Stella Donnelly interview: “Sometimes you can only really tell something in video or art or music”
Stella Donnelly is hard to pin down. Ever exuberant and cheerful in public, she has an unseen dark side that comes out in her music. It’s easy to take her as a light-hearted person on the surface, but the topics of her songs belie the exterior, showing that she has wells of anger, self-criticism and harshness hidden behind her brilliant smile. This is what resonated so deeply on her debut EP Thrush Metal a couple of years ago, and something which has grown even bolder and more pronounced on debut full length Beware of the Dogs, which is out this Friday.
Fortunately for me, Donnelly’s bright persona was well intact on the January morning that we met, with no signs of her having come off a plane from Australia the day before. Speaking at hyper-speed throughout our chat, we managed to cover a wide range of topics that are addressed by her on her record, from Australian nationalism to heartbreak to her parents. Even when we did come to speak about the less pleasant things that she discusses on Beware of the Dogs, she maintained a positive attitude, laughing or looking to a brighter future as she explained her thoughts.
If you haven’t already caught the Stella Donnelly bug, then hopefully the below chat will give you the primary infection, before the release of Beware of the Dogs really drives it deep into your system.
I was a little surprised at first that you'd recorded with a band, since the Thrush Metal EP was just you and guitar, what made you decide to do that?
Well I initially was planning to do it just me and guitar, but then the more that I wrote the more that I needed a bass line in that bit, or the more I just imagined the textures of different things. I tried to really make sure that I only used the band if I needed it, so you can hear that there's a lot of songs on there that are solo still, but I felt that I was ready. I tried to work with bands a long time ago for my stuff, but I don't think I had the maturity to be able to articulate what I wanted from people and how I wanted it to sound. But the band I have is so amazing.
How did you end up with them?
They're all my best friends! Jenny, George and I played in a punk band together, and Talya, my drummer, her and I played in a grunge band together back in the day - that's Boat Show and Bells Rapids. So we all played in various outfits together, so I knew that we could tour and I knew that we could be around each other. I mean, essentially, when you're choosing someone to play with it's who you can get along with the most, I think that should be the first port of call in choosing someone, and they're just the most beautiful people and we have the biggest laughs. They were such a joy to have around the studio. Having someone to bounce my ideas off is so valuable. They were great.
Did you practice before the studio?
We did, we spent two weeks at my house just jamming these songs out. But I actually wrote a lot of the album whilst I was recording it. We had all these other songs we were going to record, but after everyone would go home I would just stay in the studio with the piano or the guitar and continue working on things, and then I found myself writing all these new songs and ditched a lot of the old ones and put these new ones in. They felt so much more synonymous with where I was at at the time.
Which ones are they?
'Old Man', I kind of came up with the first piece of 'Old Man' a year ago, but then that came together as a whole new thing. 'Tricks' I wrote on the fly, 'Beware of the Dogs' I wrote in the studio, 'Allergies' I wrote the day before the album was finished and recorded the day after I wrote it, and 'Bistro'... yeah probably half the album was written as I was going; I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
Well you've listed a number of my favourite songs on it, so I think it's definitely a good thing. What's happened to those other songs that got replaced?
They're all still kind of in the works, but a lot of them I felt were old songs that I was like "I don't know if I've got enough songs to do an album so I'll put those in it," that kind of mind-set of feeling a little bit rushed to do it, but they might see the light of day one day - maybe not... hopefully not.
What about the inclusion of 'Boys Will Be Boys', which was on the EP a couple of years ago, was that your decision?
It was a suggestion from a friend of mine, and I think I was having a good day that day because I just kind of went for it, maybe on another day I would've been like "nooo." But I'm really glad I made that choice because unfortunately that song still needs to be sung, as far as I'm concerned. I feel like not enough is being done, but the #MeToo campaign is not over, it can't be over yet because things haven't been fixed properly. I feel like the more people that hear that song the better, not that I'm claiming to be the anthem of the #MeToo movement at all - in fact there are people out there who are saying it better than I am - but if I can help and be part of that then... that's why I included it. And I still really feel that song, I feel the other songs [from the EP] a bit too, but 'Boys Will Be Boys' still really upsets me, it's still relevant with me and where I'm at.
And there's plenty of songs on the album that tie in with the theme, like 'Old Man'. Once you wrote that song did you know it would be the lead single?
No! I knew that it was the cheekiest track, I knew that it was going to be called inflammatory, but once we got it all done and did all the drums and everything I fell in love with it, I loved how it came together. I'm really happy that it's come out first, because I'm still saying what I need to say.
The vocal's quite vicious, although you call it cheeky, there's a little bit of anger too.
Definitely. I guess because it's surrounded by that sweet sounding music... it's definitely angry, but it's a bit more reflective than 'Boys Will Be Boys'; it's looking at what's happened, and written post-#MeToo, whereas I wrote 'Boys Will Be Boys' when no one was talking about it. I've written 'Old Man' more in the way of "things have changed and are you gonna change with it or not?"
What kind of feeling do you get from the progress of the #MeToo campaign?
