Stella Donnelly Is Ready to Piss a Lot of People Off
The Australian songwriter's debut album 'Beware of the Dogs' sticks the knife in misogynists and other regressive bullshit artists. She knows that some won't take too kindly to that.
“Stella Donnelly: White privileged cunt!” the young songwriter yells across the room, “That’s what headline they’d probably put with this photo!”
It’s mid-December 2018, and the 26-year-old Perth native is imagining how this feature might look if, like her last major interview, her words are once again painfully misinterpreted. As she sits grinning at the camera pointed in her face, the singer-songwriter recalls the horror she felt seeing the misquote in question: A photo of her in a pristine white tennis outfit, ringed with a grossly smarmy caption: “I think I definitely challenge a lot of stereotypes.”
“I nearly died!” she says with an incredulous guffaw.
This tells you a lot about how Donnelly views herself and her work: despite the fact that she’s often positioned as a key voice in Australian music’s new wave of feminist art, she’s keenly aware of the limits and privileges of her experience, and equally keen to avoid overstating her work’s universality. “I am definitely not a voice for women everywhere,” she tells me later. “I’m a white-privileged performer from Australia. How could that voice be related to by everybody?”
In that question lies the paradox of Donnelly’s art: her uniquely Australian (and uniquely Perth-ian) yarns have, over the past year and a half, struck a chord beyond the often hermetically sealed world of antipodean music. Since releasing her debut tape Thrush Metal on the aggressively DIY Melbourne label Healthy Tapes—a one-person operation running out of a tiny Northcote sharehouse—in 2017, Donnelly has won the $25,000 Levi’s Music Prize; showcased at SXSW; been featured in the New York Times; and signed with stalwart indie label Secretly Canadian, which boasts titles in its catalogue from Anohni, Whitney, and Yoko Ono. From its initial 30-tape Bandcamp-only run, Thrush Metal has now amassed just shy of 5.5 million Spotify streams. A small collection of small-scale songs, both lyrically and musically, the praise heaped on Thrush Metal has been manifold. So while she may not be aiming for universality, Donnelly has certainly found herself somewhere in the vicinity.
This is, perhaps, due to a few factors out of her control: It just so happens that Donnelly is coming to prominence at a time when old heroes are being exposed for misogyny and misdeeds, and many listeners alienated by those former deities are looking for new ones. Many found their new hero in Donnelly, who, with songs like “Boys Will Be Boys”—a chilling indictment of rape apologists—and the seething “Mechanical Bull,” about sexist microaggressions, came bolting out of the gate with her feminist credentials pinned to her chest.
Beware of the Dogs, Donnelly’s debut album out this week, complicates this idea of Stella Donnelly, Feminist Rock Saviour. Across the record’s 13 tracks, Donnelly makes good on her assertion that she’s not trying to be the voice of a movement; Beware of the Dogs is first and foremost a personal, intimate document, not the work of someone attempting to capitalize on a moment (not that Donnelly has ever given that impression). If Thrush Metal was brazenly political enough to earn Donnelly her fair share of admirers, Beware of the Dogs, its complex and nuanced companion piece, will be the linchpin that turns them into devotees.
When I meet Donnelly in Melbourne, she is fresh off a red-eye from Perth but in typically livewire form: tired but excitable, bleary but delightfully candid, and vulgar when provoked. There’s an innate warmth about her, a genuine likability that makes it hard to root against her. The few times I have bumped into Donnelly at shows or festivals, she’s always remembered me, and if she’s faking—an inevitability when you’re a touring musician who meets hundreds of people a week—she does a bang-up job of faking it. When you come up in a community as small as Fremantle, kindness is important.
Donnelly was born in Perth but spent a portion of her childhood in Wales, where her mother hails from. She was often surrounded by forms of folk music growing up. She learned guitar from her father, and listened to Billy Bragg on the stereo, from which she learned that she didn’t need to formally train in order to play. Singing, she says, comes from her mother. In Wales, singing is a part of everyday life. “In Australia we don’t just sit down and have a sing along without thinking about it you know?” she says. “Everyone just sings [in Wales]. It’s a normal part of life.”
"I told my parents ‘I’m going to do this music thing, but I’m also going to piss a lot of people off with the things I say online, and I’m not going to stop doing that,’” Donnelly says.
