"With this album, it was back to me again. There was no email thread about a fucking lyric - you know what I mean?" jests Stella Donnelly.
I'm sat opposite her in a London bar on a weekday evening laughing at her candid and confident nature. People often fantasise about working in the music industry, I joke, not realising that it's 90% admin and 10% music. This prompts a memory: "There's this great art gallery/art space where I live (Perth) and they put out these t-shirts that said 'make art not admin', but about six months later they went bust because they didn't do any admin. I was like, come on guys, do a little bit of admin!"
Donnelly has been deep in interviews all day and I'm her final appointment but she remains in good spirits. With new record Beware Of The Dogs out this week, I ask how long she’s been sitting on these songs, and how she feels about sharing them with everyone: "I actually had a whole other bunch of others that I was gonna put on the album, but then I started the process of writing new ones halfway through recording," she explains, "so really I haven't been sitting on them for too long. I'm really happy about that, because I feel excited that they still resonate, and they still feel very present and in the moment. It's all kind of happened really fast but I feel like I'm keeping up with myself, which is a really nice feeling. I think I get very bored, so I would struggle to kind of sit and wait to release something. I hear about artists who sit on songs for like, six years before they put something out - and I don't know how they do that, it's amazing. But for me, I'm happy I can still feel what I’ve written."
Donnelly is remarkably charismatic and genuine. She has previously spoken about how "liberating and grounding" it was to write her debut record, as essentially it meant only she could "fuck it up". "I felt like the ball was back in my court," she elaborates. "I felt like if I did fuck it up, only I was gonna suffer. I was taking all these risks, but it was really nice to be back in the driver's seat for a while. I say that because I recorded the album in the middle of two world tours. I'd never done world tours before, I'd just toured Europe, and I was about to do the US and my life had kind of taken a huge leap from working in a cafe and a bar, and playing in a bunch of local bands; to suddenly doing all this crazy shit that I wasn't organising. I mean, I was in control and I could say 'yes' and 'no' but obviously it can sometimes feel like someone else is driving this crazy train, whereas with this album - it was back to me again."
I redirect the conversation to what her favourite song is on Beware Of The Dogs. "It kind of changes every day, but I’m definitely happy with 'Old Man' which is the single that’s just come out. I really like the production, and how all the instruments come together on that track. 'You Owe Me' is another one actually, which is at the end of the album. I re-recorded that when I was in America because I wasn't happy with the initial recording that I did in Australia. I changed it to a picking pattern so it feels like a completely new song. I always end up liking the last song that I wrote, do you know what I mean? Oh and 'Lunch'! 'Lunch' is definitely one of my favourites." It’s good to know that like me, Donnelly struggles to pick a favourite even when it's on her own record.
"'Old Man' is definitely reflective, it's a song that I needed to write so that I could process previous experiences. It was a shift really, because I'd written 'Boys Will Be Boys' two years before the #MeToo movement, and it came out two days before Harvey Weinstein was called out. It was such a weird, spooky thing for that song to happen right at that time, and I don't know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but either way, we're here now.
"Forget the trolls, forget the death threats, forget the shit and just push on through,"
"With 'Old Man', I knew I would have more of a listener-ship I guess, whereas with 'Boys Will Be Boys' I never thought anyone would hear it, or that more than 30 people would buy the cassettes when I put my original EP out. But this time I knew had a bit more of a following, but I didn’t want to let that stop me or make me afraid of saying things that I've always wanted to say, so I had to go into it with a bit of fearlessness. Forget the trolls, forget the death threats, forget the shit and just push on through... and I'm so glad that I did."
"Boys Will Be Boys" is a striking, poignant ballad that addresses the issues surrounding victim-blaming and shame after sexual assault. It catapulted her music into the spotlight, and Donnelly also tells me the track is being used as a teaching resource in certain schools in Australia - "'fuck' words and all." A sexual assault resource centre also uses the song to help victims deal with feelings of self-hate and blame. I can’t believe she's being trolled for this important legacy, so I ask her if she has any particular way of dealing with such negative and unsettling feedback: "I mean, I just write more songs. The trolls fuel my fire, they feed me more than anyone really. The fact that there's someone sending me death threats because I wrote a song [about rape] is a clear indication that we still have a long way to go. I mean, I probably fuel them but whatever. We're good buddies, pen pals." She laughs at the last sentence, and I do too. Her ability to laugh off the haters really impresses me.
Is it cathartic to perform songs like "Boys Will Be Boys" and "Old Man" live? "If you were to take away the lyrics to 'Old Man', it’s actually such a pleasant song! But I did that so that I was able to get my point across, but also have a good time on stage," she says.
"It's quite dancey and it's nice to be up there with the band. The fact that Jenny - who plays bass - and I get to look at each other and harmonise 'you put your dick…' is so funny! We still laugh about it, because there's this dark humour attached to it. With 'Boys Will Be Boys', it still shakes me when I play it because I think about how many people have been through similar things, and unfortunately I still feel like it needs to be played which is why I put it on the album. It’s the only song from the EP that I’ve transferred over. I feel like it still kind of hurts to sing, and that means I still need to sing it, you know what I mean? I’m not up there singing it completely numb."
"I get shocked every time people go quiet for 'Beware of the Dogs", especially at festivals...I don’t even feel like I wrote the song anymore - I feel like it’s something else."