It makes me cautiously optimistic. I definitely feel like the pendulum has swung back a little bit, but I think conversations need to be more inclusive, with everyone in our society. The #MeToo movement felt really strange and eerie, and I think as long as these conversations remain between all the genders, and stay calm, I think it'll be good.
I think music has had a lot of impact in the movement, there have been a lot of songs that have really pushed that message to the forefront of public consciousness.
Absolutely. I feel like sometimes you can only really tell something in video or art or music; sometimes it's the more subtle things that you can't really get through in just a Facebook post or chatting to people. Someone like Julia Jacklin really manages to tell these really subtle nuanced stories in her songs; 'Body' and 'Head Alone' both do that. It's a complex thing she's talking about, it's in a relationship sense, and she manages to get that across.
Camp Cope did that too - a lot of it's coming out of Australia.
Camp Cope, yes, definitely! They just say what they need. Julia's a bit more subtle in the way she does it, but Camp Cope just go out and yell it, and that needs to be yelled, things like that. 'The Opener', within Australia that song has done so much good for female artists and non-binary artists. Super grateful for Camp Cope.
Let's talk about 'Beware of the Dogs', the title track of the album, you said that was one of the ones you wrote in the studio; how did it end up as the title track and where did that metaphor come from?
I wrote that song about the Australian psyche and the overall atmosphere that we have around Australian pride and Australian nationalism. Australia is a very racist country, and a say that from a very privileged platform of being a white Australian, I acknowledge that my privelege allows me to say that. In our political system and in our media, in everything it's just drenched in this kind of racist ownership of Australia. We've essentially abolished so much of our ancient culture, that's 60,000 years old, if not more, and not only that but our immigration policies - Trump complemented our Prime Minister on our immigration policies, so I don't know what that tells you. It's a fucking nightmare essentially.
So I wrote that song just about the taste in the mouth of many Australians, and this divide, but obviously from a very privileged place. 'Beware of the Dogs' is kind of about the politicians. Not to rag on all politicians, not all politicians are dogs.
What about the chorus image "there's an architect setting fire to her house/ all the plans were there but they built it inside-out."
Yeah, it's like there were all of these incredibly detailed and complex systems that our indigenous people had in place to preserve the land, and they know so much more of where we live than we will ever know - our sunburnt bloody white arses - so essentially it's like they've built this thing and we've come in and completely turned it inside out. I'm sure that any places that have been colonised can relate to that.
You mentioned that Camp Cope just say what they need to say, but I feel that you do that sometimes too.
Yes... Yeeeeaaaahh... [laughs].
'U Owe Me' is one, 'Tricks' as well. The people you're writing about in these songs will recognise themselves if they hear it.
Yes [laughs]. Absolutely, I hope they do. But that comes with a little bit of "oh god what have I done?" and mum and dad going "Stella! What are you doing?? Stop causing trouble!" But they obviously support me and all of that, and I got it from them anyway, so it's their fault. But yeah 'Tricks' is definitely in a similar vein; it's very Australia-centric in that way, and making fun of people who have Southern Cross tattoos, which is essentially a nationalist pride symbol, I guess you could compare it with the Confederate Flag, it's like white Australian pride. I'm just trying to playfully pull the piss out of that "culture" (I say that with inverted commas).
Does it feel good to write a song like that?
It does! It really does! Sometimes when I'm playing it on stage I'm like "I hope no one in this crowd has a Southern Cross tattoo," but at the same time this is why I wrote it, so I've gotta deal with it. It's a funny feeling. When you're writing it in the safety of a studio or your bedroom it doesn't feel that crazy, but then all of a sudden it's getting played on radio you're like "oh shit, didn't think that one through, but that's alright."
But there's some heartbreak songs on here too. You have to have that side too.
Absolutely. That was a tough time when I was recording the album, I had kind of a relationship break down, and during the whole album process a lot of those songs were written as I was going through that. There is this narrative throughout of that taking place. It was really handy for me, doing the album, because I could really process things day to day, and I didn't really want to go home, so I spent a lot of time in that place.
As brutal as you can be to others, you can be that brutal to yourself as well.
Oh yeah definitely. I deserve it.
Like in 'Mosquito' you're not just a mosquito but a "malaria mosquito."
Yeah [Laughs]. Yeah, that's pretty harsh.
I really like the production on 'Mosquito', as that is essentially just you on guitar but there's a lot of atmosphere too, was that your idea?
Thank you for saying that, I'm actually quite proud of that song. I was listening to a lot of Adrianne Lenker at the time, she had just put out 'Cradle', and you could hear that she did this natural reverb on her voice where she was humming the melody of what she was singing, just humming it in the background, and it sounded like a plate reverb effect, so I thought "I'm gonna give that a shot." So thanks Adrianne! I'll send you some royalties for that... Then I just decided to harmonise that, so I made a bit of a wall of sound there, then I added a little double bass thing right in the last bar and some piano. It was really fun creating that little song, so I'm glad you like it.
I just saw Adrianne last week. It was incredible.
Oh my god, isn't she incredible?
I've rarely seen someone look so natural with a guitar in their hands.
