Grammy-nominated, singer/songwriter and founding member of three of the most influential and successful bands of the post-punk era, Tanya Donelly (Breeders, Throwing Muses, Belly) has spent decades crafting a truly unique body of work. She continues to challenge herself as both an artist and collaborator, as evidenced by her epic 2016 “The Swan Song Series” release, as well as Belly’s critically-acclaimed 2018 reunion album, “Dove.” Her latest sonic adventure is no exception to the rule! Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters serves as the latest riveting chapter in a wonderfully eclectic career. Joining Tanya on the album are The Parkington Sisters (Rose, Sarah, Ariel), their sister Lydia Parkington (cello), Matthias Bossi (drum, percussion), and Jon Evans (bass, percussion) who also recorded and mixed the album. Releasing August 14 via American Laundromat Records, the album includes covers an array of artists including The Go-Gos, Leonard Cohen, Kirsty MacColl, Echo & The Bunnymen, Wings, Pretenders, Linda Rondstadt, Split Enz, and Mary Margaret O’Hara. The songs selected on Tanya Donelly And The Parkington Sisters are “some of the most honest, moving, beautiful, unfiltered, true, and cool songs that have ever been written, in my opinion,” Donelly says. “And those same adjectives apply to the Parkington Sisters as well.”
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tanya Donelly to discuss the making of the hauntingly beautiful ‘Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters’ record, her evolution as a songwriter and much more.
As fans of your work, we watched you grow as an artist through the years. How do you view your evolution as an artist?
Oh, wow! I think I was sort of slow out of the gate as a writer with Throwing Muses and The Breeders. I really didn’t pick up steam in terms of practice, discipline and even inspiration until it came time to make what was going to be the second Breeders album, which ended up being the first Belly album. That’s when I started writing as a regular daily practice and I use that term because that’s what it is. After that point, I would say the biggest evolution came for me as a solo artist. Those first solo years were primarily trying to find my own individual voice. That’s what is happening on the first few solo albums. Then I started to miss collaboration, writing with other people and hearing other people’s instrumental voices on the songs that I was writing. That opened up a whole new world and led me to where I am now, which is primarily collaborating. Part of that is once you hit a certain age, you just tend to choose your joy in work. Not just in work; that’s a simplistic and entitled thing to say. I just got to the point where I said, “I just need to do what makes me feel good and not worry about how it seems like I’m giving up space to other people or whatever the perception is going to be.” Right now, I feel like my strongest and happiest work, recently, has come from working and writing with other people.
You mentioned songwriting being a daily practice. What does that look like these days?
That’s a really good question and a hard one to answer. I feel like every project is a different process. I tend to be very project focused. Very rarely will I sit down and say, “OK, I’m going to write.” Typically, I’m in the middle of writing for something and working toward something with people. So, the writing tends to be project specific most of the time. That being said, I do write all the time, especially lyrically. I do a lot of word-doodling. [laughs] That’s something I do every single day. I write and I speak into my phone when I’m walking. I walk and I walk and I walk because my words come from walks most of the time.
You lived a lifetime in the music industry. What lesson did you learn early on that resonated over the course of your career?
Yeah, there are actually … I didn’t really know how to answer this question up until about a month ago! [laughs] I just finished Kathy Valentine’s memoir, “All I Ever Wanted,” and there is a little piece she has in there. It’s a little incidental paragraph where she talks about if she could change the way something about the way she functioned and navigated as a young musician, it would be to give up more space, be more generous and not be so grasping with your territory, your parts, who did what, who’s band is it and the roles people fall into in a band. It’s about being more generous of spirit and flexible around what people need when they are making art, what’s going to keep them happy and how that benefits the whole. If everyone feels well-served and heard, then they are going to be their best musical selves. I think that’s it. My advice would be to make room for everybody!
When did you come into your own as a singer/songwriter?
I don’t really know. I think I’ve had various stages of feeling like I’d moved forward in some way. I feel the “Swan Song” series, which is a series of collaborations that I did, is when I started to feel like I was honing my lyrics a little more. After the Belly reunion, we made another record and I feel that album is, lyrically, one of the high points for me. As a whole, I’m not sure if I can point to a specific moment and say that is when I found myself, mainly because maybe I haven’t done it yet! [laughs]
Well, as a fan, I appreciate that each new chapter of your career brought its own set of surprises and it keeps getting better and better.
Oh, thank you so much! That’s a nice spin on it because the one thing I hear a lot is, “You seem to have a very short attention span!” [laughs] So, I like your lens better!
The Belly reunion and release of “Dove” is a blessing and another amazing moment for the band. Looking back on that period of time, how has it impacted you the most, both personally and professionally?
Both the reunion and the recording of Dove were unexpected gifts. The four of us got a chance to reconnect and put some old issues to rest, and to finally make the third album we’d always had in us. And to revisit all the music we made together, music we all love, and have a blast touring again. We also ended up reconnecting with people from the past that we’d lost touch with, and made some permanent new friendships with people we met on the road, which was an unforeseen huge bonus.
Your latest collaboration is cool — Tanya Donelly and The Parkington Sisters. How did you cross paths with these talented women?
