Stella Donnelly Talks Bad Male Behavior and Not Pulling Any Punches
On her debut “Beware of the Dogs,” the Aussie singer-songwriter addresses the progress and pain of #MeToo.
Stella Donnelly remembers getting robbed, and how it wound up being one of the best things that ever happened to her.
The Australian singer-songwriter was in the middle of moving out of her ex-boyfriend’s house when it happened. “It was a relationship that went on a year too long,” she recalls. “After packing up the car I went to go get a kebab. When I came back, everything was gone. At the time I was like, ‘Wow, OK. Yup. Alright. This is a—let’s, um, let’s process this…’ It was one of those moments where you just can’t write that shit.” Among Donnelly’s more prized stolen possessions was her acoustic guitar.
Having dropped out of a music conservatory, Donnelly was cutting her teeth musically in any way she could, whether it be performing in a cover band at weddings or corporate gigs or being a supporting player in other people’s projects. Suddenly broke, broken-hearted, and without an instrument, Donnelly moved back in with her parents. Working in a bar at night and café during the day, she still didn’t have enough money to pay for a new acoustic guitar. She did, however, rediscover an electric guitar she had purchased the year before but never actually played. “I hadn’t gone near it because I didn’t know what to do with it,” she says. “I was forced to just play it.”
Though she had written her own material before, Donnelly says having no option but to play on an electric became the catalyst for tapping into a new kind of songwriting, on full display in her debut album Beware of the Dogs. While Donnelly could be passed over as a sweet, confessional folk singer channeling her emotions through an amp and effect pedals, it’s the manner in which she delivers it all in a lyrical coating of piss and vinegar that makes her such a compelling new voice. With cutting honesty and blunt imagery, Donnelly has no qualms about putting an unforgiving spotlight on the worst inclinations of men. Her songs are a prescient soundtrack to the #MeToo era, demanding that men be better, and women appreciate their own worth.
Your music is a study in contrast: On the one hand, you sing and deliver songs with such an inherent pleasantness, and yet at the same time, the actual words can be so barbed. How did you come to embrace that kind of songwriting balance?
I half grew up in Wales and half grew up in Australia. My mom is Welsh and my dad is Aussie and when we moved over to Wales, my dad—who was a schoolteacher—couldn’t get a job because in Wales they’ve got a different education system. So my dad was a stay-at-home dad and mum would work as a nurse. But at night, my dad would go out and work as a stand-up comedian and write these songs on guitar. He is the kind of guy who, if it was someone’s birthday, would do a cover of a song but change the lyrics to make it about that person and it’s always really funny. And as a kid growing up, I watched my dad use music with humor and as an entertaining kind of thing.
So I guess that’s how I’ve always wanted to write, and it’s only as I got older that I had the confidence and the insight to be able to put the middle finger up whilst also trying to educate and talk about my real experiences, finding that balance between humor and seriousness. I definitely fall more on one side or the other, but that’s the beauty of an album, isn’t it—that you can go further and explore.
When it comes to addressing a particular topic of political or cultural importance, many artists speak in generalities or talk around the issue. You, meanwhile, don’t pull punches and often get quite specific.
If you’re going to get people to listen, you have to say something that they can understand and relate to, and present it in a way that possibly hasn’t been presented before. With a song like “Boys Will Be Boys,” I wrote that before the #MeToo movement became so prominent. It was three years ago. Obviously Tarana Burke had launched the #MeToo movement in 2006 and it reemerged more broadly recently, but it was something that wasn’t being spoken about at all.
“For me to be able to cope with writing a love song, for me to not cringe my way through it, I had to put a little ‘vulgarity’ in there.”
So I had to be really short and smart about it. I mean, it wasn’t that thought out, at the same time. I wrote it because it came from my own experiences and needing to work through things. That’s how I write. I also wanted people that I’d had arguments with online or in real life to listen to that song. It was like my last effort at getting my point across. I’ve had so many debates and discussions about people thinking that it’s okay to judge a woman on what she wears, and how that can somehow justify someone’s assault. I needed to find a better way of expressing this and “Boys Will Be Boys” came from that.
While you certainly take some well-deserved jabs at men, you’re also not afraid to challenge women and the blows they seem to inflict on their own self-worths. How do you maintain your value?
It comes from being a musician at eighteen in a very male-dominated industry and having to put up with that. I came out of school and it was this kind of conditioned, internalized misogyny that made me feel like it was okay for men to speak to me that way, or it was okay to not be taken seriously, or for me to be spoken to inappropriately about what I’m wearing. I was doing just as much as all the male musicians in my life, but I had to work extra hard to be taken seriously or looked at or listened to, even if every time I spoke up it was perceived as if I was complaining. It all just comes from experiences and being in relationships that aren’t necessarily the right relationships.
Not all your songs are about bad men and bad relationships. I was particularly struck by “Mosquito” and its unique mix of love—and, well, I shouldn’t use the term “vulgarity,” but there’s a line that’s more PG-13…
I know exactly what line you’re referring to [laughs]. “I use my vibrator wishing it was you.” Yeah, that one I have to say sorry to my mum about.
There is something inherently romantic about a line like that.
Totally! I feel we don’t talk about female orgasms and masturbation and those things enough. It’s definitely a taboo, especially as someone who went to a Catholic school when I was a young girl. The vagina doesn’t exist when you’re in a Catholic school. You’re just a blank space down there. But I mean, “Mosquito” is pretty much the only love song I’ve written so far. And for me to be able to cope with writing a love song, for me to not cringe my way through it, I had to put a little “vulgarity” in there to be able to cope with the fact that I was in love and I felt sick about it, like, “Oh God, I’m feeling things!”
“I’ve got a song called ‘Old Man,’ where I am very much vocal about men abusing their power. But I’m attacking that culture because it needs to be attacked.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
I think it’s that I love attacking men. Obviously I’ve got a song called “Old Man,” where I am very much vocal about men abusing their power. But I’m attacking that culture because it needs to be attacked. It’s the first time in history that we are seeing powerful men having to kind of hold a mirror up to themselves and think about people other than themselves because they’re on top of the food chain. It’s a really important thing because there are so many men—beautiful men, great men—that are more deserving of those roles, that don’t abuse their power.
What do you want people to take away from listening to the album?
I hadn’t really thought about my expectations for this album going in. I think that was me kind of making sure that I wrote it for myself. But now that it’s done, I can think about what I want people to feel, and there’s a lot on the record that you can hopefully relate to. Relatability is the biggest thing—to come away from it hearing someone be really honest. And to be able to understand things a little better, maybe. I’m just happy that I put something out that was honest. FL