The recent release of Say Yes! (American Laundromat Records) – a tribute to the songs and craft of iconic artist Elliott Smith – provided an opportunity for contemporaries and following generations of musicians to pay homage to the material and man behind some of indie music’s most memorable moments. Among the contributors to the project was a peer of Elliott Smith, the indefatigable, and iconic in her own right, Tanya Donelly.
As a motivating force behind bands like Throwing Muses, Belly and The Breeders Tanya Donelly developed her own identity in a scene that engulfed a generation, and like Elliott Smith she produced material that defined a time, whilst continuing to remain timeless.
ARTISTdirect’s Andrew Shaw caught up with Tanya to discuss the far-reaching impact of Elliott Smith, her involvement in the Say Yes! project, her next project, and the importance of involving dogs as music critics.
Andrew Shaw: We’re talking today because of your contribution to Say Yes! the Elliott Smith tribute album that was just released. So let’s start at the beginning – What is your first memory of Elliott Smith?
Tanya Donelly: My first knowledge of him was Heatmiser, managed by my friend JJ Gonson. And then the ripples of excitement about his solo stuff started spreading very quickly. I have a weak chronological memory, but probably ‘95-ish when I first started really listening, and that would be his eponymous record. “Needle in the Hay” is the first song I clearly remember.
AS: So, to expand… Elliott is often cited as being a major influence on the songwriters of his generation. Back then did you feel his influence on your own process, or was his impact more tonal/emotional at a personal level?
TD: His solo albums absolutely inspired me; the beauty and quiet of it, and those insanely great and honest lyrics. He played a big part in reviving the acoustic guitar and the stark up-front vocal as instruments of power, and I think that impacted a lot of musicians at the time, consciously or sub.
AS: Can you speak a little about how you became involved in the project?
I’ve contributed to a few of the American Laundromat Records tribute albums, and ALR released my last album, so Joe Spadaro got in touch with me early on in this project. I had a few songs I considered, but “Between the Bars” was far and away my first choice and first request.
AS: For audiences hearing Elliott Smith for the first time – what do you think this material brings to the current cultural landscape – why does the perspective remain so vital?
TD: I’m going to use the word “honest” again, and apologies for the preciousness of that, but I think that’s one of the things that does make his work and worldview so vital. His stuff is obviously very specific to him, but in a way that doesn’t make you feel outside of the song – it’s very inclusive. Also, musically, it’s timelessly beautiful.
AS: So why “Between The Bars” – what about those lyrics particularly resonated with you?
TD: I just think this song is perfection. Musically, it’s gorgeous, and the lyrics are basically one perfect sentence after another. It tells a story that I can relate to for very personal reasons ~ but more importantly, there’s a universality to them that I think everyone can plug into ~ the love and anger in caring for a difficult person, while being a difficult person yourself.
AS: Aside from the lyrics – can you speak on how you approached the instrumental side of things, and how you made the tune ‘yours’?
TD: Instrumentally, I teamed up with Scott Janovitz and Russell Chudnofsky from The Russians, who are both good friends and collaborators of mine. Scott engineered and produced and played keys, and he sings throughout with me, so this is very much his project too, and Russell (who plays with me in all my solo forms) played guitar.
Scott already had his own version of “Between the Bars”, and I love his, and wanted something similar for mine. And we both agreed that we didn’t want to stray too dramatically from the original.
AS: Back in 2013 you spoke of wanting to retire from music. However, you’ve recently wrapped a tour with Belly. What inspired the tour, and did you get the bug back for being on the road?
TD: We’d talked in factions over the years about the possibility of a reunion tour, but this past year was the first time everything really fell into place, personally, creatively, logistically. And it was amazing! Extremely positive and very fun.
We are definitely planning to do it again, but haven’t worked out what that means or exactly when. I think the most inspiring part of it for me, other than the enthusiasm and excitement of the people who came to the shows, is the fact that we are writing some really good songs together as a unit. Each of us is contributing as a writer to every song. It would be enough to be playing well together live, but to also be writing well together is a huge gift.
AS: When thinking that it’s been 13 years since Elliott Smith died the sense of ‘time flying’ really hits home. Just in this time alone, has your perception of ‘success’ in the music industry changed?
TD: I’ve had success in greater and lesser doses over the years so I’m familiar with the more obvious range, but my perception of success has always been very uncalibrated. I come from an era and genre of musicians that lacked expectations but defied everyone else’s, so my perspective has always been wacky.
At this point, I consider myself very lucky to be able to continue as a working musician and hang on to a loyal and awesome base of people who are still interested. And I’d still be writing songs anyway, even with my dog as the only listener (she has made it clear that she is not a fan).
AS: As we mentioned, you recently toured with Belly, you’ve written something with Marissa Nadler, but what’s next for Tanya Donelly – more Swan Songs?
TD: No more Swan Songs. The swan boat has sailed! I was starting to feel like I was retiring without realizing it, and wanted to take the reins of that possible ending. But that’s evolved now into retiring my name only.
I’m interested in collaborative projects from this point, and Belly is a big part of that, we’re going to be recording this winter and will be doing some more shows next year. And I also have another co-writing project in the works with my great talented friend Brian Sullivan from Dylan in the Movies, yet to be named. And yes, a collaboration in the works with Marissa Nadler, which I’m so excited about!
AS: You’ve been involved in some pretty iconic bands – you’ve won, and been nominated for a number of prestigious awards – and undoubtedly had a fair share of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ experiences through the years. But is there one experience from life that has been more grounding on a human scale that you continue to carry with you and reflect upon?
TD: I can’t really think of one grounding experience or event, but I have very close and deeply rooted friendships with hilarious and no-nonsense people (I’m married to one of them), which tends to shine a light on nonsense when it comes up. And the older I get the more I see how we’ve all kept each other grounded and supported and inspired. And my kids, of course, who cured me of a tendency to disappear into myself and keep me centered in this world.
For more information visit the Elliott Smith hub on ARTISTdirect
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For more information visit the Tanya Donelly hub on ARTISTdirect