We’re about 10 minutes into our cross-continental phone call when Stella Donnelly’s dad brings her a bowl of porridge. We were just discussing guitar techniques, the way she plays an electric guitar as if it were an acoustic one—like Jeff Buckley sometimes did, she notes—when she blurts out, “Thank you dad, what a sweetheart.”
Donnelly is at home in Perth, Australia where a few family members are perched outside her door, occasionally eavesdropping on our chat. Now fortified with breakfast, she continues with her guitar chronology. She didn’t start with an electric, her current medium—her first guitar, which she procured at age eight, was actually acoustic, a gift from the same man who brought her the porridge.
“Santa Claus got me a guitar for Christmas,” she says. “I found out after that Santa Claus isn’t real, and it was actually my parents, which I wasn’t too upset about. You know, I still got a guitar.”
It wasn’t until four or five years ago when Donnelly tried plugging in—a decision brought on partly by her admiration for Buckley’s Live at Sin-é (“I just saw that you don’t have to be a real shredder”) and Lianne La Havas’ YouTube videos (she plays “wicked Danelectro”), and partly by what could have been perceived as an unfortunate twist of fate.
“My acoustic guitar was stolen out of my car,” she says. “I’d actually just come back from a trip from the U.S. just backpacking, and I didn’t have any money. So in the end I was forced to turn to my electric ‘cause it’s all I had, and it was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me, really. It just opened up a different world of how I could write music and still have those folk mannerisms, but it just added a little edge to what I was doing.”
“Folk with an edge” might just be a perfect description for what Donnelly’s doing. Her debut album Beware of the Dogs is chock full of modern folktales—stories of rather nasty men, triumphant women and millennial relationships, which Donnelly sings with gusto as she confidently plucks away on that electric guitar. It’s a response to #MeToo done right, every ounce of female pain acutely captured and every bit of social satire masterfully executed. Donnelly sounds like she’s on your side, like she—or maybe someone she knows—has been through the ringer, but she knows you can emerge somewhat calmly on the other side.
When Donnelly released 30 cassettes of her debut EP Thrush Metal in late 2016, she never expected a ton of people to hear it. But somewhere along the way, following a digital release, international ears caught wind of it, and Donnelly found herself something of a breakout indie star. In the years prior, she played in a hodgepodge of bands—punk bands, cover bands (“playing ‘Love Shack’ for four years”), you name it—in her hometown, the isolated Fremantle. Then, two years ago, she booked her first gig in Melbourne. Since then, she’s toured the U.S. (including a showcase at South By Southwest), played a Tiny Desk concert (which comes complete with an explicit language warning) and secured a deal with Secretly Canadian, which led to the release of her debut LP.
“[It’s like] it’s your birthday, and you’re feeling really, really great and it’s really exciting, and then someone gives you a skydiving voucher,” she says. “And you know it’s going to be really good and exciting, but you’re also shit scared. You’re pinching yourself the whole time and all of a sudden you’re just jumping out of a plane and it’s amazing and liberating, but terrifying. And I feel like I go through that little skydive every day, this crazy adrenaline rush. And it’s been a really amazing few years, and I think I’m very lucky.”
Donnelly makes jumping out of a plane look like a trip to the grocery store. She exudes grace and gratitude at every opportunity, and on stage she’s a commanding, yet calming, force to witness. She performs her intensely personal songs with a trusting ease, occasionally tossing in jokes and quips, and plenty of the aforementioned profanity (but “explicit” doesn’t feel like quite the right adjective). During her sets, even the tuning moments aren’t awkward.
“I think that if I was every night putting on this costume and a mask and smoke and mirrors, if I was putting up a different character to myself, I think that would be more exhausting,” she says. “I’m actually just going out there and being myself in the most raw kind of way and telling my stories, but they’re all real stories. I’m really lucky that people resonated with my EP in that way because I didn’t have to fake it and I didn’t have to step up into being someone I wasn’t.”
One song in particular has resonated deeply with thousands. “Boys Will Be Boys,” a track from her EP that we tagged one of the best unofficial #MeToo anthems, is a powerful confrontation of the man who raped her friend that has been adopted as a lesson on victim-blaming. There was room for one more song on Beware of the Dogs, and Donnelly knew exactly what to put—the “song that still hurts to play.”
“Unfortunately I feel like that song still needs to be heard,” Donnelly says. “And it has been heard by many people, but it also hasn’t been heard by a lot more people. And if I can have that song be part of the puzzle, even in the smallest way, educating people on victim blaming and, and gender norms and those sorts of things, which I find is so damaging to everyone, not just, victims of sexual assault. If I have to put it on the next record I will, but hopefully I don’t feel like I have to.”
The sharp-tongued support doesn’t stop at “Boys Will Be Boys”—it’s all over Beware of the Dogs, which doesn’t flaunt even a semblance of a filter. On “Old Man,” Donnelly claps back at every powersick, manipulative male who’s sat behind a desk. “You grabbed me with an open hand,” she sings. “The world is grabbin’ back at you.” Then on “Tricks,” she puts a self-serving douchebag boyfriend in his place. “You only like me when I do my tricks for you, and you wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo.” No man is completely safe on Beware of the Dogs—Donnelly swears and shames them all under the table. Even the album cover, which shows someone trying to force feed her soap, is indicative of Donnelly’s way with words of a certain strand.
“Someone’s trying to feed me soap to wash my mouth out for all my bad language,” she says. “There’s actually people that think it’s an egg, which is really cute and I’m happy to go with that as well.”
For all her songs about cracking the bad eggs and cursing horrible men away, there’s also quieter moments on Beware of the Dogs—the soft struggles that come with crushing on “Mosquito,” woeful musings on a rotten relationship on “Allergies.” The songs are relatable and therapeutic, as they are for Donnelly herself.
“For me it’s like reconnecting,” she says. “I’m touching base with myself and being able to reflect on any sort of experiences that have happened in the last period of time that I haven’t been writing.”
Donnelly found herself recording with a full band for this record, as opposed to the barebones compositions on Thrush Metal, though her autonomy was still in tact—if not even more present. She lived in the studio during the recording process, outlasting almost everyone each night.
“It was definitely a very therapeutic time for me,” she says. “I felt like I was back in the driver’s seat and it was all back on me, and that’s a lot of pressure. You know, I’m the one that can fuck it up. But at the same time it’s a really nice spot to be.”
One song on the album sounds nothing like the rest. Synthy and dancey, “Die” is just for fun, only further proving Donnelly’s commitment to catharsis and, at times, hilarity.
“I’m just as shocked as you that it’s on there,” she says. “I wanted a song that I could really jog to, and none of my songs are jogging material. I’m so glad that I pursued it and tried out all these synths to the drum machines. I was like a child let loose in a toy shop really.”
Letting loose might be more key to Donnelly’s mantra than you’d first think. Humor is hiding around every corner of this album, what’s maybe the perfect prescription for coping with all the “Allergies” and illnesses we’re dealing with these days. Dread is omnipresent, but Donnelly has a rather wise way of wading through the murk:
“If you can’t laugh, you’re fucked.”