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GUT INSTINCTS : Belly's Tanya Donelly Follows the Muses With a Faith That Puts Her Back in the Spotlight

April 15, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

Like a lot of people, Tanya Donelly hit a snag in her mid-20s that left her feeling uncertain and adrift.

She had just walked out of Throwing Muses, the critically acclaimed cult band she had been part of since her mid-teens. Her first post-Muses move in the summer of 1991 was to travel to England to be with a lover who was going to double as her manager. But within a month the romance was dead, the business plans were kaput, and Donelly was back in her hometown of Newport, R.I., wondering what to do next.

"I was pretty confused. I didn't know which end was up," the singer recalled over the phone recently from Boulder, Colo., a stop on a tour that will bring her new band, Belly, to the Coach House on Monday. "I was in total limbo."

Donelly says she sincerely believes in the existence of guardian angels. Recent events in her life have only confirmed that faith. At 26, she has climbed out of limbo and into the spotlight as the leader of one of this year's hottest new alternative-rock bands.

If she lacked direction after leaving Throwing Muses, Donelly was not without creative resources.

During her years with the Muses, her songwriting had been sporadic as she played the overshadowed sidekick to the more prolific Kristin Hersh. Donelly's role was to write and sing one or two songs per record and contribute lead guitar parts to the Muses' intricate, nervously circling rhythmic patterns. But near the end of her tenure with the band, she began to write more.

With childhood friend Hersh well-established as the Muses' primary singer and songwriter, Donelly decided to leave and seek a creative outlet of her own.

The parting was a gradual one: Donelly says she told the other members she was leaving on the day the band finished recording its excellent 1991 album, "The Real Ramona." But she stuck with Throwing Muses for another year of touring.

"I was such a wreck," she said of her final phase with Throwing Muses. "I really wasn't concentrating on anything. I wasn't completely pathetic, but it was a hard time for me. I was going into myself. But I'm glad I waited that year because I wrote a lot of songs."

Those songs would eventually help her sail out of the becalmed waters she found herself in during the summer of 1991.

The first sign of favorable winds came when drummer Chris Gorman, an acquaintance from the Rhode Island rock scene, phoned Donelly and asked if she would be interested in starting a band with him and his guitar-playing brother, Tom.

"That was the first step, and the most important one," she said, adding that she had been thinking about the brothers as possible playing partners when the call came.

She knew Tom Gorman well from a summer they had spent bumming around Newport. But she didn't know much about the brothers' musical abilities.

That question was answered when early rehearsals went well, with Fred Abong, a bassist who had also played in Throwing Muses, joining Donelly and the Gorman brothers. Abong left after Belly's debut album, "Star," and has been replaced by Gail Greenwood.

Around the time that Belly began to take shape, Donelly's personal life also brightened. She became involved with Chick Graning, a Tennessee-based rocker whose band, Anastasia Screamed, had toured Europe and England with Throwing Muses during 1991. The two are engaged, but Donelly said a planned August wedding may have to be delayed while Belly tours and Graning launches his new band, Scarce.

Donelly's personal and career outlook were on the upswing by the time Belly recorded its album. But, ironically, most of the songs look back on less pleasant times. Recording in Nashville--a site chosen because Donelly wanted to be with Graning, who was living there at the time--she was enjoying a growing romance while working in the studio on songs about relationships in collapse and sundry other forms of suffering.

"That was strange. It was still close enough to the time those happened to know how I had felt," she said of the unhappy experiences. "There was still residual weirdness. When the album was finished and I listened to the whole thing, I felt I'd closed a few doors without stepping on too many toes"--especially those of her ex-bandmates, with whom she says she remains friendly.

Donelly says the album's only lyrical reference to her split with Throwing Muses is the final verse of the folkish slide-guitar lament "Untogether."

We threw outrageous parties, we were golden.

Now the bird keeps her distance,

And I keep my speed.

Sometimes there's no poison like a dream.

. . . you can't hold the impossibly untogether.

Donelly hasn't been in touch with her old bandmates Hersh and David Narcizo since Belly's album came out in February.

"They're so busy and I'm so busy, but when we're together we're fine. Dave and Kristin and I are very tender, we're very careful with each other's feelings."

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