Tanya Donelly has the kind of rock resume that might induce seizures in record store clerks across the country. After forming the immensely influential art-rock outfit Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh while in high school, Donelly went on to found The Breeders with ex-Pixie Kim Deal before leading her own hugely successful group, Belly, and releasing four acclaimed solo albums.
"We were fourteen when we started," Donelly says of Throwing Muses. "Yeah, it was fun. That was 1981. No... 1980. Good God." The Breeders, first formed in 1990 as a side project centered around Kim Deal's songwriting, featured Tanya's expanding and impressive guitar work, but the lush pop melodies of her own songs finally came to the fore when Donelly founded Belly in Boston in 1991. Their 1993 debut, Star
, scored a worldwide hit ("Feed the Tree"), and two Grammy nominations, but after the 1995 follow up, King
, Belly soon disbanded. As for the dissolution of the band, Donelly says, "Everything is sunshine and roses now. We all come from this tiny little town and our parents are all friends and it's bad form to remain bitter in Newport, Rhode Island."
1996 saw the release of Donelly's first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs
(4AD), and now, two children and two acclaimed solo outings later (2002's Beautysleep
and 2004's Whiskey Tango Ghosts
, both also released on 4AD) the 2006 release of This Hungry Life
on Eleven Thirty Records proves once again why people have paid such close attention to Tanya Donelly throughout her career.
Recorded in front of a live audience over two nights, This Hungry Life
is much less a live album than an album recorded live. "The focus was not to capture a show," Tanya said, "but rather to make a record with the people there. I sing better in front of people. I really wanted to get the energy that happens between the people playing and the people listening. I wanted to get a little bit of that on record if possible."
The sessions took place during a heat wave in Bellows Falls, Vermont, within the elegant lobby of The Windham, a hotel closed since the 80's. "The hotel is unused," Tanya said. "It's abandoned. It's kind of spooky...and cool." The space held no more than seventy five people and was decked out with ornate coffered ceilings and a grand fireplace. For a brief time -- from March 2004 to July 2006 -- it operated as an incarnation of the heralded Fort Apache Studios. This Hungry Life
is the final release from that phase of the Windham's life.
"There were stops and starts, multiple takes, endless tunings, lots of sweating and a little swearing," Tanya said. "Every couple of songs, the whole roomful of us would pour out onto the street to let our clothes dry and to breathe some new air. We were all pretty familiar by the end of the weekend."
This Hungry Life
is another beautiful and dynamic showcase for Donelly's songwriting, flushed out by a stellar band including Tanya's husband Dean Fisher (Juliana Hatfield Three) on guitar, Rich Gilbert (Frank Black and the Catholics) also on guitar and pedal steel, Arthur Johnson (Come) on drums, Joe McMahon on upright bass, Joan Wasser (Lou Reed, Antony and the Johnsons) on the violin, and Bill Janovitz (front man of Buffalo Tom) contributing vocals.
Several of the songs, including "Days of Grace," "Invisible One," and "World on Fire," feature dynamic full band arrangements, though much of the album is a less orchestrated affair, proving the fact that sometimes a song is so good, all it takes is the most basic delivery -- a high hat, a guitar, a voice -- for it to really work. "It was a musicians' decision," Tanya said of the various arrangements. "They decided when to play and when not to. People say this all time and it sounds really pretentious, but I'm going to say it anyway: it was whatever the songs called for."
Take the stripped down "LittleWing," for example. The spare arrangement showcases the integrity of Donelly's vocals, which here take on the voice of a mother telling her daughter the story of being struck repeatedly by lightning. However -- although Donelly surely tells stories to her own children (including daughter Gracie and baby Harriet, born just this March) -- she clarifies, "A lot of that is analogous... I have never been struck by lightning." This material has also inspired Donelly to write a children's book based on the story, now nearing completion.
Some of the album's most difficult lyrical landscape appears in the languid and gorgeous melody of "Kundalini Slide" -- a complex exploration of spiritual crisis, including the line: "The doors of the church blow wide, and there's nothing but fear inside; the doors of the temple blow wide, and there's nothing but fear inside; the doors of the mosque blow wide, and there's nothing but fear inside; and it's not going to be alright." "That was written on a very bad news day," Donelly said. "It's not how I feel all the time, but it's definitely how I feel increasing in the current global climate. And it's not true, I hope."
The album also includes a cover of the George Harrison classic "Long Long Long," -- "One of my favorite songs," Donelly said. "He had just died very soon before that and that inspired me to finally cover it."
On the title track, "This Hungry Life," Donelly sings "This hungry life might not leave you with much... Kick up some dust, earn someone's trust, leave a few words behind you if you must." After twenty years of writing and performing some of the most appreciated music around, Tanya Donelly has stripped things down, worked up a sweat in Vermont, and cranked out This Hungry Life
, leaving behind not only a few words, but one of her strongest releases to date.