“You have to leave the nest sometime,” 1995 (Ebet Roberts)
For the video of “Now They’ll Sleep,” lead-off single of Belly’s 1995 album King, the band are cast as their own roadies. They fix dangling mikes, tune snare heads and guitars, tape down cords. Tanya Donelly crouches alongside the stage, fixated on the lead singer.
She knows every word, sings along; she’s translating the song, while it’s being given to a crowd, into a private show playing in her head. It’s Donelly watching her performing self, a “Tanya” seen here in shadow, in quick cuts, from behind, from jostled perspectives of the audience.
“Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s not,” she said in 1993, when asked who she was on stage. “Sometimes it’s somebody else entirely. But a lot of my stuff is like third-person—me watching something. Voyeuristic. Voyeur to other people’s pain.”
If Donelly’s charm threatens to sink the video concept—it’s a wonder she never popped up in some Nineties film or TV show (even Juliana Hatfield got a speaking part in My So-Called Life)—it ultimately works because Belly had a central anonymous quality. The sort of band whose roadies could have been more charismatic figures, their existence seemed improvised, mysterious, even fragile. And it wasn’t for long: Belly was done and dusted before Bill Clinton’s first term as president was over.
Bogie Gwang, Alone
Donelly’s top 12, Melody Maker (14 November 1992). The misspelling of her name is a constant of her press coverage.
Tanya wanted to be a pop star and I had no ambitions at all. So I was keeping her down and she was dragging me up.
Kristin Hersh, 2001.
The most lucrative project ever associated with Donelly’s former band, Throwing Muses [see Quartet 2], Belly’s debut Star sold over a million copies worldwide and nearly topped the UK album charts. “Feed the Tree” was an MTV constant and a Billboard Modern Rock #1; band and album even got Grammy nominations.
It was the triumph of a second-placer. Confined to two songs per album in the Muses, only a guitarist and harmony vocalist on the Breeders’ Pod [see Quartet 2(b)], Donelly had a boxload of songs by 1991. Star was a double-remove of an album, with some songs written for the Muses’ The Real Ramona and most demoed for a second Breeders record.
The Fort Apache “Breeders II” tapes (Donelly, via WGBH)
Joe Harvard, who recorded the “Breeders II” demos at Fort Apache in Cambridge, MA, died earlier this year. In tribute, Donelly put the demos on Bandcamp for free. A friend since the early Muses days, he called her “Bogie Gwang” (“after the quirky guitar intro of a song I wrote, ‘The River’“). Her comfort with Harvard and Fort Apache allowed her to tack down much of Star at its demo stage. Songs feel set in place in their sketch forms. There are few lyrical variants from the album versions; Donelly’s phrasings, rhythm guitar lines and song structures are greatly there, although she’d change “Mariah” to “Maria” in “Slow Dog” after Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich wondered if she was singing about Mariah Carey.
“I had the songs and I didn’t know what to do with them,” she said in 1993 (among the oldest was a unreleased song from the Muses’ “Doghouse” demo tape, “Raise the Roses,” which she split into “Angel” and “Sexy S.“) Her debut was a transition piece, “representing the time when I was completely revamping my life. New band, new relationship, new everything…I think that as long as I’m in somebody else’s band, I’ll never become a good songwriter.”
Although Kim Deal played guitar on a few demos, Deal sticking with the Pixies [see Quartet 2(a)] through mid-1992 led Donelly to abandon the idea of using the Breeders as her solo vehicle. It came down to her “needing the music” before the Pixies inevitably broke up.
White Bellied Up In the Sun
Volume Six, 1993 (Louise Rhodes)
Whatever people get out of the songs, they’re as right about it as I am. Unless they’re way off the mark. Everybody is free to take what they want from my songs. Not from me. Nobody gets near me.
What sort of songs were they? Some prospective singles, full of hooks; contrasting darker pieces in 3/4 or 6/8. She wove motifs through her lyrics: beds, sleeping, dreaming; backs (lying on; having burns on; having a dead dog or a bird’s nest strapped to); houses and dresses; the moon; waters, divers, and shores (Newport’s Sachuest Beach, in the title track).
“Eventually I want to write children’s books,” she told Evelyn McDonnell around the time of Star‘s release. Favorites were the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, who captured “the way children are. Kids are so psycho. They haven’t learned to be afraid of death; they haven’t fit it into their world yet. Everything is so strange to them.” There was “Witch,” where Donelly flashed on the image of walking into a house to see “this woman lying on a bed with her eyes and her mouth and her breasts and her crotch and her toes all lit up, like a Christmas tree, with lights.” Or her take on “Trust in Me,” the killer python’s seduction song in The Jungle Book (it would be a B-side).
