Reckoning with Australia’s colonial past and gender politics helped Stella Donnelly craft the year’s boldest debut

Sexual harassment, human rights issues and a secular nation – Stella Donnelly’s debut album is an emotional but often hilarious indictment of modern Australia. Thomas Smith meets her to learn how 'Beware Of The Dogs' interpreted a nation in transition

There’s nothing scary about Stella Donnelly. When NME meets her in an East London cafe in January, she’s polite, funny and immediately welcoming. We bond over a mutual love of eggs, for some reason. Wholesome stuff, right? So why are are so many blokes frightened by the rising Perth musician?

This is what Stella asks on ‘Old Man’ opening track of her debut album, ‘Beware Of The Dogs’, out now. “Oh, are you scared of me old man? Or are you scared of what I’ll do?” she sings in the song’s chorus. What do you reckon then, Stella? “Well a lot of dads hate my foul language, it’s great,” she says laughing. “For example, I realised that I say, ‘Fuck’ 16 times in the song ‘Season’s Greetings’. But really, I knew that as soon as publications shared my music online, I would have to defend myself for the rest of my life.”

‘Beware Of The Dogs’, is not an offensive record, but rather, it provokes conversation on topics that have typically been culturally and socially repressed. This was no shock. The 25-year-old’s debut EP, 2017’s ‘Thrush Metal’, featured stark tales that touched on the fall-out of sexual violence, and the difference between how victims and accusers are treated, (“your father told you that you’re innocent/told you that women rape themselves”). On the cover of this album, an anonymous male hand is trying to wash Stella’s mouth out with soap.

I knew I would have to defend myself for the rest of my life” – Stella Donnelly

It started with ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, the finger-picking ballad that was the lynchpin of that EP and inadvertently became an heavily-referenced song in the #MeToo movement. Stella penned the track in early 2016, before the the conversation became a part of the social discourse, but it remains highlight of her debut. Now, Stella acknowledges that there’s still some way to go, and new challenges to overcome if the impact is to be felt throughout generations.

“No story is ever a simple story in itself. Now, I guess that ‘My Old Man, for example, is a reflection on the taste in everyone’s mouths post-#MeToo and how we’re dealing with it now, and whether enough has happened,” she says. “For example, Harvey Weinstein has only just been charged and on trial. There are people out there who are still suffering and particularly in Australia, as our defamation laws are very strict. So it is really hard for any victim to speak out in the way that those living in the US have done.”

“The #MeToo movement was a fabulous thing, but it was lawless, in a way. It took place in the court of Facebook,” she says. “It was a period that was very volatile and very emotional for everyone. Now that has kind of calmed down a bit, we can have conversations that are pragmatic.”

The Australian discourse in particular is something that influenced ‘Beware Of The Dogs’. She references the accusations made against Geoffrey Rush, one of the country’s most prominent actors, as a turning point. But her home nation’s influence and history burrowed itself deep into its lyrics.

“When I was writing the album, there was a conversation about nationalism, and the pride that we, as Australians, have at the expense of other people’s freedom and rights,” she says. “We break a lot of Human Rights laws in terms of how we treat our First Nations people. At the time, I was writing about the fact that I’ve got a lot of friends who have suffered at the hands of the Catholic protocol system that we have in our country. I say ‘harmless’ with inverted commas here, but there’s a lot of ‘harmless racism’ that happens in Australia.”

You can hear that in influence in the breezy indie-jam ‘Tricks’ (“you wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo”) or perhaps the twisted ‘Season’s Greetings’, a spiralling song detailing a disastrous Christmas dinner (“sliding edgeways out of strained border protection debates”). A thread of self-reflection runs through ‘Beware Of The Dogs’, from the humorous to serious – it’s something that Stella is very much aware of. “I come from this very privileged perspective of being a white Australian, so I am very lucky to have this sort of platform to speak about stuff, and I do acknowledge that.”

Being able to perform worldwide and be a credible voice in these conversations are something Stella never thought would happen. She was born in Wales and emigrated to Australia when she was 11 years old, and admits that her ‘agitator’ mindset has been with her for a long time; “As a child, I talked non-stop, and I was similar to how I am now, but just way more annoying.”

Her teenage years were spent busking in markets, before joining a covers band and performing three-hour sets in the corner of a steak restaurant. “You could win a prize if you ate this massive steak there. I used to sing fucking Robbie Williams and shit like that. But it got me better at playing guitar, and stuff like that. Dealing with crowds, and winning people over whilst they were trying to eat.”

“I used to sing fucking Robbie Williams songs in a steak restaurant”

Original songs came soon after and she’s since become a superb crowd-wrangler in her live performances. Go to one of her shows and you’ll see just why. Peppered between songs whose subjects are no laughing matter, Stella has the stage presence and wit of a seasoned stand-up comic. It makes her shows a rollercoaster of emotions, and banter with an audience something she embraces. 

“I played a show in Leeds last year and there were two lads going, ‘Go on girl! Go on girl!’. Then when I got to Boys Will Be Boys, there was this one guy dancing and going, “Oh, oh fuck!”,” she says. “Right at the end he turned to his friend and said, ‘Oh, she got us there lads!’. They were being really supportive, they loved it.”

‘Beware Of The Dogs’ encourages this response – to be open and inquisitive but to know that, sometimes, a little bit of humour goes a long way. On this album’s title track, there’s lines where she slams the right-wing politics in power in Australia (“there’s no Parliament worthy of this country’s side/all these pious fucks taking from the 99”), and soon after, she references a love interest being allergic to, er, cake. It’s a deeply human album, one that’ll make you laugh and cry in equal measures – its a triumph. Perhaps Stella’s not so frightening, after all.

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