Interview: Tanya Donelly has all her musical bases ‘covered’ in quarantine

Photo Credit: Kelly Davidson

Let it be known that Tanya Donelly and The Parkington Sisters had the most “New England” experience, ever, when recording their new covers album together.

The pairing was already an exquisite match — for every vocal sweet spot that longtime Boston baddie Donelly offers, the Wellfleet alt-folk trio cradles it with head-turning string arrangements, forming a bridge between generations of Massachusetts musicianship. But things got even cozier at Brick Hill Studios in Orleans, where the women bonded over recording sessions and fresh scallops, simultaneously shaping the gentle sound of Tanya Donelly and The Parkington Sisters, out today (August 14) via American Laundromat.

The final yield is an album that carries — and distributes — the unassuming grace that 2020 so desperately needs, sparked from a for-the-books mingling of New England talent. And that’s just venture number one on this year’s docket for Donelly.

Vanyaland recently spoke with the Donelly about her host of current projects, from her fresh record with The Parkington Sisters, to her fundraising covers EP Big Love Bends Time and cooking up quarantine tunes with fellow Belly member Gail Greenwood. Get the complete scoop below.

Victoria Wasylak: I kind of have to laugh because you’ve put out so much music over the years, but I don’t think anything could have prepared you to put out an album in a year like 2020.

Tanya Donelly: Right? Much like everyone, we considered pushing it back, but at this point, I feel like “let’s share this thing that we love, that we made.” What better time? In a way, we can’t really support it the way we wanted to in terms of playing live. But I just don’t even know what it would mean to push something back when we don’t know what the coming year is going to look like anyway.

When you were initially approached about doing this covers project, you were iffy, but when you thought of The Parkington Sisters, you thought, “Oh yes, let’s do it.” What about them made you feel that way? They were kind of the turning point for you.

Well, it’s kind of a twofold answer. First, I could actually sort of hear what that end result could be — to have it be actually a Parkington’s album of covers would be something that I would love to hear. The idea that this could be a cohesive Parkington’s-sounding project, something that, again, I would rush to hear, that was part of it. The other piece is I knew the level of musical proficiency that they have, combined with really good taste. I understood that I could go to them and say, “Here, I’m going to put this in your lap and basically sing over you.” And also, of course, they joined me in much of the singing. I just really had this very clear idea of what it would sound like.

Did they have any input at all on which songs you picked, or did you come forward with those songs?

I came forward with the songs. Thinking [of only] 9 or 10 songs, it was just almost impossible. I actually called Joe [Spadaro] from American Laundromat and said, “Should there be an overarching theme or should I just pull together a hodgepodge collection?” And he had the very sweet idea, he just said, “Just pay attention to what keeps popping up in your head and what has always been on regular rotation — think about why and pick some songs from that.” That was really good advice and guidance.

How long did it take you to finalize the list? I feel like I would have taken 10 years to do something like that.

Yeah. I think I have a more finite list of favorites. [laughs] It was actually really quickly — I think it was within a couple of days because it really was the stuff that just doesn’t leave my brain pan for whatever reason. There’s one exception, and that’s “Kid,” which was suggested by my friend Laura, who is Bill Janovitz’s wife. She is a close friend of mine. When I was talking to her about the project early on, she suggested that one.

I think it’s so nifty, you’re kind of continuing a new tradition from American Laundromat. Juliana Hatfield already did two cover records and now you’re continuing the line of that. When did Joe come to you with the idea for this, how long ago was that?

It was on the heels of Juliana’s Olivia Newton John covers album. I have to say, honestly, if I weren’t a witness to how much she’s getting out of doing those albums, I might not have been as quick to sign on. But I just feel like she’s just nailing it and really making her choices her own. And plus, just, she’s having fun doing it.

Did you have a lot of fun doing this?

I really did. And a lot of that has to do with [the fact that] we recorded in Orleans on the Cape, at this studio called Brick Hill Studios, and it’s owned and run by an engineer — John Evans, who has played with Tori Amos and Sarah McLaughlin. He toured with both of those women for many years, and Paula Cole and Linda Perry, and then just settled down on the Cape, I think several years ago. I’m not sure exactly when he moved back, but it segued into engineering and running his own studio.

The studio is the first sunny place I’ve ever recorded [at]. One entire wall is a big window and it’s just beautiful. And the Parkingtons bring their own, really nice, familial vibe. Ariel had just had a baby and he was with us. It was just like this incredibly earthy, grounded, lovely experience with lots of good food and laughter. The Parkingtons have a brother who is a scalloper and fisherman, and he would bring fresh scallops just off the boat. It’s just this idyllic, incredible experience.

