Interview: Naomi Yang of Damon & Naomi on Mass Ave, working with Tanya Donelly, and symbols of life around Boston
Massachusetts Avenue, the much-worked, well-loved street that runs like a river from Boston through Cambridge, has been the focal point of many a musician, lifting its essence, its atmosphere, and the memories it evokes, reflecting its very spirit in songs. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra wrote a song titled “Massachusetts Avenue” in 2012, and Tanya Donelly has brought it under her wing in a recent collection of EPs titled the Swan Song Series. Donelly, a resident of Cambridge at the very northern end of Mass Ave, began her musical career over three decades ago when her and step sister Kristin Hersh founded their band Throwing Muses as teenagers in and around Newport, Rhode Island. When the band ventured to the nearest city of Providence, in Donelly’s dad’s van, it wasn’t long before they were playing Lupo’s, before making the leap to live in Boston. At the time, it was the 1980s heyday of new music emerging from New England, especially, with the Pixies not far on the trail.
At that time, former Galaxie 500 songwriter Naomi Yang was also experiencing the Boston scene hanging around in Allston. Donelly went on to found the Breeders with Kim Deal, and latterly, her own band, Belly, alongside fellow Rhode Islanders Chris and Tom Gorman and Fred Abong on bass; before embarking on a solo career. Five solo albums later, Donelly has released a series of collaborations with friends, authors, musicians some of which are local to Boston and the surrounding areas, including Bill Janovitz, Bob Kendall and Brian Sullivan, formerly residing locally.
Included on her Swan Song Series is the track “Mass Ave,” a homage to the place Donelly now calls home. Whereas influences before, and behind her, might have included places familiar to her teenage self, perhaps even a dedication to Goat Island on Rhode Island (in her song “Goat Girl”), and evident themes of the ocean running throughout her work, especially on second solo album Beautysleep in 2002. “The Storm,” “The Wave,” and now, “Cape Ann,” “Christopher Street” — all of which are clearly nostalgic for Donelly, places which have played a significant part in her life history. One of which is Mass Ave.
Both Yang and Donelly have vital connections with Mass Ave and its abundance of music venues, including T.T. the Bear’s Place (now sadly closing), the Middle East, and the Lizard Lounge. Further afield, these venues have been pivotal points in the early careers of young musicians including Swedish sisters First Aid Kit who played the Middle East in 2010. Just off Mass Ave is Harvard Square, where Tracy Chapman learned her trade in busking. Currently, Christa Gniadek favours the domain of busking, as has Mary Lou Lord in the past. All drawing inspiration from the life within Boston and its communities. And it is no different for Naomi Yang and Tanya Donelly.
Enlisting Yang to direct her music video for “Mass Ave” seemed the natural choice. Yang formed her own label alongside Damon Krukowski, and released a further three Damon & Naomi albums. Now freelance with her film production and music, Yang has written and directed a film Fortune to accompany her full length LP of the same name. The 30-minute film explores themes of grief, self realisation and emergence from living in the shadows. She works alongside partner Krukowski, who has several books and blogs, and they will both be appearing at Brooklyn’s The Bell House tonight. This will be a rare opportunity to listen to Fortune in its entirety as well as enjoy the visual delights of Yang’s film. Below, you can also glimpse the grace and beauty of the perfectly produced video by Naomi Yang a homage to Boston’s Mass Ave, performed by Donelly (also appearing at The Bell House this evening, alongside husband and Juliana Hatfield bassist Dean Fisher, Sam Davol, Russell Chudnofsky, and special guests Rick Moody and Michael Hearst).
Recently, we had a chance to catch up with Yang about her time working on the video.
Melz Durston: Tanya has described her song “Mass Ave” as having a linear, forward motion to it. Inspired by a series of events one night, based on a true story. I wondered how much your inspiration for the video was born out of Tanya’s song and lyrics themselves, and how much was it based on a combination of imagery and a feeling that both you and Tanya wished to express about and to, your own memories and experiences of Mass Ave.
