Making Light: Talking to Tanya Donelly About Her “Swan Song Series”
In the chorus to her new song “Making Light,” Tanya Donelly references a lesser-known but fan-beloved Belly B-side called “Spaceman.” For anyone who’s followed her music through the years – from Throwing Muses to the Breeders to Belly to the solo career that began with 1997’s underrated and wonderful Lovesongs for Underdogs and continues with her recently launched Swan Song Series – the “Spaceman” nod is a sweet surprise, a quietly delivered ending to a story that started decades ago. And it’s such a satisfying ending, too – because while “Spaceman” was a breakup song about refusing to settle for anything less than romantic transcendence, “Making Light” is the sound of having arrived at something hard-won and glorious, and it feels really good just to bask in the glow of that.
There’s always been a glow to Donelly’s music, starting from “Green,” the sole track she penned for Throwing Muses’ 1986 self-titled debut. On Belly’s two full-length albums (1993’s Star and 1995’s King), the light’s more like a shimmer, like scary-bright stars in the kind of big black sky you don’t get to see very often. Songs like “Low Red Moon” and “White Belly” and “Judas My Heart” steal you into some weird world where everything’s lit up by Donelly’s super-heightened sense of wonder, a gently twisted fascination with both the gorgeous and the grotesque. She sings all those songs in shiny-sweet voice of a Disney fairy-tale heroine, but the lyrics are much more aligned with the Brothers Grimm side of the story, in all its creepy splendor. You could see that almost everything glittered in her mind, but that the shining sometimes hurt her too.
On Swan Song Series (an ongoing collection of EPs featuring collaborations with more than a dozen musicians and writers, including Donelly’s stepsister/Throwing Muses co-founder Kristin Hersh, Buffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz, novelist/essayist Mary Gaitskill, and The Ice Storm author Rick Moody), her songs are less dreamlike but just as charmed as ever. There’s something about the new batch of songs that’s even sort of instructive: “instructive” as a synonym for “illuminating,” or like how Aesop’s Fables are moral lessons about lions and frogs and wine bottles and birds. When she asks “Are we looking up?” in “Meteor Shower,” she’s telling you to stop looking at your phone and to look at the sky instead, and it’s helpful to be reminded in a completely lovely and non-preachy way that skies are better than phones. In “Mass Ave” she asks lots of good questions (“Aren’t you tired of puzzles? Aren’t you ready for the window to open, and aren’t you tired?”), then – in the second verse – sings the words “Massachusetts Avenue” with so much heart it hurts, only to take up the final seconds of the song with some dreamy humming that’s just like a kiss on a cut finger. “Christopher Street” is a heartbreaker too, the kind of tragic love story you wish were also a book or a movie – but in the end it’s all right that it’s not, since no other kind of storytelling could be built on how gracefully Donelly’s voice captures the regret and loss in lines like “And you were all aglow/I should have let you know.”
During our interview I told Tanya how I bought the Swan Song Series (Vol. 1) soon after returning to L.A. from a two-week trip home to New England, and how the songs almost immediately cured my homesickness. Spending more time with Swan Song Series over the past couple months, I’ve realized her music mends a kind of melancholy that’s got little to do with geography: a longing that’s less about place and more about time, the last chapter of childhood, those final moments of being young and safe and dreaming about all the magic that’s coming to you. But instead of letting you sink into your own nostalgia, Donelly nudges you into a reimagining of what’s possible in keeping on – like when she sings “My God, this night” at the start of “Still” (the opening track on the second volume of Swan Song Series), the lyric comes out as a gasp, and it makes you want a gasp-worthy night all your own. And though gasp-worthy nights may tend to get fewer and more far between as you grow older, Swan Song Series entertains the possibility that it’s on you to make those nights happen, that maybe it’s entirely your responsibility to charm your own life.
Because Donelly’s one of the most generous songwriters, she also does her part to help you along in all that. And the songs are set to keep on coming, with each new volume of Swan Song Series released on the sixth of every month at least through the end of this year, like little presents or surprises you can count on.
