Tanya Donelly knows she has committed a big gaffe for an alternative-rock star: She has fallen in love.
Even worse: She has written songs about it.
"They're pretty joyful love songs--which I'm proud about," she says, chuckling as she discusses "King," the second album by her band, Belly, which is being released, appropriately, today--Valentine's Day (see review, Page F6).
The truth is, it's not an entirely new topic to Donelly as a songwriter. While new bands were climbing over each other to see who could make the biggest noise about discontent and mistrust, Belly in 1993 released its first album, "Star," which centered on the song "Feed the Tree," a buoyant demand for lifetime love and commitment.
That angle gave Belly a unique appeal in the alternative world. Even in the burgeoning realm of female rockers, Donelly and crew stood out from the crowd by mixing emotional vulnerability and a take-charge attitude with music that similarly blended a great sense for pop hooks with compelling rock momentum.
Rolling Stone named "Star" the "hot debut" album of 1993 and termed "Feed the Tree"--the video that became an MTV favorite--a "guaranteed contact high." The album went on to sell a healthy 500,000 copies in the United States.
But at the time, the notion of romantic devotion was merely a theoretical concern for Donelly. Last year, it shifted to reality when she fell in love with Dean Fisher, a member of Juliana Hatfield's band, and the two settled down together in Cambridge, Mass. It's not exactly the fashionable image in the mosh pits, Donelly admits, but it suits her personal growth.
"It makes me a happier person to be more of an adult, and I hate words like that," says Donelly, 28, laughing over the phone during a promotional tour stop in Washington. "It's kind of a sad vocabulary as far as growing up is concerned, words like adult and mature have bad connotations. But I don't think it affects the music adversely that we're grown-ups. We still act like children most of the time."
In another change, Donelly seems determined to avoid conflict as much as possible. It's only natural--her decade with Throwing Muses, the band she and step-sister Kristin Hersh founded in Newport, R.I., when they both were just 15, was a breeding ground for conflict as befitting the group's emotionally charged songs. By the time Donelly left three years ago, the tension had sapped some of the band's creative energies.
"We weren't doing each other any good anymore," she says, adding that she and Hersh remain close.
With Belly, she's doing her best to head off rifts. Donelly and her three band mates--brothers Tom and Chris Gorman (guitar and drums, respectively) and Gail Greenwood (bass)--are striving to stay conflict-free, she says, sharing interview duties and trying to be as much as possible an egalitarian operation.
"We're very happy with each other," she says. "Tom and Gail contributed more of the music on this album. It's more of a band project in general. The other members are more vocal now, which is easier for me. I'm not comfortable all the time with talking about myself."
But with expectations high for the new album, Donelly's still having to deal with talking about herself way past her comfort range.
"Some people are great celebrities," Donelly says. "Courtney Love is a great celebrity, a great rock star--and the world needs rock stars. . . . I get off on the concept when it doesn't involve me. I can admire somebody else's ability to play it, but it doesn't interest me."
For most of Donelly's 13 years as a rock performer the issue was moot. With Throwing Muses, Donelly was largely outside the spotlight's glare. Hersh was the primary singer-songwriter, the one the press wanted to interview, the one whose face and voice was most associated with the music. And even that wasn't such a big deal, as the band--though highly touted--never really broke through commercially.
But three years ago, she stepped out of the Muses and formed Belly with the Gormans, longtime Newport friends. Suddenly, the spotlight shone on her as "Star" became a hit--selling far more than any Throwing Muses album had.
"Belly is much more of a pop-hook-oriented band, so I can see it from that angle," she says. "But we weren't expecting the success. When we finished (the first album) we thought, 'It's so quiet and weird, not what people are going to want to hear.' "
But it was a success, and Donelly was now the voice on the radio, the face on MTV, the one people wanted to interview.
"That was difficult--it wasn't anything I planned," she says. "I didn't leave Throwing Muses to be a frontperson. I just had a bunch of songs stored up."
Often at the top of the question list was the issue of women in rock. In Throwing Muses, Donelly and Hersh had often cited Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde as inspirations. Donelly wasn't prepared to be viewed as one herself. "That's the kind of thing that for a long time I said, 'It's not an issue, it's not an issue, it's not an issue,' but the fact that it comes up all the time means it is," she says.
Still, she has found the role-model aspect rewarding on some levels.
"I get tons of letters from young women who have picked up guitars because of us, or started writing poetry or even painting," she says. "That's validation. That's the only feedback I need about how we speak to women . . . that's the proof."