Tanya Donelly remains one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left (after The Real Ramona, one of the Muses very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never as interesting after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.
Unlike Throwing Muses, Belly were immediately commercially successful. Very. Top five albums in both the US and the UK, top 20 singles, MTV heavy rotation, radio play and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve long described as ‘something bad going down in Toytown’. One wonders what Hersh thought, seeing her sister playing Letterman and modelling for Gap adverts.
Alas Belly’s success didn’t last. Their second album did less well than the first, and the band unravelled. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was the only misstep of her career. Aiming to attract radio play with big shiny hooks, the record instead came over as bland AAA, lacking its author’s usual lyrical ambiguity and disquieting obliqueness. It didn’t catch on and didn’t really deserve to, and when Donelly next put out an album, after a break to have a second child, her music sounded and felt much more her own again; different in its outlook from the songs of the Belly era, but more obviously a product of her peculiar sensibility.
While the Lovesongs era was one to forget, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge it’s the only proper recording of the song, written by Gary ‘Skeggie’ Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and 90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin, and probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side. It’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.
Donelly all but gave up making music in the mid-noughties, training as a doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement; nevertheless, her involvement in music seems to be winding down now. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. A more driven musician (she here for some of her backstory) than Donelly, Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.