The Australian singer songwriter Stella Donnelly has juts released her debut album Beware of the Dogs, following a number of singles and EPs, including the much talked about Thrush Metal! Part of a fantastic and growing Australian scene that includes the likes of Courtney Barnett and Cub Sport, Donnelly’s straight-to-the-point music is full of humour alongside tough topics such as racism and abuse. Here she talks to Jeff Hemmings about the album, her Great Escape shows last year, Australian politics and being half-Welsh
Hi Stella. You’re in London today, but where are you actually from?
I’m based in Freemantle normally, which is a port city on the western side of Australia, next to Perth.
That’s a very isolated part of the world!
Perth is the most isolated city in the world, geographically, and in many other ways as well! But I think that’s why I have been able to do what I do. It’s such a sanctuary. When I’m done with the touring, I really am having a break, especially in Freemantle. There is really no music industry there, all the big stuff is happening in Sydney and Melbourne. I can walk down the road in an ugly t-shirt and no one gives a shit! It’s kinda nice. I think it will be home for me for a while longer yet.
I saw you at The Great Escape last year, at Komedia…
That was my favourite show, actually. It was in the afternoon, really dark inside, but light outside. It was surprisingly warm.
Was that your first ever gig in Brighton?
No. I did an open mic once at The Blue Lamp, years and years ago. My sister used to live in Brighton. I visited her, and we ended up doing an open mic. So, technically, The Great Escape wasn’t my first show in Brighton.
I love it, such a beautiful city. My sister was working there, she was looking after a young family from Syria. It’s such a cool city. The last show I did in Brighton I had the best time, it’s one of my favourite places to play. It’s going to be a busy time. I am half welsh, so I have quite a lot of family over here. My Mum’s welsh. I spent some of my childhood growing up in Wales, speaking Welsh. I’ll be doing a show in Cardiff, at Clwb il bach.
With your debut album imminent, and a full touring schedule ahead, it must be an exciting time for you?
It is, but it’s hard to be perpetually excited 24/7. I think you would get really tired if you were excited all the time. But, it’s such a nice feeling to be putting out an album that I wrote pretty much a week before I recorded it. I had all these other songs planned, and I went into the studio, writing a bunch of songs whilst recording a few of the old ones. It just ended up becoming way more present. I feel a lot more attached to these songs because they are fresh, and I’m putting something out that feels very current.
I know a lot of artists have to record songs they wrote years beforehand, and sometimes they don’t quite resonate with those feelings any more. For me, it’s very much right here, right now.
Are there any older ones on the album?
‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is an older one. Unfortunately, I feel that song still needs to be heard; I feel the need to speak up about the content that is in there. Quite a few of the songs people would have heard me sing live. There’s a song about my old boss called ‘You Owe Me’. And there’s a song called ‘Season’s Greetings’, which is about family Christmas. There’s ones I have written on the road and tried out on a crowd!
Tell me about ‘Boys Will Be Boys’
It is self-explanatory in many ways. But, I do feel the need to explain it to a deeper level sometimes. I wrote the song two years before the #metoo campaign started, and it came out two days before Harvey Weinstein was called out online. It was such a bizarre thing to happen. I never in my wildest dreams expected that song to be heard by more than, you know, ten people. It was quite a shock to me. I wrote it at a time when people weren’t really talking about sexual assault, and the way we treat victims of sexual assault. I wrote it about something that happened to a friend of mine, when that thing happened to her. She opened up to the people around her, and they questioned her on it, rather than looking at the perpetrator. I just don’t think that’s good enough. You need to stop questioning women on how they dress, and how they act, because no one is ever asking for it.
But I also wrote this song because I have this little brother, and I know so many beautiful men, and gentle men in my life, that don’t deserve to be bundled into that ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. I think the whole ‘boys will be boys’ notion is a really damaging thing, because it takes away responsibility, and it also takes away faith we have in men. I think men are far more intelligent and complex beings than that saying gives them credit for.
I get trolled a lot for writing that song. That’s fine. People don’t get it or they don’t want to get it, and they accuse me of being a man hater. But really I have written it for the beautiful men in my life. If anything it can be more damaging for men than for women, those kinds of notions.
Listening to the album it is obvious that you do like men!
It seems to me that it takes guts and confidence to write and sing about the things you do.
If I was to write a song that wasn’t honest, that didn’t feel like it came from a deep guttural place, I don’t think I would enjoy playing it. When you’re playing so many shows on a tour, it’s nice not to have to put on a costume, metaphorically, or a mask, and pretend to be someone that I’m not. When you’re exhausted and you’ve just caught a flight from Australia, and you’re getting on stage, it’s nice to be able to get up there and be myself. In terms of writing I was brought up listening to Billy Bragg. He’s so honest. He doesn’t try and put up with this smoke and mirrors thing. He writes songs about vacuum cleaners, and all sorts of shit! And I love that. He describes love in such a suburban way, and that’s how I’ve expressed myself, and that’s how I find myself to be relatable, to explain the complex parts of life in such a simple and obvious, if not crass way!
Why did you call the album Beware of the Dogs?
I always envisaged ever since I was young that if I ever put out an album, I would use one of the song titles as the album title. My EP was called Thrush Metal. I thought this time I am going to be a little more serious! The cover is this weird, spooky, B-movie horror movie look with subtitles underneath, and I really wanted something that looked like dialogue. There’s a dude trying to feed me soap, trying to wash my mouth out – I just wanted something that seemed weird and haunting.
That song (‘Beware of the Dogs’) is about the general atmosphere in Australia right now, about how Australia is quite a racist country, and we have a lot of strange nationalistic pride that comes form a really weird place, considering that Australia is 50,000 or more years old. But, we’ve abolished that culture in a way, and we’ve taken on this white nationalist culture. And that shines through in our Government, and our media. I’ve written a song essentially about the bitter taste that is in our mouths. Obviously, I’ve written that from the platform of a privileged white Australian, and I acknowledge that. But it’s targeted at the people in power, who use that power to exploit others. Yeah, that song and the album title tries to encapsulate that strange and haunting feeling.
I spoke to Cub Sport recently, and they told me about the same sex marriage laws that came into force at the end of 2017. Sounds like things are changing fast in Australia?
I love them! They are great friends of mine.
I think they are in many ways, but we’ve got so far to go. It was only last year that Donald Trump complimented our Prime Minister on our immigration laws, which is saying something! We’ve got some of the worst, violation of human rights laws, in terms of how we treat people needing asylum, people who need a safe place to live. We send them to offshore detention centres, and the media aren’t allowed to report on anything that happens. It’s disgusting. Our First Nations people are owed so much in terms of their land, and their culture, and the preservation of their languages. There’s just not enough being done. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go. I’m going to keep singing about it until they shut me up!
Australian music seems really vibrant at the moment
I’m really lucky to be among some amazing Australian artists right now. I think there is this uprising amongst people that are unafraid to sing about things. People like Courtney Barnett, I’m so grateful for them. They give me that confidence to do the same. It’s awesome.