Belly’s website didn’t exist before the band’s announcement, in early 2016, of their reunion. At the top is the band’s logo, surrounded in a circle by eight birds in flight; not phoenixes denoting rebirth, but a continuation of the “small plastic animal models” that drummer – and Belly graphic ‘director’ – Chris Gorman still favours. “We fell in love with them when Chris found them,” recalls Tanya Donelly, Belly’s singer, songwriter and mother hen. “I love the fact they leave shadows. It’s also a bit of a full-circle thing, or that’s how I read it. It’s time passing, and seasonal, and it’s all coming back around.”

The birds also speak of flight, with the band airborne again 20 years grounded after splitting (coincidentally mirroring 4AD labelmates Lush’s similar timeline) for live shows, a potential 10” EP and a re-release – on double white marbled vinyl – of a remastered and repackaged Star, Belly’s 1993 album debut – a special record, not just for its nervy fizz-bomb melodies, dazed ballads and guitar-pop classicism but its unexpected success; following Pixies, it was the label's best-selling record by that point.

For Donelly, Star was just the beginning of one heady and glorious chapter in her life relating to 4AD, which harks back to 1986, when Throwing Muses were the first US signing to the label – and only her step-sister and Muses cohort Kristin Hersh was signed to the label for longer than Donelly. There was a relatively brief tie-up with Pixies bassist Kim Deal in The Breeders, and after Belly, eight years under her own name, before she left 4AD in 2005 and chose work - as a postpartum doula, helping mothers adjust to their babies – you wonder if Donnelly knew something when she named the band Belly.

Her absence from music only ended in 2014 with the five-volume Swan Song Series that, as its title suggests, was intended to be a farewell of sorts. As it turns out, Belly are reborn. But the first birth of note is Donelly’s own, in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1966…

Donelly: “I was born to very young parents, it was a teen pregnancy, they were hippies - which wasn’t a dirty word then – and huge music lovers. Both worked for a folk festival, so there was constantly loud music on, Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young, the Beatles and the Stones, Joni Mitchell. Mum was more about female folk, and dad was the rocker.”


02. THROWING MUSES (the start)

Childhood friends since meeting at school, aged eight, Hersh and Donelly became step-sisters when Kristin’s father married Tanya's mother. At 14, they were each gifted a guitar by their dads; both girls were recent converts to by punk and new wave, Donelly by New York’s CBGBs scene, Hersh by X, R.E.M. and Violent Femmes. Donelly recalls that British music also filtered through, such as London’s post-punks The Raincoats, whose raw, jerky folk influences –alongside X’s pungent declarations - provided the building blocks for Throwing Muses’ uniquely fevered sound, alongside the military-trained, tumbling style of drummer David Narcizo.

A five-track 7” EP on their own Blowing Fuses label inspired two girls at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to interview Hersh and Donelly for the campus newspaper; their interviewers asked if they’d heard Cocteau Twins and added, “This is the label you need to be on, talk to 4AD.” The ten tracks subsequently recorded for their Doghouse Cassette release was sent to 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell.

Donelly: “We hadn’t heard of Cocteau Twins, but we discovered they were all over RISD. I’d never heard anything like them. It was like… heaven music. I’m sure [Cocteaus singer] Elizabeth [Fraser] found any, “voice of God,” comments annoying but it was true! And the band stood out so starkly. Ivo got the demo, and he was in constant touch after that. It started with him taking a mentoring role, he’d call Kristin and she’d keep us updated, that he really liked the music, but he didn’t want to sign us, we weren’t the aesthetic of the label, and he wasn’t keen to sign an American band. But he was reaching out, someone with no personal investment in us, to say, how can I help you? That’s a genuine music lover. Kristin would say, ‘We’re on the phone for so long!’ The closeness that came from that was, I think, a, huge piece of why he signed us after he’d become frustrated with our options, that we couldn’t find any label who got us like he did, and he changed his mind about signing us, which changed the course of our lives.”



