“We haven’t been here in, well, a very long time. And what did we do last night? We went to bed early,” Tanya Donelly says with a laugh.
In Manhattan for a day of publicity work for her new album, “Beautysleep” (due Feb. 19 via 4AD/Beggars Banquet), Donelly is remarking on how the birth of her daughter, Gracie, two-and-a-half years ago quickly put an end to the rock’n’roll lifestyle she enjoyed as a member of Belly, the Breeders, and Throwing Muses, and briefly as a solo artist.
With her is her husband, Dean Fisher, and the bright-eyed, blonde-haired Gracie, a pint-sized, smile-inducing mirror image of Donelly. “Beautysleep,” the singer says, is at times as much about them as it is about her.
The gentle “Keeping You” is a lullaby Donelly often sang to Gracie in her early months. “The Night You Saved My Life” is for Fisher (who co-produced and plays bass on “Beautysleep”). And “Life Is But a Dream,” the album’s chimeric leadoff track, is propelled by a heartbeat-like cadence, helping create a euphoria akin to being in the womb.
These, especially, are songs on which Donelly revels in domestic bliss and a level of happiness that she had not previously known. “Now I sit with my babe at my breast/I was never this good at my best/Never higher,” she sings on “The Night You Saved My Life.”
Ever the partier in her late 20s, Donelly, now 35, says of Gracie, “She’s calmed me down.
“I feel like I’m more a part of the real world than I used to, especially during the creative process, which affords the luxury of selfishness — which I no longer have at all,” Donelly says with another laugh. “I mean, I don’t even go to the bathroom by myself anymore.”
Spending the past two years at the family’s Cambridge, Mass., home with Gracie has also helped Donelly make what she deems a much-needed change in her songwriting process.
After her post-Breeders act Belly found itself cast in the limelight in the early ’90s — via the success of its “Feed the Tree” single — Donelly says she sort of self-corrupted that process.
“[Early on], I started off writing as a very unconscious writer. Then I got hyper-conscious during the Belly era, because of the scrutiny involved in the amount of ears listening. My own style changed, because I was aware of that.”
Her songwriting — though yielding a number of pop songs loved by her fans — became even more warped, she says, after Belly’s highly anticipated second (and last) album, “King,” failed to meet commercial expectations.
While making “King,” “we were given kind of free rein, because the label was kind of bemused by our success, not knowing where it was coming from,” Donelly says. (Fueled by “Feed the Tree,” Belly’s 1993 debut, “Star,” went on to sell more than 500,000 copies.) “So they were thinking, ‘Well, maybe they’ll do it again if we just leave them to their own devices.’ But exactly the opposite was true. So all that pressure came down on me for [Donelly’s solo debut issued in 1997 on Reprise] ‘Lovesongs [for Underdogs’].”
After she created and added that album’s lead single, “Pretty Deep,” in the 11th hour, “because I was told to write a pop song,” Donelly says there was no way of denying that she was not being true to herself.
“That was a song for the radio. And I wish I hadn’t done that. And ‘The Bright Light’ is on there for the same reason,” she says, noting, “and I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘Ew, the big, bad record company made me do this or that,’ because it’s not true. [‘Lovesongs’] became a more transitional record than I wanted it to be, [because] I panicked at the last minute and put pop songs on it that I wrote specifically for that purpose.”
But, now, after settling down, Donelly’s back to “being unconscious again-happily unconscious! [Laughs].”
“For me, for some reason, the less I try, the more real stuff comes through. I guess I put my head aside and I actually say what I mean. And then, when I really try hard to say what I mean, it seems strident and forced and untrue.”
“I think the fact that I’m so focused on Gracie has allowed that side of me to work on its own. So now, when I write, it’s almost as if the process has been going on without me being aware of it.”
As a result, “Beautysleep” has become the album Donelly was “going for last time,” a set that is often more subdued and moody than “Lovesongs.” Gone is the pop bombast of “Pretty Deep” and “The Bright Light.” While professing her love for Gracie and Fisher, she delivers a bitter, heartbreaking goodbye to an ex-lover on the ballad “So Much Song.”
Her occasionally whispered vocals are at times sweet, at times sexy, and even a little spooky on the howlin’-at-the-moon-, Middle Eastern-feeling “Moonbeam Monkey.” And, of course, there are a few dramatic choruses and big guitar solos, in addition to what sounds like sleigh bells and flutes.
Again backing Donelly on drums is David Narcizo (formerly of Throwing Muses) and multi-instrumentalist Rich Gilbert of Frank Black’s the Catholics.
Because of Gracie, Donelly will play small groups of shows to support “Beautysleep” — in place of a month- or two-month-long road trip — Beggars Banquet CEO Lesley Bleakley says. She adds that the label has shot a video for “Keeping You” and is pursuing airplay at U.S. triple-A stations with “The Night You Saved My Life.”
Because Donelly’s been out of the spotlight for the better part of five years, awareness will prove key for Beggars, says Bella Ardus, manager of a Tower Records in Boston. “I think that people will get excited about it once they know it’s out there,” Ardus says. “She’s had a bit of a hiatus, which isn’t necessarily going to help her. But if she has good publicity, she’s going to do well — she always does.”