Most of all, “Gepetto.” “About the way children relate to each other, and how there’s a lot of dark weird stuff in a child’s world,” she told the NME in 1993. “There’s a lot of sexuality in childhood, a lot of it. That’s where a lot of sexual weirdness starts. When I was six or seven, my friends and I were like, ‘You be the boy now.'” The song began with a memory from kindergarten. She liked a boy, he ripped the head off her doll, she bonked him on the head with a toy fire engine. “That was the first time I felt I’d hurt the person I flirted with. You know that moment when you’ve said something or done something and you’ve gone one step too fucking far? That was our moment, and we were five.”
It’s a slapstick childhood flirtation mirrored with a grotesque adult one—a hapless lover as the puppeteer Gepetto, lying atop a woman that he thinks he’s brought to life, a woman with a sunny contempt for his performance (“Gepetto, where’d you put it? Poor, Gepetto: poor, poor“) and who could easily knock him on the head with a fire engine again. When Donelly performed it, she stomped around the stage as if she was crushing bugs.
She leans into the tape machine. “Most of the characters I think of are female. I don’t really understand your sex, Jim.”
Donelly to Jim Arundel, Melody Maker, 4 July 1992
A psycho-sexual history mapped across fifteen tracks, Star’s lyrical perspective shifts—sometimes first-person, sometimes a voyeuristic third-party—but its anchoring image is of a young woman alone somewhere, in an empty house or beach. Some horror has occurred, or is about to. A junkie’s down in the cellar, her captor having bagged off after he thinks she’s kicked (“she’s just dusted, leave her”). An adulteress is forced to carry a decomposing dog on her back; a faerie steals a child from its room, flying out the window backwards, conducting the mother’s grief like a puppeteer (“fall to the bed! Put your hand in your hair!”). The singer talks to ghosts and crap ex-boyfriends, to serial killers and God. She wants the red moon; God answers by sending angels to bring a river to her. As with Gepetto, she’s not impressed.
Web-chat on MSN, 18 November 1996
“That album was really me killing my childhood,” Donelly said in 2013. Star is, among many things, the work of someone who’d never felt at ease in school, who’d been so riddled with anxiety that she threw up every day; someone who had felt wretched as a teenager and still, in her late twenties, could feel like an imposter adult. And she’d been through hard patches at the start of the Nineties—breakups with a boyfriend and with Hersh, her best friend and step-sister.
It spilled out in “Untogether”: Donelly once said that each verse was aimed at a particular person. If the last verse isn’t about the demise of the original Muses, it’s a good feinting maneuver: “the bird keeps her distance/and I keep my space/ sometimes there’s no poison like a dream.”
“The Day the Muses Died,” NME breakup notice, 23 November 1991
“We called ourselves step-twins and we were letting ourselves be two sides of a personality, so we like to think that we became whole when we stopped relying on each other that way,” Hersh told Uncut in 2013. To Martin Aston, Donelly said “I was in danger of losing my sense of self to something that had run out of control and that nobody involved had any control over…Kristin and I were too tired and numb, which was dangerous, but we got over it the second I quit.”
Yet there’s joy in the break. Star is a V.C. Andrews haunted house that’s torched to the ground by the girl who once lived there. In “Every Word,” she’s not bothered when a guy says he’s leaving. “More room for meeeeeee!,” as she fills an empty room with chairs she won’t let him sit on. In “White Belly,” she floats off, letting the tides take her to another shore. In the B-side “Sweet Ride,” she’s a blissed-out Persephone, junkie queen of the underworld. The woman carrying the slow (decomposing) dog on her back takes heart by knowing that once the corpse has rotted away, she’ll be free. Take your hat off, boy, as she says, when you’re talking to me.
Growing a Belly
Donelly had considered going out as a solo act but realized she needed to have another band as her armor. So: Belly (Donelly: “a womanly word, a lovely and an ugly word…a gross word, a cozy word, a centered word all at the same time “). It began as two once-Muses, Donelly and bassist Fred Abong. She needed another guitarist and a drummer, originally just to make an album (she’d decided to cut it in Nashville) and promote it.
As the Muses always went back to their hometown of Newport, that’s where Donelly found two brothers she’d known from high school, with whom she made an informal agreement over drinks one night.
Tom Gorman, shot by Chris Gorman for the cover of Verbal Assault’s Trial, 1987
Chris Gorman and Tom Gorman were born within a year of each other (Tom was the same age as Donelly, Chris a year younger). Their family moved regularly: by the time they were in high school in Newport, the Gormans had been through eight school systems. “The first time I felt grounded, like I fit in and belonged, was when I found punk rock,” Chris told Billboard in 2018.
