Stella Donnelly: 'I’m Not Gonna Bullsh*t Anyone & Pretend I’m An Introvert'

7 September 2022 | 11:44 am | Emma Whines

"There is still part of me that enjoys my own space and time, and through being forced to have my own time and space, I learned to enjoy it."

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Stella Donnelly is an artist well known for her pointed lyrics, quick-witted humour and strong opinions. She rose to fame with her first EP, Thrush Metal, in 2017, which featured breakout singles Mechanical Bull and Boys Will Be Boys

That EP, and its lyrical prowess, cemented her place amongst a select group of musicians, like Paul Kelly and Courtney Barnett, who have an unwittingly accurate perception of society and are able to transfer it into enjoyable songs, making the hard truths a little easier to swallow. Her first album, Beware Of The Dogs, followed in the EP’s footsteps, calling out injustices left and right, and took her around the world, playing for crowds who enjoyed her Australian vocals punching their way into hearts.

Interestingly, her new album, Flood, takes a swift left turn away from Beware Of The Dogs, focusing on introspection and a softer tone. It makes sense, given the world was placed on hold for two years; it’s much harder to write about social issues when society, in essence, has ceased to exist outside of the confines of our own homes. Either way, the beginning of the album was a “rough slog” after a relentless touring schedule that was suddenly cut short.

“I think I was maybe working too hard - not working too hard - touring too hard after the first record," Donnelly begins. "Which is a fantastic opportunity and such an amazing experience but I do think, maybe, I wasn’t taking enough time to have a process and practice writing. It was like the live show was taking priority over that.”

When she was forced to stop and sit with herself, she found it more confronting than she expected. 

“I feel like I’d been blocked for three years, and it was quite a process. It felt like a flood, in a way. To start with it came trickling out and then all of a sudden it was like a big vomit of songs. Mostly terrible songs, but songs nevertheless. I tried to not judge them too much and just accept what was happening.”

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Coincidentally, the album title did not come from the idea that she had a flood of songs wash through her, breaking her writer's block. Rather it was inspired by her new love of birds - a hobby she picked up during lockdown. 

“I was scrolling on Instagram and saw this photo taken by Tom Hunt and just thought, ‘Oh my god, that is such an amazing photograph. It feels like a flood of birds.'

“Then I wrote Flood, but actually quite late in the process. Like I’d recorded most of the album and then months later, I wrote Flood, cause I couldn’t get the lyrics, 'I'm taken out to sea in the flood / Swimmer looking for the line,' out of my head.” 

A happy coincidence, but one that seemed perfect to bring the album together. Another happy coincidence was her sudden urge to put down her usual go-to Fender Stratocaster and take a seat at the piano.

“There is something really special and honest about that instrument. Even just the physicality of it, like when you’re playing the guitar, you’re hiding behind the guitar. Whereas with the piano, the sound is coming straight back at you and there is no barrier, you’re just there,” she explains.

“It was like being given a fresh palette of paints to work with. It wasn’t like a conscious decision, that's just how it went.”

Despite the slower pace and melancholy feel, there is a brightness to the record. Donnelly delves completely into the places that she's never been, looking at herself in the mirror rather than turning the mirror on itself.

“I was talking to Julia Jacklin today, we did an interview together, and she said, ‘By forcing yourself to be in a place that you’re not comfortable, that's when music becomes comforting again,’" Donnelly recalls.

“For me, when I’m writing, I’m trying to access a place that's a combination of home and a magic land... Hogwarts,” she laughs.

“But you know, it’s like a little bit of a high, and you’re trying to squeeze that high and make it happen. You’re trying to get out of yourself with the instrumentation. I think any piece of art is a combination of real and fantasy. It's always bringing in moments of your own life but weaving a story out of something. I’m always bringing myself into it but it’s not necessarily a diary.”

One of the most touching songs on the album, Oh My My My, skips the quick-witted lyrics and sharp societal analysis altogether. Rather, she tried for more of an introspective commentation, tackling one of the hardest emotions to plague the human population; grief. 

“When I was recording my first record, my grandmother passed away, and I remember having this feeling of wanting to honour her in some way but the grief was too raw and I knew I wouldn’t be able to articulate it. I dedicated that album to her instead. Oh My My My was like a delayed thing of finally being able to put that grief into words.” she explains.

“The keyboard that I used on the song is my housemate's keyboard that his grandma gave him. So it felt really right. I don’t know if a guitar song would have done justice to her.

“I also usually try to sugar coat sadness in songs a little bit, and try to say ‘yeah things are shit but also..’ you know? It's a very Australian thing, that we don’t like to dwell on things too much. But I gave myself permission in this song, and I’m glad that I did.” She admitted. 

A focus point when writing for the album was tapping into her ‘small self’ and letting herself feel whatever it was she needed to feel. It unlocked an honesty and vulnerability that Donnelly believes she had never been able to truly grasp in her other records. It seems that her ‘small self’ has even more courage than the grown-up Donnelly might possess - which is hard to imagine. 

“It’s a version of myself that no one knows, that doesn't have an Instagram, that is introverted - which is quite a small part of me, I’ll be honest, I’m not gonna bullshit anyone and pretend I’m an introvert,” she laughs again. 

“But you know there is still part of me that enjoys my own space and time, and through being forced to have my own time and space, I learned to enjoy it,” she explains.

It’s clear that as Donnelly changed, her music changed with it, a natural progression for any artist. Although, in Flood, her roots definitely stay with her, even if they aren’t as explicit anymore. The honesty that she always tried to push to the front of all her song is just utilised in a different way, and possibly, in a way that fans might enjoy more. 

“I grew up listening to Billy Bragg and Paul Kelly and they always painted a beautiful picture of society, even in its ugliness. They really managed to combine the mundane, domestic, suburban life with the profound social issues. Songs like that always really spoke to me.

“When I went out and started seeing gigs, a lot of my favourite bands in Fremantle and Perth were bands that spoke about stuff like that. There is a band called Shit Narnia in Fremantle and their lyrics are just so fuckin’ brilliant. They’re like a hardcore band - but I don’t wanna put a genre to them because they do so much amazing stuff.

“As a listener of music, that's when I love songs the most. When there is a lyric that just kind of gets you. Like a lyric that actually understands you.

“I remember when Courtney Barnett put out Nameless, Faceless and I was sitting in my car - actually I’ve had this with a lot of her songs. Where you just go, ‘I can’t believe she’s said this’, like ‘I just can't believe this has been put into a song, she's just said it perfectly.'

“I just remember sitting there with my mouth agape, just going, ‘No one ever needs to talk about this topic again because she's completely captured it perfectly,’ You know? It’s just this feeling of ‘fucking thank you!’

“I always aspire to find part of that - like even a fucking millimetre of that - in my writing.”

Flood is out now