IN THIS PHOTO: Stella Donnelly/PHOTO CREDIT: Pooneh Ghana
THERE are a lot of great artists out there at the...
PHOTO CREDIT: Emily Mackay
moment but I am struck by Stella Donnelly. I am not hearing a lot of great Australian music being promoted in the mainstream but with Julia Jacklin, Confidence Man and Perth’s Stella Donnelly, there is definitely a case to be made for featuring more Australian music. Whereas Confidence Man have a distinct Pop and their lyrics are more concerned with something a bit lighter, Jacklin and Donnelly are songwriters who deal more with the serious – not that this is a bad thing. If Jacklin’s latest album, Crushing, looks at repairing after a relationship, Stella Donnelly is looking to the outside world and tackling some big themes that she feels compelled by. The young songwriter released her debut E.P., Thrush Metal, in 2017 and her debut album, Beware of the Dogs, came out last Friday. She is being covered quite impressively in the media here and it is all justified. Her music has a sense of breeziness and the light and, whilst some numbers do concern big themes, there is plenty of personal hope and relief. It is a nice balance of emotions and themes and the abiding sense (when listening to Beware of the Dogs) is one of fulfilment. Her voice has a potency and calm; there is a nice mixture of textures but we have this very beautiful and nuanced sound that makes all the songs come to life.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
On the albums best moments, there are glorious backing vocals and a Pop sound that takes one back to the 1960s; this rushing mood and sensation that takes you away. As she told NME earlier in the year, her debut album does address some pretty provocative and controversial themes:
““No story is ever a simple story in itself. Now, I guess that ‘My Old Man, for example, is a reflection on the taste in everyone’s mouths post-#MeToo and how we’re dealing with it now, and whether enough has happened,” she says. “For example, Harvey Weinstein has only just been charged and on trial. There are people out there who are still suffering and particularly in Australia, as our defamation laws are very strict. So it is really hard for any victim to speak out in the way that those living in the US have done”.
She spoke about Australia and nationalism; the accusations of sexual assault made against Geoffrey Rush and how it was a turning point for her. It is rare to hear an album from an Australian artist that references their country specifically – maybe I have not been listening hard enough. It almost reminds me of Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust and how they talked about aborigines being displaced and the way their government operate (this was back in the 1980s).
“When I was writing the album, there was a conversation about nationalism, and the pride that we, as Australians, have at the expense of other people’s freedom and rights,” she says. “We break a lot of Human Rights laws in terms of how we treat our First Nations people. At the time, I was writing about the fact that I’ve got a lot of friends who have suffered at the hands of the Catholic protocol system that we have in our country. I say ‘harmless’ with inverted commas here, but there’s a lot of ‘harmless racism’ that happens in Australia”
One of the most important things to Donnelly is being able to join the conversations and talk about harder subjects through her music. She was born in Wales and moved to Australia when she was eleven. She spent her teenage years busking and joined various bands; she performed various gigs and her confidence gradually grew. There are many reasons why you need to seek out Stella Donnelly but, as I hinted, she can balance the personal and universal. She is not one who walks away from meaty topics: her songs are keen to uncover those who do wrong and put them in the spotlight. Beware of the Dogs can be quite a hard listen but it is often funny and brilliantly sharp. I think, in 2019, it is important to reflect the harder truths and talk about subjects beyond mere heartache and personal doubts. Another thing Donnelly addresses is marriage equality. Here, when speaking with The Guardian, she talks about marriage equality and abortion repeal in the Republic of Ireland:
“Donnelly was relieved when marriage equality passed in 2017, particularly since the referendum followed Brexit and Trump’s election, “so I had no idea what was gonna happen”. She was equally overjoyed to play in Dublin on the night of the abortion referendum and still has her “Tá!” (yes) badge on her guitar. It made her investigate Australian abortion laws (“Ours are based on state, which I didn’t realise, and very unprogressive in many ways”) and prompted another idea: the uneasy lounge pop of Watching Telly is a characteristically conversational song that frames her abortion at 21 in the context of society’s control over women’s bodies. “It’s not an easy thing to get, and it is tough and it hurts and you have to sit there bleeding for two weeks, and it’s fucked,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s our choice. We’ve fucking chosen to do that”.
Stella Donnelly can write from the heart about herself but it is the way she can make slightly edgier aspects of societal ill seem accessible and educational. Never preaching and too angered, the way she integrates natural tones and humour does not detract from the seriousness of everything – instead, it makes for a more rounded and memorable experience. She is, as she continues in the interview, keen to change perspectives and minds:
“Too sharp to have written an album of blunt-edged protest songs, Donnelly knows that such conversational, unexpected approaches have a stronger impact than lectures. She recalls her dad collecting an award for Boys Will Be Boys on her behalf. “He said something like, ‘I hope this song helps to change the attitudes we have, even if it’s one dickhead at a time.’ Having my dad – a 50-year-old, privileged white man – do that probably made more difference than me getting up and saying it.” She has “blind confidence” that society has to change. “I know it’s gonna go there because everyone’s voice is too loud for it to stop.” She stops, laughs and mocks her utopian ideals: “I just want world peace!”
With her giant eyes and gregarious attitude, Donnelly is charismatic enough to carry the sentiment. Plus, she knows first-hand how transformative the relationship between art and the public can be. “When my dad first heard Boys Will Be Boys, he told me, ‘It won’t be yours any more and that’s OK.’ It allowed me to let go. My friend who it was about had the same attitude. That’s how I dealt with it,” she says. “Letting it be everybody else’s song”.
These are still early days for Stella Donnelly but she has progressed as an artist and, as debut albums go, Beware of the Dogs is one of the best you’ll hear all year! Indeed, she has a busy time ahead so keep an eye on her socials regarding tour dates and general movements. Her album is getting a lot of love and, in this review from The Student Playlist, they drill down to its heart:
“Many aspects of Beware Of The Dogs are autobiographical, but Stella Donnelly also acts and sings like a vessel for the hurt and rage of others. Time and again, she observes on behalf of friends who have experienced abuse and unfairness. There’s rarely any hint of optimism about proceedings, but the manner in which she delivers her messages makes the whole package positive and graceful. And, just to show the breadth of her talent, Donnelly is also capable of turning the microscope on herself – on the slow, sparse ‘Mosquito’, she compares her lust to a blood-sucking parasite, and the forlorn ‘Allergies’ is played with a much straighter bat with none of the hint of irony of the rest of the album.
Truly, Beware Of The Dogs is a remarkable and deeply affecting album, memorable on all possible measurements of how anyone would rate a debut LP, and Stella Donnelly is a ferocious, funny and highly empathetic songwriter whose future is incredibly bright”.
It may take a while for her music to affect changes and truly open eyes but, as she says, she is content to open...
IMAGE CREDIT: Stella Donnelly
ONE eye at a time.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Pooneh Ghana