The brothers were in the hardcore band Verbal Assault, most of whose members (like Hersh, Donelly, and the Muses’ David Narcizo) were alumni of Newport’s Rogers High. “The kids that didn’t kinda fit in—whether you were the punk kids, art rock, or whatever—because we all got beat up after high school together, we kind of formed a bond,” Verbal Assault’s singer Chris Jones told New Noise. “Because the city wasn’t that big, everybody kind of ended up hanging out together.”
In Chris, Donelly got a genial surfer/artist for a drummer. His looser style was a turn from her earlier, more manic drummers—marching-band-trained Narcizo and the Breeders’ Britt Walford. But he shared with them the ability to handle Donelly’s odd time signatures and song structures. (“I just come up with stuff to match the weird guitar parts,” he told Modern Drummer in 1995.)
Photo shoot for Melody Maker, with a worse-for-wear Brett Anderson, ca. late 1992-early 1993
For the weird guitar parts, she had Tom Gorman. “If there’s a song where there’s a “lead” break needed, then I usually play that,” he said in 1995. “But a lot of our songs don’t, and even if there is, it’s like, ‘two bars! There it is! Get in, get out!’ And if in doubt, abuse the instrument.”
Donelly, being a Throwing Muse, had grown up fashioning homemade chords on the guitar rather than having any sort of formal training. So while Belly songs on paper are often simple progressions of mostly major chords (the refrain of “Every Word” shifts between E-flat and E; “Feed the Tree” is mostly an I-IV song in G major ([G]”talkin’ to me/ [C9]”be there when I”), Donelly’s idea of, say, a G major chord wasn’t that of some guy at Guitar Center. She’d bring in different tones or undermine the root, giving her chords a “rakish timbre,” in an inspired phrase by DJ Kim, one of her dedicated tabbers. (One example is her playing on “The Bees,” where she’s often keeping two open strings ringing through her chords, and so turning a B major at times into something like a Badd9/F#.)
“Usually I have an idea for a melody line, and then I have to make the guitar do what’s in my head,” she said in 1995. “So actually the sound of the song comes first, and then I have to make the guitar do that thing. I know [the chords I play] are really simple ones, but there are a lot of chords that I invent, and I don’t know what they’re called. Usually some engineer has to tell me!” When she wrote on acoustic guitar, her songs were simpler, folkier; when she wrote on electric, “it’s less structured and more tonal.”
Tom had to find entry points. “We all fill in the holes of the others. Tanya’s guitar playing is really vocal, particularly her lead stuff,” he said. “She tends to come up with a line in her head, hums it, and then figures out where it is on the guitar. I’m more likely to start with the chords.” Take “Slow Dog,” where he hangs just behind the beat in the intro while Donelly plays the opening riff, until the two harmonize in the bars right before the verse starts.
In Tanya, what a transformation!
How well she’d studied her new role!
Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
Much of Star was produced by Tracy Chisholm, an engineer who’d been recommended by 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell. But for the singles, Donelly went with the Pixies’ producer Gil Norton. “I liked Tracy’s southern, swampy, cool sound, but he was too mellow for us,” she told Aston. “I wanted someone I knew and trusted, and the Belly songs that Gil produced were the ones I knew he’d treat in a poppy way, and I wanted to make a pop album.”
One of Norton’s tracks was “Feed the Tree,” Belly’s one-hit-wonder (even if it wasn’t, quite). Lumped in with other mayfly Nineties alternate-rock hits, it’s become part of the parade with “Sex and Candy” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” “Closing Time” and “Tubthumping.”
Listening to “Feed the Tree” today, much of it sounds like a British indie rock song ca. 1989, with its clean lead guitar breaks and precisely-placed fills, its busker rhythm playing, modest drums, and a melodic hook close to one in the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” (compare “get my head off—the––ground” to Donelly’s later refrain phrasings of “feed—the—tree“). (She’d always been the most “4AD” of the Muses, to the point of dating Lush’s manager.) It was a last flowering in the waning era of the Sundays and the Lilac Time—part of a vestibule period that the critic Alfred Soto has called “the Poppy Bush Interzone,” in which the modern rock charts were a strange traffic where Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello mingled with Consolidated and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.
