A Conversation With The Loyal Seas’ Tanya Donelly And Brian Sullivan

As co-founder of Throwing Muses, the Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly had a remarkably productive and influential 20 years before making a graceful exit from the rigors of the industry in the late 2000s to focus on family. Since then, it’s been mostly about low-profile collaborations with like-minded artists and friends in the Boston scene. Among those is talented underdog Brian Sullivan (a.k.a. Dylan At The Movies). The two met at the legendary Fort Apache Studios in the mid-’90s, and they’ve been pals ever since.

Slowly but surely, that friendship evolved into the Loyal Seas’ full-length debut, Strange Mornings In The Garden (American Laundromat). The Loyal Seas’ lush, languid, artfully arranged alt-pop finds its flawed humanity in the contrast between Sullivan’s low-register rumble and Donelly’s sweetly skewed delivery—one that’s only become richer with age. Though it was largely recorded with Donelly living in Boston and Sullivan in California (he’s since returned to the East Coast), distance can’t kill the chemistry that makes Strange Mornings one of the best duo albums in recent memory.

Donelly and Sullivan entertained a few questions from MAGNET via Zoom.

Any interesting details behind your first meeting?
Tanya Donelly: I feel like we first met in the Fort Apache offices. Am I right about that?
Brian Sullivan: My memory is that you came into the studio to finish (1997’s) Lovesongs For Underdogs. I was doing the catering in the morning.
Donelly: I do remember that, muffin man. [Laughs]

Brian, what were you doing at the time?
Sullivan: Nothing. [Laughs] I was a studio assistant, so I was wrapping cables and stuff. I started there as a fake intern from Emerson College. I actually worked for free for almost a year under the guise that I was doing an internship. Everyone who worked at the Fort was a musician, and it was a really magical time.

You’ve been friends for so long. When did it become a true creative collaboration?
Donelly: It started when I was having one of my many dinner parties at my house. Brian was playing the piano in the other room. I think I was cooking, and I ran in and was like, “Can I have that?” It ended up being “Last Of The Great Machines” (included on Strange Mornings In The Garden). We’d guested on each other’s things before, but that was the beginning of us really doing something. Lockdown gave us the time to focus—though I don’t want to silver line the pandemic.

How was Strange Mornings recorded?
Donelly: How didn’t we record it? That would be the better question. We were bicoastal at the time. I recorded at Q Division. I recorded with Scott Janovitz (younger brother of Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz) at his home studio. There was some stuff done at home. I think Brian did the same.

Any contributors of note?
Sullivan: The Parkington Sisters on violin and viola. Freya Seeburger added some amazing cello on a few songs. Jon Evans, who mixed the album, plays bass.
Donelly: Scott Janovitz and my husband, Dean Fisher. We dragged as many people into it as we could.

One of the coolest things about the Loyal Seas is the stark contrast between your voices and how they gel so beautifully.
Donelly: To me it just feels like we’re talking to each other the way we’ve always talked to each other. I compare his voice to a cello. When we’re onstage, I can feel it come up through my feet and make its way out.
Sullivan: It really was a conversation for a lot of the songs. Whenever I sent her something, I always knew I’d get something amazing back. Whatever an angel sounds like, it sounds like Tanya.

Though it seems like you’ve been flying pretty far under the radar with this release, Strange Mornings In The Garden did debut at the top of Billboard’s “Alternative New Artist” album chart.
Donelly: Yeah, that feels pretty good at 56. [Laughs] Even with Belly, when we had our reunion album in 2018, so many people were like, “I didn’t even know you guys were still releasing music.” I feel like there’s just such an informational saturation. It’s really hard to parse. The downside of it—especially for new artists—is that the cycles are so tight now. When Throwing Muses were signed, they were still using words like “development.” They didn’t expect us to make any money out of the gate. Now you have six months at best, no matter who you are. We’ve had the luxury of having a lot of really talented friends to tap, and that’s a huge blessing.

—Hobart Rowland