Tanya Donelly and Brian Sullivan: Setting sail with The Loyal Seas

Tanya Donelly and Brian Sullivan are recalling how they first met at a New England recording studio 26 years ago.

Tanya Donelly and Brian Sullivan of The Loyal Seas. Picture: Ann Sullivan-Cross
Tanya Donelly and Brian Sullivan of The Loyal Seas. Picture: Ann Sullivan-Cross

Donelly, who by then had been in the bands Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, was working on her first solo album, Lovesongs For Underdogs, at Fort Apache in Cambridge, Massachussetts, when she encountered Sullivan, who had “told a little fib” to get an internship from college.

“I basically worked for free for six months just to be there,” he remembers – or, as Donelly quips: “Just to get close to the magic.”

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From then on they became firm friends. “From my perspective we hit it off very quickly,” Donelly says. “The office (at Fort Apache) was populated by people who were also musicians, so there was a real kindred spirit there. We were all playing music together, singing together and going out together. I think immediately I started treating Brian like a little brother, like it or not. Lots of unsolicited advice and hair touselling.”

“My first impression was that Tanya encompasses this grace about her – I think that’s why people gravitate towards her, and she became another older sister figure,” says Sullivan.

A “pivotal” point of connection was a shared love of The Go-Go’s, whose album Beauty and The Beat they had both bought in the early 1980s. “I learned now to play drums to that record,” Sullivan recalls. “It was one of the records that I used to play guitar to (as well). If you’re a songwriter and you listen to that record it puts some extra pop into your DNA.”

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the pair have finally made an album together. They call their band The Loyal Seas, and the record, Strange Mornings in the Garden. The album follows fleeting collaborations over the years on Sullivan’s Dylan In The Movies project and Donelly’s Swan Songs series of EPs as well as covers on American Laundromat tribute albums to The Cure and The Smiths.

Donelly recalls she’d invited Sullivan to a dinner party and “Brian went off and started playing piano in the other room and I basically said, ‘That thing that you’re playing, I would like to have that, please’”.

With lyrics from Donelly, the song became Last of the Great Machines.

“This is going to sound dramatic, but when he started playing the lyrics started coming immediately,” Donelly remembers. “I was like talking to someone, in the middle of a conversation, multi-tasking.”

“That was the night when I said, ‘Why don’t we just make a record together?’ and T was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do that,” Sullivan says.

While quarantining on opposite coasts of the US during the Covid lockdown, the pair began sending ideas back and forth over the internet. “We had standing meetings every Friday,” Sullivan says.

“It was music therapy but also just having a weekly check-in,” says Donelly.

“We did a lot of file-sharing and even just memos on your phone, saying ‘what do you think of this?’” adds Sullivan. “Then we’d get into more full-on demos. I wrote a lot of music for the record and I would send it to T, and T wrote 90 per cent of the melodies and lyrics. It was like Christmas morning for her to send it back to me, when you’d get it back it was always beautiful, it was like a series of awesome surprises.”

“I feel that way whenever I hear music from you, so that works both ways,” says Donelly.

Each song had its own inspiration, Donelly says. “Sometimes Brian would have a line or two or a verse or a chorus and that would inform where my head went lyrically,” she explains. “Then sometimes I totally derailed him. But I think Brian and I live on the same musical planet, so his compositions immediately trigger something for me that I am able to draw from.

“Thematically I would say there are some songs about long relationships, and lots of travel, there’s a lot of landscape covered.”

“There’s a theme of hope that I think is subtle but if you listen it’s there,” adds Sullivan.

Given how difficult the past two years have been, not only with Covid but also the political machinations at the end of the Trump era, this album feels like an antidote to hard times. “I hope so,” says Donelly. “It certainly was for me, just selfishly creating it.”

“It was a silver lining in an otherwise very bleak time,” agrees Sullivan. “I know making this record definitely saved me over and over again during that time.”

The Loyal Seas have three shows lined up in Boston and a streaming show is planned out of Q Division Studios in Cambridge, Massachussetts, before Donelly turns to making a new album with Belly and Sullivan returns to Dylan At The Movies. Yet the pair hope that their collaboration will be ongoing, especially as they will be near neighbours again in Boston.

“I feel like Brian and I are always going to want to write together in some capacity,” says Donelly.

“It’ll be ‘I’ve got a new song’,” jokes Sulivan, “‘check your email’.”

Strange Mornings in the Garden is out on Friday May 20 on American Laundromat. theloyalseas.bandcamp.com