Donelly triumphant, Sting still Modern Rock: Billboard, 6 March 1993
“Feed the Tree” is also a meticulously-constructed pop song, sounding as if Donelly had shone it up until it caught the sun from every angle. How the intro riff tightens whenever it moves to the home chord, or the time-shift (a bar of 2/4) to shuttle you to the next verse a breath faster. How she first sings the refrain quietly, giving it an airing but holding back on it until, after the second verse, she moves up in her range and lets her hooks ring out. “Take your HAT! OFF! when you’re talkin’ to me and be there when I feed the tree,” savoring the fifth-spanning leap of the last three words. Then she builds it out even more, singing her “I know all this and” pre-refrain hook three times before completing it, then getting caught up in her refrain until the fade.
On Star, where “Feed the Tree” was the second side’s opening track (for cassette buyers) or halfway-point peak (CDs), it bound the album together. Its first verse begins like a nursery rhyme. Again, it’s bad dreams and fairy-tale gore—an old man squeezes his broken heart upon the ground; a great tree grows from his blood. Its once-frightened-squirrel of a narrator has taken some tumbles but smiles to show her false teeth. And in the last verse (which Donelly didn’t have at the demo stage), the skinny, silver-toothed girl becomes the old man she once was, dancing around a monument to her former disasters, asking her new lover to stay with her until they put her in the ground. The woman is father to the man.
A year earlier, a year later, “Feed the Tree” might have gone nowhere or gotten the standard indie-rock modest airplay. But it came out in early 1993, the year of Liz Phair and PJ Harvey and L7, and it jumped on the radio (it helped that 4AD had hired a proper song plugger for once). Played six times a day on MTV, it was in tune with its springtime, an American counterpart to the Cranberries’ “Dreams” and “Linger.”
“Feed the Tree” made a band before it had settled into being one. Although its video was Belly in a stage-shift (a redheaded Donelly backed only by the Gormans), it would be their defining image.
Last Leg of the Chair
Abong left Belly before Star was released (another ex-Muse, Leslie Langston, subbed for him on a brief UK promo tour). “Fred and I were very close at that point, and we’d co-written a song [‘White Belly’] and I wanted us to write more,” Donelly told Aston. “I was amazed he’d walk away when it was obvious things were going upward. But he felt it wasn’t the lifestyle for him.”
So she found someone more comfortable with the lifestyle: another Rhode Islander, Barrington’s Gail Greenwood. It created gender parity in the band and gave their stage presence a jolt. Greenwood first made a stir in the British press by greeting a crowd at Manchester Academy with “you bunch of wankers!,” having mistakenly thought it a term of endearment.
Greenwood and Donelly had a rivalry, if a one-sided one, in the Eighties. Greenwood’s first band, The Dames, “were mortal enemies” of the Muses, she told The Face in 1995. “The Muses didn’t know that we existed because they were big stars. But oh The Dames knew that the Muses existed. We couldn’t understand the hype, we couldn’t understand their art…We accused them of babysitting for the music critic of the Providence Journal [as to] how they got their first show. We just could not give them the credit.”
Greenwood, fitness devotee and straight-edger, gave Belly an exuberant physicality in performance, holding her bass low and wielding it like a chainsaw, moving around the stage as if she was dunking basketballs. “A more benevolent Tank Girl,” as one YouTube fan said of her. Belly had finally cohered into a visual. The hub: Donelly, and Chris as the coolly smiling engine; Greenwood, the bouncing ball stage left; Tom, playing his leads in taciturn solitude stage right.
Newport Kids on the Town
Prom night with Belly (Daily Free Press, 25 March 1993)
In March 1993, Belly held a press conference at the M-80 in Boston to kick off their American tour and introduce Greenwood. The club, normally a “euro chic” sort of place favored by Saudi millionaires’ sons who in theory attended BU, was done up as a wedding reception in a banquet hall, with pink balloons, flower arrangements, and white tablecloths. The band wore identical white tuxedos with corsages pinned to their lapels. “It’s a contest to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible,” Donelly told the assembled journalists.
By then, “Feed the Tree” was deep in MTV’s Buzz Bin and the #1 Billboard Modern Rock song. As Belly started touring across the US, its crowds were shifting—not as many longtime Muses fans, more and more people who stood around waiting for them to do “Feed the Tree.”
Santa Monica, 16 April 1993
“Starting out, the audience felt very similar to us,” Chris recalled. “And then, as it gets bigger and it goes more mainstream, it seemed like our audience looked less and less like us.” There were more promoters, press agents, and label execs at Belly shows, more expense-account (that is, from Belly’s royalties) dinners.
They played Letterman, Glastonbury, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart (the MTV edition) and by the end of the tour were exhausted and barely talking to each other. A collection of Rhode Island acquaintances had been drilled into a unit who spent nearly every day together, but their roots weren’t proving deep enough to sustain them.
