Q&A: Tanya Donelly on Her New Covers Album

Some artists are eagerly looking forward to a rosier ending to our current coronavirus crisis. Others remain rooted in analytical place, studying their dark new surroundings and trying to make aesthetic sense of it all. But others, like good-humored Belly bandleader Tanya Donelly, have been time-traveling back to the past, rediscovering the overwhelming joy of classic songwriting by immersing herself in cover versions.

As lockdown stranded her, her husband/bandmate Dean Fisher, and their two daughters Gracie and Hattie in the Boston suburb of Lexington, she reconnoitered by launching a Sunday Series home broadcast of her attempts at increasingly daring covers, from Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (on which Gracie and Hattie cheerily chime in) and ”Dream a Little Dream of Me,” with proceeds going to various causes, like the NAACP, or local musicians and concert-venue staff.

A brilliant composer herself over the course of several outfits, starting with Throwing Muses in 1981, The Breeders in 1989, and Belly the following year, Donelly infuses Bob Dylan’s desolate, tough-to-nail “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” an eerie new forlorn flicker. “That one, I have to tell you, was recommended by Lilia Halpern, who sang it with me, and we definitely had that conversation, like, ‘Ahh…I don’t know if I can do this,’” cedes the Grammy-nominated singer. “But she didn’t have to talk me into it too hard, because once we tried it, she just said, ‘I think we sound really nice together on this.’ But why that one works is because Lilia brings her angelic voice and cool, dreamy guitar stuff. And we’re kind of similar guitar players, so I think we at least succeeded in making it something that sounds like us.”

Now, Donelly has taken her cover-song fascination to the next level with the just-issued album Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters, wherein she and the folky Massachusetts trio of Ariel, Sarah and Rose Parkington dive bravely into updated takes on The Go-Go’s’ “Automatic” (the first single), Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum,” “Kid” by The Pretenders, Kirsty MacColl’s “Days,” Leonard Cohen’s lilting “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s definitive “Ocean Rain,” plus others. Cover fever must be in the air—her old Boston buddy Juliana Hatfield (whom Fisher traditionally backed on drums) released an entire disc of Police catalog standards late last year, as well. Donelly, 54, explained her motivations in a recent phone chat.

Paste: I still can’t quite wrap my head around Juliana’s all-Police covers album. I never liked that band.

Tanya Donelly: Juliana and my husband Dean grew up together, and they both loved The Police. I think that was something that they had in common in high school. But I can’t say that I hate them, or that I even dislike them, even. They were just…there.

Paste: Did you see Danny Boyle’s film “Yesterday,” by chance?

Donelly: Yes! I saw it with my kids and we loved it. And I have to say, when I see something with my children and they love it, I tend to also love it, because I tend to see it through their lens as soon as they love something, because I love them. So I don’t know if I have an objective viewpoint on this. But with The Beatles, in terms of having a cultural impact, anyone up on that level? Yeah, it was an interesting exercise.

Paste: And “Yesterday” definitely made you reflect on the innate power of a great, timeless song, complete with ongoing cover versions.

Donelly: Yeah. And then also, there’s the question of who’s doing the cover, because that’s a big piece of it, too. So it’s the song, the times, the writer, the person behind it — there are just so many variables that come into play in why something just clicks at any given point. But having these songs filtered through, I think there is a responsibility that you have when you’re covering something important. And it’s a responsibility to yourself, because it’s important to you, clearly, because you love it. And then also you’ve got to make sure that you do it justice, on top of everything else. I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of covers recently, and I’d only dabbled in that prior to this year,. But what I didn’t expect to constantly have was this specter of the writer in the room with me. But every time I’m singing, they’re right there in the room with me. Or, in the example of “Days,” which is not Kirsty MacColl’s written song, but it’s her specter at that point, her specter that’s with me in the room when I was doing that one. And you just feel it, instinctively: “This song is important.” And every single song on the album was chosen because they run through my head on a regular basis, weekly, honestly. And as a result, the people who were responsible for bringing those songs into my life loom large. So that was something we talked about when we were singing [Wings’ “Let Me Roll It.”] “What would Sir Paul think of this vocal?” Or, “What would Sir Paul think of this arrangement?”

Paste: Separately, on the Sunday Series you’ve been doing, you version of Three Little Birds” breathes new life into that, too.

Donelly: That’s truer than you know. That’s a song that I used to sing to the girls when they were babies, and then every once in a while I’ll drag them up onstage with me to sing it. Much to their chagrin. So yeah, that was one that was easy to do. Now that we’re all trapped at home together, it’s easy to just bring them into our studio. But that’s not how they frame me at all. They’re interested in my music up to a point, but they’ve got their own stuff going on and their interests are very different. So they’re peripherally interested. And they like to go to shows occasionally, but they will pass on that most of the time. But of course, they’ll come to London to see me. But if we’re playing Boston, they usually will pass. Gracie is 21 now—the picture attached to the song on the Bandcamp page is a few years old. So we’re all together here—Gracie’s partner is here, as well, so there’s five of us. Five of us and the dog. Gracie came back from college early on, in March, and finished her junior year of college here. And then hopefully, she’ll go back for her senior year this fall. So we’ll see. She’s hoping it will happen. But she’s junior class president, so she’s actually still pretty busy, and involved in student government stuff that continues throughout the summer. And then my youngest, Hattie, just graduated from eighth grade. And at least in our experience, right now, that’s harder. That’s a much harder age to be separated from your friends.

