In 1985, when I was 15 years old, my best friend's older brother gave me a cassette tape that said "Throwing Muses Demo" on the label. The first time I played it I was completely blown away — it was like nothing that I had ever heard before. But somehow the fact that the people that made the music on the tape lived two towns away made it seem tangible. I was already a home 4-tracker and budding songwriter, but the existence of this tape made it seem that I could make "real" music someday as well. Some 28 years later, through many serendipitous connections, I have had the pleasure of working with Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly as a producer, engineer, and collaborator. Beyond Throwing Muses, Tanya has been involved in the seminal bands The Breeders and Belly and has an illustrious solo career.
Can you give me an overview of the Swan Song Series?
Swan Song Series is a collection of EPs released digitally through my site and Bandcamp. They are collaborations, primarily with friends from over the years, but also with people that I reached out to, such as authors and other musicians that I admired but didn't know. I reached out to them to either write with me, or play on the music that I was making. There were also producers that I wanted to work with, such as yourself. Basically, the inspiration for this came from the Cabinet of Wonders that my friend John Wesley Harding puts together. At the end of those nights, people were reaching out to each other, saying, " Let's write something together." I followed up on those conversations almost immediately. The songs I wrote with Wes, Mary Gaitskill, and Rick Moody came from those events. From that point I just kept the ball rolling. That's where that was all born from.
Were you surprised how the results came out?
I was, and I wasn't, surprised. I went into it wanting to push my own boundaries and do something that felt more like a village of people making music together. That came exactly as I expected. I think that what surprised me was just the fact that when I went into it, I told everyone not to send me a song that they thought would sound like me. That was one of my prerequisites. I'm coming to these people because I like what they do, so I told them to send me what they do, not to try to tailor it to what they thought might fit me. Everybody pretty much rose to that, which was a happy surprise for me. I think it made the whole thing much more joyful and fun. For instance, if someone sent me words, I wrote music that I wouldn't have written in my own lyrical style. If someone sent me music, then the words that came out of me would not have come out otherwise. The whole process was really wonderful and engaging for me, in a way that I hadn't really felt in a while. Oddly, even though it was a massive project with dozens and dozens of people involved, it ended up feeling like a real community project in a way. It feels like a giant band to me. That's been really wonderful.
Do you think that the process itself created results that wouldn't have happened, had you gone in a more traditional direction?
Yes. Part of that is the fact that I wasn't just writing with other people. It was also the process of recording with so many of them. Sometimes I'm in the room when things are being recorded, and sometimes I'm not. That was a very different experience. I think there was more trust. For instance, Jacob Valenzuela from Calexico plays trumpet on a song called "Making Light." He came back with this beautiful, perfect part. That happened over and over again, and I feel like it was a very opening experience for me. I think it's difficult sometimes, as a songwriter and musician, to just say, "Here's my song. Do what you're going to do with it and I'll accept it!" There was not one case where I did that and was disappointed. I was just amazed by, and happy with, everything that came back. It ended up being a very successful experiment.
In a lot of ways, you had to act like a general contractor for these sessions, keeping tabs on the songs in different stages of completion in different studios.
I like that. That should be an official musical title. "General Contractor." It did feel like that.
You would send me an email and say, "Hey, are you available on this day? We'll do this piece." Sometimes it was even for pieces that we weren't working on directly.
I will say that the people that I worked with — you, [Paul Q.] Kolderie [Tape Op #22], and Scott Janovitz — were people that I already trusted implicitly from the production and engineering end of things. By putting it into the hands of engineers and producers who I could trust, and who I knew were going to get me something of great quality, I took less risk in that department.
How many different studios were part of the project?
Tons of them. A lot of people worked with their home studios as well and sent tracks in from their homes; like Chris Ewen did everything at home. It was really kind of all over the place. Probably eight or nine studios, at the end of the day. [See sidebar]
What was your methodology for keeping all of it organized and on time?
I didn't have any methodology at all. Any time constraints were of my own making, so it was very flexible. There were several times that I delayed a release because I was waiting for something to be mixed or mastered. The methodology was all over the place. It really went song by song. It depended on who was responsible for what, who was contributing what, and if we were waiting on a musician to finish a part and send the track. Every step of the way was just a very daily, organic process.
No project management software? No spreadsheets?
None. Nothing like that. Everything came together at Q Division [Studios], where I mastered half the stuff, and with Eric Masunaga [Modulus Studios] who mastered half.
I think the tightest one was something like, "I need this by Saturday." You were here on a Thursday, so I still had to mix what we did with Gail Greenwood [of Belly].
Oh, yeah. The one with Gail was the tightest one. It was hard to get Gail and I into the room at the same time for a while. Scheduling wise, not emotionally!
Something you mentioned once stuck with me. With all the time that you spent at Fort Apache, it was more than just a studio. It was like a creative homebase, and a community. Was this a way for you to recreate that?
