The Western Australian-based musician just released her debut album ‘Beware of the Dogs,’ which finds itself as the perfect balance between levity, hushed introspection, and biting cultural critique.
In 2016, Australian musician Stella Donnelly wrote “Boys Will Be Boys,” a crackling but pared-back ballad discussing the sexual assault of a close friend, and the cultural systems that both excuse and give tacit permission for boys to be “deaf to the word no.” A year later, Harvey Weinstein was accused by over 80 women of sexual abuse. In the nearly two years since, #MeToo, and an examining of the sexual harassment and abuse that women are forced to experience daily has come to the front of the national discourse.
Since the start, Stella has made a point to discuss pertinent social issues; from that creepy old man who is relentless in his sexual advances and assaults, to the virulent damage on Australia’s Indigenous community that stems from celebrations during Australia Day, as well as the ever present White Pride movement. And yet, despite having her breakout track labeled “Protest song of the week,” Stella is a bubbly, joyful personality. Bantering comes quick. This bleeds into the dichotomy of Beware of the Dogs, her debut album released in March: exuberant and diverse, her laughter breaks through a sound that travels between groovy tracks, anthemic ballads, and bubbly pseudo-electropop. Yet through this sound, one that might lull you into an indie frame of mind, barks the reproaches, the fuck you’s to that old man harassing you; or that prying family member; or those “pious fucks taking from the ninety-nine.” She has rightfully though, pushed back against the expectation that her entire identity should be one predicated solely on discussing political issues. This frees her to discuss her self as a layered person, whether that entails pushy family at Christmas, the separation one can feel while away from home, or “the only love song I’ve ever written and bloody might be the last one I ever write,” as she told the audience during her recent concert at Rough Trade in New York. This is what puts it all together for Stella. The push and pull of aggression and understanding.
The day after her concert in March, I met with Stella at a cafe across from the Brooklyn Museum where she discussed her move from a solo act to a goofy band of friends, letting her songs shape themselves, and the importance of not taking over the activism space as an ally.
Phil Backes—So I was able to catch your show last night. So good. Is this the first time that you’ve toured with a full band?
Stella Donnelly—Definitely. We’ve done a little Australian tour but it’s the first time bringing the band over. It’s been so great, so much more wholesome than I ever imagined it would be. It’s George [Foster] and Jack [Gaby]’s first time, who are so stoked, so it’s been good.
Phil—You had a lot of camaraderie on stage, I mean you were all pulling out choreographed dances and everything.
Stella—Yeah in our own uncoordinated way. [Laughs]
Phil—It was straight out of The Breakfast Club.
Stella—I’m glad that people liked it. You never know.
Phil—I mean, you do cover some very intense and emotional topics, and for your live performances you perform the first half dozen or so songs solo, then you call out the band for the rest of the songs. What is it like now, performing these sorts of songs with the band? Do you feel more secure performing with others on stage, rather than just out there completely open by yourself?
Stella—I think it’s two things. Being on stage alone gives you the opportunity to make a real connection with the crowd. And allows you to establish a certain dynamic with them, that sometimes you can’t quite get when there is a group of people on stage, and a group of people on the floor. Whereas when it’s just me up there, I’m vulnerable, it’s all eyes on me so that you can see if I’m nervous or not, or whatever else. Like, I had a hair in my mouth [at the show last night], like no one was going to help me with that, so I had to stop the song.
Phil—[Laughs] That’s when I knew that it was not going to be just like a straightforward indie performance. When you stopped the first song and went “Hold up, I have a hair in my mouth, just one second.”
Stella—[Laughs] I had to get it out, it was terrible. I do feel like having the band allows you to have so much fun, and it’s not just me that has to come up with what to say. I never know what’s going to happen. It’s an exciting show for me when I’ve got the band. Like with Jack coming out at the wrong time, and watching Talya [Valenti] laugh her head off while she’s trying to drum. You know just stuff like that is so entertaining for me. We’re not always that funny. Last night I think it was just that the nerves of the New York show made it all extra tense or something.
Phil—I feel like it would probably help make all the shows not just run together. I don’t know if that’s a thing when you’re solo, if it all kind of bleeds together.
Stella—Definitely it can.
Phil—This is actually a question that I was so curious about at the show. About how you all changed instruments like 20 different times.
Stella—[Laughs] I know.
Phil—Is that just like, you all sort of dabble in everything and have fun.
Stella—I don’t know why we do that! Like Jenny [Aslett] should just learn the bass part for “Lunch.” It’s just “Lunch” where Jenny and George just swap. I don’t know, we added the bass part late, and Jenny and I wrote that song together with her doing the guitar part. So in a way it’s only right that she plays that on stage because that’s how we recorded the record. But there’s a lot of running around. It’s funny.
