Reunited '90s Rockers Belly Talk Loving Kesha & Why the Rapper Belly Is 'Not Even An Issue'

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Belly photographed in Chicago on July 4, 1993.

It takes a special bond between the members of a band to pick up exactly where you left off as a unit after an extended period of time.

For Boston dream-pop greats Belly, it's been 23 years since the classic lineup of vocalist/guitarist Tanya Donelly, bassist Gail Greenwood, guitarist Tom Gorman and drummer Chris Gorman released their second LP, the Glyn Johns-produced King. Following a headlining tour with Superchunk as their opening act, the group went their separate ways after two classic albums, including their beloved 1993 debut Star. Donelly would embark on an acclaimed solo career after spending time in bands since she was 15, including the original incarnation of The Breeders and Throwing Muses, which she co-led through the mid-80s into the early 90s with her stepsister Kristin Hersh. Greenwood played bass for L7 and Bif Naked as well as her own band with longtime partner Chil Mott called Benny Sizzler. The Gorman brothers, meanwhile, run a successful photography business together. 

Belly reunited for a brief tour of the U.S., the UK and Ireland in 2016 to the delight of their loyal woebegone following, playing a set sugarcoated with key cuts from Star and King, including their Grammy nominated hit single "Feed the Tree." A year later, the band's reunion was cemented with the appearance of a crowdsourcing campaign on PledgeMusic to create the group's long-awaited third album, entitled Dove. And what a way to celebrate a quarter century on the scene than by releasing this beautiful collision of AOR riffs and sweet pop shimmer. Just fall into the grace of songs like "Suffer the Fools," "Faceless" and the gorgeous "Starryeyed" and it's like you still rock that hooded flannel hiding in your attic.

As Belly prepares to embark on a summer tour across England and the States once again to celebrate Dove's release, Donelly spoke with Billboard about the album, parenthood, growing up in Newport, RI, and a certain trap rapper with whom her band shares a name.

The way people listen to music is so different since the last time Belly has released an album.

I think pulling ourselves out of the compartmentalization of that era in the 90s is really important, because now you can go back and be like, it was all good. Why were we making choices, because there was so much good stuff.

The top 40 stuff was a little hurting back then, to be honest. But that's something which cannot be said for 2018, when we have such great talent as Beyonce and Kesha on the charts, right?

I had to pull over to the side of the road the first time I heard "Pray" because it made me cry so hard (laughs). It's a beautiful song. She's amazing. I'm not a fan from day one, but the beauty of that song, it's untouchable. It's a very elevated, evolved place to go to where she went on "Pray."

Would it be difficult to imagine someone like a Shania Twain or Celine Dion going through that kind of creative metamorphosis?

It's funny; artists, they only exist in a bubble up to a point, and then there's a framework involved at some point culturally. So it's hard to figure out how that affects people in terms of their art, because we don't live entirely separately.

Were you ever approached to be a song doctor or ghostwriter by any of the major labels for their pop singers?

Oh yes, and I took a couple of stabs at that. Probably anyone who's ever had a Top 20 hit has been approached to co-write or write for other people. But I feel like my lyrics undermine any attempt to do that (laughs). Musically, I can be a craftsperson, but lyrically I can't craft anything. It is what it is. That's the thing that sort of prevented me from total universality (laughs). I say what I say, and it comes out as is; I can't craft lyrics. I can craft the musical backgrounds, but I can't be pre-meditative about what I'm saying.  

However, for many fans who have been following not just Belly but your sister Kristin Hersh or Juliana Hatfield or Evan Dando or Paul Westerberg, it was that sense of honesty that made us stay after we arrived for the hooks.

They all are "pop/rock" singer-songwriters, but there's something in that group of people you mentioned where there's going to be something personal in the lyricism, even in our most universal moments.

What makes Dove so welcoming to hear is how seamlessly Belly picked up where you left off in 1995. Was this process of conspiring new music together as natural in the room as it appears on record?

We're not trying to mine our past, to be honest with you. But it is interesting, we were in rehearsals when we were first doing stuff again we were like, 'Well this sorta feels like the natural continuum.' But we probably wouldn't have been able to pull it off at the time. It took this long to get to where could do this seamlessly, as you said.

Did it feel like picking up a conversation with old friends, writing songs as Belly once again?

Yeah, and that's exactly what happened. We fell into the healthy place we should have been in at the time.

Do any of these new songs go back to when the band first reunited for the tour in 2016?

Yeah, so at that point we had four songs we were cycling live, because the plan at that point was to do like a four to five song EP after the tour. But that tour was so joyful and fun, we wanted to do more than just an EP, and that's when we decided to do an album. Then we started really getting to work. We had four ready to go, and then we each began sending each other pieces of music to cobble together, which Tom Gorman—who's like our shoemaker like in that old fairy tale (laughs)—would turn into an amazing song like we threw him a scrap of leather. Gail and I were writing separately, and Tom was writing separately, but we'd send each other these chords and riffs, which Tom will sew together and the song will be created from there.

How much input does Chris Gorman have in the songwriting process?