I hadn't thought about that; but yes, I think that's it exactly. My ideal music making is like the zocalo at the end of the night, when the whole village comes together and everybody plays at whatever level of talent and enthusiasm that they are able. I love that feeling. It's even greater than being on a team. That's how the Fort felt to me. There were so many people invested in it, in and out of those doors, and I do miss that. That was part of this too, to pull all those threads together.
As an artist, do you feel that the studio experience lends itself to your creative process?
Absolutely. I think that when the Muses were very young and we were just getting started working with Gary Smith, in particular, and later [Paul Q.] Kolderie and [Sean] Slade [Tape Op #22], it was the training ground for us. Fort Apache was where all the pre-production happened. That's where the inspiration came, from being in the same room, with the same people, day in and day out, for weeks at a time. It absolutely adds something. The model of working with another pair of ears is really important to me. Almost every producer or engineer we ever worked with was as much a part of making those albums as we were. We were very open to suggestions. We started understanding how important the placement of a mic was, or how you can play with equipment outside of your own personal gear. That was illuminating. I absolutely am old school, in terms of how I feel about studios; as well as the people that work in them and bring their extra level and layer of inspiration to a project. I think that comes directly from Gary Smith, I have to say. He's just very egalitarian about how he produces, in terms of listening to everyone in the room. I think that set a template for us and what we expected from that relationship.
What you did for Swan Song Series is a lot different than what you did in the past, especially with the bands you were in. Making a Throwing Muses or a Belly recording, you're in one place for a specific amount of time and had to complete a record.
Right. It's totally different. This project is not an album. I never meant for it to be as cohesive and thematic, or for it to have the same feeling. In fact, I wanted it to be as scattershot as possible. I feel like with albums, that little microcosm of both space and time is really important for making something that sounds and feels like an album. Clearly this is an arguable point of view, but I personally feel like the albums that I love as a listener — and the albums I love that I've made — have been this finite thing where we're going from one place to another place, we're going with these people, and it's going to be in this room. You hear that. It's a whole, enclosed piece when you make it that way. You have a cohesive thing, as opposed to a bunch of songs put in one place to listen to. It's bigger than that. I think the downside is that you can have weaker songs that are supported by the stronger one. Now I feel like the songs really have to be stronger. If you're doing everything piece-by-piece, or putting out one song at a time, they have to be stronger. I've been guilty of filler. It's like, "Oh, we only have 12 songs. We should have 14."
"What's that other song you've got?"
"What's that awful thing that we hated? Let's do that."
You've worked with some "big name producers." Paul Q. Kolderie, Glyn Johns, Gil Norton, Gary Smith, and Dennis Herring [Tape Op #48]. Does working with somebody that is also a star in the recording world make a difference?
Yes. I think those were all like blind date situations. We were absolutely set up. I think that it worked out, particularly with Glyn, who I absolutely love as a person and a producer. That was a very good match for us in every way; personality-wise and work-wise. He brought Jack Joseph [Puig] with him too, which was great. They were an amazing team, because they totally complemented each other stylistically. It was just a great experience.
That record, Belly's King, was banged out live?
When we were auditioning and meeting with producers, Glyn was the only one who said that he thought we should make a live record. We thought that was exciting. He said that he'd seen us live and that we were a great live band. Of course there are layers to that one somewhat, but for the most part King is completely and entirely live. That really appealed to us. And we were smitten with him, I'll admit.
Just from your meetings?
From his history, the meetings, and the potential storytelling hours. I know some people find him prickly, but the way it translates to me is that he's honest. He doesn't pull punches, but he's certainly not an unkind man. He never rubbed me the wrong way at all, not for a second.
That goes back to what you were saying about having another set of ears that will be honest with you.
Yes. His pre-production was brutal and necessary. It was eye-opening. It was interesting to work with someone who was coming from the perspective of wanting you to have everything ready to go when you come into the studio. We spent as much pre-production time with him as we did recording time. It was really fun, for one thing. It felt like we were building something. He came at it looking at whether or not we needed a part, or whether something was essential. As writers, it's like, "Yes, of course it's essential! That's the part where I do this, and that's so important!" In terms of craftsmanship, he's the master. I mean it in the best possible way. He's a songwriter's producer.
What about other producers?
Gil Norton was awesome. He's wonderful and was a friend of ours for years on the back of that. I feel that we [Throwing Muses] went into it quite armored. We were anxious about what the big, fancy producer was going to do to us. We were teenagers, so we were nervous. It's funny. We just felt like he was trying to overproduce, putting bells and whistles on. But when I listen to that record now [Throwing Muses' self-titled debut], I think it sounds so much like us. It's so raw compared to other stuff. Part of that was us fighting things that he wanted to do, but a lot of it is because he was dealing with four very right-out-of-the-cradle musicians. We were extremely defensive of what we were doing, as we should have been; but I think that we overreacted sometimes to certain things. Like reverb. We were rubbing up against reverb. Now I'm like, "Juice it up!" At the time, we were also anxious about everything. But he's a wonderful producer, clearly. I don't think that has to be said.
