Images & Video by Sophie Caby
“I don’t have any sense of censorship when I write songs.
I talk about masturbation. I talk about sexual assault.
I talk about Tinder dates. I swear a lot and I think that probably annoys a
lot of people. But I’m just going to keep doing that because that’s me.”
— Stella Donnelly
Singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly was raised between Wales and the suburbs of Western Australia, where she currently lives. In 2017 she won BigSound’s inaugural Levi’s Music Prize. Stella’s debut EP, Thrush Metal (2018), explores stark folk-pop tinged with defiant feminist themes.
Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly made quite an impact when she broke onto the indie scene last year, with her infectious and biting brand of lo-fi folk-pop generating a buzz seemingly overnight. Her debut EP, Thrush Metal, delivers an unapologetically feminist message, tackling timely yet taboo topics such as sexual harassment and victim blaming with a powerful defiance and a sharp and scathing wit. Backed by stark and gritty guitar, her formidable vocals and uninhibited lyrics dig deeply into a wide range of emotions and indicate an artist who has found her voice and isn’t afraid to use it. Donnelly discusses outgrowing relationships and finding her self-worth, the inspiration behind her eclectic music videos, and why she refuses to censor herself.
Where are you from?
Fremantle in Western Australia.
Catatonia was an alternative rock band from Wales who gained popularity in the mid- to late 1990s. They recorded two EPs, For Tinkerbell and Hooked.
Who did you listen to growing up?
I grew up listening to a combination of Welsh bands and Australian bands because my mum’s Welsh and my dad’s Aussie. So we listened to a Welsh band called Catatonia religiously, and Billy Bragg who is from New England, and Australian bands like Paul Kelly, Killing Heidi and stuff like that. So I’ve had a nice little combo deal. I guess it’s very song orientated. All of those bands have lyrical content that kind of springs to mind and makes you think. You’re listening to the words as well as the song, which I really love.
How did you get started and when do you feel you got your first break?
I got started straight out of high school. I just started playing in markets and busking, and then played in bars and joined bands. I also studied music. Then I played on a lot of other people’s projects for 8 years until I turned 25, and then I put out a little 5-track EP that I wasn’t expecting to sell more than 40 cassettes of – it was like a little demo tape. That’s how I always wanted it to sound and feel. It went big and people started adding my songs to their Spotify playlists, and now I’m here, a year later, talking to you in LA. So I think my big break came then, I guess. It’s a weird thing.
Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you create from it?
I get my inspiration from life experiences and other people’s experiences that they share with me, as well as watching how other musicians tell their stories and articulate their visions. That helps me work out my style and how I want to perform and how I want people to hear me.
So you don’t have a formula?
No formula. I wish I knew what the formula was but I don’t. It just hits me like a brick.
“When I’m onstage, that’s completely me in every capacity. The serious songs, the funny songs, it’s all me, which makes my life easier. It means that I can walk down to the shops as myself and not feel like I’m in a disguise or anything like that.”
— Stella Donnelly
What life events have impacted you and your music development?
Growing out of relationships is really crazy and has been a big thing for me in previous relationships, especially one in particular, which was a pretty bad breakup years ago. It’s not a sob story. There’s no tears here. Don’t worry, I’m fine. But I’m able to still draw from those experiences, and I think as a young girl you learn more and more about your self worth the older you get, and the more experiences you go through. Sometimes it takes not being treated very well to learn how much you are actually worth. I think growing out of those experiences has really helped me write music. There have also been life events like the situation that inspired me to write “Boys Will Be Boys.” That was a very singular life event that I needed to write something about in order to work through.
Do you find when you play songs like that you go back in time?
Yeah. The song “Talking,” which is about the kind of relationship where it was like, no matter what you did to try to change the small things and fix the relationship, at the crux of it you were on a sinking ship and you probably needed to get a life jacket on three months before you did. I definitely go back to that time but I look at it as an older woman. I look at it as four years on, feeling glad that I’ve been able to grow from that. It’s still nice to be able to process things in our own time. I think as humans it can sometimes take years for us to kind of go, “Oh my God. That wasn’t good. That was a bad situation.”
Do you have any sense of censorship when you write songs?
I don’t have any sense of censorship when I write songs. I talk about masturbation. I talk about sexual assault. I talk about Tinder dates. I swear a lot and I think that probably annoys a lot of people. But I’m just going to keep doing that because that’s me. Sorry, not sorry.
How do you feel about coexisting with people that have a different ideology?
