By Yeow Kai Chai
A brief listing promoting Stella Donnelly’s gig for her recent Australian tour sums up her contrarian appeal: “She belts out her songs and stories with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a sailor.”
So, it is: the Welsh-Australian singer-songwriter revels in counterpoints, delivering disarming folk-pop melodies with a killer lyrical sting. Serendipitously, she’s also become part of the zeitgeist-defining #MeToo movement with a song called ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, an unflinching account of a friend’s rape experience.
In 2017, she put out the track in an EP titled Thrush Metal on cassette tape on the D-I-Y Melbourne label Healthy Tapes, and lo and behold, it was hailed as an anthem. She released her debut album, Beware of the Dogs, in March in 2019, where she covers sexual assault, sexism and racism with a laser touch. It was praised, most memorably, by acclaimed American critic Robert Christgau, as a “musical encyclopaedia of [male] a**holes.”
Her star is on a swift ascent: She has won a slew of accolades, including Best Folk Act, Best Female Vocalist, and Most Popular New Act at the Western Australian Music Industry Awards, and Unearthed Artist of the Year from Triple J in 2017. She was also nominated in the category of Breakout Artist at the 2019 ARIA Music Awards, Australia’s most prestigious music awards.
Born in Wales, she spent some childhood years in Morriston, before moving Down Under to Perth with her family. Speaking on the phone from Melbourne before she comes to The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions, she shares with us her insights on human behaviour, songwriting, and a little-known connection with Singapore.
As you travel, have you discovered whether people are more similar or more different around the world?
Being allowed to travel so much has given me a lot more perspective on how similar people are. I feel like the world has gotten smaller for me. Being able to travel to all these different nations and meet such wonderful people, I realise how alike music lovers are. There’s a similarity between playing a festival in Australia and playing one in Iceland, or in Japan, or in Hungary. At those places, you always meet very nice people who care about music, and have a strong attachment to what you play or what you sing about.
You are culturally aware of audiences’ responses to your songs. Were there moments where you realise that, okay, I have to explain a bit about the context or the references.
In Germany, I had to explain a few of my jokes, which wasn’t a very good thing. (Laughs) If the joke doesn’t make anyone laugh, you shouldn’t explain it. (Laughs) There were a couple of situations like that, but I never see it as their fault. I always see it as me not being able to articulate it as well enough. In America, I make fun of myself a lot – that’s an Australian thing, and a British thing to do. Instead of laughing, the US crowd would be like, “Oh, no.” I’d be like, “No, no… it’s fine.”
When you put out the song ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, did you know that it would resonate with the times? Were you surprised?
I was very surprised. It was a very strange time for me. Where I live in Perth, those conversations weren’t happening. People weren’t ready to talk about the things I talk about in the song. A few weeks after I put out the song, the conversations started happening worldwide, and then they started happening in my hometown. It was this really spooky moment without me realising and predicting the pendulum swinging back.
I’m very honoured to be part of that conversation, and I hope my song has helped people. That’s all I’ve really wanted for that song. It wasn’t to attack people. It was to challenge not only how we see young girls and women, but also how we see young men, and how we stereotype them to be violent. I don’t think that’s right and it’s unfair and damaging. I guess that was my aim, for people to understand and take it that way. Obviously, I’ve got some negative feedback, but I think any woman who speaks out on this sort of issue is going to be met with hatred at some point. But for the most part, it was really positive and supportive.
(Stella Donnelly, Photo by Pooneh Ghana)
You used to work in a bar, and I was wondering whether that experience has helped you observe humanity, and helped you nail those human foibles.
Definitely, working in a bar, and then working in a café, and knowing the difference between daytime work and nighttime work. (Laughs) It’s quite interesting. A conversation which would not be appropriate in a café is suddenly appropriate in a bar because people are drinking. It was a great opportunity for me to just watch the world. I still try to do that, even though I don’t work in a bar anymore. When I’m on a plane, or travelling, I like to watch people, which is a bit creepy. (Laughs) People are interesting, and how we interact with each other. I find that fascinating.
Do you have any dream of becoming a novelist or a short-story writer? You have an eye for details.
Thank you so much. I do dream of writing a children’s book one day, but I never thought of doing adult fiction, which is funny, because most of my songs are a bit rude. (Chuckles) My music is more on-the-point, as you say. It gives me a way out, because if people don’t like what I say, then they can at least maybe attach themselves to the music, or vice versa. It gives me a second chance!
I understand you moved from Wales to Perth when you were three. Do you embrace your Welshness and would you say you’re bicultural?
I actually went back to Wales when I was about seven. I started school, spoke the language, and lived there for a few years. I go back once a year or every two years, and spend time with my family, and speak the language. I identify myself as a Welsh person in a very proud way. We are a small nation. Our language and our history are kind of threatened. I feel like it’s really important to fly the Wales flag as an Australian immigrant as well.
Have you sung or written anything in Welsh?
I have sung a lot of old folksongs in Welsh, but I haven’t written anything in Welsh. I would love to one day, and I feel like I need to practise the language and say all the right words and in the right way. I would be nervous writing a song in Welsh, but I hope to one day.
Do you have any Welsh music you’d recommend?
Yeah, I love Cate Le Bon. She’s coming to Singapore, she’s really cool and she’s playing the festival. She grew up not far from where my family lives. Her music is amazing. I love that her accent is still present in her songs. No, I don’t know her, but I would love to meet her. I admire her work very much.
Can you discuss your songwriting process? Do the lyrics come first, or the melody?
I generally have a melody – I’d be playing the guitar or the piano before I write the lyrics. For me, it’s about the syntax, and where it all fits in the sentence, or the space. I need a melody or a time signature before I would be able to fit the right words in. I need a feeling, or a certain atmosphere, and that helps me decide what I want to write about. If it’s a sad-sounding melody, I’d try to write a positive lyric. I try to keep it balanced.
Did you get any reply from the people you sing about? For instance, your former boss in ‘You Owe Me’.
Oh, no, I haven’t heard from anyone. That’s the only song that is about a very specific person, the rest are based on a collection of experiences. That one in particular… but I think he’s hiding in a reservation somewhere. (Laughs)
I understand you studied contemporary music and jazz music at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and you were in a rock band in high school. Do you remember the moment you knew you have the gift of music?
I don’t remember knowing I had the gift, but I remember I loved it. In my final year in high school, playing the guitar and singing a song to my group. I remembered the feeling of really enjoying the performance, and learning to play. I just remember being addicted. I just thought about music all the time. If I don’t play the guitar for a while, I’d feel the urge to pick it up again. I don’t remember feeling like I was gifted, and I still don’t really know what that would feel like, ’cos I feel like I’m always hoping to improve. (Laughs)
Was there a moment you feel like you could make music as a way of living, or do you feel like you have to work very hard at it?
I played in all sorts of bands for about nine years, before I became known outside Perth. By working with all sorts of artists in all sorts of ways, that helped me know what my sound was going to be. I still have to work very hard at all of that. It took me trying out different things, and saying yes to everything, to work out what I want and what I don’t want. That really helped me, all these years of testing myself.
I’ll end with a simple question: Have you ever been to Singapore?
Yes, I have! Twice. I went with my parents when I was young, and I also played a show in a corporate band where we sang cover songs, at the Shangri-La Hotel, years and years ago, maybe 2013! I can’t wait to get to the night market, walk around, and show the band around. I’m the tour guide.
Stella Donnelly performs at The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions on Saturday, Dec 7, at the Pasir Panjang Power Station. Get tickets here: http://bit.ly/ABCapactix