Phil—How did it come about that you wanted to move into a full band, rather than just solo. I mean your EP is more straightforward singer-songwriter. Was switching over something you had really planned on doing for this new album?
Stella—It’s actually something that I’ve always wanted to do from the very get go. but I never really had the resources to do so. And to be able to record an album at full production. It’s a whole different thing. At the time that I recorded the EP I was working two jobs, I was about to start a uni degree. I had no money and I was like, “I’m just gonna record this in my lounge room, like fuck it.” You know what I mean? Let the songs do their thing. I guess having the band is always something I’ve wanted, but never quite had the opportunity. So now I can do it.
Not having that opportunity though, and being forced to put out a solo EP was so good for me. Because now I know that I can do it. If I want to write a song and put it out, that doesn’t have a band, it’s okay. No one’s telling me not to do it.
Phil—You’re not pigeonholed from the start, where your whole identity is tied to this group ensemble.
Phil—Especially since a lot of your work is so intensely personal, it must be freeing.
Stella—Yeah, and I was super happy that the public really embraced the band as well. I was a little bit nervous about that. But people were really open to it.
Phil—Beware of the Dogs is such a dynamic album, because it goes between these very different genres. You go from the very pared-back solo songs that cover very serious topics, into these very groovy songs, then you even throw in some electronic beats here and there. Why were you so inspired to float across the genre spectrum so much? Because it really is so dynamic and it puts all these different styles together. I think with indie or whatever, there’s a tendency to have a very homogenous sounding album—
Stella—Totally, just one sound—
Phil—And you can’t really pick one song out from another, whereas for you, each song is very unique and really stands out on it’s own.
Stella—I mean each song represents so many different parts of my life or my experiences and how I see things. So I—without sounding too profound—try to let the song shape itself in a way. If that meant that we got a little Casio drum machine for it, then so be it. But I guess I find it easy to do that sort of thing because I’ve played in so many bands of different genres. I’ve played in, like, an electro band, and I was in a psych band, and a punk band and all these sorts of things, so I’ve had all of those instruments at my disposal for many years and I know how to use them. I would only do it if it fit with the song though.
Phil—It never feels forced, it’s still a cohesive album. It’s still all you. But I feel like you are also very multi-faceted so that it all kind of pops together.
Stella—Yeah, it’s a bit chaotic really. [Laughs]
Phil—I think I read that the reasoning that your first EP Thrush Metal was titled that, was because you were part of a thrash-punk band at the time?
Stella—Yeah we were in like a grunge band, and it was all four women and we were like, “let’s call this ‘Thrush Metal.’” So it came from that.
Phil—I think that’s what is so interesting about your music. If your lyrics were put to a different tune they could definitely be very punk, like straight from the ’80’s. Where the lyrics are not, you know, preachy, but there are these moments of, like, “Fuck you,” “Fuck the system,” or “These pious fucks” [From the song “Beware of the Dogs”].
Stella—[Laughs] Yeah exactly.
Phil—It’s great, but it also comes at these little moments that just jump out at you from seemingly nowhere. How did you go about balancing these serious sort of topics, with a bit of levity? I know when your first single [“Boys Will Be Boys”] came out and just exploded on the scene, it was labeled by publications as “The protest song of the week” which really can add this sort of pressure to be a protest leader. Which can really trap someone into only being about social issues, and not allow them to discuss their personal issues. Did you feel the need to push against that sort of pressure?
Stella—I mean an album really gives you an opportunity. That’s how I saw it. An opportunity to present myself fully. I guess going back to finding the balance between hard lyrics and kind of softer music, to me that’s a communication technique that I’ve always grown up learning about. You know if you want someone to understand you, you don’t just scream at them. So that’s my way of getting that across to people. Surrounding serious topics with humor and those sorts of things. I mean publications are still going to pick the protest songs, and go with that and use them as their clickbait or whatever. That’s still going to happen. But for me I feel proud that I was able to… I mean people have come to me and asked, “Oh, ‘Beware of the Dogs,’ is that about a relationship?” and I’m like, “Cool, yes, let’s go with that.” Because it’s nice for people to be able to relate it to their personal lives.
Phil—I mean even the people that are dealing with those bigger issues are still having to deal with the personal issues as well. So you might as well speak to all of it.
Stella—Totally, which is what I’m doing too.
Phil—With you confronting these major issues, have you had to worry about backlash on social media? Have you made an effort to step away from online at all?
Stella—Yeah I don’t really go online anymore. It’s best to stay away.
Phil—Yeah it really is just sort of only damaging to yourself.