Building on what you said a little bit earlier, aside from their unique sound, what do you think The Parkington Sisters brought to the record? What made them the perfect fit to do this?

Well, for one thing, I love that as soon as you introduce the strings — and I don’t mean orchestral, I mean that individual sound of three or four people playing strings and who are clearly playing together and you can hear each instrument — that absolutely reinvents anything that you’re covering immediately. It takes it out of the original format immediately. Once you’re in this new place, then you have more freedom to separate yourself from the original. We did go in feeling like we wanted to just honor [the songs] – not stick to the original formats, but honor them and not pull away and completely reinvent some songs that to our minds were already in perfect shape to begin with. The fact that the instrumentation is so different, just that alone brings it into a new room, which is nice.

Yeah, covers are such a difficult art form because some people don’t want to steer away from what the original sounded like, but then other people would wager that “Well, if you don’t sound different from the original, what’s the point?” And there’s no right answer, which I think is kind of terrifying.

Yeah, it’s true. I totally agree with you, and that’s why I’ve always sort of shied away. Belly did a lot of covers and I’ve certainly recorded other people’s work in the past, but never in a premeditated separate project way like this. But, yeah, to what you just said, those were all of my hesitations going in, when I was first not going to do it.

It’s so awesome that you have “Automatic” on the album and you just did that ONCE Somerville event with Kathy Valentine. How fortuitous is that?

I know! Well, I think one thing sort of led to another. Because I’ve been effusive for decades about them [The Go-Go’s], I’m sure that that’s poked into their radar a little bit. A few years ago I did sort of a “Desert Island Discs”-type interview, and Beauty and the Beat was one of my top 10 most informing albums of my life. I got a little note from them at that point.

And then, Kathy and Jane both reached out separately after that. Kathy and I had a very light Twitter-DM back and forth over the past couple of years. Then she asked me to host her book event. At the time, I was sort of feeling like, “If I tell her I just covered ‘Automatic’ on top of it, it’s just going to seem like I am incredibly focused.” But then when the “Automatic” came out, Kathy and Jane both, again, wrote [me]. And I have to tell you, I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a time when I hear from one of them that I don’t do a little dance in the kitchen.

When you were working on this record, did you think of any favorite covers albums that you have, that you already liked?

No. [laughs]

No? I appreciate your honesty.

I just didn’t. I mean honestly, again, back to Juliana, I feel like her Olivia album… she really made it her own and there’s so much love in that project that’s palpable. You could hear how much she loves her. But I did listen to that, just to see. And, it’s someone who is a peer as well, and I feel like I can relate to how she’s approaching her stuff. I love the American Laundromat projects, the Elliot Smith project, and the Wes Anderson movie one. Those are beautiful also, those collections.

Yeah, you’ve worked with a lot of different record companies, what is your relationship like with American Laundromat?

Oh, it’s very good! It’s just a level of transparency that I am completely unused to. He’s [Joe] just one of the most ethical people that I’ve ever known personally and in business. Every piece of financial information, everything he’s doing in terms of promotion, it’s just right up front. He has a team that he works with regularly who are wonderful. It’s truly a labor of love for him and he’s just really good at it. At the end of the day, he listens to the artist — just all things that I think artists aren’t 100% used to when dealing with any record label, major or indie. It’s a really nice relationship.

And it’s right here in New England so it’s a hometown feel, not someone out in L.A. trying to tell you what to do or anything like that. That must be nice.

It is, yeah. And, I mean, as you know, [I’m] well into my 50s at this point. I feel like the older I get, the smaller my, like, the territory I can focus on [becomes]. I just love having everybody close. That is really a nice feeling.

When you were working on this album, were you also writing your own music in between at home when it strikes you? Or were you completely focused on this one project?

With all of our varying schedules and limitations, it was probably two weeks, total, that we were in the same room together, but spread out over several months. In between those sessions, I was working on — I mean, I’m always writing — but I’ve been working on a project with Gail Greenwood from Belly. She and I are writing some stuff together. And then I’m also working on a new project with my friend Brian Sullivan from Dylan In the Movies. He and I are writing some songs together. So yeah, there’s been much to do.

I’m not a songwriter but I know that inspiration waits for no one. I can only imagine what it’s like trying to put together a covers album in a creative way, and then also, you go home and you try to close your eyes to sleep at night, and then you get an idea for your own thing. You’re like, “Oh, god damn it.”

