Songs For Everybody: The Unexpected Rise Of Stella Donnelly

STELLA DONNELLY didn’t mean for any of this to happen.

In early 2017, the then 24-year-old had no idea how big her year was going to be. She was playing in a handful of Perth and Fremantle-based bands with a rotating cast of mates, including Bells Rapids, Boat Show, Human Buoy, and Too Short.

She’d released just one solo track: a minute-and-a-half of dewy-eyed harmony called ‘Michaelangelo Sky’, uploaded to Soundcloud and tagged “Ambient”. She was working on an EP of songs that were just her and an acoustic guitar: a wistful, bluesy kiss-off, a seething inner monologue of a hospo worker losing her patience, a delicate folk song about victim-blaming.

She spent January 21 2017 at the North Freo Pub Crawl, playing four sets with four different bands. One year and one week later, she spent her Sunday listening to triple j, discovering at the very end of the day that delicate folk song, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, had come in just two spots shy of the Hottest 100, right behind Frank Ocean’s ‘Chanel’.

“It’s such a strange thing, because I never expected it would be my solo thing that would take off last year,” she says in a phone call a few days after the countdown. “I had a bunch of little projects on the go and I was part of another four bands … My solo thing was the last thing I expected to kind of go nuts.”

By “taking off” and “going nuts”, this is what she means: recording her EP Thrush Metal. Releasing an initial run of 30 on cassette-only label Healthy Tapes in April 2017. Selling out that run and then four subsequent ones. Racking up nearly a million streams for one song (‘Mechanical Bull’) alone. Becoming arguably the most buzzed-about artist at Brisbane’s industry showcase BIGSOUND in September.

Pocketing $25,000 as the first act to take out the Levi’s Music Prize. Flying to London for two-and-a-half days to play two club shows at the end of November. Recording an acceptance video in the middle of Piccadilly Circus for her triple j Unearthed Artist Of The Year J Award. And signing a soon-to-be-revealed international deal with a label.

“I didn’t even know what a label was when I did that EP,” she jokes. “I didn’t even know what it meant.”

•••

‘You Made A Grown Farmer Cry’

“WE’D made about 30 tapes to begin with and I’d mailed half of them over for her EP launch,” recalls Healthy Tapes founder and sole employee Lee Hannah, who personally dubs every tape the old-fashioned real-time way.

“I think they all disappeared in a day or so, so we thought maybe we’ll order 50 more and that’ll be it. Then RTRFM in Perth made it the local feature and wanted a bunch more. It just kept going like that – thinking, ‘Okay, surely this will be it’, and then all the tapes just rapidly kept disappearing.

“There was a point where I had 150 tapes piled up in the lounge room and I’d just be spending weeks dubbing a few here and there in real time with every minute I could be at home.”

Thrush Metal got an initial boost when Stella uploaded its first single, ‘Mechanical Bull’, to triple j Unearthed, to an avalanche of stars and raves from triple j staff. ‘Bull’ is an elliptical, sparse slow-burn, centred around a threat that Stella mutters and then, later, howls.

“I’m gonna throw you all off me like a mechanical bull/Then you’ll be sorry”. It’s a barely suppressed mental mantra familiar to any woman who’s flinched away from a parade of grope-y blokes at her bar or cafe job.

But while ‘Bull’ certainly hits a nerve, track two on the EP, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, is something altogether more paralysing: a devastatingly precise, withering staredown of one man in particular, and of many like him.

Alongside ‘Praying’ – Kesha’s towering, intensely personal statement of survival and grace – and the contemptuous call-to-arms of Camp Cope’s ‘The Opener’, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is one of the songs that crystallised a moment of cultural and social score-settling and revelation in 2017.

Stella originally wrote the song in 2016 to express her fury over a friend’s sexual assault and the intense victim-blaming in high-profile assault cases like the Brock Turner trial – after, of course, discussing it at length with the friend in question.

“What was interesting is that the first verse is about her,” Stella explains. “But then the second verse … it’s more of a mirror to the whole society. It’s questioning the whole culture around it. Both of us knew that this song kind of surpassed being about this personal experience.”

In her clear-honey voice, the major-key melody rocking sweetly side to side, the verses could almost be a lullaby; the bridge and chorus build inexorably, elegantly, and Stella delivers the chilling platitude of the title in a full-strength, soaring keen that invites Jeff Buckley comparisons. Her anguish and incredulity and disgust is palpable – and then the song subsides again into that lullaby lilt.

“I wrote [‘Boys Will Be Boys’] a year-and-a-half ago and I never expected it to get the coverage that it has. It’s become less and less about me the more that I play [it]. I feel like it’s not a song for me. It’s for everybody.

“I’m just trying to speak simply and plainly and don’t want it to be too dramatic either,” she explains. “It’s kind of in disguise. As opposed to ‘Mechanical Bull’, which is so heavy – it’s very obvious that I’m mad. But this one, you could think that it’s like a sweet love song, and then all of a sudden the lyrics come in. I kind of wanted to just wrap it up in this folky thing… It’s like a jack in the box.”

Addressing her friend’s attacker throughout, as well as the family members and cultural forces that excuse and enable sexual violence by young men, she ends on a satisfying note of menace:

“Like a mower in the morning,
I will never let you rest
You broke all the bonds she gave ya
Time to pay the fucking rent.”

The Harvey Weinstein revelations – one of the biggest and ugliest boils lanced in the resurgent fight against harassment and abuse – gave rise to the “Time’s Up” campaign, spearheaded by some of the most famous and powerful women in the world. Stella was way ahead of them in declaring a moment of reckoning in no uncertain terms.

