Balm’s away

Tanya Donelly’s This Hungry Life
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  October 31, 2006

061103_tanya_main
BAD-NEWS DAYS: Donnelly’s sunny personality contends with frightening world events on her newest CD.
Karma is in full force on the morning Tanya Donelly and I meet at Carbury’s coffee shop in Arlington to talk about her new music. Donelly mostly writes sunny-day tunes, and this late September eye opener is so delightfully sprayed by warm rays that we conduct our interview outside on a picnic bench, where the sounds of birds in the surrounding trees and the busses rolling along Mass Ave share room with her appealingly earthy voice on my tape.

But even sunny days can have clouds, and Donelly’s new This Hungry Life (Eleven Thirty) has a few of its own. The darkest is “Kundalini Slide,” a plea for clarity in a world shadowed by violence, set to music that rests easy and then crashes in waves of sound as she sings, “And the doors of the churches blow wide/And there’s nothing but fear inside/And the doors of the mosques blow wide/And there’s nothing but fear inside.”

“That was written on a bad-news day,” says Donelly, who in her little red dress, matching clogs, and Cleopatra Jones sunglasses still looks more like a rock star than a suburban mom, though she’s both. “It sounds like an angry song, because it’s a rocker. It’s actually very sad. That’s unusual for me, because I’m generally not a hopeless person. But I felt very hopeless that day, and afraid. The song is about people working, acting, and praying out of fear. And here I am pointing this out by writing out of fear. It’s about how fear-based our culture is at this moment.

“It was tough for me to sing, because I am a very devout person in my own customized way. I’m not an atheist, but I understand atheists’ frustration with the world stage dominated by zealots now. The target of the song isn’t faith or the faithful. It’s about zealotry and how we come at each other from a place of fear or anger.”

Most of This Hungry Life is a balm, however. Donelly still has one of the warmest voices in rock, more comforting than cutting even when she’s singing about life’s uncertainties or navigating sweet and sour contemplations on existence like the title track. The album balances gentility with substance, thanks to her literate writing and the mix of sounds made by pedal-steel-guitarist Rich Gilbert and violinist Joan Wasser. Their fretless instruments converge in colorful ways that sometimes obscure who’s playing what. Donelly even dips into magic realism with “Littlewing,” a tale about a woman struck by lightning multiple times that she’s in the process of expanding into a book for young readers — in her spare time from recording and raising two children with her husband and musical accomplice, Dean Fisher.

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