Well, and that happens. I mean, I have to say, since we’ve been quarantined together, a lot of our day is spent managing food, and people’s schedules, and who needs to go where. And then at the end of it, I’m kind of exhausted and then I get into bed and I close my eyes and that’s when it all starts pouring in. That’s when I go down to the studio. So, yeah, it’s been a lot of sleeplessness, I guess, for me.

That’s honestly one of the things I would think that would also be intimidating about working on a cover album for any artist, thinking “Well, what am I going to do with all the ideas I get in the meantime? Is that going to get backed up?” Because like anything, musicianship and songwriting is like a muscle. If you’re focusing on someone else’s songs and you’re not focusing on your own as much, will that muscle get weaker? It just sounds very, very overwhelming if you want to also entertain the ideas you’re still getting.

Early on in the project, absolutely, I felt like, “Well, I’m already doing some things so I’m not going to be writing as much.” But what ended up happening is I did a Bandcamp fundraising series for several weeks in a row, which was also a covers project. You know, I’ve written a few songs on the back of covering a cover because some melody will come up, or some guitar idea while I’m recording a guitar part for a cover. Essentially, I would say, the Bandcamp series would actually lead to some inspiration for something original. That happened several times.

Right, because you have the Big Love Bends Time EP, which is one original and the other are covers. So this is just a covers year for you! I’m noticing a theme.

I know, it is. I’ve been thinking that. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m just going to become purely a covers artist.

For the original song on there, did you already have that up your sleeve? Or did you sit down with Gail and write this in a recent time?

No, that one is actually several months old, probably, at this point. That was the first one that we started working on before quarantine. Yeah, that’s probably, I think, five months, six months old, something like that. That was the first song that we started working on together. We were calling it a work in progress and then just decided, “Let’s just put it out there as part of this, just as a first foot forward.”

How many songs would you say that you’ve written with her this year? Or that might’ve been all of it because you wrote it and then we all had to stay in our houses immediately after.

But that’s actually conducive to working a little more, to be honest. I’m going to say we have five [songs], maybe, coming into shape at this point. Yeah, we’re just sending files back and forth to each other. She’s sending me pieces of songs that there’s no vocal melody or lyric, for the most part usually, but she’s playing drums, she’s playing bass, she’s playing the guitar, she’s playing keys. It’s a fully fleshed one-woman band coming at me and it’s kind of exciting. And it’s also just, “Where was this?” It’s just amazing… I’m very focused on making sure that we keep despair at bay. 

Do you know what you’re going to do with them yet?

No, we don’t. We’re just really focused on just getting them into shape, a condition that we are happy with, and then making decisions in “post” instead of, you know, making plans ahead of time.

Being from Boston and New England, and being such a staple of the music scene here for so long, things, I would say, in the past couple of years, have changed a lot in Boston. I think some people — not everyone — are struggling with the fact that it’s not strictly a rock city. How would you compare what we have now to what you experienced 20, 30 years ago?

I mean there was more of a bubble back then, which is not healthy, ever. I think there’s never a downside to a fertile, musically diverse community.  I actually would hope to see that deepen.

I’m wondering if we’re going to move towards a mini-festival model from this point and have that be more representative [of people and genres] in every way. I feel like that would be lovely. The few shows that I’ve played where it’s not just indie musicians and it’s been more open — it’s just been more interesting to play, it’s more exciting. I would love to see that open up even more once we’re all able to be in rooms together again.

Would you say that it’s a better environment for women musicians at this point or would you say it’s about the same?

I’m going to say better, and especially here. You know, Boston has always been relatively — and I’m using that as an important word, relatively — female-friendly in a noticeable way, I think, for people coming from other parts of the country and musical scenes. I hate drawing silver linings around it right now because it’s a little bit graceless, because we are in a terrible moment. But I’m hoping that on the other side of this, that this results in more room for people rather than less: More room for women, more room for true diversity in our musical community. I’m hoping that’s waiting for us on the other side.

One thing I will say, there have been a couple of moments, like with the Hot Stove [Cool Music] this year and with All In for Chelsea that Will Dailey was instrumental in putting together — no pun intended — where there’s been more of a genuine sampler of what’s happening in this city. And especially with Will’s projects, I’ve been calling him “Mayor Dailey.” He’s just made it a point to open the lens, and I think that’s been instructive and exciting for everyone. That’s kind of what I mean, “moving forward”: Having these online events that are much more blending. And I would love for that to continue into when we’re actually booking shows that people can attend in person, and stage-sharing instead of platform-sharing someday.