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In 2017, Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly captured the attention of listeners and critics around the globe when she released “Boys Will Be Boys,” a track off her debut EP Thrush Metal. The song made headlines for its sharp, poignant commentary on sexual assault and victim blaming, and became something of an anthem of the #MeToo movement as it grew in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
Now, Donnelly is on the heels of releasing her full-length debut Beware of the Dogs, a powerful collection of songs that shows Donnelly to be anything but a viral flash in the pan. Lead single “Old Man” harnesses the same incisive power of “Boys Will Be Boys,” though where the latter showcased Donnelly’s emotive vulnerability, “Old Man” channels her hard-earned defiance in the face of patriarchal power dynamics. Elsewhere on Beware of the Dogs, Donnelly charts the emotional toll of constant touring (“Lunch”) and pokes fun at Australian culture (“Tricks”), all while crafting deliciously melodic hooks and off-kilter arrangements.
Vinyl Me, Please caught up with Donnelly while she was in Queensland, en route to a show with John Butler Trio in the city of Bundaberg, to discuss the genesis of Beware of the Dogs, touring abroad and the new experience of writing songs while very much in the spotlight.
VMP: You’re a couple weeks away from actually releasing this new music to the wider world. What are you feeling, as you anticipate the release? Has it been a difficult wait?
Stella Donnelly: Yeah, it’s been interesting. It actually hasn’t felt like too long of a wait for me. I was really lucky. It’s a pretty quick turnover, considering some people wait years and years to get their stuff out. It feels like it’s all happening really quickly. I’m feeling lucky that so many of these songs are really fresh and new. There are only three or four that I’ve been playing for a long time. The rest feel really relevant to me, so I feel really good about putting them out to people because I feel like they really represent me today, rather than writing a song four years ago and putting it out and not really resonating with that sort of feeling anymore. For me, I definitely still really resonate with what I’m about to give to people, and it’s definitely very much in time with myself. It’s kind of a relief, having something new. When all people know of you is what you’ve done so far, it’s nice to refresh and reset.
You mentioned how quickly things have been moving for you. I’d imagine things have really changed drastically for you since your EP [2018’s Thrush Metal]. Did that new level of interest in your music have any effect on how you conceived the album, or did you already have it plotted?
The attention and the audience I had made me really scared, actually, about how I was going to write music in the future. Before that, no one gave a shit about what I was doing from day to day, so I was left to my own devices to write whatever I wanted. Then all of the sudden there’s this army of people around me who are actually working for what I’m doing. It’s quite an interesting sort of pressure to feel. I was really scared, leading up to that time I took off to write the album, about whether I could actually come up with anything knowing there were people waiting for it. But going home to Fremantle, where I’m from, I surprised myself in that I was able to go back to who I was before the EP came out. I guess being surrounded by my friends and family and my hometown and my usual stimuli allowed me to go back to that original passion of writing songs. It was definitely a worry of mine, but I was able to overcome it. It was really important to me that I wasn’t going to change the way I spoke up about things, despite having been trolled or whatever for “Boys Will Be Boys.” It was really important that I still held the middle finger up to those people, in a way. That’s why I put out “Old Man” as a first single. I might have a band and I might have more a produced sound, but the sentiment remains and my willingness to speak out remains.
“Boys Will Be Boys” made such a splash here in the States. Granted, I’d say it’s relevant everywhere, but with all that’s been going on in the news cycle here it really seemed to connect with people. Did you expect that song to take on the life that it has?
No way! When I wrote it, Harvey Weinstein was still very much in power, you know what I mean? #MeToo wasn’t something that I knew anything about. It hadn’t emerged in the way it has now, and no one was talking about it — especially not in Perth, where I’m from. No one was discussing these sorts of issues properly, or taking responsibility for victim blaming. It was very much something that I felt frustrated and trapped in and scared about performing live. I was performing it to 10 people in my local pub back at home, and I was scared playing it then, you know? But then those 10 people came up and said, “That was big.” My dad said, “If you ever put that song out, it’s going to change your life.” I didn’t believe him and then I put it out and here we are talking about it. When I put the video out for it, it was only three days later that Harvey Weinstein was called out online. It was the strangest timing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I don’t know how to feel about it. I’m not looking at it as a good thing or a bad thing; I’m just looking at it as a thing that happened. For my song to be used as some sort of resource to someone to work through stuff, that’s all I could ever ask for, really.