I think we always coexist with people who have different ideologies. I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a place in the world where everyone feels the same way about the same things because that’s not what life is. I welcome people who have different ideologies than me to kindly engage in productive conversation. I’m always willing to learn and I’m still learning about so many situations in people’s lives. I think it’s really important that we continue talking rather than just getting angry.
“I love being part of someone else’s project and getting to just play the music and play my guitar. I think it’s really fun and joyful, and it’s like being part of a sports team.”
— Stella Donnelly
What is your relationship with your music videos? They’re really good.
Both of the music videos were my ideas and my concepts. The first one, “Boys Will Be Boys,” I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t about me. I wanted to make sure that it was capturing normal women of all diversities and filming them in their space and just capturing the aftermath of situations like that. That was really the music video that was close to my heart and those four women that I worked with are so beautiful, and they’re very close friends of mine. I’m so grateful to them for taking part in that.
Then, in “Mechanical Bull,” I had the idea because it’s a song I wrote about working in a bar and about creepy men kind of hitting on you or groping you or making sexual advances. I wanted to be able to articulate without being really serious and I wanted to find a different sort of way of portraying those experiences.
The guys were such amazing sports. They did so well and it was really fun. Even though the song is kind of serious, it was such a funny and fun day.
You have had a lot more attention on your music this past year. How do you find the attention affects you or your music?
The attention is really weird and I don’t know how to get used to it. I’m still pinching myself every time anyone wants to talk to me about myself, because for many years I just played on other people’s work. All of a sudden the cameras are on me and it’s quite interesting.
I don’t think it’s affecting my writing. I think it’s actually helping my writing. My writing has become even more of an escape, and even more of an opportunity for me now.
Do you find you are separate from your work?
No, I don’t think so. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. I don’t feel like I’m separate from my work at all. When I’m onstage, that’s completely me in every capacity. The serious songs, the funny songs, it’s all me, which makes my life easier. It means that I can walk down to the shops as myself and be myself and not feel like I’m in a disguise or anything like that. In that way I do get to just live my life as I am, but in a way that is kind of out in the open for a lot of people. Sometimes it can be pretty scary that everyone knows me for exactly who I am.
“I welcome people who have different ideologies than me to kindly engage in productive conversation. I’m always willing to learn and I’m still learning about so many situations in people’s lives. I think it’s really important that we continue talking rather than just getting angry.”
— Stella Donnelly
Methyl Ethel is an Australian psych pop and art rock band who has released two albums: Oh Inhuman Spectacle (2015) and Everything Is Forgotton (2017).
Who would you most like to collaborate with?
That’s really hard. I’d like to collaborate with anybody. I think deep down I’ve always really, really enjoyed playing in other people’s bands. I got the opportunity to fill in as guitarist for Methyl Ethel last year because their guitarist had to have surgery on his hand. Even just for a week, I love being part of someone else’s project and getting to just play the music and play my guitar. I think it’s really fun and joyful, and it’s like being part of a sports team. I would gladly just join a band at any moment but I know I’ve got to work with my own music as well. Any band. Slipknot! Bring it on.
What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I love reading. It’s just a really good escape for me. I love food. Food is a passion. In terms of interests and passions, it’s just been music all along as the main thing. When I’m not doing music, I’m often reading or maybe doing yoga and meditation, but I feel like when music became a big thing for me I forgot to do a lot of things that I used to really enjoy. I think now I’m finally like, “Okay. I’ve hit the ground running and now I can remember all of those other things that I used to love doing.” So check back with me in a year and I’ll probably have a few more.
Aldous Harding is a self-described “gothic folk” singer-songwriter from Lyttelton, New Zealand.She has released two albums, Aldous Harding (2014) and Party (2017) and collaborated with the likes of Marlon Williams, John Parish and Mike Hadreas.
Faye Webster is an Atlanta native whose left of center approach to folk music is showcased on her debut Run and Tell (2013) and her self-titled 2017 sophomore follow up.
Natalie Prass is an American singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia who started her career as a touring keyboardist for Jenny Lewis. Her self titled debut was released in 2015.
What’s your favorite book, film and music right now?
Right now, I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. Shout out to Malcolm from Whitney – he passed that onto me. It’s a very tour bus worn book. It’s very, very tattered and I love it. Movies: I just watched Call Me by Your Name, which is just a beautiful, beautiful film. Music: Aldous Harding, at the moment. She put her album out last year and she’s from New Zealand and that’s still really hitting me hard. Faye Webster put something out recently and it’s amazing, and Natalie Prass is another one. There’s are some amazing women out there killing it.
I’m going to be working on my album, finding my roots again and remembering all of the other hobbies that I have.