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Belly bounces back, rises again

Tanya Donelly shares her full-circle experience with reunited '90s alt-rock heroes


COURTESY: GORMAN STUDIO - Belly, which injected a welcome dose of ethereal melody into the grungy mid-90s post-grunge music scene, reunited this year. The Boston-birthed band - comprising, from left, Chris Gorman, Tanya Donelly, Gail Greenwood and Tom Gorman - returns to Portland on Saturday to perform at Revolution Hall.The 1990s alt-rock scene is commonly caricatured as dominated by the Seattle-based grunge sounds of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but the floodgates that scene opened brought a wider array of sonic flavors to the mainstream than many care to remember.

Belly, a quartet hailing from the Boston area and fronted by Tanya Donelly, a founder of Throwing Muses and the Breeders, brought a fresh dose of melodic, ethereal pop to its post-grunge, two-guitar-bass-and-drums sound.

Memorable tunes (with imaginative videos) like "Feed the Tree," "Gepetto" and "Slow Dog" from its debut LP, "Star," propelled the band to quick success in 1993 and the cover of Rolling Stone — which called the band "the Shiny Happy People of Post-Punk Power Pop" — two years later.

A mixed reception for the follow-up LP, "King," along with pressures from within and without, led to Belly's premature breakup in 1996. Donelly went solo, while bandmates Gail Greenwood and brothers Tom and Chris Gorman busied themselves with various musical projects and social causes.

By 2013, Donelly's "Swan Song Series" of musical collaborations saw her working again with Tom Gorman, which led to Belly's rebirth earlier this year. Donelly shared some thoughts with the Tribune about her life and career in advance of the reunited band's stop at Portland's Revolution Hall on Saturday:

COURTESY: GORMAN STUDIO - From left, Chris Gorman, Gail Greenwood, Tanya Donelly and Tom Gorman, collectively known as Belly, are ready to pick up where they left off in the mid-1990s. Tribune: How are the tour and the shows going so far?

Tanya Donelly: The tour has been a blast, and we couldn't be happier with the atmosphere of these shows — just a lot of joy and excitement — and fun. 

Tribune: You worked with Tom Gorman on an earlier project leading up to Belly's reunion. What inspired you to get the band back together?

Donelly: I wrote a couple of songs with (Tom) for my solo series (Swan Song Series), and I also wrote a song with Gail's (Greenwood) band as well. I guess we've been talking seriously about the reunion since last summer, and then things started coming together quickly after that. I think we were motivated to do it for a number of reasons — mainly because we wanted to play this music that we're proud of together again, and our stars aligned in terms of our availability and enthusiasm.

Tribune: What kind of fans are you seeing? Is it a mix of those who were in their 20s during Throwing Muses' and Belly’s heyday, and younger folks who know your alt-rock legacy and more recent projects?

Donelly: It's been a surprisingly broad range of ages — original listeners, but also people decades younger than us mixed in. There have been several instances of fans from back in the day bringing their teens or adult children to the shows, which I love to see. Whenever I see young faces in the audience it distracts me momentarily. I want to ask: How did you find us?

Tribune: Your music mixes melodic folk/pop and driving rock with a strong dose of the ethereal and mysterious. Do you know where those elements — particular the latter two — come from?

Donelly: I think we each bring very different energy to this band, and while I'm hesitant to trace the DNA of that, those very different styles come together harmoniously in a way that is, in my opinion, rare and kind of wonderful. We each have a varied spectrum of musical loves, which keeps us somewhat untethered to one sound, and keeps us open to whatever comes up when we're writing and playing together.

Tribune: I think I speak for many who were disappointed when Belly disbanded after two albums. Was that a result of frustration that “King” — what I thought was an amazing follow-up — didn’t break through the way many expected it would? Do you feel you may have thrown in the towel too soon?

Donelly: First of all, thank you! We thought it was a good follow-up as well. And we weren't as disappointed by the reaction to "King" as other people were — we were proud of that record, and still are, and it actually did quite well, in hindsight. There were so many factors in our breakup, and we aren't really interested in revisiting any of that, but it's probably the case that we could have taken a breather and given it another go, rather than break up so quickly. But at the end of the day, and not to sound too hippy-dippy, things unfolded as they did and became the story that is ours, and we are in a good place now.

Tribune: Did you enjoy being a solo artist in the years after Belly? Did you find yourself writing differently when not focused on a band dynamic?

Donelly: I am very proud of my solo work, and am grateful to have worked and played with many, many talented people in the past 20 years. My solo albums do feel like band albums to me though, because I've always wanted collaboration, and in most cases, those albums involved a revolving core crew of players, who then went on to also tour with me. I don't write differently according to who will be playing with me — I'm not that pro!

Tribune: Were you comfortable with audience you had and the level of fame you achieved by that point?

Donelly: Honestly, I have been so lucky to be able to work as a musician and songwriter throughout my life so far, and I have no complaints.

Tribune: Do you tend to think back fondly on Throwing Muses, Breeders and Belly and the excitement of the '90s alt-rock boom, or are you more inclined to see it more as an evolving movement to which you are still contributing?

Donelly: This is such a great question! Apologies for vagueness, but my feelings are a hybrid of both. I am aware that that era was special and I was luckily a part of it and have great memories and fondness, but I am equally aware that most of the artists who formed that time are still writing and working and making great music, so I view it more as an ongoing process.

Tribune: I’ve read that you plan to write and record new Belly songs. Where do you see the Belly reunion leading after the tour?

Donelly: We are writing new music together, which will be released in some form at some point, but we are taking things somewhat slowly and month by month. I will say, we are very very psyched about the new stuff.

Tribune: Thank you so much for your time.