are having these conversations like, ‘oh we can play in a park or on the wharf, but I also want to support the clubs, and say, ‘when you open I will be there.’
Rockmommy: Let’s talk about recording. What are you using?
Tanya Donelly: I play guitar through an interface directly into a laptop. And a Blue Snowball. I love that thing and it sounds amazing. That company in general — I’m a big Blue fan. Just for home recording, it’s ridiculous how good those things sound. I’m doing everything on GarageBand with my laptop and my Blue Snowball and the simplest possible interface and it’s pretty much that simple for everyone I’m working with too! Everyone’s got a disclaimer attached to their part. Mine is, ‘you can hear my dog on every vocal I do. She’s either sighing, or she’s barking she’s on my lap.
The proceeds of the songs we’re releasing are going to different charities, like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The more pressing loss right now is that I love being in a room making music. I love bringing new ears into the system. It’s an invaluable relationship and it’s hard to replace that, but the DIY piece has been great.
So is there any hope for a show in the next few months?
Tanya Donelly: That’s something the Parkingtons and I were talking about because we had to cancel everything we had planned, but we had been talking about the possibility of doing something on the Cape. But I think everybody is still in the stage of waiting and seeing, with some firmly held hope that by Fall some modified version of a show can happen.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is a the founder and editor of Rockmommy.