Like most singers, Tanya Donelly avoids eating before gigs. After the show she will “scarf every noodle in your town.” She’s earned her noodles. In fact for a good summer read, sit down with Donelly’s discography. It starts with a bang: those Throwing Muses records that rearranged our brain cells in the ‘80s. The plot thickens with Pod, the brilliant first record by the Breeders, and explodes into the pop glory of Belly. At this point you’ll be thinking, who else has been a vital part of not one, not two, but three influential and successful indie bands? And there’s still much more to the story, including both a substantive solo career showcasing her always tough and tender songwriting, and notable recent collaborative endeavors that stretch the usual boundaries of collaboration.
In the latter category, consider Donelly’s Swan Song Series, which began in 2013. For this series of online EPs, Donelly has co-written with fellow musicians Robyn Hitchcock, Bill Janowitz, and Naomi Yang, as well as with writers Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, and Tom Perotta. Donelly also took part in the The Recipe Project, putting a recipe for peanut butter brunettes by vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz to music with Brooklyn band One Ring Zero. Of “Peanut Butter Brunettes” one Facebook fan writes, “I could listen to Tanya Donelly sing the phone book.” But Donelly doesn’t just sing the recipe, she animates it into a pop earworm: “mix together, peanut butter, oil and sugar, milk and vanilla…”
It’s no wonder she can sing a recipe with such conviction—this Grammy award-wining, well-travelled musician is clearly no slouch when it comes to food. Paste admits to drooling over her descriptions of roast chicken, fingerling potatoes, and olive oil lemon cake at home in Massachusetts, roadside fish tacos in LA, and deep-fried candy bars in Glasgow. Donelly will release one final bonus EP in the Swan Song Series, accompanied by a vinyl and CD release later this year or early next year. Let’s hope there will be some live performances along with the release. Cross your fingers, world. And ready your noodles.
Paste: When you’re home, what do miss about eating on the road?
Tanya Donelly: I love discovering regional traditions and quirky favorites, and miss that variety. Also I sometimes miss the lawlessness of road eating. Powdered cheese-covered popcorn for lunch, as an example.
Paste: When you’re on tour or traveling, what food from home do you crave?
TD: Fresh pasta with lemon basil pesto and asparagus, huge side of garlic bread with green olive tapenade, roasted cherry tomatoes and Parmesan. Also simple roast chicken and fingerling potatoes, a big fresh Boston Bibb salad with garbanzos and grape tomatoes.
Paste: What’s the quirkiest consumable item you’ve ever had on a rider?
TD: My riders have always been fairly pragmatic and un-fun—veggies, hummus, cheese, fruit, etc. But I do often request (gently suggest) that something local be thrown in, at the discretion of the rider provider. This can lead to something wonderful or something awful—a win either way. This is how I discovered my beloved Twiglets.
Paste: Can you describe one restaurant anywhere in the world that you most look forward to visiting when you’re on tour?
TD: Unsurprisingly, I tended to crave comfort food when I toured a lot, so places like The Grit in Athens stand out in memory. I love the food trucks in Portland, the Baguette Barge in Stratford-on-Avon UK (chicken tikka baguette), the food stalls in Chinatown SFC, roadside fish tacos in LA, farmers markets everywhere. I love food made by good home cooks that decided to take it outside.
Paste: Is there anything special you like to eat before playing a show, or anything you specifically avoid eating before playing?
TD: I’m normally a very enthusiastic eater, but I have no hunger whatsoever the day of a show. I have horrible stage fright to this day. I’ll force some fruit, and that’s it. But after the show I will scarf every noodle in your town.
Paste: Do you have any superstitious pre-show drink rituals?
TD: I drink a glass of red in the half-hour pre-show. (Also related to the stage fright mentioned in the food-before-show question above.)
Paste: Can you tell me about a food that you were supposed to like but didn’t?
TD: Okay, ‘fessing up: I don’t like kale, chards, or similar hardy greens (unless I’ve boiled them down to goo in soup, which I love, or flash broiled them to ash, which I love). I don’t usually enjoy sprouted wheat, or most grainy breads (there are exceptions to which I am devoted—Nashoba Brook Slow-Rise 7-Grain being one). I prefer fluffy baguettes and baby spring greens.
Paste: What’s your funniest on-the-road food story?
TD: Probably the funniest would be 1 a.m. deep-fried pizza followed by deep-fried candy bars from a street cart in Glasgow with David and Harriet from The Sundays. Miraculously we suffered no terrible results.
Paste: How about the worst?
TD: The worst would be weeklong food poisoning in Allston, MA after a show sometime in the mid-‘80s. I was talked into an (at the time) iconic after-show roast beef/seafood place that I’d wisely avoided up to that point. Being vegetarian at the time I ordered french fries, which tasted like both roast beef and fish. Blegh. (Is the roast beef/seafood diner a New England thing? And: why? Why?)
Paste: What’s the best meal you’ve had lately?
TD: Crab and lentil kibbeh in coconut curry at Sarma in Somerville, MA. I’m crazy for Ana Sortun’s food.
Paste: Do you cook or bake at home? Do you have a specialty?
TD: I cook all the time. Right now, my kids and I are into making fresh homemade pasta with various sauces (pestos of all kinds, tapenades, roasted veggies)—quick, simple, and always good. I have a few things I make often (maybe too often), including a re-engineered Chicken Marbella: I follow the traditional recipe but use Kalamata rather than green olives, red wine in place of white, black mission figs instead of prunes. I serve it with large pearl couscous sprinkled with rosewater.
Freda Love Smith is a drummer and writer whose food memoir, Red Velvet Underground, is forthcoming on Agate. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter: @fredalovesmith.