I tell Donnelly that I saw her perform the song live in London last year and how huge the applause was after she finished singing - but has she ever had anyone simply not 'get it'? "I did a show in Sydney recently and everyone was massively pissed," she says, "and I think it was a long weekend - which is fair enough, they were having a great time - so it was a bit more lively and I was stirring them up with my banter in between songs. But they all just shut the fuck up for that particular song. I get shocked every time people go quiet for it, especially at festivals. I don't even feel like I wrote the song anymore - I feel like it's something else. So, it doesn't really belong to me anymore. But, if I can be the vessel - oh God, I hate that word..."
We laugh and I say I can always use a different word when I write this. "Thesaurus that shit," she says, "[but] if I can be the 'boat'...then that’s fine by me."
With UK tour following the record's release, I ask Donnelly her what her anticipations are. "I love touring the UK. I'm also half Welsh, so I get to go home and visit family there, so that's a big thing for me. It always feels like a nice kind of homecoming, especially after touring in the States. I always seem to tour America first before coming to Europe, and whenever I land here I feel this sense of calm, and that people know what an English breakfast tea is."
How do English crowds differ from hometown crowds? "They’re great," she enthuses. "It's always a risk when you travel to another country and you go out and play your stuff and you start wondering 'why have I booked a show in fucking Leeds? Do people even know who I am? I'm playing in Halifax, what's going on here?!'
"I think I've got this kind of imposter syndrome. But then I play the shows, and I chat to everyone at the end, and everyone's just awesome. I'm so lucky to have such amazing, interesting people who like my music. I'm so blessed with that. I know some bands who are really great people, but their crowds are like nutbags [she laughs] whereas I've been really lucky to have genuine people of all ages coming to my show. Lots of old men actually, and then I feel bad that I've written a song called 'Old Man' - but it’s not about those men.
"If they're the right kind of old man, they'll know it's not about them. My Dad also wants everyone to know that it’s not about him. Don’t worry Dad!"
I ask Donnelly what the catalyst was for leaving the bands she played with back in Perth for several years? !I think [performing solo] was always a given, even when I was playing in other bands, I was still doing solo gigs. Without realising it at the time, I put so much fucking pressure on myself for five years to put out my music, but it was never good enough in my books.
"My standards were so high, so I guess I procrastinated in a way by joining all these other bands, without realising at the time that it was building up to how I was going to write music in the future. Playing in other people's bands and being part of someone else’s passion project was really good for the ego. It was a good thing to shut up and sit there and play your parts. A band is a really interesting dynamic, like a family, you spend so much time in a small space with these people, so you need to learn how to conduct yourself. You're not going to like them every day, and people in the band are not going to like you every day either - but luckily we were all best friends and we can read when someone needs a break - sorry I've gone off topic!”
"A band is a really interesting dynamic, like a family, you spend so much time in a small space with these people, so you need to learn how to conduct yourself,"
"The catalyst was that someone asked me to make a cassette tape, and that was a guy from a label called Healthy Tapes. It's a tiny indie label in Australia. I'd just tried to record an EP in a studio with a whole band and I hated it. It didn't sound like me, I spent all this money, and it just didn’t sound good. It was way too produced and poppy, and I was just lost. So this guy messaged me on Facebook and I thought 'yes, yes!' that is so right. It took the pressure off. We made 30 cassette tapes, and I thought 'what's the worst that could happen? I’m just going to record these songs in a bedroom on a shitty guitar with a shitty mic, a 2008 Macbook - let's just give this a shot'. It was almost like I put no effort in to it at all really.
"Now that I look back I think 'fuck, maybe I should’ve tried a bit harder?!' But I'd gone from one extreme to the other. To me, it was a demo tape, but then it all went nuts! So I guess that was the catalyst, and I realised that you don’t have to hit the big time on your first release - but the cassette did really well, and it was never what I expected to happen. So it was mental, a great catalyst."
I feel like Donnelly really deserves the payoff and recognition that first release gave her, especially as she spent a lot of her time involved with other music projects, including a long stint playing in a cover band. Does she have a favourite cover song? "There was nothing more depressing than performing in high heels, at a corporate pharmaceutical Christmas party, hating myself whilst singing 'Walking On Sunshine'. I think that's the reason why I enjoy my life so much now."
What she does to relax when she’s not recording or touring? "I play squash with my friends - I'm not very good, but it's a new addiction that we've got. If I'm home, I go to the beach a lot. I spend a lot of time in the water. I do cryptic crosswords, I cook a lot. My version of taking a break is filling up my day with as many activities as possible.
"My partner is the same, as soon as we have a break we're like 'okay, rock climbing?!' - it's really nice. I'm essentially the least musician-y musician ever. I just try and do the opposite of what other people do. I play loads of board games with friends. I'm still quite new to touring, but I feel like I'm getting good at looking after myself when I’m home so it's easier to manage when I'm away."
Who is she listening to right now? "Faye Webster is a big one. She's about to come on the road with me in the US. She's just put a song out called 'Kingston' and it's incredible. I was a huge fan of hers for a long time, so to find out she was coming on tour with me was just ridiculous - it should be the other way around!
"Adrianne Lenker - she’s from Big Thief - her solo record is incredible. Jenny Hval is incredible too, her new song 'Spells', in my opinion, is the best song written in the last 10 years. Without a doubt, I'm just going out there and saying it. She's probably bought a house based on how many times I’ve listened to that song on Spotify. And that's like - one cent a play. I played her song on repeat on a flight from Sydney to LA which is 13-14 hours - I couldn't get enough. I haven't felt like that about a song in such a long time. 'Spells' was my song of 2018 and probably 2019 as well."