Donelly and Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly could see the good and the bad of their respective bands: principal songwriters (Hersh and Charles Thompson respectively) had a unique sound and vision, palpable presence and volcanic energy, but they defined their band to the detriment of any other potential songwriters. More pop-conscious than Hersh’s harsh, jagged songwriting style, generally Donelly had two credits on each Muses record, while Deal was even more restricted; hence the pressure release of The Breeders, after the pair had bonded on the Muses/Pixies European tour of 1988, as women (Deal being the only female Pixie) and as members of the clan who’d go clubbing after the shows.

A club in Boston was the location for Deal and Donelly’s (drunk) discussion, "to write a disco song and make a lot of money!" recalled Deal. They even recorded Donelly’s ‘Rise’ in a quasi-disco fashion but Muses and Pixies schedules didn’t coincide for another 18 months, but out of came 1990‘s Pod album, with Perfect Disaster bassist Josephine Wiggs, Slint drummer Britt Walford and freelance violinist Carrie Bradley completing the band, whose gristly, prowling dynamic was miles from dance music.

Donelly: “I brought in the skeleton of ‘Rise’, which was more clubby-sounding, as the groundwork of our relationship had been dancing, but that was shortlived - it took us about two practices to realise we were terrible at it! So Kim played me the songs she wasn’t taking to Pixies, and I played her mine, and we recruited a bunch of local Boston musicians, David Narcizo and [Pixies drummer] David Lovering, and we had two other drummers too, sitting on the couch and waiting their turn! We had Carrie too, and a couple of members of [Boston band] The Driveways, all to make demos and play live, but Kim and I had no special ambitions, we just wanted to play together. It was only when Ivo heard the demos that he offered us to make a record.”

“The Muses were about to make The Real Ramona [album], and I didn’t know which of my new songs would land on there, so Kim and I made an informal deal, that the first Breeders album would be her songs and the second would be mine [Pod featured one Deal/Donelly co-write, ‘Only In 3’]. But by our second tour, Kim had committed to a Pixies world tour, which would take a year, and I didn’t want to wait.”


04. THROWING MUSES (the end)

In the meantime, Ivo had called on both women – both underrated, charismatic singers – to sing on ‘You And Your Sister’, an exquisite ballad written by Chris Bell (Alex Chilton’s creative foil in Big Star), for the Ivo-steered This Mortal Coil’s third album Blood. Throwing Muses’ fourth album The Real Ramona included Donelly’s ‘Honeychain’ and ‘Not Too Soon’ - the latter buoyed by a distinct Sixties girl-group backbeat. ‘Tanya wanted a hit,’ Hersh recalls. ‘And I was holding her back.’ Hersh was adamantly against the idea of a blatant commercial lunge: ‘I’d rather be dead than suck in order to get a million people to listen to you,’ she says, which meant that Donelly’s ‘Gepetto’, her most gleefully charged melody yet, didn’t make it past the demo stage for The Real Ramona.

Donelly: “As far as guitar playing goes, I was totally in my element with Throwing Muses. I’m really attracted to intricate, mathematical stuff, but as far as being a songwriter, I’m more attracted to straightforward, universal songs, though for me, it’s less The Go-Go’s or girl groups and more Big Star and Neil Young.

"There was no space on Muses records for more of my songs, but I never wanted more space - that wasn’t the formulae, and my sister was ten times more prolific than I was. When I first decided to leave, I pulled ‘Gepetto’ and ‘Full Moon Empty Heart’ off the demos. ‘Gepetto’ never felt like a Muses song, and it was the least worked on of my songs. True, ‘Not Too Soon’ was just as poppy, but we used to play an old version with Kristin’s dad [he wrote the chorus], so that song had a different context for the Muses."