What was the concept behind Swan Song Series?
The main idea was just to do a bunch of collaborations with people that I’ve admired and who I thought would be a good fit – or even not a good fit, because sometimes a better song comes out of a mismatch. It sort of came from Cabinet of Wonders, which my friend Wesley Stace puts together with Eugene Mirman. It’s standup comics and musicians and authors and poets, and everybody does their thing in little pieces. At the end of those nights I would start asking people if they wanted to contribute. So that’s the genesis of it. At this point I’m just keeping that going by continuing to bring people in.
What’s the songwriting process been like?
Completely all over the map. Some of the musicians are sending me fully realized, fully recorded songs; other people are playing chords into their phone and sending me that. The authors piece has also been completely varied. Like with Mary Gaitskill, I got a full short story, which I drew from. She wrote a story that was based on a Sonic Youth song – something that Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] sent her, I’m not sure if it’s even a published song. That’s something that Mary and I are talking about: that once I have a song that’s based on her story that’s based on a Sonic Youth song, I might pass it along to an author to write a story from that. Just kind of pay that forward, like a weird telephone game. But anyway, that was the most words I got. My friend Rick Moody sent pages of lyrics because he’s actually a songwriter too, and then I wrote the music to that. Some people are just sending me scraps of words. Every song’s been different, which has been really fun.
What was the inspiration for working with authors?
As a writer I’m very word-focused, that’s always been the thing that’s most important to me. So I wanted to see what it felt like to write music to somebody else’s words, and to manipulate the words they sent me. It’s been really fun because it’s gotten me back to focusing on music and rhythm and melody instead of just “How am I gonna fit all these words into this song?”
I know you’re a big fan of Jeanette Winterson, and now you’re working with Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill – do you think there’s a literary influence on your songwriting?
Yeah, definitely. It’s not so directly like I read a book and then I say, “Okay, now I’m going to write a song about this book.” It’s more about the way the words are put together, or that perfect line that will shoot right into your heart. That’s the kind of thing inspires me.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I love Italo Calvino. And actually, Difficult Loves – I’ve written some stuff that was really influenced by that. I love Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Chabon. I love old sci-fi, like Ray Bradbury. I love Rick Moody. I love Wesley Stace’s books. Really, I’m not just throwing my friends in there [laughs]. I love Neil Gaiman. He’s the master of the perfect sentence, I think. I love Margaret Atwood. And then I like biographies – like, I’ll read a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I read a Woody Guthrie one recently.
I love [young adult] stuff too. Stuff that my daughter’s introduced me to, like Philip Pullman and Nancy Farmer. The House of the Scorpion I think is her most well-known one. It’s really beautiful stuff.
Do you find that songwriting serves a different purpose for you now, creatively or maybe emotionally, than it did when you first started writing?
Honestly, I don’t think so. Stylistically, in terms of how it manifests itself, it’s very different now, but the impulse feels the same, always. Especially when I’m just sitting in a room alone with a guitar, it brings me back to this thread that’s been there since I first started.
How old were you when you first started writing songs?
Fourteen. Not counting the stuff I would just kind of march around singing as a kid. To sit down and actually put something together that sounded like a real song, I was 14.
Who were some of the first bands or musicians who made you want to make music?
The Beatles. The Clash. Kristin and I had a lot of music on in all our various homes because all of our parents were very interested in music, if not musical themselves. There was always music playing, so it’s hard to know what creeped in there. Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Neil Young – that stuff was really informative to us early on. And then we started to discover stuff on our own, like Patti Smith.
So I wanted to ask about Star, because that’s one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s got this kind of magical feeling, it’s almost like a storybook to me. When you were writing it were you conscious of kind of building this whole world within the album?
I don’t think I was conscious of it. I was reading a lot of magical realism back then – a lot of Calvino, a lot of Jeanette Winterson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – just really diving into that world. I think that’s probably where some of that comes from: even though it wasn’t my intention, it may have seeped into my writing at the time. And visually, we were watching a lot of movies that were along those lines too. Like Dreams, a lot of other [Akira] Kurosawa movies. That definitely influenced it.
