Stella Donnelly turns quick wit and care into fiery music to make you laugh and take notice.
Stella Donnelly is creating her own kind of political music
For some the act of protest is loud: like Greta Thunberg, who blatantly calls-out world leaders on a global stage for not ameliorating climate change.
For others dissent is orderly and exercised through a legal framework: like the three American women who filed a criminal lawsuit against ill-famed director Harvey Weinstein.
But for some, fighting back is nuanced and played out with who they are as a person, mostly with kindness.
Stella Donnelly exists in that liminal space.
The 27-year-old Perth native accumulated an international following for her 2019 album Beware of the Dogs: 13 searing folk-rock tracks that interrogate heartbreak, nationalism and how society perceives women, particularly in regards to sexual assault, through poetic vignettes.
But Stella first caught widespread attention with her five-song 2017 EP Thrush Metal – with singing standouts like Mechanical Bull and Boys Will Be Boys – and the world hasn’t let go of Stella since.
The powerhouse has played for crowds at SXSW, Glastonbury (at the personal request of Billy Bragg) and Vivid Sydney, among other stages.
Listen to Stella’s music and you’ll understand why she’s been dubbed a “political songwriter” – a label she accepts “humbly.”
Her breakout track Boys Will Be Boys grills how society excuses rape, with shattering vibrato over an acoustic guitar. Another track, Watching Telly, was written as a reaction to seeing ‘no’ propaganda for abortion reform, and the lyrics are carried over a synth-pop bubbly harmony.
Stella tells CityMag her form of protest, feminism, is defined by responsibility.
“Being a feminist makes me accountable for how others are being treated, not just how I’ve been treated and how I want to be treated,” she says.
“There’s so many fucking definitions to it that can really get people into trouble, but I’m going to continue calling myself a feminist and defining it the way that I do.
“I feel like it’s important to question yourself and to constantly improve.”
Instead of picking up our call from the steps of Parliament, Stella chats from her bed. Her voice sounds tired, but she promises she isn’t. “I am super, super comfy,” she says.
This is the bookend of an international tour for Stella, before she starts a national leg, during which she’ll hit Adelaide’s Lion Art Factory on Friday, 4 October.
Stella talks to us from beneath her sheets, telling us she’s currently listening to Sandy Alex G’s new album and she’s in between moving house.
“I like when you don’t have internet, and you just play board games by the candle light,” she shares.
Stella does make political music, but she is also just a 27-year-old. She says the aim for her music is: “to feel good whilst also telling a story.” This is evident in her lyrics, which mimic quips shared between friends, and in her stage presence, which easily and often draws laughs from her audience.
For her NPR Music Tiny Desk performance, Stella freely admitted one of her songs, U Owe Me, written about a horrible boss, was the result of her, “being very dramatic.”
“He actually paid me a week later, I was on the wrong week of my pay-roll,” she confesses to a chuckling crowd.
Although some of Stella’s music has roots in serious issues, she says there are no general experiences that pushes her towards songwriting. She usually finds herself being in a “wordy” headspace.
“I’ve got a bunch of phrases happening in my brain and maybe I’ve been reading a really good book at that time, or something like that, where I feel like I can actually articulate what’s going on in my head,” she says.
“At one point, I was just reading feminist literature, which was obviously amazing but after a while I needed to fucking Eat, Pray Love or something,” she laughs. “But I need to get out of this headspace and start reading other things, and start reading more nonfiction or fiction.”
She’s currently reading a book about how to unpack cryptic crosswords.
“I’m a huge nerd,” she says, “I wish I could tell you I was reading a better book.”
Although Stella is an incredibly self-aware “political musician,” without the politics she would still feel the drive to make music.
“I was just that that extracurricular kid, you know?” she says of the moment she realised how important music was to her.
“I was just was at school all day and doing band practice… I guess that’s when I realised that [music] was my community and it became a place where I belonged.”
Stella’s form of protest is embedded with who she is as a person: by being the real Miss Congeniality. Just someone who cares.
When CityMag asked Stella whether she had any new work on the way, she asked – almost with an over-the-phone jab to the ribs – “Well, do you have any songs? Because I haven’t written a song in like a year.”
She signs off from our interview with, “take care,” and we believe she means it.