Paste: What strange new activities have you found yourself participating in?

Donelly: Jigsaw puzzles! And it’s something that we had never really participated in before as a family. But Gracie’s partner’s mother has sent us some big, 1,000-piece ones. And what’s nice about that is, it’s very quiet. And we are—as a collective—a very loud bunch of people. And so jigsaws are this nice moment where we’re all together, but no one’s really speaking. It’s kind of cool. It’s like this silent exercise that’s actually a lot of fun. And of course we’re watching movies and shows, and taking tons of bike rides and stuff like that. But to be honest with you, with Netflix, we had about two weeks of binging, and then the sun came out, so we’ve mostly been focusing on the outside.

Paste: How did you select covers for the Parkington Sisters project?

Donelly: So this album was just songs that have recently been running through my head, with the exception of “Kid,” which was recommended by my good friend Laura, who’s Bill Janovitz’s wife. So Laura suggested that one, which was the only suggestion that I took. And then the rest of them were just embedded in my psyche for whatever reason. And then I’m doing this weekly series, also, primarily on Bandcamp for local causes. Initially, every donation was going to local causes, But I’ve kind of broadened it out to include other organizations.

Paste: And it’s strange how a great song will suddenly just reappear out of nowhere. I remember my jaw just dropping during the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” when Badfinger’s classic “Baby Blue” piped in out of nowhere to close it out. Easily one of the greatest songs ever written.

Donelly: Oh, I love Badfinger! And it’s funny, because we talk about that a lot. How music can shape how you approach any other medium, emotionally. It really does things to you. We just had a conversation the other day, that was like, “Did I really like Twin Peaks? Or do I just like Julee Cruise?” You know, where the music is so integral to the visuals. And to be honest with you, I think it is just Julee Cruise for me. But there are some movies and some television programs that are so music-dependent, just the ratio of music to visuals is heavier than in other things. And it does have an impact on you, especially if like—as you were saying—it’s at the end of something where it really resonates with you. It’s like you’ve gone to the next place, and it leaves you with a feeling of, “Whoa! I connected with that!” But maybe what you connected with was actually the music at the tag.

Paste: Are they any songs you simply won’t cover?

Donelly: Well, I won’t do Kate Bush. A lot of the things that I take on are beyond my skill set—don’t get me wrong. But her voice lives in a land that I can’t possibly reach. So I would say that’s a vocal question for me, more than anything. But if there’s one one the Parkington Sisters album, it would be [Split Enz’s] “Devil You Know,” because Neil Finn’s voice also lives in that same land. But Kate is somebody that I revere as a vocalist, so I would never go near her, in terms of covers, I would never take her on. I would never do Bowie. And I would never do Elvis Perkins, who is one of my favorite songwriters of all time. And I would never do a Magnetic Fields song. There are just certain things that I feel are already fully owned by the artist. And that’s just my perspective alone—I’m sure someone else might feel differently. And I actually went to see Elvis Perkins play a few years ago, and this is very silly, but we had just followed each other on Twitter, which made me a little nervous. And afterwards, my husband and a friend saw him at the merch table, because he sells all his own T-shirts. So they started walking towards the table, then I started walking to the table, too, but before I got there, I just took a sharp left and left the building. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t meet him—it was just an impossible thing for me. Dean came out and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m running away! Running away from the situation!”

Paste: And Belly is still technically together, right?

Donelly: Yeah! Still technically together. I think we’re on hiatus right now, like everyone is. I mean, is anyone technically together right now? I feel like we’re just living in a completely hypothetical world right now.

Paste: Do you have any message for folks, people trying to rationalize their way through this?

Donelly: Wrap yourself around your friends as often as possible? I don’t know. And I think that the message that we ultimately take away from it is going to change, because we’re nowhere near the end of it. So we’ve been part of the [music-making] process, and that’s been a necessary interaction with the world. But our governor here has released templates of what it’s gonna look like moving forward, and so far out that he didn’t even put a date on it was opening up for “entertainment.” So we’re looking at next summer at the earliest. And I have to say that I live in a community of people that pale at the thought of that. And seriously, for very good reason. It’s just heartbreaking, overall.

Paste: So finally, what are your favorite three songs of all time?

Donelly: Well, it’s gonna be the big ones that everybody would probably say, maybe. Like “Hallelujah,” which took Leonard Cohen forever to write—I was always fascinated with the story of that song, as well. And for me, “Hounds of Love,” too. I’m putting that up there with Leonard. And lastly? “Let it Be.” What can I say? Those are my three favorites.