Stella Donnelly: “You have to stand up for people that don’t have a voice”

The punk poet on climate change, inequality in Australia and telling off racists in bookshops

“I saw a meme the other day that said, ‘If your friend starts making bread from scratch, ask them if they’re OK because they’re probably deeply depressed.’” Stella Donnelly pauses for the briefest of moments before her voice becomes electric, filled with a playfully defensive spirit. “But it’s making me really happy, so fuck off whoever made that meme!”

That bristling, cackling retort is quintessentially Donnelly, a musician whose very contradictions form the bedrock of her art. Her wholesome pastimes like baking, birdwatching and gardening (“essentially being a 60-year-old woman”) don’t scream “punk rock” in the same way her songs don’t bombard the ear with an all-guns-blazing, three-chord, rough-and-ready blitzkrieg. But lyrically, her raw, heart-on-sleeve honesty can more than keep up with the punks. Her verses are full of acerbic wit, hefty f-bombs and kicking against the pricks of the world, never shying away from what she wants – or needs – to say.

Stella Donnelly
CREDIT: Olivia Senior for NME

That attitude is part of the reason why the Wales-born, Australia-raised musician is one of the most captivating and accomplished lyricists around right now – in her home country and beyond. The 27-year-old is funny in a way that creeps up on you and gets you right in the gut and, so far, she’s managed to pull off one of music’s hardest tricks: filling her songs with capital-I Issues without making you feel like you’re being preached at. It’s all thanks to the everyday situations she leverages to express her ideas, whether it’s a family argument over Christmas dinner or the signs on gates of homes across the world that warn trespassers of potentially protective canines.

Her 2019 debut album ‘Beware Of The Dogs’ embodies all of that, while also putting Donnelly’s own, very personal experiences of the breakdown of a relationship on full display. It’s an album full of heartfelt storytelling as well as political statements, set to lilting, inventive indie-folk and brushes of psychedelia. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever known how to do,” she says from her home in Perth of that narrative style. “I find poetry and music that I love the most have those elements to them and have those really relatable things that give you that weird twinge of understanding and belonging. When I heard artists like Billy Bragg and Paul Kelly and Courtney Barnett, I felt like I belonged.”

Almost a year after she released that record, she finds it almost staggering that it’s something she made. “It’s like an impossible thing that I did, you know what I mean?” she asks rhetorically. “It honestly feels like I didn’t even record it or write any of those songs – I feel very far away from it. I still feel all those things that I’m singing about and I still relate to it, but I just don’t know how I did it.”

Stella Donnelly - NME Australia Issue 02 Cover
Stella Donnelly on the cover of NME Australia #02

Donnelly might be confused by what she created but, to anyone in the know, ‘Beware Of The Dogs’ felt like a natural progression from her debut EP ‘Thrush Metal’ and its bruisingly angry, heartbreakingly accurate standout track ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, which became a word-of-mouth hit in 2017. It’s little wonder, then, that ‘Beware Of The Dogs’ was named Best Australian Album at the NME Awards 2020 – the first record to collect the honour – and is up for Best Album In The World at the ceremony in London on February 12.

“I remember looking at stage photos of Glastonbury on the NME website when I was 15 and I also discovered a lot of new music through NME,” she says, recalling scouring 100 Best Albums Of All Time and 100 Songs You Need To Hear Before You Die lists. “So for me, personally, it’s a really big deal and I’m really honoured to be a part of the early days of the Australian edition.”

Over the last couple of years, Donnelly has been flying the flag high for Australia as she’s toured the globe, taking her uncompromising messages and sharp songwriting to increasingly bigger and more engaged audiences. She knows it’s a privileged position to be in. In the grand scheme of things, there aren’t that many Aussie acts that get to live the life she has been recently.

“We have our own industry that’s really busy and bands are really popular here,” she explains. “And then a few bands get to go across the water and go to America, Europe, Japan, and those places and break through that distance. So it’s really important [to shine a light on Australian artists] because we’re then going to be having a lot more getting out there.”