I feel like the rhythm section always gets the short shrift. But you know, all of this music is split equally, because Chris Gorman walks into the practice space and changes every song, just by the way he plays and what he adds rhythmically. We might go into a song thinking, 'This is a ditty!' But when Chris starts playing, it becomes epic. He has everything to do with how the songs turn out.

You all also chose to release Dove on your own. What led to that decision?

Publicity is the only aspect of our operation that's not DIY. We all split everything. I do the tour managing and other day-to-day stuff. Chris does the artwork. Gail and her partner do the design. Tom manages the studio. Everything is totally DIY.  

Do you feel good about the decision to rescind your retirement from music?

Absolutely, though I still think about it. Making music is a hard-to-schedule job, and that's where I feel like what am I gaining and what am I losing. That's always a conversation within the band and with our spouses and partners. At the time that I embarrassingly declared my retirement statement, it was during a period where I was feeling like I needed to focus on this one piece of my life, which was raising my kids. And I wanted to be home with my children, who are the most important human beings in my life. There is no one who will rank above them, ever.

How much did parenthood inform your songwriting on Dove?

I've been writing with kids in my life and house for almost 20 years, so I'm not sure how to trace how parenthood impacts Dove in particular -- other than logistically. Maybe the fact that my head and heart are always with my children keeps me largely focused outward rather than in, and that could have a universalizing effect on the lyrics. But honestly, this could also just be a natural symptom of age…

It's hard not to describe some of the music Belly makes, especially on this new album, as pretty. But that word isn't as welcome as it once was, don't you think?

Oh my god, I use the word pretty all of the time. It's one of the words I don't want to see die, because I feel it's a very big word that has been made so small. 

Does it bother you a word like "pretty" is now seen as something small and demeaning? Like the word might get lost amidst the heightened sense of awareness in the wake of the #MeToo Movement?

I have faith in the human spirit, and whatever we lose right now we're going to gain twofold on the other side of this. I don't think that losing old habits means losing love or losing connection or losing flirting or losing all of that good stuff. This isn't about losing anything; it's about getting to a place where everyone feels happy and comfortable in what that connection means. Growth spurts hurt; they always hurt. We're never going to lose love. That's not going to happen. We're hardwired for love. We have to let go of the old shit, and that's the easy part. The other side is going to be better, I swear.

You can already see this evolution in the new young generation of high school and college kids coming up now…

Yes, they know what they want. I feel like our generation, we have to trust in a way that the generations above us did not trust us, and just say, 'We're gonna give this to you.' I feel we have this amazing open gate of possibility. I feel like a boil has been lanced. And as ugly as it is, and we had to deal with all of the infection coming out of that boil, but the promise of it is huge. My nineteen-year-old's generation; I hang out with these kids and they take everything on its own merit. There isn't that same 'what do you listen to and what does it mean about you' thing we had to deal with; it's more based on is the song good, is the singer good, is it interesting to listen to. It's such a real mix that they listen to instead of a genre. And that's not just good for listeners, it's good for artists. It means you're not part of some sect. You're just an artist.  

Belly certainly has been helping to those of us who listen to music beyond our comfort zones. Surely for some, their gateway to Gram Parsons was your cover of "Hot Burrito No. 1" by the Flying Burrito Brothers.

That's one of my favorite songs in the world. I'm a big Gram fan. I think it's like with the Velvet Underground, everyone who ever listened to him became a musician (laughs).

There's always been a slight country element to some of Belly's music. Where do your roots in country exist beyond Gram Parsons?

I grew up in a house full of Burrito Brothers and the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, so basically my first exposure to country was the more country-based rock my parents used to play. Emmylou Harris was huge in my house. There was never really anything flat-out country except for Johnny Cash, so I was never exposed to it. But it definitely got in there through having those albums played in our house.

Have you found yourself listening to more country through the years?

I went to a very female place in country music. I was listening to Patsy Cline. I love Dolly Parton. Love Rita Coolidge. But with country, it's like I like the spice but not the dish (laughs). I'm drawn in on a certain level, but I can't fully commit.

Having grown up in Newport, Rhode Island, did you get to go to the Folk and Jazz Festivals a lot when you were younger?

The Newport Folk Festival is where my parents met when they were teenagers. Well, they met before that but they both worked the Folk Festival and that's how they fell in love yadda yadda. I will tell you, as an Islander, that's when most of us get out of town (laughs). It's very exciting and wonderful, but it also depends on what's going on. The Folk Festival has always been separate from what we were doing here, and oddly—and this is something my sister Kristin and I have always wondered—how is it that we have never been invited? Not the Throwing Muses. Not The Breeders. Not Belly. Neither myself nor Kristin as solo artists. Our parents worked it. We grew up here. We're here, always been here. Never invited.

Has the existence of an artist named Belly in hip-hop become a barrier for the band's return?

We're dealing with it. It's fine. Honestly, we had a few months of being concerned about the situation. Legally, he has rights of use. We have rights of use. He could get ugly; we could get ugly. It doesn't matter. But I think we both feel like, 'Whatever.' We could easily clarify the differences. It will only take like five seconds to recognize the difference between us, which is why it's not even an issue. At this point, it's become an anecdotal, interesting tidbit.

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