The Magnificent ’90s: Tanya Donelly

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Tonya Donelly

Throwing Muses breathed new life into post-punk. The band emerged onto the scene in 1986, just as classic acts like Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd were starting to fade. Their debut self-titled record returned to alternative rock a sense of youthful urgency – a frantic search for meaning amidst a sea of synthpop and Reaganites.

The face of Throwing Muses was (and continues to be) Kristin Hersh. As the Muses’ principal singer and songwriter, Hersh’s eerie, beautiful vocals simultaneously sent chills down listeners’ spines and breathed fire into their hearts. With sudden, dramatic dynamic shifts and deeply expressive phrasing, Hersh is the sort of vocalist that demands your attention.

Tonya Donelly
Tonya Donelly

But the unsung heroine? Lead guitarist Tanya Donelly.

If Kristin Hersh laid the quavering, cryptic foundation of Throwing Muses, Tanya Donelly built the hallucinatory walls surrounding it. Her dizzying arpeggios, agitated strumming and unusual chord progressions delivered a perfect counterpoint to Hersh’s unhinged poetry.

One of the best examples of Donelly’s early work is the Muses’ 1991 breakthrough, The Real Ramona. Her consistently original style shines through in every song, providing an essential component of the band’s beautiful delirium. To enhance the effect further, Donelly used modulation and distortion to create a sound that was both hazy and angular.

The Real Ramona also showcased Donelly’s flair for songwriting. “Not Too Soon” proved her capable of writing the catchiest of radio-friendly tunes, while “Honeychain” demonstrated her ability to shatter pop conventions while retaining coherence and unity.

Tanya continued to develop her writing when she departed from Throwing Muses to form Belly. The band’s debut, Star, was a stand-out in a particularly strong year for indie rock. On the opener, “Someone to Die For,” Donelly hypnotizes gently with both voice and guitar before launching into the “Angel,” a high-energy number that gives us a glimpse of her darker side.

Even as she settled into the dreaded singer/songwriter role in the late ‘90s, Tanya lost none of her creative spark. In the face of inevitable comparisons to Hersh’s successful solo career, Donelly has crafted such lovely excursions as 2002’s Beautysleep and 2004’s Whiskey Tango Ghosts.

Certainly, the ‘90s was a time of guitar goddesses: Rachel Goswell, Kim Deal, and Emma Anderson, to name a few. But among these pioneers of indie rock, Tanya Donelly stands tall – not just as one of the first, but also as one of the undisputed best.

And yes, that includes guys as well as girls.

Read More on the “Magnificent 90’s” which highlights the unsung guitar heroes from that decade:

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Adam Jazairi

Adam Jazairi is a writer, art historian, director, and literary critic, and I guess he sorta likes guitars, too. He has become a shameless gearhead with an incurable case of GAS (that’s “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” for those of you who have been fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this horrible illness). His heart has room for three true loves: his Tele, his JC-120, and his pedalboard.

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