Stella—Even the good stuff sometimes. If I just sat there reading that stuff everyday, I just become an narcissistic asshole. More than I already am. [Laughs]
Phil—It all starts blending together too. Everything gets put up to the same level, so it doesn’t seem very special so it’s hard to really stand out. Especially with Spotify and the rise of algorithms. Is that something you worry about? Or are you just doing your thing and if that resonates with people then all the better.
Stella—Yes that’s exactly right. I haven’t really thought or worried about that. Because in a sense I never really expected to have a music career. I mean, living in Fremantle [Australia], you’re so isolated—even though we had Tame Impala which put Fremantle on the map—it didn’t seem at all accessible as a young artist to do it. There’s no infrastructure, there’s zero labels out there. No one gives a shit about Perth or Fremantle. So everything, from the moment I put out the EP to this point, is literally a bonus, that I’m just like, “When is this going to end, what’s happening now.” So yeah, I’m not too worried.
Phil—How is your writing process? Are you starting work on new material? Or is it more quarantined, where certain moments are like, “This is the time for writing,” and, “This is the time to tour,” or is it just always happening for you?
Stella—No, I think I need to be really comfortable and settled. Whether that is in a place, or whether that’s within myself. Right now it’s been so crazy with the album coming out and there have only been a couple small windows where I’ve been able to think creatively. Once I get more settled on this tour I’ll probably start writing. I’ve got ideas, but I want to really take my time with it.
Phil—And just really enjoy where you are at right now.
Stella—I was really lucky putting out the record, I wrote most of those songs while I was recording the album. So it was only June that I wrote most of those songs. They still feel quite relevant to me right now. I’m kind of still riding that train.
Phil—And you had mentioned at your show last night that you had written the break-up song [“Allergies”] the day that you recorded it.
Stella—Yeah, that was… heavy. Most people lie in bed with ice cream and watch Mean Girls or something.
Phil—And you were forced to stand in front of a whole studio of people..
Stella—Like, “Here I am!”
Phil—Can you talk about the title track from Beware of the Dogs, and how it relates to Australia Day and the politics of Australia?
Stella—Well Australia Day is part of it. It can definitely be used as a massive pinpoint of the issues that we have in Australia. It serves really well for anyone who isn’t from Australia to be able to start to shape an understanding of the culture that we have. But “Beware of the Dogs” and “Tricks,” both of those songs kind of tackle the “Australian Identity.” And myself being a white Australian, I feel very privileged to live in that country. I did half grow up in Wales—my mother is Welsh—so I do know about a history of oppression from the English. But the “Australian Pride” and the kind of “Anglo Pride” in Australia is really damaging. For me I’ve got friends who are First Nations people, and I watch their suffering every year on that date, when Australia put their flags around their necks and take to the streets. When it’s meant to be a day of mourning and meant to be a day of grief and reverence. So I just wanted to touch on that, but in no way am I a victim of that.
Phil—No, you don’t want to co-opt the discourse.
Stella—No, or take up the space. In a way, I guess I’m using my platform to talk about it. Rather than just take up the space and not create a conversation. I just want to serve as some sort of ally in that way. I don’t know, there are sensitivities around it on either side and I just hope that I’m going about it in the right way.
Phil—Absolutely. It’s about putting forth other people as well. With your music, you weave it in where you talk about these things, so like, ”Hey, I’m aware of these issues, and they have not gone away.” Where, even if the whole song isn’t predicated on that issue, it’s still informed by that sort of social awareness.
Stella—Yeah, I guess compassion is the big thing. I grew up listening to artists, like Paul Kelly who has this song, called “From Little Things Big Things Grow” and essentially, it just tells a story. Literally, “Gather round people, I’ll tell you a story” is the first line of the song. It’s about this guy called Vincent Lingiari, who went to our Capital city and got indigenous people their land back. He’s a white Australian, Paul Kelly, but he just writes that song and tells that story.
I also grew up listening to Billy Bragg who sings songs from a woman’s perspective, in almost a self-deprecating way as a man. It could almost be about him from his partners perspective. I think it’s really important to do that, and have that awareness of other people and their experiences.
Phil—Is there anyone right now that is inspiring you and that you find yourself looking to?
Stella—I look a lot to Julia Jacklin who just released her record [Crushing]. I look to her for strength because we are both doing it at the same time in a way. She directed my video [for the song “Tricks”], and I even picked her up from the airport the other day. So we’ve had these moments where we’ve been able to talk about things and her writing is so incredible. She manages to really just pick up subtleties in relationships. So I’ve been loving her album at the moment.
Phil—Are there any new directions that you see yourself wanting to take your music? Maybe full anarcho-techno? I mean you already dipped into electronic a bit with that beat on “Die”…
Stella—[Laughs] Who knows, look, the world is my oyster! Maybe krautrock next..