Released on July 26, Tanya Donelly’s third solo album, ‘Whiskey Tango Ghosts’, is a
new departure for her. On this gorgeous set of songs the musical arrangements are
boldly stripped-down, with the emphasis on her warm, resonant voice. “It was a
deliberate decision to turn my vocals up. I used to wince at the sound of my own voice.
This time I resisted the impulse to turn it down,” says Tanya. “And I’ve moved away
from criss-crossing melody lines. I wanted to keep this album streamlined, the simplest
possible.” From the solitary swing of ‘Divine Sweet Divide’, to the mellow Hammond
organ of ‘The Center’, and the percussive ‘Story High’, Tanya has created a sensual,
hypnotic album that is her most assured yet.
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Recorded earlier this year near her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it features
Tanya’s husband Dean Fisher (ex-Juliana Hatfield) on guitar, bass and drums, Rich
Gilbert (Frank Black and the Catholics) on pedal steel and Nashville guitar, and pianist
Elizabeth Steen (Natalie Merchant). Though Tanya had the final veto, there are no
production credits. “It was very fluid, everyone had input in that area,” she says.
Tanya’s track record is impressive: a founder member of Throwing Muses with her stepsister
Kristin Hersh, she left in 1991 to form the Breeders with Kim Deal. Soon after the
Breeders’ trailblazing debut, ‘Pod’, Tanya moved on to create her own group, Belly, and
their 1993 debut album ‘Star’ sold a million copies worldwide. They released a followup
album, ‘King’, but by the mid-nineties Tanya wanted to leave the band format behind
and branch out on her own. Her solo debut, ‘Lovesongs For Underdogs’, came out in
1997, to be followed by ‘Beautysleep’ in 2002.
For ‘Whiskey Tango Ghosts’ she explores new sounds, drawing on her love for
Stephen Sondheim and country music to celebrate the simplicity of song and voice.
She cites Lucinda Williams, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris as an influence, along
with alt-country stars like Neko Case and Wilco. “I’m less afraid of country now. If I had a
melodic chorus, I’d always write an ugly verse so it didn’t sound too nice. Now I’m letting
what comes come.”
Minimalist and melodic, each song is partly autobiographical, a reflection on where she is
now. ‘Divine Sweet Divide’, for instance, is about “working the space between yourself
and somebody else”, while the spine-tingling ‘My Life As A Ghost’ is about being a
mother and “stepping out of the stream of youth culture”, and ‘Golden Mean’, “finding the
state of neither excess nor deficiency. Balance. My history is one of extremes. Too
much drinking, no drinking. Too much love, no love!” The sweet, languid melodies and
sparse arrangements also reflect the atmosphere in which the album was made. “It was
a really oppressive winter here; a frozen, quiet, weird winter. A horrible war, a horrible
administration, a bleak, mean winter. This isn’t the subject of the songs, but it is the
There’s also the combative undertow of ‘Whiskey Tango’, the joy and struggle of
lifelong friendship in ‘Just In Case You Quit Me’, and a personal experience of Chaos
theory with ‘Butterfly Thing’. Each track is self-contained, gently off-kilter and beautifully
sung – a statement of love and life that Tanya will take on the road this summer. After
touring the US, she plays London’s Bush Hall on July 27th and 28th, with possible
further dates to be added. This is Tanya Donelly as you’ve never heard her; stepping
away from the shield of dissonant rock guitar to calmly and confidently take centre stage.