Tanya Donelly: Rediscovered muse

The indie diva Tanya Donelly has stripped her sound. Alexia Loundras hears why
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's just after nine in the morning in Boston and Tanya Donelly is suffering maternal withdrawal. "Gracie's a great kid," she gushes, with pride. Her five-year-old daughter with her husband, the former Juliana Hatfield bassist, Dean Fisher, has just left for nursery. As tends to be the case with mothers and their youngsters, it's a bittersweet parting. But, although the two are particularly close, ("I didn't put her down for two years," says Donelly) there is certainly an up-side to their time apart. Having Gracie out of the house means she has had the time to get back into the studio, to set free her songwriting muse and to write and record her third solo record, Whiskey Tango Ghosts.

It's just after nine in the morning in Boston and Tanya Donelly is suffering maternal withdrawal. "Gracie's a great kid," she gushes, with pride. Her five-year-old daughter with her husband, the former Juliana Hatfield bassist, Dean Fisher, has just left for nursery. As tends to be the case with mothers and their youngsters, it's a bittersweet parting. But, although the two are particularly close, ("I didn't put her down for two years," says Donelly) there is certainly an up-side to their time apart. Having Gracie out of the house means she has had the time to get back into the studio, to set free her songwriting muse and to write and record her third solo record, Whiskey Tango Ghosts.

Still, she needs little excuse to rave about her daughter. "She's learning constantly - doing new things," says Donelly, beaming. "Just last year, she'd put her chubby little hand on my guitar strings to stop me playing, or cover my mouth. But now she really loves me playing. She's even started writing harmonies herself, which is amazing - she walks round the house singing background parts and playing harmonica."

It seems that finely-tuned musical ears run in the family. Donelly herself proved to be quite a precocious young talent. In 1983, at the age of 17, the Rhode Island teenager formed Throwing Muses with her half sister, Kristen Hersh. Four years later, not content with founding one of the most influential alt.rock bands of the Eighties, she started another, The Breeders, this time with Kim Deal of The Pixies, before leaving to form her most commercially successful outfit, the pop-rockers Belly, in 1992.

These days Donelly has it all: the doting husband, the charming child, ethereal good looks (blessed with porcelain skin and tousled red-blonde locks, Donelly spent the Nineties as a reluctant indie pin-up), not to mention a talent for writing impeccably crafted songs. She's is clearly having the time of her life. But things haven't always been this good.

When Gracie was born, Donelly was overwhelmed by a feeling of responsibility so intense it knocked her for six. "I had some really bad postpartum issues," she admits. "It was a form of depression - I felt abject terror. That's how it manifested itself. Not in little niggling worries, but this big clonk in the face: fear."

Donelly was besieged with a sense of inadequacy. Children were not something she ever aspired to having. "Dean and I never discussed it - there was even a time when I strongly resented the biological imperative to have a child. But then something just changed." She pauses, suddenly embarrassed.

Donelly's change of heart came, not too unexpectedly, at a time when the rest of her life seemed to be falling to pieces. As Belly broke up and Donelly's solo debut, Lovesongs for Underdogs, failed to sell as expected, her health took a turn for the worse.

"Things really weren't going well," she says. "I was sick from not taking care of myself. I was making bad decisions and doing stupid things." Donelly went through a damaging period of what she calls "excess and deficiency". "I was drinking too much and not eating," she says, cringing. "I needed something to push me up onto the next level."

Donelly got what she wanted. The arrival of Gracie, she says, "raised the bar". It was an experience that filled her with new confidence. It also inspired the fighting spirit that eventually spawned Whiskey Tango Ghosts.

"Making this album is the first truly premeditated thing I have ever done," says Donelly. "I've wanted to do something sparse for a while but I've always chickened out." Being quiet, says Donelly, is a really hard thing to do - especially when you don't really like the sound of your own voice. "You're going to laugh but when I write songs, the voice that sings them in my head is a lot lower than mine. It's a raspy, male sort of voice. Sometimes it's Nick Cave's voice, or Tom Waits's. I have to reconcile this with the voice I actually have."

Whiskey Tango Ghosts is a velvet claw of an album that gently digs itself deep under the skin. Donnelly's trademark goulash of sounds is completely pared down. Simple yet powerful cascading pianos, melancholy strummed guitars and pedal steels - tributes to Donelly's affection for heroes such as Neko Case, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris - are all that colour the songs. And Donelly's voice is given no choice but to be heard unadorned.

What makes the album even more of a feat is the personal nature of the songs. "This album focuses on the grown-ups in our house," she says coyly. "It's about the conversations two people have who are working towards something.Dean and I have a successful marriage, but that doesn't mean it's easy."

By confronting her fears, however, she has emerged emboldened. "Everything has fallen into place in my life," she says. "I feel good right now."

'Whiskey Tango Ghosts' is out on Monday on 4AD

Comments