What You Get Is No Tomorrow
Belly’s success, along with the Breeders catching fire with “Cannonball,” marked the beginning of the end of Watts-Russell’s time with 4AD—in 1994, he’d have what Martin Aston described as a nervous breakdown and would sell his share of the label at the end of the decade. “Everything ballooned out for him,” Donelly said. One night in LA, she and Watts-Russell, who’d first known the Muses through hours-long phone conversations with a teenage Hersh in 1985, had a mutual freak-out about what was happening.
Having to be the face of a platinum-selling rock band, “I didn’t even know how to represent myself,” she said. “I didn’t understand why I had to do so many interviews either…schlepping from American radio station to station got to me. It felt like I had no ownership of myself, my art and my body.”
In the Muses, Hersh had been the main public voice. Sharp and frank, she was always ready to talk about her kids, her problems, who wasn’t paying her. Her step-sister wrote the catchier songs but was a far more private and guarded person. Belly’s manager Gary Smith, who’d known Donelly for a decade and whom she called one of her best friends, said in 1995 that he’d never seen her apartment.
Belly also hit at the peak of the post-Nirvana indie rock purism wars. “This is the number one college band in the country, is that right? Bigger even than the Ohio State band?” as David Letterman introduced them in their first network TV appearance. Detractors like Henry Rollins reportedly said Belly hadn’t paid their dues (despite them having been in bands since their teens). They were knocked as sellouts, only popular because Donelly was pretty; they were called Throwing Muses watered down for mass consumption, like Cracker in relation to Camper Van Beethoven.
Then the music press began pitting Donelly and Juliana Hatfield against the riot grrrl bands (e.g., Volume Six, 1993: “The confidence [Donelly] displays with her guitar and her voice gives her an authority that bands like Huggy Bear will never know”). “I tried really hard not to engage in the attack posture [the riot grrrl scene] was taking against me, against Kristin, against at one point PJ Harvey. I mean, why??,” Donelly told Stacey Pavlick in 2013. “Those “gender traitor” accusations were getting leveled at us…Melody Maker was constantly quoting these women who were SO angry at other women.”
Belly felt under siege, forever debating where the no-go point was. This magazine photo shoot? This TV show? Is it okay for Tanya to do a Gap ad? Does “Slow Dog” need a single remix? Such angst might well be incomprehensible to a young person today, when the borders between indie and pop barely exist and song licensing is one of the few ways musicians can make any money. “That stuff fell by the wayside years ago, but back then people still obsessed over doing the right thing—no ads, no corporate sponsorship,” Donelly said to Aston. “We constantly and agonizingly soul-searched every decision.”
Semi-smiling faces on the cover of the Rolling Stone, April 1995 (Greenwood: “We all ended up in tears. The pictures were awful—they didn’t even airbrush them. I mean, I look at them and all I see is razor stubble.”)
Each photo and video shoot was a battle. The director of the “Feed the Tree” video wanted nude models in it. Rolling Stone would only put Belly on the cover if it was just Donelly or, later in negotiations, if the band dressed up as characters from The Wizard of Oz (they finally did appear as themselves).
Even the name of the band became a burden, as the inevitable photographer suggestion was for Donelly to wear a midriff-baring outfit. Seemingly every profile noted her as being “elfin” and she was leered at in print (last sentence of a 1993 Select feature: “There are lights on her eyes, on her mouth and on her breasts”). She unloaded a year later, when interviewed by Amy Raphael:
The way male journalists flirt every time I do an interview makes me never want to talk to anybody ever. That is a stumbling block; the only time in my life that I ever turn into a hermit, the only time in my life that I ever run into a strange feeling about myself, as a woman, is in the male journalist situation. That’s the time when I most feel like a girl. A little girl. This is the angle they use: ‘She’s small and looks like a child.’ I don’t even know what the fuck they get out of it. All I ever feel is minimized. As a person, because of my femaleness….The weird thing is, that if I think something went well, I’ll then read the piece and it’ll talk about how small my hands were, or how small and quiet my voice was.
The Stranger In Your Movie
Amidst this, Belly had to make a follow-up album. They chose the classic-rock-pedigreed Glyn Johns, who recommended Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, mostly because he had to work outside the US for visa reasons.
Johns and engineer Jack Joseph Puig wanted a “live in the studio” approach, with as few overdubs as possible (Chris Gorman later estimated only about ten percent of the album is overdubs). It was unnerving at first for a band who’d cut their debut in multiple studios, layering bed after bed of overdubs: tracks having a guitar part flown in from a session in Nashville, while the vocal was from one in England.
