Stella Donnelly, musician and songwriter, St. Jerome's Laneway Festival
Learning to say no was the biggest learning curve for me, because you have to be quite cut-throat about it ...
Few Australian musicians have enjoyed such a quick rise to acclaim as Stella Donnelly. The Western Australian artist burst into the consciousness of many with her debut EP ‘Thrush Metal’ in 2017, and since then Stella has toured the globe, performing to crowds across the United States of America, Europe and Asia. Through her music, Stella communicates what it’s like to be a millennial woman in the late 2010s, exploring topics such as abortion laws, sexual assault and rape culture, and toxic nationalism. Stella’s debut LP Beware of the Dogs (released this year) further cemented her status as one of Australia’s brightest musical stars, with track after track of disarming poetry showcasing her knack for penning insightful and impactful music. In the early days of 2020, Stella will join the St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival line-up as it travels across the country. Ahead of her performance, we spoke with Stella to talk about her wild ride so far, how she wields humour to create safe spaces at her shows, and how she’s learned to say no for the sake of self care.
We’d love to start two years ago when everything started kicking off for you with ‘Boys Will Be Boys‘. Can you describe what it’s been like to ride this whirlwind of success?
It’s been really intense, and it’s quite an interesting thing. When something crazy happens, usually it lasts a day and you have some time to recover from it. But when something is crazy for two years straight it starts to become a bit normal. The body cant process that extreme for that prolonged amount of time. I’ve somehow managed to normalise certain aspects of it a little bit, just to get through it – to survive it a little bit. Like long-haul flights and that kind of thing – you just have to switch off a little bit. I feel like only now that I’m home and am having a bit of time off I’m able to start going, “Oh my god! Holy shit!” I’m letting it all come out now and realising that it was crazy! It’s been amazing, it’s been hectic. It’s been like a normal year for anyone but it’s felt more extreme – the highs are higher and the lows are lower.
In terms of adjusting to the road lifestyle, performing internationally and finding time for self care, what has been the biggest learning curve for you as a touring artist?
Yeah, the biggest thing was learning how to say no and learning how to customise the way that I do things. Last year I had 14 gigs in four days for South by Southwest, and from there I would go on a seven-week tour and there were times where I was doing nine or ten gigs in a row without a night off. We were just saying yes to everything, because that’s what you do when you get these opportunities and they’re too good to pass up. There comes a cost, I think, after a while with your mental health and physical health. I’ve put limits on things now – I never play more than four gigs in a row without a night off and we never travel for more than four weeks if we’re away. I was doing nine- and ten-week tours and I’ve also got a life outside of music with my relationships and those sorts of things. I just think it’s really important to keep a balance – I want a long career, I don’t want to dive down after a year or so. Learning to say no was the biggest learning curve for me, because you have to be quite cut-throat about it. It’s also about saying no to myself as well! I’m my biggest enemy when it comes to that sort of thing.
It’s been a few months now since Beware of the Dogs dropped – I’d love to get your mindset at the time of its release. It was the longest individual statement from you as a solo songwriter – what has been the most encouraging piece of feedback you’ve received since its arrival?
That’s a good question – I guess for me, feedback comes in what opportunities come from something. For me, being asked to do a KEXP session in Seattle was really cool. Tiny Desk was a big one for me, and getting to play Fuji Rock in Japan – those three things have always been synonymous with artists I listen to. I always watched KEXP and I always dreamed of going to Fuji Rock to see these crazy artists perform. Tiny Desk was how I discovered new artists, as well. Getting to do those three things really cemented my thoughts in that I’m really glad that I created something that was for no one else but myself. I think when you do that, people can resonate more with that sort of thing. It might not be as nice sounding or have the frills on it that certain records have, but it was true to me. Those three things were the biggest landmark opportunities, and then Billy Bragg asking me to perform and talk about my song ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ at Glastonbury Festival and getting to share a panel with him where we talk about these issues – that was huge. I grew up listening to him and the way he educates people.
On that note of you writing the record for yourself, was it heartening to hear the response from audiences in regards to the themes, messages and ideas that were communicated on the album?
