You can learn a lot about Tanya Donelly in a ten-minute conversation. With only the slightest effort, you'll discover that she's married to her bassist and sometime-collaborator Dean Fisher, best known for his work with Juliana Hatfield. And you'll find that she's still happily ensconced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she's close to old friends and her favorite studio, Fort Apache, to which she recently returned to record her first solo release, the dynamic new Lovesongs for Underdogs.
With a bit more prying (but not much) you might just get her to admit that she's still shy -- cripplingly so, at times -- though her stint as leader of the winsomely skewed alt-pop quartet Belly has helped her overcome her more phobic reactions. And after pausing to cough, Donelly is happy to acknowledge that, just like anyone else, she gets sick, and that right now she's battling "some throat thing."
If it seems hard to believe that all this could be gleaned from a discussion that's over before most talks would've had a chance to get off the ground, that's because it is. But then, Donelly's self-effacing demeanor and accommodating tone are a little hard to fathom as well, especially in light of all the character-toughening adventures she's been through during the last two decades. Having first stepped onto a stage at 16, Donelly has done a sizable portion of her growing up in public; she's also done a good hunk of it in the shadow of her more willful stepsister, Kristin Hersh, with whom she spent the '80s as the core of the brainy, bellwether college-rock act Throwing Muses.
Although a few weeks younger than Donelly, Hersh -- with her prickly, self-absorbed aura, tightly wound persona and brutally unhinged approach to art imitating life (and vice versa) -- has always seemed much older. She had a lock on the friendly dictatorship that was the Muses, leaving Donelly -- a pensive, slightly awkward guitarist who had a tendency to retreat behind her blond bangs when the spotlight was turned her way -- to make do with the leftovers, using her songs to fill in what few holes remained on the group's releases. Sometimes, as on 1989's hunkpapa, those tunes turned out to be the most enthralling tracks. But at other times it was obvious that Donelly needed to spend less energy on trying to impress Hersh and more on trying to please herself.
"I always had two songs per record," recalls Donelly of her stint with Throwing Muses. "Kristin used to sort of urge you along. I wasn't really focused as a songwriter then."
But over time, Donelly began to battle the weakness in her emotional constitution that had her believing it was her fate to toil in the background. Putting it simply, she finally grew up, first breaking away from Throwing Muses in 1990 to co-found the Breeders -- the first truly great all-female band of the '90s to be devoid of riot grrl implications -- with ex-Pixies bassist Kim Deal, then setting her own agenda for good by forming Belly a year later. The breakup of that band in 1996 led to Lovesongs for Underdogs, her first outing as a solo artist, and a CD that's as much a coming-of-age for Donelly as a return to her roots.
Lovesongs glistens with an undeniable "hey, look at me!" glow. The first single, "Pretty Deep," with its well-endowed melody, multi-layered guitars, bottom-heavy drums and sultry vocals, may be Donelly's most direct bid for radio airplay yet. But studio gloss aside, Lovesongs remains a mixed bag, and it's rarely an easy listen. Granted, there are plenty of hooks ("The Bright Light," "Bum," "Clipped"), but such bald-faced pop craft is countered by angular bouts of minor-key hubris that still loiter about from Donelly's days as a Muse. A few tracks, though, such as "Mysteries of the Unexplained" and "Manna," strike a perfect balance between an achy melancholia and a liberating sort of purity. Both are peerless in their lofty, hymnlike beauty; they're music with no real connection to time, location or trends.
When you think about it, Belly's dissolution was inevitable. The band was really nothing more than a stepping stone for Donelly on her way to becoming her own person. Still, she swears up and down that Belly was a democracy. And in fact, that all-for-one atmosphere is what eventually ripped the group apart.
"We just kind of ran out of steam," Donelly says. "People are incapable of thinking in terms of a team. We were miserable. Everything required a band meeting -- everything."
A listen to Belly's pair of releases, though, leaves little doubt as to who was really in charge of the band. From the angelic twists and turns of Donelly's almost evanescent vocals, to the emotional and structural intricacies that dominated the 1993 debut, Star, to the ripening sophisti-pop sheen of their sorely underappreciated last gasp, King, it was undoubtedly Donelly's passive-aggressive stance that dictated Belly's direction -- and, in turn, decided the group's fate.
"I became invisible almost," Donelly says of her handling of the group's impending demise. "I withdrew completely and just watched it fall apart."
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Now on her own, Donelly is still, in some ways, very much the shy girl behind the bangs. And to some extent, she'd like to keep it that way. She's unwilling to surrender the ingenuousness she's been able to stockpile over the years to anyone, including her handlers at Reprise Records.
"The record company was urging me to put my face on the cover, which I think is absurd," Donelly laughs.
So what fans get on Lovesongs for Underdogs are no less than seven wildly out-of-focus photos of various Donelly body parts -- one of which even graces the cover. Almost in spite of her pouty sexuality and startling blue-gray eyes, only two of the shots are clear enough even to approach glamour. And looking at them, you suddenly realize that little Miss Sincerity is shrewder than you ever imagined.
Tanya Donelly performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 12, at the Hard Rock Cafe, 2801 Kirby. Tickets are available, when announced, by calling the Buzz (KTBZ/107.5 FM) listener line at 968-1000.