This week we’re proud to welcome another of our hometown indie-rock legends to Rock Band. Just released as DLC, Belly’s “Feed the Tree” was a nationwide hit in 1993, capturing the imagination with its mix of mystery and energy. For leader Tanya Donelly it was just one stop in a long and fascinating career. She co-founded Throwing Muses as a teenager, playing visionary pop for audiences who weren’t sure what was hitting them. While still in the Muses, she got together with Pixies member Kim Deal to form the Breeders, a casual side-project that turned into a major band. Then came Belly, the band that briefly made her a star…until she realized she didn’t want to be one.
In this exclusive interview she spills details about writing the hit, playing the New England club circuit and what she’s up to now, including a new collaboration with Throwing Muses partner Kristin Hersh. Once you’ve downloaded “Feed the Tree,” you can visit her own site to find the rare Belly/Breeders demos that she mentions here.
Brett Milano: We have “Feed the Tree” coming into Rock Band. Did you ever hear this as being the kind of song that people would be playing plastic drums and guitars to?
Tanya Donelly: [laughs] Absolutely! I wrote it on a plastic guitar. [laughs] No, I think anything’s possible now, isn’t it? Dean [Fisher, Tanya’s husband and former Juliana Hatfield bassist] was like, “You should probably read about this,” because it’s outside of my [world]. My nephew has Rock Band, and I’ve played it with him, but that’s the closest I’ve ever come to it.
BM: We’d love to get you here to play your own song sometime.
TD: It is fun. It is a fun game and as far as video games go, it’s infinitely preferable to the Halo-type violent stuff.
BM: The most violent we get is having people play nu-metal songs.
TD: Exactly. [laughs]
BM: Let’s go back to that period in your musical history. During that time, in the early ‘90s, you left Throwing Muses and you were in the Breeders for a while and then started Belly. Was that the period of you finding yourself musically.
TD: Oh gosh. I think I’m still in the process of finding myself musically. But, yeah, everything happened in a relatively short period of time, all that stuff. I think there are so many different ways to find yourself in music, and I always like to bounce from thing to thing.
BM: But with Belly, it did go from you bring the person that was the front woman and providing most of the material. Did that seem like something you were finally ready to do at that point?
TD: I could have been more ready. It’s something that happened organically. I had a bunch of songs and I wanted to make a full record on my own. I didn’t have the forethought of doing it permanently. When Belly started it was more a vehicle to get a bunch of songs out. I think the fact that I became a “front person” was more of a side effect of the album. I loved it. Don’t get me wrong – I had a blast. But it wasn’t a really comfortable thing for me at the time.
BM: I always got the impression you had a mixed relationship with rock stardom or with being in the spotlight.
TD: I did. I have to say, personally, I was more comfortable playing guitar with Kristin [Hersh] and Kim [Deal]. It was being in a supportive role. That’s personally. However, I do love writing songs. And at the time I was writing a lot of them. I also wanted to get that done as well. I’m a total wreck about playing in front of people and being the front person. I’ve always gotten horrible stage fright and I wouldn’t go so far as to say panicky, but it was a struggle for me.
BM: How did you deal with it at the time, especially when you had a hit album and there was a lot of demand for you to be out there?
TD: I drank a lot of wine. [laughs] That was unfortunately part of it. I was very close to the people in Belly, and that helped. I think when you have people that you really feel have got your back, that helps. Unfortunately, that fell apart. That helps too, having strong people around.
BM: I assume that “Feed the Tree” took you by surprise when it became a hit single.
TD: Yeah, definitely. It did surprise me. It was completely out of the blue. And it was also at a time when nothing in our genre was doing well. Not “not doing well” – that’s not a good way of putting it. Actually, a lot of people were doing well on the level we all expected, but that felt very strange. It just wasn’t what was happening yet. It was just when alternative was two seconds before that door opened. It felt really odd at the time and very exciting. Very exciting.
BM: What did it feel to you as a songwriter? It’s like, “Hey, I wrote this song. It’s a hit – wow!”
TD: Yeah! It felt great. It was really a very exciting and very, very fun time in my life. Also, I think it’s very gratifying when no one expects [it] – when something does really well and no one expected it. It just feels very real. No one was putting a ton of money behind that record or that song, so it happened on its own which feels really good. No one was being paid to play it. [laughs] You know what I mean? It felt really good.
BM: Whether you had a sound in mind for Belly when you formed it, it did have this very sweet pop thing happening with this very loud guitar thing happening as well. It seemed to be exactly what people wanted to hear in that little window of time. That was a happy accident as well?
TD: It was, definitely.
BM: Did “Feed the Tree” hit you as being special in any way when you wrote it? Did it seem like, “Wow, this song is something?”