It was really heartening, I mean, that first happened with ‘Boys Will Be Boys’. I remember I was playing Woodford Folk Festival and I talked about the song and performed it, and Woodford has a huge age range – it’s a city essentially – and I got this letter from a 50-year-old man and it said that he was a dad of two daughters and two sons and that song really meant a lot to him. Getting that sort of feedback from people that are very different to me – from a different walk of life – but knowing that it resonated with them and understanding that it came from a place of compassion when I wrote that song, not from a place of hatred or nastiness, really means a lot to me.
A lot of the reviews for Beware of the Dogs point out the way you convey these messages by weaving humour into your songs. I’m curious as how you use humour as a songwriting mechanism for making these messages resonate and stick …
I think, for me, I started doing it for my own well being. I remember when I first wrote ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ and performing it live and knowing that it made me feel sad sometimes. I remember thinking, “God, if I’m feeling sad, how the fuck is everyone in the crowd feeling?” If I can’t cope through this shit, what am I putting people through? I think I started going, “Now I need to create a safe space.” Laughter is the most safe space you can be in. I feel like for me it’s definitely a coping mechanism – so yeah, I just started trying to make people laugh throughout the gig and then later I would play some of the more heavier songs so people knew I was a real human being. I’m not just a serious person – I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I guess I just wanted to create a safe environment for everyone to enjoy the show as well as taking in some information.
Throughout this whole writing and recording process, what was something new you unearthed about yourself that you’re looking to apply in the next phase of your career?
Yeah, I learned that my instincts are correct. I once recorded a whole EP and threw it in the bin because I feel like I let other people’s instincts take over my own and I’d said yes to everyone else. It came out not sounding like me – at all – so I chucked it out. I think with this record I learned to trust myself and my judgement but also open myself up to people’s ideas. I think it’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s a balance between being open and closed – the songs that I allowed people to try stuff out ended up being among my favourite songs on the record. Like on ‘Lunch’, George – who plays guitar usually – wanted to try a drum thing out for it. It worked so well – I remember us all cheering in the control room. Talia – my normal drummer – would play these amazing fills and they suited the vibe. I wouldn’t be able to come up with that because I’m not a drummer. I feel like I learned a lot about being open, but trusting that I have the final word on something and no one can tell me otherwise! (laughs)
Looking ahead to whats next – what sort of topics, themes or ideas are currently filtering into your writing process?
I think it’s really important that I’m home for a while. That’s the biggest thing. Playing music in Fremantle and Perth was the reason that I felt as though I could write an EP and create my own music. I think that it’s important that I come back to this community and just spend time in the community, going to gigs around here and soaking it up and recharging my creativity. That will come with whatever else I’ve picked up along the way, but I feel like being home and slowing down will really help me open up lyrically as well and just kind of ground myself.
So stability is crucial to your process, or can you write on the road as well?
Kind of – I find it really hard to put ideas together on the road. I feel like I’d be faking it, a little bit. I tried a couple of times, but I really struggled. I think I need to be just anywhere for four days in a row without moving around. When everything is moving around you, you don’t want to create anything because you’re already overstimulated so much. Whereas when you’re home and you’re looking at the same four walls every day, your brain starts to tick and it starts wanting to create a little world within that world, which is how my brain works maybe! (laughs)
Finally, you’ll be playing Laneway Festival in the new year. What is it like playing a touring festival and is there anyone else on the bill you’re keen to see?
I’m so excited to watch KAIIT play – I’ve only seen her do one song before and I’m so pumped to watch her. Also, Fontaines D.C. from Ireland are a really cool band. We met them earlier this year and I’m excited to see how the crowd enjoys their set. Getting to be part of a festival tour is really interesting and its a unique thing – no one else really does this often, especially not Europe and stuff. It’s great for me because if I miss someone at one show, I get to watch them at the next one hopefully! I’ll probably be running around like a headless chook at the Fremantle one, trying to watch everyone!
Any new material working its way into the set list for the tour?
I don’t know! I mean, that’s next year, so hopefully – I’d love for that to happen but I just don’t know at this point. It would be wonderful if we could!
Stella Donnelly will be performing as part of the line-up for the St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival tour. The festival hits Brisbane on Saturday February 1 – you can nab your tickets here. Check out the brand-new clip for Stella’s track ‘Season’s Greetings‘ off Beware of the Dogs, out now on Secretly Canadian.