Tanya Donelly: Feeding The Tree

Tanya Donelly returns with ambitious triple album Swan Song Series

Fortunately, Tanya Donelly didn’t title her latest effort Swan Song Series because the three-disc set will be her last. Fact is, Donelly has a lot of irons in the fire.

“They’re slow-moving irons, but they’re there,” she says from her home outside of Boston. Donelly is prepping for a reunion tour with Belly, her acclaimed band from the ’90s, and she’s beginning an as-yet-unnamed new project with friend Brian Sullivan of Dylan In The Movies. (The pair released a cover of “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” on a Smiths tribute in 2011.)

Swan Song Series isn’t a concept album about water fowl, although it does include “Mr. Swan,” “Cygnet Song” and “Storm Blown Bird” among its 31 tracks. She attributes the bird motif (which also includes “Snow Goose And Me”) and the recurring references to skies, oceans and street names to happenstance. “New England girl—there’s a finite amount of things I see during my day,” she says.

The set does have a concept, though. It’s a collection of collaborations that began as a series of self-financed Bandcamp EPs that Donelly released individually beginning in 2013. The idea started when Wesley Stace (also known as John Wesley Harding) asked Donelly to participate in one of his Cabinet Of Wonders variety shows that bring together musicians, authors, poets and other artists.

“I always love those nights, they’re so fun,” says Donelly. “He got in touch with me, and we hadn’t seen each other in a few years. I had had my second child at that point, and I was sort of unconsciously slipping into retirement without knowing that that was what I was doing. He said, ‘Come do this thing in Boston. It’ll be fun.’ It sounded like a good first step. That night, I reconnected with Wes and met (writer) Rick Moody, and at the end of the night, the way musicians say goodnight is by saying, ‘We should do something together.’ And I followed up on those conversations, which most people don’t normally do.”

As a lead guitarist and songwriter, the 49-year-old Donelly has been in bands since she and stepsister Kristin Hersh started Throwing Muses in their teens. When Donelly was in the Breeders, Kim Deal did the songwriting. In Belly, Donelly was the principal writer, although she wrote much of 1995’s King with fellow guitarist Tom Gorman. For Swan Song Series, she collaborated with friends old and new. She has written with her husband Dean Fisher (who also played in Juliana Hatfield’s band) going back to her solo albums, and she has a longstanding partnership with Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom. Belly bandmates Gorman, Fred Abong and Gail Greenwood contribute individually, too. She also wrote with the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson (Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol plays on many tracks), Future Bible Heroes’ Chris Ewen, Robyn Hitchcock, author Mary Gaitskill and Damon And Naomi.

“It’s just so energizing. There’s so many people that you come across in life that you’re like, ‘I would love to write a song with you,’” she says. While some of the collaborations happened in the same room, many were via correspondence, and the source materials varied widely.

“Claudia from Magnetic Fields sent me some chord progressions on her phone, and you have Wes, who’s like, ‘Here’s a full backing track!’ And then you have Mary Gaitskill, who sent me a short story she wrote for the project, and I turned that into a song. Rick Moody is a lyricist himself, because he also writes songs, so he would send full lyrics. We did everything very differently from song to song.”

The collaborations presented some new challenges for Donelly. She’d never written music for someone else’s words before; she’d never written a synth-pop song like “Flying At Night,” the one with Ewen, and that turned out to be one of her favorites. The song styles range widely, too. Although many of the tracks are midtempo ballads, there are Belly-ish rockers, artful meditations, playful pop, lullabies—all anchored by Donelly’s familiar voice, a melodic alto with a raspy edge that’s deepened only slightly from the days of “Not Too Soon,” “Feed The Tree” and “Pretty Deep.”

The Series includes the five Bandcamp EPs Donelly released between August 2013 and March 2014 plus seven additional tracks. It’s a capstone of that era, and aside from a few shows in Boston and New York, the cities where most of the collaborators are concentrated, Donelly doesn’t plan to tour behind it, especially now that she’ll spend much of the summer on the road with Belly.

“It’s kind of an impolite amount of music,” she says. “It kind of does feel like a compilation record, but I do like that they’re all huddled together now.”

—Steve Klinge