“I don’t know whether we’d quite reached the level of ability as a band or individually to be able to nail it that perfect,” Chris told Aquarium Drunkard. “I had really expected a guy that would certainly record the drum parts in a much more cut-and-paste way. I didn’t see myself as that mechanical drummer that can ‘Dave Grohl’ pull it off in a single take and walk away.”
To get the drums, Puig put two overhead mikes over the kit, a few mikes in metal cans and bottles near the kick drum, and some ambient mikes set around the studio. That was it, and it worked—the drums on King had more of a punch than those on Star: see “Puberty,” or the cycling kick-snare-toms patterns on “Seal My Fate.”
This Dogme 95-lite approach meant Belly had to nail down their songs during album rehearsals (in the less tropical environs of Middletown, Rhode Island, almost immediately after their tour ended). There were more collaborations—both Tom and Greenwood co-wrote music with Donelly. “Super-Connected” was originally titled “Surrender” because the band heard Greenwood channeling Cheap Trick; Tom had been listening to Italian film soundtracks, hence “Lil’ Ennio [Morricone]” (an outtake called “Big Ennio” was described as being “less an instrumental than a mentalinstro”).
Where Star was one writer honing songs over years, King songs were worked out on the floor. In structure, they’re rowdy negotiations and odd diversions; they tail off into unresolved arguments. Hooks land in unexpected places, bridges conquer the latter half of a song, riffs that could anchor a song only make cameo appearances. Take “Now They’ll Sleep,” with its rumbling, down-tempo intro, a verse that’s more hooky than the refrain, which in turn acts more like a bridge. How “King” changes its coat every thirty seconds. Or the wonderful “Red,” with its swooning 6/8 verses, broken by jump-cuts to pounding six-bar breaks (RED-RED-RED aaaahhh!). It diverts into a loopy extended bridge in standard time: it’s as if another, peppier song has come to visit. Then a jolt back for more verse/break standoffs, ending with one last RED RED RED.
Tom later said that he’s regretted at times how sparse King was (his piano on “Judas My Heart” is the only thing on the record that’s not guitar, bass, or drums)—that slower tracks like “Silverfish” might have been helped by strings. But having to scratch out tracks with just a grumbly bunch of old pedals and amps proved inspired. On “The Bees” he ran his guitar through a Rat pedal into “this sad little plywood Alamo amp which had been sitting there throughout the sessions. I plugged into it more out of sympathy than anything.” The lead lines in “Now They’ll Sleep” and “Seal My Fate” are a Boss tremolo pedal jacked into a distorted amp; the opening arpeggiated riff of “Silverfish” came via an ancient stomp box that plugged into the wall. It said “chorus” on it, he recalled, “but it doesn’t sound like a chorus.”
His and Donelly’s guitar interplay grew more intensely conversational—take the two lines that open “Super-Connected,” one distorted modestly, the other transmogrified. How the lead guitar doubles the rhythm, quietly and hazily, in the verses of “Lil’ Ennio,” or the jabbing dance of Gorman’s fills with Donelly’s chunky rhythm figures in “Now They’ll Sleep” and especially “Untitled and Unsung,” where the band even swings.
These were their only conversations by this point. Band politics were the guitarists not talking, the rhythm section at loggerheads and, to cap it off, two brothers with usual sibling issues. At times only half of Belly could be in the studio together. But despite this, maybe because of this, King is a document of a band, of four people in a room facing off, willing these songs into life. “Belly’s sound is created completely by all of our impulses,” Tom told Pulse in 1995. “Because we’re not smart enough or good enough to think about it too much. We just have to do whatever we can get away with.”
In the heyday of “alternative” waxworks like Bush’s Sixteen Stone, Belly made a record with blood in it, having the sort of mix the label usually calls “lively” and then looks around for someone to clean it up. “Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on “Seal My Fate” and “Silverfish.” Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible,” wrote Ross Palmer, in an appreciation of King in 2016. “It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.”
Coronation for Vox, 1995 (Barry Marsden)
In her lyrics, Donelly picked up on how the tracks had diverged from the sound of Star: that she was, in essence, writing for a new band. Her Star motifs are still there—sleeping, backs, moons, dogs, dresses, hearts, waters—but her narrative voice is pricklier and funnier (“now I make you pray like there’s a god!” or “there’s a lady who walks everywhere on her hands/ doesn’t trust where her feet want to take her”). She knocks a precious indie rock diva and backs kids against their tedious parents (“Red,” in which a kid dreams of being abducted by aliens, was in part about how kids “feel more like visitors than participants in their households, because they’re not treated as humans, you know, not allowed to speak,” she said.)