TD: I’m trying to remember. Not anymore than anything else. I felt that the song, especially the ones we did with Gil Norton on that record, I felt that they were all strong. I thought it was a good song. I really like that song. I think we all thought that “Slow Dog” or “Gepetto” would be more the one. Those were the ones people were focusing on, so it did seem [something “picked”? 7:28]
BM: Were you channeling your grandmothers or great-grandparents with “Feed the Tree” – it seems like with the language it might be from a woman a couple of generations ago.
TD: [laughs] No, that’s just me. Those are stories drawn from my actual life. That’s me.
BM: You did demand that your partners keep their hats on?
TD: [laughs] That’s right. No, it’s a demand for respect and it wasn’t until I grew up that I felt…anyway, I stand behind it.
BM: I think respect’s a good thing to demand.
TD: [laughs] It’s better to earn it.
BM: One thing we talk about in the game is the experience of playing your first gigs and getting out there and rocking when you’re young. You did it with Throwing Muses. You were, what? Sixteen or seventeen?
BM: What would happen when you folks would get on stage? You played your high school, right?
TD: Yeah. We played art associations and the high school and we would do stuff like that. When we were about, sixteen when we played The Living Room for the first time. Then we started playing Lupo’s and The Living Room and Last Call, places in Providence when we were very young teenagers. And then started playing Boston when we were seventeen or eighteen.
BM: I didn’t see you quite that early, but I remember the reaction was – some people immediately fell in love with it, and some people were standing there going, “What?”
TD: Yeah. And that never ended. [laughs] That’s true to this day.
BM: This is good.
TD: This is good, I know. It was funny playing as a teenager though, because we literally got kicked out of the club as soon as we got off stage every time we played. [laughs] They were like, “Okay, pack up and get out,” because we were so young.
BM: What about the shows where they were frat parties or high school parties before anyone knew what the band was about? Did you ever get people expecting to hear Led Zeppelin songs and they get Throwing Muses instead?
TD: We kind of careful about where we put ourselves. In the early, early stuff in Newport was basically just our friends all in a room. It wasn’t really until we started playing Providence. And even then it was playing to RISD students (Rhode Island School of Design) and Brown students. People who were definitely not looking for Led Zeppelin.
BM: It seemed Newport was a friendly to things being a little more out of the ordinary or more interesting at that point, right?
TD: Yeah. For some reason, and I don’t know if it’s still the case now, but when we were growing up in Newport, everyone was playing in a band or playing something. From junior high school on, people were in bands. I was actually going through junior high school yearbooks the other day showing my daughter, and the list of our favorite bands is the stuff that was popular then – The Clash, The Ramones, Blondie – stuff that surprisingly a bunch of kids, twelve-year-olds, were finding this stuff.
BM: It’s amazing that anyone was finding it for a while.
TD: Yeah, and it was listed as the school’s favorite music. It’s kind of indicative of what was going on in our [town].
BM: Let’s do another bit of history here. When the Breeders started, it was different than the band we came to know with Kim up front that made the second album. Initially it was you and Kim and a few other people that came together from other bands. What was the atmosphere around the first version of the Breeders and the shows you did?
TD: That project started with just Kim and I sitting in her living room playing. And then we wanted to do a dance band, and that didn’t work out because we weren’t very good at it. [laughs] And then we just decided to do a rock band. Again, it was because Kim had a bunch of songs and she wanted to release them. It wasn’t an alternative to The Pixies or Throwing Muses. It wasn’t like we were trying to break away. It was more just [that] these things were bubbling up and needed a vent. Originally, she was going to put out the first record, and I was going to put out the second record. And then I left Muses and wanted to do a band and she wasn’t ready to leave The Pixies so that’s where the Belly stuff came up. And actually, the demos for Star say “The Breeders” on them.
BM: Really? So the first Belly record was going to be a Breeders record?
BM: Did you ever play any of those songs with The Breeders?
TD: I demo’d the songs with Joe Harvard, and almost all the songs that went on Star were demo’d with Joe Harvard under the name The Breeders and Kim did come in and play on a few of those.
BM: That’s sitting in a vault somewhere.
TD: Actually, I put it up on the website a couple of years ago just so people could download it if they wanted to. I think it’s still up there. I don’t know.
BM: When are we likely to hear from you again musically?
TD: I’m about to start a project with Kristin which I’m waiting to hear the details on. I don’t know when that’s going to happen.
BM: Will it be Throwing Muses?
TD: No, it’s actually a soundtrack. And then being that I’ve been writing – and writing, and writing – I just started recording at home for the first time. I think that’s how we’re going to do it from now on.
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