Yes, she's one of our best guitarsits in this day and age. [Big Thief] played in Australia without Buck, and she had to take those solos and those parts and she just shone, it was amazing.
You were doing a lot of travelling last year, was that the inspiration for 'Lunch'?
Yes. Once I'm actually away I feel really great, and once I'm on the road I really enjoy it and I feel really lucky. But that week before I leave I really struggle, it's that transition. I often get it when I get home as well, I feel a bit detached, it takes me a couple of days to sink back into that comfort of being around everyone again. I guess it's about that anxiety. I also have a bad fear of flying, so the idea of having to get on 24-hour flight to get anywhere... That song's really emotional, I still get emotional now listening to it and playing it.
I'm curious about the line "you cry like an army."
That's just kind of I guess trying to present an idea of masculinity that isn't always toxic or hyper-masiculine.
And for an album that has so much attitude and fun, the last 2 songs are quite a heavy way to end. Was that intentional?
No... I don't really know... it just kind of all fell into place that way. 'Watching Telly' is quite heavy. I wrote it in Dublin on the day of the vote on the abortion laws. I happened to play in Dublin that day; I got there and all these signs were there, it was really intense. Thank god they voted the right way. But that brought all of that up; Australia has really interesting laws about abortion, it's based on what state you're in, and a lot of our states are still catching up on our human rights and those sort of things. I thought I felt I needed to write something about that.
It's a true story then?
Yeah it's based on my experience when I was 20 and having to go through something like that. It was weird bringing all that stuff back up, because I'm 26 now and having to go back to that, but I felt like I hadn't really processed that event in my life.
And the album finishes with 'Face It', which is another break up song.
Yeah, it's just another break up song [laughs].
But although it's obviously sad, you still finish the album with a joke.
Yeah you've got to, you gotta release the tension a little bit, loosen the string.
You mentioned your parents earlier, and one of my favourite parts on the album is when you sing about your mum being a punk.
She really is.
Is she a big influence on you?
She is, but in such a way that you wouldn't think. My dad is a musician and a music teacher, and my mum's a nurse, but mum is a punk in a really sweet way. She grew up in Wales and went to nursing college in London, and at 24 she went to India. She's a punk in a really sweet motherly way; she doesn't have piercings or anything like that, she's like the OG punk in that she really does her own thing. She sets a good example, she took my sister and me to women's marches when we were young and those sorts of things; she's a really caring punk. I love my mum.
And your dad?
Dad is the best. He did stand-up comedy for a while, playing guitar, and he's where I've got my fearlessness of being able to say what I need to say. When I play dad a song he'll go "oh god, oh god Stella, oh no you're gonna get sued," and then a week later he'll call and be like "ah it's a great song, I would have done it, well done." I'm always like "dad I got it from you!" He helped me actually, I changed a few words in 'Beware of the Dogs' that saved me; I was initially gonna say "Catholic fucks" but I changed it to "pious fucks," which is a bit better because there are a lot of beautiful Catholics out there - and I went to catholic school so I knew I was going to get into trouble for that.
We have to mention the front cover of the album, another picture of you in a kind of awkward position, is that becoming a theme now?
[Laughs] Yeah, probably. I don't think there's any other option for me, I think awkwardness is the aesthetic. A lot of people think that person's trying to feed me an egg, which I think is really funny, but it's a bar of soap. I really wanted it to seem like it's a bigger thing, it looks like it's a movie with subtitles, and I wanted it to seem like it was part of a bigger conversation. We were shooting a lot on Super 8 and trying a lot of things; I definitely wanted the subtitles. I don't think my eyes are even pointing in the same direction in the photo, they're kind of half way through looking at something. That was the vibe I wanted to give off, that it was moving.
Are you excited to see it on a 12" sleeve?
[Gasps] Yes! I'm excited and nervous. I realised that I'm not wearing any clothes in the photo - in real life I was! I had a top on and jeans and shoes, but now I've gone "oh, fuck! I'm naked on that!" I just have to accept that. I'm cool with it now.
To finish I always like to ask are there any books or music or anything you'd like to recommend?
Yeah! Jenny Hval's book Paradise Rot; it's super erotic but it's a really really great book. I was reading that a lot at the time. I was listening to Adrianne Lenker's solo record at the time, I was listening to a band called Her's - they're great! Since then I've read a book called Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, she's a Polish writer who's incredible. All of these recommendations I got from Lucy Dacus by the way, I'm just essentially regurgitating her genius. I just wanna shout out to Lucy Dacus. What else? I'm actually watching Twin Peaks for the first time at the moment.
Do you watch any stand-up?
I was watching a lot of James Acaster at the time; he's so funny. When he tried to play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on this tiny thing, I don't think I've laughed so hard, I had tears running down my face. I love how he doesn't need to take the piss out of women or other people to be funny, he does it in such an intelligent way. He's just an incredible comedian. I love him. And Wanda Sykes, always, she's the best.
Stella Donnelly’s debut album Beware Of The Dogs is out this Friday, March 8th, on Secretly Canadian. Read our review.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 5th March 2019