14 Apr The Loyal Seas: Bicoastal Pals Tanya Donelly and Brian Sullivan Navigate New Musical Terrain
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
On a recent 9-mile jog, I went on a Tanya Donelly binge — streaming her entire catalog, from Belly and Throwing Muses to her 2020 covers record with the Parkington Sisters, as I darted up hills and down curving roads. She’s been singing for decades, and her voice is still as ageless and recognizable — bright with a touch of whispery sweetness — as it was when I discovered Belly in high school.
And it’s that unmistakable angelic quality that offers a stunning counterpoint to the deeper, evocative, beautifully weathered vocals of Brian Sullivan, her creative partner in a new project called The Loyal Seas. Admittedly, I’d never listened to Brian’s band Dylan in The Movies before 2022, but once I started streaming his catalog, I felt like I had discovered something rare and special.
Tanya and Brian, who met in the mid-1990s at Fort Apache studios, have partnered for multiple one-off original and tribute projects over the years — including a cover of “The Lovecats” for Just Like Heaven: A Tribute to The Cure (2009) and “Shoplifters of the World Unite” from Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to the Smiths (2011).
A perfect storm of circumstances — including the pandemic — brought them together again. In mid-2020, as Tanya had fully hunkered down with her family in the Boston area (and a Snowball mic, for remote recording), the timing for a record became, well, serendipitous.
“This has actually been a long time coming,” Tanya tells Rockmommy. “We were indoors … and it was the perfect time to corral these fragmented songs we’ve been passing back and forth for years. Brian and I have guested on each others’ stuff — I’ve done stuff with Dylan in The Movies and he’s done stuff for me. We got to the point of, ‘if not now, when we’re inside, then when?”
After christening their new project The Loyal Seas, Tanya and Brian released their first single, “Strange Mornings in the Garden” in December 2020. Then they got to work on writing a full-length record — sending song files from coast to coast, bouncing ideas off each other, bringing in their go-to musician partners to collaborate, and fine-tuning their favorite tracks. The culmination of all those months of recording, mixing, and mastering is Strange Mornings in The Garden (American Laundromat Recordings), available in May.
A few weeks ago, The Loyal Seas released the first single off that record, “(So Far From) Silverlake,” with an accompanying video directed by Orrin Anderson (Kristen Hersh, Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave and +/-). “Silverlake” is saturated with dreamy guitars and strings over a steady pop beat, encompassing an emotional lyrical and musical journey, as Brian sings about leaving a behind his beloved when he embarks on a road trip from “Silverlake to Tennessee to Maryland …. to New England” while sepia-toned images of 1950s road trips offer an enchanting visual backdrop. Tanya’s vocals float high overhead, at times responding to Brian’s musings. When the two singers finally re-engage in a final chorus, it’s a moment of bittersweet nostalgia.
We recently caught up with Tanya and Brian to learn more about the collaboration, life in 2022, remote recording, social media, screen time burnout, and more.
Rockmommy: How did you reconnect and decide to embark on writing new songs?
Brian Sullivan: We originally decided to make this album about five years ago. Life happens so there were a few starts and stops. Then in January 2020 we met in Boston and recorded the tracks “Strange Mornings In the Garden” and “Last Of the Great Machines.” I think when we completed those songs, we knew we had something special. The pandemic hit, and we both took lockdown really seriously. I have a home studio so I hunkered down for a year and just wrote and recorded. I also brushed up on my production skills. I’d say 80% of this album was recorded at home by both of us. Tanya in Boston and me in Oakland, California.
Tanya Donelly: This has actually been a long time coming… and being indoors gave us the perfect time to corral these fragmented songs we’ve been passing back and forth for years. Plus we’ve done other collaborations — I’ve done stuff with Dylan in The Movies and he’s done stuff for me. We got to the point of, ‘if not now, when we’re inside, then when?’
Rockmommy: With seemingly different styles and vocal approaches, how do you blend so well together?
Tanya Donelly: Even though our voices could not be more different — we’re on opposite ends of the timbre spectrum — and even when it’s not a call and response, it feels like you’re in the room with two people having a conversation. Also, I just love his music.
Brian Sullivan: Tanya’s voice is an instrument — it is just so beautiful. Her vocals are in the higher register, and my vocals are more baritone. I think the dichotomy of our voices just ends up blending really well together. We write from a similar place so I think our performances line up well because of that.
We have a lot of the same musical influences so I think that makes the collaborative process seamless — we can reference a guitar sound from a song, or a production approach and we both get what we’re talking about. That’s always cool. I think we have just enough of a balance of similarities and differences in our influences.
Rockmommy: How do the songs get written, or come alive?
Brian Sullivan: For this album, I wrote the music and some of the lyrics. Basically whoever is singing lead on a vocal — that person probably wrote that lyric. The process was exciting. I would write the music and send it off to T to write the melody and lyrics. I always knew she would come up with something magical — and she always did.
Rockmommy: Did working at home have a downside?
Tanya Donelly: I have a real limit for screens when I’m just done. I record into my laptop every single day of my life, but I can feel the point at which I’m like, ‘OK, something just shut off,’ and that’s when I grab my dog, or go in the woods or find some palate-cleansing moment, even if it’s just an hour.
Rockmommy: Do you feel the pressure with social media to do all the things — like posting, sharing, and promoting — constantly?
Tanya Donelly: Gail Greenwood, Belly’s bass player, runs the Belly social media. Almost all the Belly social media is all Gail… and mine, you can tell the difference between our [account] engagement. I do like Instagram. There is something peaceful there for me … you can do something like, ‘I have a show’ or ‘look at this flower.’
Rockmommy: Any final thoughts on this record?
Tanya Donelly: A friend of mine was over for dinner the other night, and she said, ‘is this the first band that hasn’t involved siblings that you’ve been in?’ I was like, ‘yeah, but Brian’s kind of my brother.’ From the minute I met him, it was just someone familiar. It feels like my little brother, it’s how we communicate. I have this same deep loyalty and love.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.