“I said I’d leave after The Real Ramona, but I went back on that, and we toured the album. But I felt that if I was in somebody else's band, I'd never become a good songwriter. I needed to learn the hard way. What muddied those waters was that we’d been so close, for so long, so I thought, maybe I won’t leave entirely. Like Kim, it was hard to leave the safety of a band doing well and feeling good. But we’d been playing together for ten years, so we were tired and a bit numb. [Ramona producer] Dennis Herring told me that when Kristin or I were in the studio individually, things were very musical, but together, we totally sucked the music out! Being sisters, we were so careful with each other that things had become almost static.

“Once I’d talked about leaving, the tension went, things were fine and the tour after Ramona was one of the happiest, because I knew it was over. Only after the fact did I realise what a rare situation we’d had as a band, with the kind of joy that we shared. Leaving was really sad, but I was in danger of losing my sense of self to something that had run out of control and that nobody involved had any control over. Kristin and Dave understood, and we got over it the second I quit. We’d all grown up on a tiny island together, and learned to navigate life-long relationships, and we’d had much more intense family struggles in our childhood than this, so it wasn’t anything like a brutal surgical operation.”


05. BELLY (the start)

Before she’d conceived of a new band, named Belly - "A womanly word, a lovely and an ugly word... Belly means a lot of things to a lot of people" - Donelly had recorded an album of demos. “Tanya wasn’t saying, ‘I have a band, here we go,’ Ivo recalls. “She’d simply recorded herself with an electric guitar. I loved it and said she should make a record.”

Donelly: “Kim had helped demo the songs that became Star, we worked on pre-production and song structures together, and she played guitar on ‘Feed The Tree’ and ‘White Belly’ and bass on ‘Slow Dog’. But when I officially left the Muses, Kim had decided not to leave Pixies, so I started Belly and I took my songs with me. When [Muses bassist] Fred [Abong] left the Muses with me, it made things feel more permanent, and once the Gormans joined, it didn’t feel like a side project anymore, because I still hadn’t a hundred per cent decided to leave the Breeders. I did [Breeders EP] Safari in that spirit, but when Belly took off, it left no time for anything Breeders-related.”

Like Abong, who’d previously played in Vicious Circle, Thomas and Chris Gorman – also childhood friends of Donelly’s - had cut their teeth in a hardcore punk band, namely Verbal Assault – though Donelly’s tenderly skewed touch smoothed out any overt Muses-style harshness. Ivo suggested Belly try out a first-time producer in Tracy Chisholm, an engineer that he’d discovered via the Pixies-influenced LA band Carnival Art, and the band released the four-track Slow Dust EP, in which the lack of obvious hits that Donelly supposedly craved was glaringly absent.

Still, Slow Dust surprised band and 4AD by topping the UK independent charts, a feat not even managed by the second single ‘Gepetto’, one of four tracks produced by Gil Norton, who’d worked on the first Muses album and all the full-length Pixies albums to date. The third Belly single, another Norton production, ‘Feed The Tree’ became the first 4AD track to win MTV’s highly coveted Buzz Bin slot, and off the back of that guaranteed exposure, Star sold half a million copies in the US alone. In Britain, it had the same impact, and charted at number two.

Donelly: ‘I liked Tracy’s southern, swampy, cool sound, but he was too mellow for us. I wanted someone I knew and trusted, and the Belly songs that Gil produced were the ones I knew he’d treat in a poppy way, and I wanted to make a pop album, and Gil is great with dynamics and flow. But the title Star wasn’t related to the professional sense, but the making of a celestial body – when you can actually see a star, it’s in mid-process, which is what Belly felt like to me, in mid-process and figuring out what I was going to allow to burn away from the past and to hold on to. I was semi-conscious that Star was therapy, and it’s much more of a neatly ribboned package now, but at the time, it was a ball of mess. People said the lyrics were all fractured fairytales, which I denied, but they were, at the embarrassingly late age of twenty-five. I was working through very early stuff. To some extent, I had written about it in Muses songs, I’d been so immersed in the chaos of that childhood, and with my childhood friends in the band, there was no separation and distance for me until I left. They were songs I knew wouldn’t be for the Muses, where I’d have had to walk into a room and play them in front of Kristin, who was the only person who’d know what I was talking about, and I would have been uncomfortable about that.