She only spent three years of her life in Wales, but she considers the experience formative. The love of music she developed there stuck with her and paved the way for her baby steps into performance. When she was 16 or so, Donnelly and a friend began busking at a market in Wanneroo, a suburb north of Perth. At one of these shows, the booker for the Wanneroo Tavern—a pub near the markets, “the kind of place where you might win money for eating a giant steak,” according to Donnelly—approached her and asked whether she might like to perform covers at the Tavern. It’s fitting that some of Donnelly’s first shows were at a venue so emblematic of middle Australia’s putrid masculinity and culture, with massive signs reading ‘GROG’ and ‘TUCKER’ on the walls and vaguely colonial-fetishist decor, considering that a decade later she’d be skewering that same culture through her music.
Nearly all the songs on Beware of the Dogs deal with a certain strain of hyper-masculine, nationalist Australian identity that’s all too common across the country. On “Tricks,” she chastises a man with a tattoo of the Southern Cross—a constellation that appears on the Australian flag—who listens to The Kyle and Jackie-O Show, a popular shock-jock radio show. On “Season’s Greetings”, she argues about Australian border policy over dinner; on “You Owe Me”, a greedy pub manager “jerk[s] off to the CCTV” while Donnelly pulls pints of flat VB, the bogan beer of choice. For Donnelly, misogyny and racism are deeply tied to Australia’s noxious patriarchal culture, and she deftly draws the connections.
“I am so sick of people being proud of Australia and thinking we’re completely fine,” she explains. In Donnelly’s eyes, Australia has never been a kind or easygoing country, and she wants people to remember that. “There’s a lot we need to change. I’ve always questioned it. It’s always made me feel sick.”
Donnelly is aware that she doesn’t feel the brunt of the effects of this culture—”I’ve never had any mistreatment because of the color of my skin”—but if she has a platform, she says, she feels a responsibility to use it.
Speaking to Donnelly, you get the sense that finally having the ability to talk her shit and have it heard by thousands of people is just as important as having the music itself heard. “When I [released Thrush Metal] I told my parents ‘I’m going to do this music thing, but I’m also going to piss a lot of people off with the things I say online, and I’m not going to stop doing that,’” she says. “Before I was kinda well known I was already being a shit online and getting into Facebook fights with people, and after I started releasing music it was an even better opportunity to stick the knife in.”
This impulse doesn’t come from any particular malicious facet of Donnelly’s personality. She has never been out to get anybody, and her anger has never been gratuitous. Even “Boys Will Be Boys”—the song that ostensibly brought her to fame—isn’t inherently a protest song, whatever that means. So when publications label it as an “anti-rape culture anthem,” or a song about “putting men in their place” (which this author, regrettably, did once) it feels damaging. “I wrote that song mainly because I had girlfriends trying to ask my friend what she was wearing that night,” she explains. “It’s not a man hating anthem and I hate it when it gets painted like that.”
Such, though, is the curse of making politically prescient music in a time where everything needs to be clickable and quotable: things are bound to get taken out of context. But these songs are as diaristic as they are politically vital, and Donnelly seems intent on not steamrolling one of those characteristics for the sake of the other. If anything, Beware of the Dogs allows her to paint a broader picture; to say that Stella Donnelly, Activist, is the same person as Stella Donnelly, Artist. The clearest example of this comes on Beware of the Dogs’ penultimate track, “Watching Telly”—a dazed, drifting track written on the day Ireland voted for the right to legal abortions, about an abortion Donnelly had when she was younger. The song is subtle, drawing parallels between the power dynamic between an older man and his younger girlfriend (“He was twenty-seven / I was twenty-one / He liked Ernest Hemingway / I liked watching telly”) and the power dynamic between people with uteruses and a patriarchal state that gives itself the right to lay claim over their bodies.
When Donnelly broaches topics like these in conversations, she sounds weary. Her past couple of years has involved her baring her soul for the sake of art and recieving dick pics and troll messages in response. Things are changing, though. Slowly. Beware of the Dogs’ opener, “Old Man,” paints a portrait of the kind of man the #MeToo movement started exposing when it picked up steam in October 2017, a bleached-teeth media type who wants to “take baby out.” The song ends with something akin to a threat, or at least a beautiful, vitriolic kiss-off: “You grabbed me with an open hand/ The world is grabbing back at you.”
“It’s not a ‘get away with everything’ kinda world anymore,” Donnelly tells me of “Old Man,” which she wrote during the height of the #MeToo movement. “I really felt like things were changing, watching all those men drop like flies. It’s finally happening.”