I’ve known them for several years. Initially, I met Nora Parkington, who is ironically the one sister that doesn’t play on this album! [laughs] I’d met her through a charity that we do every year called Hot Stove Cool Music. She was playing violin with several different bands that night. I met her and then a friend of mine said, “You need to listen to her sisters’ band. They are amazing!” I started listening to the Parkington’s and quickly dove in deep on them. I went to see them live and then ended up becoming close acquaintances with them. When Joe Spadaro [founder of American Laundromat Records] asked me if I wanted to do a covers album, I was hesitant at first but then I thought about having The Parkingtons take over and that’s when I committed to it because I felt they’d bring a cohesion to it and it would sound like them rather than a smattering of unconnected songs. That’s exactly what happened. This album is a Parkington Sisters album with me singing and that’s exactly what I wanted!
It sounds like The Parkington Sisters created amazing soundscapes for you and then you came in with the vocals. Tell us about the creative process.
Yes, exactly! Basically, I picked the songs and then handed them over. From there, they charted everything. We all had a hand in arranging but, primarily, it was them at the helm. We were all together in the studio but a lot of it is just The Parkingtons doing their thing!
What did they bring out in you in a creative sense?
Doing justice to this handful of songs that mean so much to me was a big challenge. The fact that they are the foundation and that they are singing me throughout opened me up. This is a bunch of songs that I could easily feel intimidated by because I feel like they have already been recorded in their perfect form by the people who wrote them. Having The Parkingtons with me gave me the confidence to tackle that without being afraid of the project.
What led to you choosing this group of songs?
It’s a bunch of songs that always run through my head, really, on a weekly basis. No exaggeration!
Well, you have much better taste than I do!
I don’t know about that! [laughs] But yeah, these are all songs that live in my head and heart for whatever reason. That was the only overarching theme! With the exception of “Kid.” Don’t get me wrong, I love that song but that was actually suggested by my friend Laura. Bill Janovitz from Buffalo Tom, his wife Laura is a good friend of mine and she suggested that one.
Was there anything recorded that didn’t make the album?
Noooo! This has been a very economical and streamlined process! [laughs] No, there is nothing that we threw away. In fact, there might have been a few ideas that I had and then rejected but nothing that made it to even a conversational point.
You logged countless hours in the studio over the years. Is there a part of the recording process you’ve fallen more in love with over time?
When I first bring a song to a group of musicians and they start adding their thing and it changes the song — that’s my favorite part! That’s the most exciting thing for me; to walk into a room and think you know what your song is, only to have it change dramatically depending on who else is in that room. I think that’s my favorite part because it is so exciting.
What memories spring to mind when you think back on the making of this Tanya Donelly and The Parkington Sisters album?
The whole experience was amazing but there are two songs that we sang live together. One is “Days” and the other is “You Will Be Loved Again.” Those were all done at the same time in the same room. That is an experience I will carry forever. It was just wonderful! There was just a fantastic sense of family involved. John Evans, who has the studio where we recorded most of it, is an amazing engineer, producer and musician himself. He was a touring musician with Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos and Linda Perry. He’s an incredible musician. He has this atmosphere in his studio that is so magical! I think it’s the only sunny studio I’ve ever been in! [laughs] There was sunlight just pouring in as the one entire wall is just windows. You are in the sun and it’s so wonderful and rare! Most studios are windowless rooms and that’s fine too! His cat and his dog were just walking through the rooms while you are recording and I loved that! Ariel Parkington had her, at the time, had her new baby with her. The whole atmosphere was filled with sun, love, animals and family! It was incredible! That’s The Parkington vibe too!
Where are you headed musically in the near future?
Don’t we just live in a purely hypothetical world right now? [laughs]
We sure do!
Yeah, so I don’t know. Belly was curating a music and arts festival in Providence this summer, which is clearly not going to happen. I think the next thing I will be working on, realistically, is that once we are able to open up, hopefully, we will have a couple of new songs for that purpose. I’d also love to do some shows around The Parkington record as well. Those are probably the two things that I would be focusing on once our current situation ends. I’m trying to find some wood to knock on! [laughs]
I think a lot of people, music fans included, take for granted what you do to keep things moving forward. What’s the most effective way to support an artist like yourself and help keep your art growing?
I think every project that I am part of is so different, and so differently released and supported, so there’s probably no simple answer to this. Moving forward, I will probably be limiting releases to bandcamp and American Laundromat and I would say in general, bandcamp is my favorite resource for new music.
You lend your voice to great causes and I’d love to spread the word. Which are closest to your heart at the moment?
Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Violence in Boston.
What is your biggest takeaway from what you experienced with the pandemic and everything else that happened in 2020?
Very personally, and not addressing the devastating impact that this is going to have on our country and the economy, as a musician I gained a lot more experience in engineering. I have been doing all of my own recording and mixing at home, hardly pro-style, but it’s been good to get a grasp on that. I also will never take the touching of my friends for granted again. I have a very tactile bunch of people in my life that I love, so I’m gonna break some ribs with some painful hugging at the end of all this! [laughs]
Thank you very much for your time today. The Parkington Sisters and yourself have created an amazing piece of art with this album. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come!
Oh, thank you so much!
Follow the continuing adventures of Tanya Donelly on social media via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and bandcamp. Learn more about The Parkington Sisters by visiting their official website at www.parkingtonsisters.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.