One of the techniques that you learned, and have used, is the "rule of four..."
The rule of four! A backup for backups. That was the Kolderie and Slade trick, where you sing it four times, don't worry about what's coming out, and then listen to all four together. Most of the time when you blend them it works out. The edges smooth themselves out, miraculously.
It really does work.
I've done it ever since. Another trick that Jack Joseph and Glyn taught me was that you sing in the control room with the speakers just perfectly aligned, so that it's out of phase where you can't hear the track in the mic. That way I don't have to sing with headphones. I prefer not to sing with headphones. It depends on the song, but for the most part I like to hear myself in the room. That's a trick I learned from them that I've since applied, but it's not always the best.
You've got to show me how to do that.
Oh god, I don't know how to do it myself. Talk to Scott Janovitz. He figured it out for me. You get a tiny bit of bleed, but I'm willing to sacrifice a little bit of that for a good vocal, of course.
You like it because you feel like you're more in the music itself?
Yes, and because I'm not alone, standing in a room behind glass. Which is fine too. When I'm singing anything super personal... everything I do is somewhat personal... but if I'm singing something that 's potentially upsetting to me, I prefer to be behind glass, in another room with the headphones on. But particularly for songs that I have to sing out and really push, I want to be in the room, with the people, and have the music in the room with me.
You'd say that we were going to do vocals, line by line. You'd have specific ideas about how you wanted to do sessions going in. As an engineer, that makes it so easy.
That's nice to hear.
And then I'd make the face if I thought that what you were doing was out of tune.
Yep, every producer's got a face they make, or a physical quirk that accompanies that.
You were saying, "I need to be able to see you so that I know when you don't like what I'm doing."
For the distribution of Swan Song Series you're using social media, the website, and Bandcamp. How is that working?
I love it. I've had many calls for vinyl, but really just a handful for CDs. I'd be happy to do that, at some point. I like it because it's the first time I've ever had product control myself. I don't mean that in any kind of micromanaging way. It's just like having a boutique. It makes the floating of everything easier for me. I can budget myself. I know what I'm able to do and what I'm not. There's a direct connection to the people. I love the fact that someone will be like, "Here's $5 for the new EP," and then they can write me a note! It's just so folksy and sweet. There's something really nice about reading those. I like that personal transaction. It feels more gratifying to me right now, at this stage of my life.
We need vinyl!
Yeah, vinyl would be cool. And wouldn't Sue McNally's paintings look amazing? That's 60 percent of why I want to do vinyl — to get Sue McNally's paintings in a tangible form. She's one of my favorite artists. I think it would look beautiful.
In my formative years I'd listen to the music and I'd look at the cover.
Artwork was so important. That's another way of pulling people in from your community that you admire. Something that broadens the music. Talking about the artwork was one of my favorite parts of putting an album together. I have felt like that with the Swan Song Series. While I've felt that satisfaction in having her piece accompany each [digital] EP, I would also like to hold it in my hands.
You're playing live with Throwing Muses again. How is that?
It's been amazing. It's just been so much fun. It's this utopian situation for me, because I get to play my new stuff, some Belly songs, and then some solo songs. I get to do this set before the Muses' set, which is half catalog and half new stuff, and then I get to play a set with the Muses! I feel like every night is this retrospective thing for me. It's been gratifying. For so long I avoided playing older songs, or songs that were too connected to some time in my life that I was still struggling with. Certain songs represented something inaccurate, or some inaccurate representation to me. It'd be too cheesy to do one song, too soon to do another, or too late to do another. Now I have none of that baggage left at all, so I'll play whatever song I feel like playing. That's been really wonderful. Playing with Kristin [Hersh], Dave [Narcizo], and Bernie [Georges] has been wonderful. I love the people in my solo band too, so top to bottom it's been a good experience. I think that's what's nice about it for us is that it's a very good balance of everybody acknowledging that there's a little bit of nostalgia involved; but primarily the Muses are playing new songs, and so am I. We're feeling like when we do play the old stuff, it fits in a very nice way and brings the room together. I think that we have a balance, material-wise, that makes everyone happy.
You can hear the song itself, but you can approach it the way that you want to now.
Yeah. Right. For that reason, I feel like the old stuff fits in. These old ones are just part of a lifetime's body of work. So are the new ones. It just feels good. And personally, it couldn't be more fun hanging out with those guys again.
You're entering 30 years in the music business.
I know. What the hell?
What advice to you have for anyone making music right now?
My advice has always been the same, which is to trust your instincts and surround yourself with people that you love and trust. I think you should make sure that you're paying attention to your personal muse, as well as being open to influences that are going to enhance that; but not to the point where you lose the original voice. I feel like that advice is timeless.