Some of those songs I had written for [Throwing Muses'] Real Ramona, but by the time we started getting into the recording, it had already been established that I was leaving. So I held back some of those songs. And then some of them were for the Breeders. Like, the original demos for Star are Breeders demos, it says “Breeders” on the reel. Before I formed Belly the idea was that Kim [Deal] would write the first album and I would write the second. But then she decided she wasn’t going to leave the Pixies that year, so that’s when I formed Belly. The first album was sort of a bunch of songs that were written for other bands, and then kind of morphed into Belly.
When you look at all the projects you’ve been involved in, does each one feel different to you? Does writing a solo record feel different from writing for Throwing Muses?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve never been as prolific as my sister, so with the Muses it worked out for a while that she always had a ton of songs and I had, like, two. But then I started writing more, which is where Belly came from. With the Muses I considered myself primarily the lead guitar player, not in any way on equal footing as a songwriter.
When Throwing Muses really got going was there a sense that you were part of something that was going to have a pretty big impact, like that whole wave of bands that sort of changed the landscape in the early ’90s?
Until people started telling us that that was the case, we didn’t really feel it. I think it was just sort of like, “All our friends have bands! Everyone’s in a band!” I wouldn’t say it was a one big cohesive happy family kind of thing, but there were lots of pockets of bands that would sort of overlap. There was Muses/Pixies, and then there was the Big Dipper and Dumptruck, and then the Helium side of things. And Buffalo Tom. Oh and [Juliana] Hatfield, of course! That Lemonheads/Blake Babies piece, which is huge. There were just so many different things happening and all of them good, at least in my mind. There were so many reasons to go out.
Are there songwriters that you feel a sort of kinship with?
Bill Janovitz, definitely – I feel like we’re on a very similar wavelength. And Kristin. The people that I’ve worked with, I still feel that kinship with. It’s hard because there are bands that I love that I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily similar to. Like, the first time I heard First Aid Kit, even though we’re completely different, it reminded me of me and Kristin. They’ve got that sister thing, which is so nice to hear. And there’s a band on Cape Cod, the Parkington Sisters, who I love and feel connected to what they do – they’ve got those New England folk roots.
What’s some of your favorite music now?
I love Neko Case. I really like the Avett Brothers. I love the new Bill Janovitz record, Walt Whitman Mall. I do also listen to stuff that my daughter introduces me to, like Regina Spektor.
How old are your kids?
There’s a 14-year-old and a seven-year-old.
And are they musical too?
Yup, Gracie plays guitar and piano and she writes. She primarily plays piano, she sings as well. The seven-year-old plays piano. She loves to play and she’s very self-directed in practicing, but she’s not interested in performance at all. She doesn’t want us anywhere near her, she’s more secretive about it all.
Do you and your husband write together a lot?
Yeah. It’s just kind of an organic thing that happens. He starts playing and I start singing.
So when you look back all the albums you’ve made, is there one that’s particularly dear to you?
I think I have one from each incarnation. For solo, I think probably Whiskey Tango Ghosts, the super-quiet one, my only fully unadorned album. It might be my favorite because I was so blissed out when we made it.
What about Belly?
I have to say I love the B-sides we did. Going back and listening to the B-sides, we should have just had a third record of all that stuff. Even live we’d be like, “Yikes, this just got lost.” It’s too bad. Some of those songs were our favorites.
We have Amoeba Music here in L.A. and I just picked up a bunch of Belly singles and I was like, “God, I can’t believe I’ve never heard these songs, they’re so great.”
Yeah, and I think also again with the remembering piece of it is that making B-sides is so fun compared to making an album because the onus is gone and it’s just purely for its own sake, at least back in the day. That’s not really the case now.
What about favorite records from your other bands?
Well, Pod would be the only one from the Breeders, unless you count Safari. And then for the Muses, probably Hunkpapa. Again, it’s hard to tell whether it was because we were so happy making it – it’s just so evocative of a very specific time, so that might be why I love that one. That was a really good year.