“It’s such a weird timing thing – I wrote it a year-and-a-half ago and I never expected it to get the coverage that it has,” Stella told me in November, just a few weeks after #MeToo took hold. “It’s become less and less about me the more that I play [it]. I feel like it’s not a song for me. It’s for everybody. I’m just so grateful that people resonate with it.

“And what has been beautiful actually, is that I’ve been getting lots of messages from men … I got a message from a guy being like ‘I just stopped my harvester in the middle of the desert. I’m out in this remote farm. You just made a grown man farmer cry. Thank you for this. This message needs to be said.’”

“That EP makes me wanna be a better, braver person,” says Lee from Healthy Tapes. “And I know I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

•••

BETWEEN when we spoke in Sydney in November 2017, and catching up again at the beginning of February, the reckoning rolled on. Both of us were among the 400-plus women in the Australian music industry who signed the #MeNoMore open letter protesting abuse and harassment.

Then Stella performed at Falls Festival around the country as a temporary member of hometown heroes Methyl Ethel, filling in for an injured Hamish Rahn.  She describes this as “a week of bliss”: playing to huge festival crowds, going to the beach, making a pilgrimage to the lighthouse from Round The Twist near Lorne.

But this idyll wasn’t immune to the conversation going on in the outside world – also on the bill were Camp Cope, who continued to back up the caustic ‘The Opener’ with loud action, distributing shirts with an anti-assault message for bands to wear onstage and calling out organisers for the dominance of male artists on the lineup and for underestimating their enormous audience draw.

Stella posted an Instagram story proclaiming that she was looking forward to festivals where there were more women to hang out with backstage, and where her friends weren’t felt up and vomited on on their way into the site.

“I’ve been back and forth with Falls and they’re, obviously, trying to improve on what they did last year and then this year,” she says diplomatically, adding that it would be “ridiculous” for Falls to book “the most feminist, outspoken mainstream band in Australia” and not expect them to make some noise about safety and representation.

That said, Stella is also understandably wary of the media’s habit of turning outspoken artists into talking heads to be trotted out whenever their signature hot-button issue is in the news.

“I think that Camp Cope did a really good job and were really brave and have copped a lot of shit for it… [But] I don’t want to make Camp Cope the spokespeople of every political problem that we have.”

Stella issues a content warning before she plays ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ live, and she takes care to highlight her privilege as a white cis woman, especially at major moments like her Levi’s Prize win. This is not a bandwagon or a trend or a branding exercise or an audition for the job of Australian Music’s Next Top Feminist Spokesperson. It’s just good manners.

•••

“I’m finding there's no real formula for me to work at how I can become more creative or whatever, I just have to ride the wave and ... just see how I go, I guess.”

‘Writing Is For Me Only’

ONE of the most important things to know about Stella is she’s really fucking funny. If you know her mostly from those first two singles, both of which seethe with their own particular kinds of anger, this is understandable – if you ignore that her EP title is a pun about a yeast infection, or find no humour in the darkly satisfying image of a rapist being haunted by guilt as inescapable as a lawnmower outside his bedroom window every morning for the rest of his life.

But in person, she disarms audiences expecting a steely, unsmiling angel of feminist vengeance playing intense acoustic folk for 45 minutes. She beams with her whole face, her elfin, larrikin charm winning you over before before she even sings a note.

There’s an excoriating, sub-two-minute ditty called ‘Sportsbet Sausage Sizzle’. She barely suppresses a self-deprecating smirk every time she gets to the line about her vibrator in her “only love song”, ‘Mosquito’. ‘Should Have Stayed At Home’ sees her alternating between crooning the title refrain and deadpanning all the reasons a Tinder date was a bust (“He said I was a hipster because I’ve got a fringe and I like reading books”; “He said he was a locomotive engineer/Turns out he’s actually a train driver for Transperth”) with easy, chatty comic timing.

To the delight of the crowd at her first ever UK show in November 2017, she imitated her Welsh relatives’ lilting concern over the EP title: “Is Stella all right? Has she got throosh, then?” (Her accent is spot on – her family spent a few years living in Swansea when she was a child, and she still speaks a little Welsh.)

“It is quite a funny thing because people do not expect [my sense of humour] at all when they come to shows,” Stella agrees. “There’ll be definitely some more playfulness in this album.”

The material for her debut full-length, which she’s in the process of writing and recording between festival appearances, includes a couple of songs written on piano, rather than her trademark spare, picked acoustic guitar. However,  there’s no deliberate movement away from the style or thematic preoccupations of Thrush Metal.

The personal may be political, but it’s important to remember that her signature song was an individual expression of anger and contempt, which just happened to dovetail satisfyingly with 2017’s ultimate Big Mood. But when she writes, she says, she now finds she’s revisiting experiences she hadn’t yet fully processed, seeing old relationships anew through the lens of the current conversation.

“I don’t feel the pressure to be writing things that articulate my stance on things. I feel like ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ really summed it up for me and how I feel about victim blaming in this culture. I’m not putting pressure on myself to do it, but it might just fall into that when I write, and I’ll always be a feminist. So, those lyrics will always come out.”

If anything, she’s actively trying to channel where she was a year ago, in order to make sure she’s writing for herself rather than the “army” of people waiting for her next move: the crowds at South By Southwest, the Hottest 100 voters, the audiences on her upcoming UK tour, the solitary farmer she brought to tears atop his combine harvester.

“I’m pretending that they don’t exist while I’m in there writing because it’s really for me. Writing is for me only, and if people like it, that’s great; but, it needs to be something I really enjoy creating and putting out. And, it needs to come from that place and not from a place of like, ‘Ooh, I wonder if people will like this?’”

“I’m finding there’s no real formula for me to work at how I can become more creative or whatever, I just have to ride the wave and … just see how I go, I guess.”

Something Else