Naomi Yang: It was wonderful to collaborate with Tanya. As a fellow Bostonian, I could easily identify with the powerful memories that Mass Ave evokes; it is like a second river in Boston, running from the heart of the city through the towns that surround Boston, and out to the countryside. Tanya and I discussed this, and this street like a ribbon through our lives. I also wanted to bring out the feeling of freedom in the lyrics, of getting past one’s fears and taking a brave step forward.
Are you familiar with Joel Pessig’s video for Tanya’s song “Keeping You,” taken from 2002’s Beautysleep LP? That video seemed focused on nature, life, decay and fragility, and similar to your video, there was a similarity in how Tanya is presented and portrayed to viewers …an honesty, vulnerability and a strength, both. Did you hope and aim to reflect Tanya as she is?
I had not seen that video before you mentioned it, but it is beautiful. Tanya is a very down to earth and caring person, and so I think that the sharing of her experiences, and her encouragement of everyone around her, is absolutely part f of who she is, and this generosity is expressed in her songwriting too.
How long did the video take to complete?
It took a few weeks. We had some discussions over coffee in our favourite local bakery (which has a branch on Mass Ave!) and I shot some outdoor footage on different parts of Mass Ave at different times of day. Then it was one long evening of shooting, editing, and then we made changes together until we do found an edit we were happy with.
There are moments in your video that seem to signify a looking back, a nostalgia, sitting on the window seat, seeing your hopes out there on the horizon, not knowing if to fly or to stay. How did you and Tanya work together so that the narrative flowed and sat comfortably with your own perceptions and ideas of life, opportunities and chance?
I think a hopeful and retrospective mood describes the gesture of Tanya looking out of the window. Speaking also as a musician who has had a long career, at this point, one can’t help but look back even as you look forward, your past follows you, there is no escaping it, but hopefully you have learned and continue continue to explore and discover and communicate.
As for the making of the video itself, I really like to approach it collaboratively, similar to playing music with another musician. When it works, it naturally evolves.
How much has your film work been influenced by similar inspirations to have filtered through to your own music and songwriting? Do you tend to keep your songwriting and film as very separate, or do both give meaning and flow to each other? In your “Mass Ave” video, it feels very much based on abstract, sensory ideas, like a song would not necessarily tell the whole so story …it offers up a snapshot, an idea or insight into another world. There’s a sort of transient feel to the video: Tanya is fixed to the chair, yet possibilities, memories, hopes flood in around her. Perhaps a reminder that anything is within reach, and a life is scattered with these moments that can transform us. I wondered how you managed to fit so much emotion into one short film?
Thank you! I like to keep things a little open, like a dream, so that people can find their own meaning in it. I guess I also do that in my lyrics for my own music.
Is film work something you can teach yourself and would you say your own projects rely on intuition much more than being held back by technical dos and don’ts?
I definitely rely on intuition but understanding the technical side is very useful. I did not go to film school, but I grew up and around cameras and darkrooms as my father was a photographer. And over the past few years I have studied film intensely. In many ways, I have been training for this for a long time.
Was the house used, actually on Mass Ave? There is a similar feel or of grace and fragility that existed in the artwork to Belly’s 1993 album Star, was this intentional?
That window is actually not on Mass Ave, sorry! I really hoped to use d a window on Mass Ave, I tried scouting Air BnB and I tried to explain it wasn’t going to be a crazy rock band let’s-trash-this-place kind of video, but had no luck with the places that looked like they would have the right mood. So I filmed Tanya in my living room. But it is more the idea of Mass Ave perhaps, of freedom and doesn’t literally have to take place on Mass Ave.
THE BELL HOUSE PRESENTS ‘BOSTON IN BROOKLYN’ WITH DAMON & NAOMI + TANYA DONELLY + ELISA AMBROGIO :: Friday, May 29 @ The Bell House, 149 7th St, Brooklyn, NY :: 8 p.m., 21-plus, $25 :: Advance tickets :: DoNYC event page