Tanya Donelly co-founded three of the most seminal indie rock bands in the eighties and nineties: Throwing Muses, The Breeders, and Belly. She’s also long established herself as a successful solo artist. With these impeccable songwriting credentials, it’s a bit surprising that with her latest album, Donelly has chosen to put the focus on other writers. On Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters (due for release on August 14), she presents a collection of cover songs that range from very well-known tracks (“Kid” by The Pretenders) to the more obscure (“Devil You Know” by Split Enz).
Even Donelly herself seems surprised that she made an album comprised of covers. “I was hesitant at first, mainly because the songs that I am drawn to, most of them have already been done perfectly by the original artist,” she says, calling from her Boston-area home. “But I felt like if I brought [alt-folk trio] The Parkington Sisters on board and put the whole thing in their hands – because I’m an ardent fan of theirs – then they would make it their own, which they did. There would be some sonic cohesion to it, it wouldn’t just be a scattered bunch of very different songs. Then I would just sing.”
The Parkington Sisters created a lush, often rather romantic musical backdrop for Donelly’s distinctive, emotive vocals. Most of the songs are radically different from their original versions – which was a deliberate move, Donelly says, because “I feel like people are going to weigh it very differently because these songs, people probably already have an emotional connection to many of them. So that’s a tricky thing to ask of people, to say, ‘Here’s my thing about it!’”
Collectively, these songs create an uplifting, easygoing atmosphere, which Donelly says came about as a result of an enjoyable recording process. “In the studio together, we had the most idyllic, lovely time,” she says, “so that is the vibe that we’re bringing forward.”
Fans who are yearning for more of Donelly’s own original work will be glad to hear that working on this album has proven inspirational for her. “You sit down to work on a cover, and all of the sudden you start having these other countermelodies start popping up and you do pick up a guitar and write your own thing. Work leads to work.”
Donelly recalls learning the songwriting craft as a teenager, along with her stepsister Kristin Hersh (Donelly would later co-found Throwing Muses with her in 1981). “Kristin almost immediately started writing her own stuff as we were learning to play The Beatles songs and play guitar. So really, she drove that bus first,” Donelly explained. “I would write two songs to her twenty for the first few years that we were together.”
Starting with their 1986 self-titled debut album, Throwing Muses became one of the most celebrated alternative rock bands of the next decade, charting frequently in the United States and the U.K. Even so, Donelly became increasingly frustrated with her role within the band. “I just started writing more, for whatever reason. The floodgates just opened,” she says. “That’s when I amicably left the Muses [in 1991], because unless every album was going to be a double album, there wasn’t room for two people writing as much as we were at the time.”
In 1989, while still in Throwing Muses, Donelly had co-founded The Breeders, along with Kim Deal of The Pixies, which also became one of the most popular indie rock acts of the era. Although, Donelly left The Breeders in 1992, having formed yet another band, Belly, the year before.
Belly became Donelly’s signature band. Finally, she was firmly at the helm and it suited her. The group’s very first single, “Feed the Tree,” from their 1993 debut studio album, Star, shot to the number one spot on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. The video also became a staple on MTV. They were nominated for two Grammy awards. But their 1995 follow up album, King, was unfortunately timed, coming out in the midst of the grunge revolution. Prevented from repeating their debut’s phenomenal success, Belly broke up soon after.
In the ensuing years, Donelly occasionally re-joined her former band and also enjoyed a successful solo career, releasing five solo albums between 1997 and 2006. “In the past few years, I’ve also been collaborating almost primarily, and so that’s a whole other completely different process.” Her resume includes work with well-known acts like Catherine Wheel and Mission of Burma, as well as many up-and-coming artists and, now, The Parkington Sisters.
Donelly says she decided to collaborate with other songwriters because “I got to a point where I was sitting down to write and I was like, ‘I already did that, I already said that!’ It was like I was really in a loop, retreading the same waters. Writing with other people opened up this whole new lyrical and melodic world. It really changed the game for me.”
Throughout Donelly’s ever-shifting career, she has retained an extraordinarily loyal fan base, of which she says that she is profoundly grateful. “I have been so fortunate to have people that committed to me – and I’m committed to them, too.” There is, she says, “a real camaraderie in the room whenever I play live. The music I have made has brought some remarkable, permanent friendships into my life. Just being in a physical space with people, there is no undervaluing how important that is.”
With Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters, Donelly’s fans will get a glimpse into yet another facet of her talent. Donelly herself says that she hopes it will be well-received – though she’s quick to clarify, “It’s not ambitions for me, it’s ambitions for the thing we all worked so hard on. But I love it and the Sisters love it and my family loves it. And so I hope that people like it and it does well.”
Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters will be available everywhere on August 14! Pre-order it now exclusively from American Laundromat Records.