Her singing was more ambitious—she’s pushing to the top of her range, even doing some Kate Bush-style phrasing (there’s a touch of “Wuthering Heights” in “Lil’ Ennio”), and her slightest alterations in emphases can make her words sting (how she changes, on its second go-round, “keep what’s mine for me” in “Seal My Fate“). Where Star was a map of a hermetic, almost Gothic imagination (“a projection of my self-protection, I was laying things in analogue so I could protect myself from the truth,” she said years later), King opens up a sealed house to the world. Childhood’s end: a suspicious mind allowing for the promise of connecting at last. He knows the shape her breath will take before she lets it out (“John Dark,” a snarling B-side, is a disastrous alternate end to the story.)
So, “King,” her greatest lust song. A strange and furious pair, a faith healer taming a little bird (“I won’t prey on you…this time”), it’s the voice of “Feed the Tree” again, a woman who’s crowned a man finally worthy of her; she’s plucked him from the soil like a healthy-looking shoot. How Donelly sings “there is a light under the OH-shun” in anticipation (even the guitar solo sounds coital), and then she shakes it down: Baby I can’t fake it, I’d like to see you naked, at last just chanting NAY-KED NAY-KED. What else is there to say, really?
Now, I’ve Lost the Plot
Playing “Super Connected” on MTV’s Most Wanted, 1995
King, released on Valentine’s Day 1995, was supposed to be their consolidation hit. In a Christmas 1994 Billboard preview, Warner/Reprise product manager Geoffrey Weiss said he expected the record to go platinum “at least” and, expecting heavy radio/MTV support for “Now We’ll Sleep,” that King was set to move 50,000 copies in its first week of release, or ten times what Star had done in the same period.
Instead King stayed on the shelves. Maybe “Now We’ll Sleep” was a poor choice for first single (the more pointed “Super-Connected” or the title track might have hit harder). Maybe the album was too spiky for 1995 alternative rock radio; Watts-Russell would later blame Johns and Puig, saying Donelly’s voice was mixed too high. Or maybe “Feed the Tree” had been a fluke in a season of flukes.
Nor can you discount the caps many rock stations had on female artists: if, say, Paula Cole was already in heavy rotation, Belly could be out of luck. “You can’t play two women back-to-back on the radio,” as Jewel recalled being a standard explanation (“We’re already playing Sheryl Crow, so we can’t play you,” as per Lisa Loeb.)
Whatever the reasons, “Now We’ll Sleep” stalled out at #17 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, “Super-Connected” at #35, and King itself at #57 on the Billboard 200 (though it did crack the UK Top 10).
The band toured King through most of 1995, opening for REM in a summer tour, and wound up selling 350,000 copies in the US. What would have been a bravado performance for Throwing Muses’ House Tornado was a flop in the age of platinum alternative.
It felt as if windows opened in the early Nineties were closing—it was back to boys with guitars, and increasingly dull boys. As Okkervil River’s Will Sheff said to Aquarium Drunkard, Belly was a path not taken by alternative rock in the late Nineties: “melodic, curious, feminine, imbued with magic. Really, it’s the place the genre should have gone, instead of being hijacked by a bunch of macho knuckleheads who ended up steering the entire genre into a ditch and making us all feel like we’d been had.”
The Sea Does What It Oughtta and Soon There’s Salty Water
On 11 November 1995, Belly headlined at the Dragonfly in LA. It was the end of the tour, and of them: the band wouldn’t work together again for two decades. Sitting by a pool at the after-party, Donelly said hi to a passing raccoon and wound up covered in blood and spit, requiring her to get multiple rabies shots. As this was like a lost verse from Star, it seems symbolically appropriate, if utterly awful.
She’s emphasized over the years that King‘s relative commercial failure wasn’t the problem—that even had the album sold like gangbusters, the band still would have fallen apart. Inter-band tensions, the long silences and sudden arguments, had become toxic (she wrote “Swoon” in Belly’s last months: “there’s always a green door/ and green gets you out”). And as her manager and 4AD had considered Belly to be essentially Tanya-plus-three, they were fine with rebooting her as a solo performer.
“Every band has a lifespan. Ours was oddly short. It just kind of imploded,” she said in 1996. “It wasn’t my decision alone, but I can’t say that I did anything to stop the end coming…I don’t know that band democracies necessarily work. I’d rather it be more clear-cut. Have contracts, have it be, ‘This is the amount of time you’re expected to do this.’ Not leave it open-ended, or pretending we’re all going to form this beautiful musical community and everybody’s going to have a fair share.”