06. BELLY (the end)

Fred Abong had shocked Donnelly by leaving Belly before Star was released, choosing to train as an Ayurvedic astrologer and nutritionist. His replacement was Gail Greenwood, a change of sex and also of attitude, given her goofy heavy metal stage persona. Things were evolving elsewhere; the decision was taken to record the second album at Nassau’s plush and expensive Compass Point studios, with veteran British producer Glyn Johns. The Bahamas was a glamorous jaunt for the rich, and Johns’ former clients included The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles. Johns had also produced The Clash’s Combat Rock album but he still seemed a bizarre choice, as if Donelly and Belly could be upgraded to a new Deborah Harry or a Stevie Nicks. King’s songs were rich and resonant but contrast Johns’ comparatively safe and smooth production with four (of the six B-sides shared between the album’s two singles ‘Now They’ll Sleep’ and ‘Seal My Fate’) produced at Boston’s Apache Studio, with the necessary fire that Johns had misplaced. In any case, the upgrade backfired as King’s sales failed to match Star, though 350,000 in the US – and reaching number six in the UK – showed that Belly had their dedicated fan base.

Donelly: “Fred and I were very close at that point, and we’d co-written ‘White Belly’ together. I was amazed he’d walk away when it was obvious things were going upward. But he felt it wasn’t the lifestyle for him. With Gail, I thought, let’s do the opposite of what people expect, let’s rub up against the preciousness. She was extremely charismatic, charming and fun, and we loved having her on board.

“Glyn’s concept was to record us live, a simpler-is-better approach, which really appealed to us. And we were Beatles devotees, so there was a historical appeal. We also got along extremely well and we liked his approach to the songs. Glyn needed to work outside the US for visa reasons, and we wanted someplace other than the UK. And Belly was a surfing beach bum band, after all! Recording in Nassau was much funkier and mellow than it sounds – we were not even aware of the island’s glam side while we were there. And I don’t think King was over-produced.

“When it came to naming King, we’d had a one-word name in Star, named after a song, and I loved the word ‘King’, it’s good-looking and sounding, and Chris had a lot of visual ideas for it. We liked the fact it was a playing card, and the royal connotation, and it was romantic too for me – the song ‘King’ was about my now husband [Julianna Hatfield trio bassist Dean Fisher], who I was falling in love with at the time. King was different to Star, the songs were very much the current diary, and didn’t draw from any past, and there was much less lyrical ambiguity, I decided to use ‘I’ and not ‘she’... I found a spine to stand behind. And we poured so much heart into it. There was a lot of joy in King, even in lyrics that didn’t sound inherently joyful, it got into the music, while we were writing it, [the band] was crazy about each other, and I was in love. And I love the songs on King.

But recording the album was a lot stickier. We were all in the studio together, but once it was overdub time, we were all spending most of our off-time solo as band members were not speaking - that’s what an eighteen-month tour can do. And I was a horrible bandleader, I didn’t take the helm, and so the rudder was unmanned. There was too much intensity too quickly, and we didn’t take a break. I was so tired, so I let everything fall apart. I had freaked out one night in LA, and Ivo had come to see me. We said to each other, what’s happened? Why can’t we handle it? I hated talking about myself in interviews. I didn’t even know how to represent myself. The British press with the Muses had been so thoughtful, but schlepping from American radio station to station got to me. It felt like I had no ownership of myself, my art and my body.”