There are several moments across the album that seem to pick up where “Boys Will Be Boys” left off. You mentioned “Old Man” earlier, and just your general intent to stay true to your voice. When you write songs of that nature, is it a conscious decision to make some kind of political statement, or is that just what’s naturally on your mind and what ends up in the song?
I think the whole political thing is such an easy term to use for people. I’m most often called a “political songstress” by middle-aged white men who haven’t actually experienced any of the things the politics are affecting (laughs). All of those things came from very personal places and they happen to be political issues and they happen to question the patriarchy and question the norm. For me, they all came from very personal places.
Shifting gears from the thematic elements of the record, you also had the chance to work with a band and a producer on this album. What did that open up to you creatively, particularly compared to your experience of recording your EP solo?
It was so nice being able to actually create a sound that I really wanted, and that I would have tried to get when I did the EP but didn’t have enough money to do. When I’ve written songs I’ve imagined a bass line or imagined a piano line or a drum, and I haven’t been able to achieve that with my two untrained hands. Being able to write something and turn to Talya [Valenti], my drummer, and ask her to play something, or turn to Jenny [Aslett], my bass player, and get her to put something to it was just such a treat, really.
What were some of the sonic touchstones or ideas you had in mind as you were envisioning what these new songs would sound like?
Well, I didn’t really have thoughts on it until I was putting it down. I was listening to Adrianne Lenker’s new solo record [abysskiss] and her song “Cradle” had this really nice vocal reverb she had created. She sort of sang underneath what she was singing in the same melody. It sounded almost like a plug-in or something, but it was just her voice. I really loved that so I adopted a few of those techniques, like on “Mosquito.” But I didn’t try and tip my hat to any artists. I probably just did accidentally, you know what I mean?
Given that you’re touring so much more now than you were previously, did you have the live stage in mind at all when you were coming up with arrangements for the new songs?
No, which has been a really fun challenge post-album, to try to work out how the fuck we’re going to play them live (laughs). “Tricks” and “Seasons Greetings” are pretty easy, pretty classic-band stuff. But then there are songs like “Die” and “Watching Telly” and “Bistro” that we used a sample pad before. I’ve never used synthesizers and stuff before so it’s been really fun to work that how and figure out how the hell we’re going to do it live.
Touring across all of Australia seems like a big enough endeavor in itself, but how does touring at home compare to touring internationally, particularly in the States?
Australia is less populated, for one thing. I did an American tour with Natalie Prass and we did 34 shows in 38 days. It was a lot of driving, but it doesn’t take long to get to another town. In Australia, we have this great expanse of desert to get across. There’s no driving from Perth to Melbourne, unless you have days free and a good car. So you fly everywhere, which is different. The towns are interesting. A lot of them are really beautiful to play in, like the country towns are really welcoming, beautiful people. Then some of the cities can be quite challenging to play in, with people not having been made aware of the issues I’m singing about, or something like that. That can pose a challenge. But for the most part it’s been so lovely, and it’s the same in the States. I’m going to confess my ignorance here, but when I knew that I was going to be playing in places like Arizona and Texas with Natalie Prass, I genuinely felt nervous because all we have painted in Australia by the media is that Texas is a red, Southern, racist state and Arizona is the same. But they were actually the most lovely gigs [we] played, and the most meaningful shows. I had more people come up to me in Houston and have a chat to me about songs than I did in Los Angeles or in New York. It was those places that I had my favorite shows and met some absolutely beautiful people.
Yeah, those are misconceptions a lot of people here in the States have, too. If there’s anything the last few years have confirmed, it’s that there’s racism and sexism everywhere, unfortunately. And good people, too, of course. Maybe with some of those dates in Texas or places like that, people may have been a little more starved for the kind of music and message you’re putting out there.
That’s what I kind of realized. It’s different in those places, and it’s been such a great experience being able to go to those places and learn from people there, too. I didn’t know who Beto O’Rourke was, but I learned so much in that time because I was touring during the election. It was a really crazy time.
You can buy Vinyl Me, Please’s edition of 'Beware of the Dogs' over here.
Brittney McKenna is a writer living in Nashville. She contributes regularly to many outlets, including NPR Music, Apple Music and Nashville Scene.