One of the great things about music is the perfect song always seems to appear to us when we need it most. Anyone who’s fallen in love, gone through a breakup or dealt with teen angst remembers the songs that soundtracked those days.
“Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters,” an album of covers, was recorded before COVID-19 devastated 2020, but it’s come to us now when we need it most.
A founding member of Throwing Muses, the Breeders and Belly, Donelly lends her vocals to the Parkington Sisters’ arrangements of nine songs originally recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Wings, Leonard Cohen and the Pretenders.
The album could be seen as a way to comfort listeners.
“I feel like, maybe, it’s a compilation of lullabies, in a way,” she says. “A weird one, but it could be viewed that way.”
The partnership between the Parkington Sisters—Rose, Sarah and Ariel Parkington—and Donelly originated at a Boston-area charity event.
“Gail (Belly’s bassist Gail Greenwood) and I are part of an annual fundraiser here, brought together by (former Boston Red Sox GM and current Chicago Cubs President) Theo Epstein and (baseball writer) Peter Gammons called Hot Stove, Cool Music,” Donelly says.
“I met Nora Parkington, who is actually the only sister who does not play on the album. She was playing that night and we just kind of hit it off, and I was immediately enamored with her playing. I started listening to their music on the heels of having met her, and I fell in love with the whole band and then with the whole family. So, when (American Laundromat Records founder) Joe Spadaro asked me if I wanted to make a dedicated covers album, they came to mind very quickly.”
Recording a covers album can be fun for an artist, but it also comes with the burden of the songs having already been established in the minds of the listener. Donelly didn’t feel that pressure.
“With Belly, we did many covers for B-sides and I was never as concerned about living up to the standard of the songwriter and the song,” she says.
“I think it’s because this handful of songs I chose myself and for very personal reasons, each of them, so that brings a weight with it. And all of my energy went into singing. Not just singing well, but singing thoughtfully, so that makes this a very different sort of covers thing, especially (because) I’m covering some of my favorite lyricists and artists of all time.”
For example, the second track is the Cohen song “Dance Me to the End of Love.” The women decided to change it up.
“That was a conversation where we decided we wanted it to sound more torchy,” Donelly says.
“It has kind of a French bar room vibe, the original, and we wanted to take it into a more ‘jazz torch’ direction. That was a very conscious decision to move it away from the original a little bit. It’s such a beautiful love song—just an incredible love song—the scope of what he covers lyrically. We just wanted to slow it down and make every word count, every moment count.”
Perhaps the album’s most recognizable song is “Different Drum,” the Michael Nesmith-penned classic made famous by the Stone Poneys and their up-and-coming lead singer Ronstadt. Donelly says there was no added pressure to put her own stamp on the song.
“I’m too subjective to know what that stamp is, so I don’t know that I could contemplate that,” she says.
Some of the songs proved to be more challenging than others.
“There were some, and ‘Different Drum’ was one of them, and ‘Days’ (a 1989 Kirsty MacColl song), which I thought there’d be some ease to doing that one, was the hardest. Kirsty MacColl—obviously an incredible singer, but there’s just such fluidity and an ease to the way she sings, and that song is hard to sing.”
Donelly says she’s looking forward to performing the songs live, while acknowledging it won’t be anytime soon.
“Oh, we’ll definitely do it live at some point,” she says. “I’m not sure what that will look like, and we did have shows booked (before COVID-19 lockdowns). We had a winery show. We had a festival on the North Shore. We had D.C. We had New York. We were talking about all of these things for this summer, and so we’re definitely going to come back to that. I’m not going to say, ‘Hopefully.’ I’m going to say we’re definitely going to come back to that.”
Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters