Fear, Feminism and Female Masturbation: A Conversation with Stella Donnelly
The Perth-raised, internationally-dominating musician shares her debut album, Beware of the Dogs, on March 8th.
Header photo and in-article photos by Pooneh Ghana.
Stella Donnelly has never been one to shy away from the taboo. In 2017, she released a tongue-in-cheek EP titled Thrush Metal that stared right down the barrel of toxic masculinity and told it, albeit sweetly, to fuck off. Mechanical Bull and Boys Will Be Boys - the two singles that propelled her not just into the eyes of the Australian public but onto an international stage - were anything but subtle in describing the complexities of misogynistic behaviour and what it’s like to exist as a young woman in Australia right now. Now, two years later, Perth’s most beckoning artist is on the brink of releasing Beware of the Dogs, a debut album that acts as a personal diary detailing the last few years, just as much as it does a mirror reflecting modern Australia. In this age of mistreatment, suppression and fear, 26-year-old Stella Donnelly is pushing necessary dialogue to the public forefront in a way that’s gentle at face value but roars so loudly.
"There is a place for punk music in protest, and I think that’s really important, but for me personally I’ve always wanted to lure people in with those dreamy, happy-go-lucky sounds and then trick ‘em," Donnelly says, laughing down the phone line. It’s the week before the highly anticipated album launch and her sweet demeanour – or more specifically, how she uses it - is the topic of conversation. She’s not wrong though. Beware of the Dogs mostly resides in a soft, hazy state with a sizeable amount of musical sugar-coating to make discussions of call out culture, female sexuality and deep introspective reflection (Old Man, Mosquito and Face It, respectively) seem a little more digestible. It’s Donnelly’s way of merging life’s eternal good vs. evil qualities, bluntly commenting on society, whilst lulling you into a sweet slumber. And ultimately, it’s all part of a bigger picture plan to fiercely make people stop and listen, rather than create a void of continuous yelling. “If all of a sudden I was like ‘here’s what I think alright, listen to me here, blah blah blah,’ you’d be too distracted by the fact I’m yelling at you to listen to the words I’m saying,” she explained.
This unflinching frustration has quickly become a signature of Donnelly’s as she takes everyday experiences, cleverly binds them with wit and humour, and churns them out under the guise of stellar alt-pop singles. When we speak, it’s the release day of her latest single Tricks, a track that pokes fun at the conventional ‘Australian identity’ and the often-racist national pride running through the veins of White Australia. Her defiant, self-assurance evidently stretches far beyond her years, and it doesn’t seem unnatural to hear the singer-songwriter stress the “dose of reality” we all need in this country when it comes to recognising inequalities in day-to-day life. Sitting beside Tricks is the lively “my mum is a punk” fuelled Season’s Greetings, a vulnerable open letter in Face It, and intimate crooner Lunch, amongst many other songs that simultaneously pull out the most gut-wrenching and heart-bursting parts of mundane life. And, to top it all off, the collection of songs keep pace by floating from shimmering full band numbers to solo string-pluckers and everything in-between, creating a true indie delight.
For years, she has been using her platform to simultaneously learn and speak out about societal issues and Beware of the Dogs feels like a culmination of this passion and power. Stella Donnelly wasn’t born with this ingrained sense of awareness, and definitely doesn’t speak with an almighty sense of being, instead, she’s forging a path that suits. Here, she speaks in-depth about ditching shame, playing pub covers, and working with fellow musician and good friend Julia Jacklin.
To me, hometowns always feel like a good place to start when talking about debut albums. How has Perth’s music scene grown from when you first started making music up until now?
I think the Perth scene as a whole has changed so much! I’m not there as much anymore but it’s such a great scene and I see so many artists coming up from there. In a way there’s a lot more support out there for female, non-binary and trans artists – people who aren’t straight, white men - and there’s more resources there for [those] artists. It’s become a very special, nurturing scene and I still very much feel part of it, hopefully I can stay part of it for as long as I can.
Now you’re established and have reached a point where you’re on the verge of releasing an album, do you feel like you have more freedom to be selective in opportunities and be able to say no?
I’ve been very strict from the start on the things I do and don’t want to do. There’s a certain integrity I want to keep as an artist and that’s been established from the beginning with [both] my manager and my label in the states. I gave them the spiel from the very beginning saying, I want you to back me up in terms of gender diversity and cultural diversity, and these are the things I want to speak up about, so you have to be prepared to support me as an artist in doing that. Everything I get now are things I want to say yes to, as a result of establishing those rules for myself at the beginning. I’m very lucky to have such a beautiful team.
I found Beware of the Dogs to be quite a socially aware album, in the way you talk about everything from feminist issues and music industry realities to the weirdly taboo topic of using a vibrator. When you do this, are you intentionally coming from a place of being unashamed and wanting others to feel the same?
I think you’ve put that really well actually, it’s that feeling of not being shamed for being who you are, and female masturbation is something that I didn’t know existed until I left my bloody catholic school, you know what I mean? It’s just like they don’t talk about it, you just don’t talk about that kind of thing! In terms of other more serious stuff, there should be no shame in talking about these things and I certainly don’t feel shame in doing that. I hope that allows others to be more used to hearing the word “vibrator.” Even [hearing of] “the female orgasm,” which apparently is a myth, according to some people! I think it needs to be addressed and talked about, and I wrote about that because I was experiencing it. It came from a very real place.
I had my own experiences and that’s helped me shape my empathy and compassion for people, but I’ve always had that from my parents. They’ve always had a broad spectrum of life and haven’t sheltered my sister, brother and I [from] the world. I never used to be this outspoken but the more experiences you have and the older you get, the angrier you get. I didn’t want to become complacent in my privilege, so that’s why I speak out.
It’s interesting you mention anger. I heard someone say recently, in regard to allegations of abuse, that if you’re not angry, you’re not listening, which is something that seems so simple but so true.
Yes, exactly! And anger doesn’t mean going out and punching a wall or getting in a fight. There are ways to process anger into positive outcomes and I think it’s important to have an element of anger in life because if you’re just happy – well, that’s great - but you can be happy and angry at the same time. You can look at the positives and negatives. I think we all need a dose of reality, especially in this country.
Do you ever feel like you’ve crossed a line you maybe shouldn’t have, or is there always a way for you to accurately write about things happening in your life?
Honestly, there’s always this thought in my mind like ‘oh fuck, what have I done here? Am I going to get a call from a great aunt I don’t know about that I’m going to offend somehow?’ I have that thought every single song I put out. It’s always ‘oh god have I gone too far this time? Did I have to talk about my vibrator?’ But then I’m really proud I do it every time.
There was a line I had in Beware of the Dogs where I said, ‘all these catholic fucks,’ and I played it to my dad, and he was like ‘you need to change that right now you’re an idiot’ so I changed it to ‘pious fucks.’ I’m so glad I did that because I think that was crossing the line for sure. Not all Catholics are fucks - I was targeting the George Pell’s of the world, but that’s okay. There is a line and I’ve crossed it a few times but luckily I have the people around me to go ‘Stella, what are you doing? You’re going to end up on some Reddit hate page or something.’
Looking back on Mechanical Bull compared to one of your recent singles Old Man, it’s pretty easy to see how you’ve taken these issues rooted in anger and presented them in really dreamy, contrasting ways. Is there a reason you do this?
I think for me... if I was to give you an example about an issue and all of I sudden I was like ‘here’s what I think alright, listen to me here, blah blah blah,’ you’d be too distracted by the fact I’m yelling at you to listen to the words I’m saying, and that’s how I translate that into music. There is a place for punk music in protest, and I think that’s really important, but for me personally I’ve always wanted to lure people in with those dreamy, happy-go-lucky sounds and then trick ‘em. For me it makes it easier to talk about issues like that when there is nicer music getting played, and it becomes less fatiguing to be able to write and perform like that.
I think you can hear a nice nod to the past in the quintessential Stella Donnelly sound, so I’m curious what kind of influences you think shine through in this release. Do you feel like you’ve explored retro sounds and textures more in Beware of the Dogs than your previous Thrush Metal EP?
I’m definitely influenced by 90s pop bands in a way. There’s a Welsh group called Catatonia that I grew up listening to, but then before that there’s bands like Paul Kelly and Crowded House. It’s hard to put my finger on what’s come out of my music, how it’s come out, and whether it’s even come out in what I’m playing. I love conversational music and storytelling, that’s what I gravitate to always so it makes sense that I would try and write like that. That’s how I speak, and I feel like that helps me a lot in getting my point across.
[The album] was really nice to capture me as a whole across 13 tracks. You’ve got the serious stuff and you’ve got the funny stuff and you’ve got songs about heartbreak. I’m really proud that I’ve gotten to capture me in that, and properly over a space of thirteen songs, tell my story of 2018. I think it’s important! I feel like in society we put pressure on artists to be one thing or one vibe - it’s like oh James Vincent McMorrow, sad boy music. You know what I mean? There’s that pressure on artists to have one aesthetic or one sonic aesthetic (ugh that sounds so lame, you know what I mean), for you to just continue to write sad or serious songs. I guess I’m just trying to go against that and present who I really am, which is all things.
The last taste of the album before its release is a single called Tricks. Can you explain a little about what this song means to you?
Tricks is a playful song that has a playful dig at ‘the Australian identity’ and that kind of national pride that white Australia has. I wanted to poke a little bit of fun at that in a way and that idea of ‘you only like me when I do my tricks for you’ is a bit of a shout out back to when I used to play covers back in pubs and I [would] have dudes yelling ‘play Cold Chisel’ at me. Serves me right for playing covers really… but I’m just kind of targeting that character in a way and poking a bit of fun at it.
You worked fairly closely with fellow musician Julia Jacklin when it came to the video direction and overall concept for Tricks. What is it about Jacklin as an artist and all-around creative, that you connect with so deeply?
Everything! Julia Jacklin and Nick McKk directed that video and Julia’s idea [was] you’re not quite sure if the dancer is a figment of my imagination or whether that’s a real thing that’s going on. I didn’t want it to be too sinister where there’s a dude waiting around the corner for me, I definitely wanted it to be playful.
[Julia and Nick] work so closely on all of her stuff and she has the most amazing vision for herself and others. I really enjoy spending that time with Julia, she’s an incredible artist, her new album is amazing and she’s just someone that I fully trusted with it. It was such a fun couple of days that we filmed it in, and she’s the best. I can’t stop listening to that album, it’s just so good!
Finally, what’s your interpretation of the phrase and overall concept Beware of the Dogs?
I like the fact you can put the phrase [Beware of the Dogs] in many contexts - you can almost say it in a really funny way, or you could go really serious with it. I guess I wanted to leave that up to everyone’s interpretation, obviously it’s a title of a song, but I did want to capture the general mood.
The album cover has this eerie, cheap Hollywood horror movie look to it and “beware of the dogs” was the perfect subtitle to that. I wanted it to be like a still from a movie, part of a bigger movie that will one day – not really - come out. [The cover] sets the scene for someone to go ‘what’s going on there? Is that soap or an egg?’ I just wanted to create a mood and a world in one shot that makes people wonder ‘what happened? What happened before that? How did she get there? Why is she naked? What is she doing?’ I always want to create a bigger picture.
Stella Donnelly’s debut album Beware of the Dogs is out March 8th via Secretly Canadian.
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