At age 31, she broke down her professional life for the NME:
Phase one: Throwing Muses—hair in the face, guitar playing. Everything back then made me vomit. Phase two: The Breeders—more of a side-project. A very, very tipsy pyjama party. Phase three: Belly—my stab at collaboration, ’nuff said. Phase four: solo—more of a decision borne of defeat than a desire to have my name everywhere. But now I’ve done it, it’s been really liberating and calming. I’m not a good team player. I like to think I am, but I’m not. And I’m not a good boss.
One of the last tracks that Belly released (on the “Seal My Fate” single) was a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” Nilsson wrote it for The Point, a 1971 cartoon treasured by hippie kid Donelly. It’s a waking up to the knowledge, realizing the world has far bigger problems than yours, and that you’re part of it, one tiny teardrop in a sea of pain and renewal. Sit down, pour a cup of tea, watch the bubbles form, wonder where they go when they break.
Donelly sings with less assurance than Nilsson. She starts out as if she’s been disturbed, takes the verses faster, gives the lines harsher phrasings. It’s a raw-sounding recording—electric guitar plucks in lieu of pizzicato strings, surly drums, the harmonies (always so lushly intricate in Nilsson recordings) at times nearly discordant, with one Donelly grumbling beneath the other or breaking in as if blasting from a radio speaker. There’s no acceptance here: the world’s a mess, drop your cup in the sink.
“It’s a strange thing,” she once said. “My hands want to play pop songs and my head is attracted to despair.”
What happened to all the bands? Is it just that bands are corny now?
Rostam Batmanglij, 2016
“I’ve given up trying to figure out what the music industry is about,” Donelly said in 1997, when her first solo album, Lovesongs For Underdogs, was selling less than King had. “There were high hopes around 4AD and Sire, which I’m trying to stay away from! People need to have high hopes to get through the process, but in my own heart, I have to keep an even keel. I don’t want to make records to try and maintain a momentum; whichever way the wind blows this time, I’ll be OK.”
She kept on through the 2000s—Whiskey Tango Ghosts (2004), a loud wartime record, was among her strongest. A gorgeous rumination on George Harrison’s “Long Long Long,” cut live at a Vermont hotel for her last solo release, This Hungry Life, for a time hinted at the close of an artistic life, as did a series of digital-only collaborations called, collectively, Swan Song. After having a second child, she mostly stopped performing and recording for a few years, became a post-partum doula.
Greenwood joined L7 in the late Nineties, played in Bif Naked and with Benny Sizzler (she co-founded the latter), and became an anti-sprawl activist. And the Gormans founded a photography studio in 1999 (Chris already had worked with Vaughan Oliver on Belly’s album art).
Taking five at Greenwood’s house in Rhode Island, 2018 (Tony Luong, NYT)
Asked about a Belly reunion in 2010, Donelly said “there would have to be a lot of therapy before it…there’s still too much unresolved stuff.” But it turned out to be easy—a group email became a conversation, led to a meeting, led to a tour in 2016. Four new songs were written for the tour, which were slated for an EP, which became a full album, Dove.
“This sounds insane, but we didn’t have one conversation about what we wanted this album to sound like, we just started writing,” she told the New York Times last year. It was a Northeast Corridor collaboration, done mostly via broadband—Greenwood and Chris in Rhode Island, Tom in upstate New York, Donelly in the Boston suburbs.
Dove reminds me of the reunion Breeders’ All Nerve—it sounds like a band who’s picked up right where they left off twenty-some years ago, after everyone’s aired some bad blood over coffee in the break room. Much of it’s respectable “classic” rock but some of it sounds restless, unsettled—it’s a band looking to stake a claim again. See “Human Child,” Donelly going back to Yeats twenty-five years after “Full Moon, Empty Heart,” or her eerie take on a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song, “Hushabye Mountain” (who knows why it was left off the album). And “Shiny One,” a true quartet piece (Donelly: “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”) that they make into a modest epic.
“We’re managing ourselves, and we’re doing everything in house—the graphics, the design of the merch, all the administrative stuff,” she told Brett Milano in 2016. “The other day I told Tom that we need to start rehearsing for these shows, and he said, ‘wait, you mean we’re musicians, too?'”
In the 2010s, as the rock band fell out of favor among the young, seemingly all the old indie bands reformed. The four quartets of this cycle—the Muses, the Pixies, the Breeders, Belly—are now touring, recording, self-producing, self-managing, self-issuing. After the squabbles, thwarted ambitions and now-obscure grudges, having all gone through the wringer, having each broken up with the old century, they’ve become a cottage industry in the new one. It’s a rare bright note for capitalism. Who knows, they may be the last of their line: Hersh, Thompson, Deal, Donelly, and everyone whom they traveled with. And here we leave them.