Donelly’s first post-Belly decision was to record her solo debut, the Sliding & Diving EP, the bounce-back that Donelly needed, and her Lovesongs For Underdogs emulated Belly’s debut and, in large parts, bettered it; back to the undulating levels of crunch and effervescence, tenderness and haunting nuance. She subsequently toured North America with a dream team of friends that included husband Dean Fisher and alternating drummers David Narcizo and Dave Lovering. But MTV Buzz Bin wasn’t interested anymore and the wave that had carried Belly along had beached a long time ago. The UK’s latest breakthrough band, for example, was The Verve; Radiohead had headlined Glastonbury in the wake of its masterpiece OK Computer. Epic rock, Britpop, Big Beat, Industrial Rock… etc.

Donelly: “Star was wrapped in gauze, to protect myself, and I think great beauty can come out of being opaque and speaking in code, and I returned to that after King. I loved the feeling of autonomy, and being to play with lots of different people, and I really wanted to have kids, and I could be way more flexible if I wasn’t responsible for anyone else’s livelihood. The downside was lacking a posse, there’s something wonderful about being in a gang. After I’d had my [daughter] Gracie [in 1999], Kristin said, you haven’t done anything in a while, why not come play with us? Which started with [Muses reunion shows] Gut Pageant, and I dabbled with them after that, but I was never going to rejoin permanently. But I just love singing with that woman, and playing guitar with her, they’re my favourite guitar moments, it’s always so interesting and complicated and fun.

Donelly had joined the brief Throwing Muses reunion in 2000, and sung backing vocals on the subsequent album – their second self-titled record. There were two more solo albums on 4AD: Beautysleep (2002) and Whiskey Tango Ghosts (2004) before the live album This Hungry Life on Eleven Thirty Records (2006), the same year she had her second daughter, and chose family and post-partum work over music. Then, in 2014, another reunited Muses tour featured Donnelly for half the set, on vocals and second guitar, and singing some of her own Muses songs for the first time since she’d left the band 23 years earlier.

Reuniting was in the air. In 2012, at an annual benefit show in Boston that Donelly participates in, known as Hot Stove Cool Music, she spotted Gail Greenwood in the audience, and pulled her up on stage to co-sing ‘Feed The Tree’. Donelly’s decision to return to songwriting culminated in a five-volume series (2013-14) series of collaborations under the title of Swan Song Series.

Donelly: “After Lovesongs, which felt like a solo record, I always managed to find people and demanded collaboration, so I feel like I’ve been in several bands since Belly. Collaboration is how the Swan Song series came about. John Wesley Harding was doing these wonderful cabaret shows, the Cabinet of Wonders, with a comedian, a couple of authors, and musicians, he invited me to join him in Boston and New York about nine years ago, and I realised I wanted to get back to [music], so I started talking to people that night, and unlike other times, I followed up on those conversations. I called it Swan Song because in all likelihood, I thought it would be the last thing I did, which isn’t the case now, but I think it will be the last thing under my name, which feels false to me. Collaboration is my greatest inspiration.”


08. BELLY (re-start)

“Gail and I wrote a song for Swan Song, as did Tom and I, and then Chris sensed something – he talked to Gail first, and in an email to me, he said, it’s now or never, there’ll come a point when people won’t care, let’s jump on it. So we did. Many factors wove together to make this decision. Part was the joy of the of Muses reunion [in 2014], it was also a landmark amount of time, 20 years since Belly had split up. More to the point, the four of us were all at a place where we could put our own work on hold, and our children are old enough to leave for a finite amount of time.

“We’re playing a very, very long set, focussing on the old stuff, most of Star and King, and a bunch of B-sides. The plan is to do a Belly EP, I hope a ten inch, which is my favourite, most tactile format, with seven or eight songs. So far, we have four new complete songs, and we’re definitely playing three of them, and adding to that as they come together at soundcheck. Each of the new songs is different to the next, and sound-wise, we have different guitars, but otherwise it’s the same, there are no machines on stage! No alt-country songs. We’re staying true to what we were, and who we are.”