To some, it might have seemed like Donnelly came out of nowhere but, as with any apparent overnight success, this has been years in the making. After spending her teenage years in a high school rock band, she studied contemporary and jazz music at the West Australian Academy Of Performing Arts. Later, she dodged heckles and crowd members’ wandering hands when she gigged as part of a covers band at corporate functions and weddings. But that was all before she found a home in the Fremantle DIY scene, where she began playing wiry, rickety punk with Boat Show and lush indie with Bells Rapids.

Stella Donnelly
CREDIT: Olivia Senior for NME

“Everyone’s in everyone’s band,” she says fondly. “Everyone’s got some other project that they’re doing. It’s almost like band camp 24/7 but less nerdy – although in my case maybe not.” She still talks about that circle as if she’s not someone with a worldwide record deal who’s earned a multitude of accolades, but the same old Stella from Fremantle. “We’re just privileged in our small town – all of us work hospitality jobs but then when we have those nights or days off, we’re playing music, performing and writing. It’s a really special scene.”

While Donnelly believes there are heaps of exciting artists who could follow in her footsteps and break out of Perth, she namechecks three right now: poetic folk artist Nika Mo, SXSW-bound indie star Carla Geneve, and the synth-tinged garage-rock group Haircare. “There’s a bunch of acts that just need to be given a ticket out of Perth to play those gigs and they’ll just blow up,” she enthuses. “It’s pretty cool to be able to pay $5 and watch them play at home.” After we’re done talking, she’ll be heading down to a local venue and doing just that.

Much like those in the rest of the world, Australia’s live music venues have been struggling to survive in recent years. Sydney’s “lockout laws”, which were dubbed “draconian” but have been recently lifted in most of the city, had imposed curfews on both alcohol sales and operating hours. And the familiar story of gentrification, property developers and new neighbours annoyed by noise has put paid to the existence of some spaces in the country.

“We’ve still got two or three really special venues that are small enough to put on gigs where no one knows who you are, but you do see venues closing down all the time,” Donnelly says of how her hometown is faring on that front.

Stella Donnelly
CREDIT: Olivia Senior for NME

There are other hurdles that are more unique to Australian artists when it comes to making a global splash too. As well as the sheer distance and expense of travelling to other parts of the world, Donnelly says there’s “a bit of a trap within Australian music”. “There might be one radio station that will play you and I think a lot of people write music to be played on that station because that’s the only way to be successful in this country sometimes.”

Then there’s the widely held opinion that the Liberal Party doesn’t seem to value the contributions that artists make to society and is steadily pulling support for the arts out of its budget. “I don’t know how the future is gonna look for the Australian arts industry,” Donnelly sighs. “You just want to take all the paintings and music and anything creative out of Parliament House and just show them what it’s like when there’s no art. It’s very much taken for granted.”

The government’s apparent intent to continue changing allocations of funding to artist grants and cultural programmes is one that’s especially concerning to Donnelly, given the arts community’s response to the bushfires that continue to devastate the country. At the time of writing, actor and comedian Celeste Barber has raised a record-breaking $52 million to go towards bushfire relief while the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman have made sizeable donations to the cause.

And it isn’t only Hollywood A-listers getting involved – Donnelly herself is playing at a benefit gig alongside John Butler in Fremantle. “Every musician I know is doing a bushfire benefit concert or donating their merch money. “It’s pretty funny that we’re not really prioritised in this country but we give so much back,” she says, clearly incensed.

Stella Donnelly
CREDIT: Olivia Senior for NME

Climate change is a topic that Donnelly – as a touring musician and an Australian grappling with the bushfire crisis – is anxious about. Last year, just after the fires began ravaging the country, Donnelly tweeted a calculation of how long she’d spent away from home since March 2018 – a grand total of 447 out of 610 days. “Completing this calculation has brought up some thoughts, I need to see a psych, my carbon footprint is fucking insane and I shouldn’t have quit maths in year 10,” she wrote.

“Artists are waking up to that now and feeling really disheartened,” she says, citing the likes of Radiohead and Massive Attack as two of the groups attempting to mitigate their own carbon footprints. She also notes that, in Australia, bands are going one step further to try and offset their contributions to global warming by setting up FEAT (Future Energy Artists), an investment programme that aims to help produce greener energy.

“A bunch of Australian artists have banded together to form a superannuation fund, so we put money in and that goes to a solar energy plant,” she explains. Work on the first solar farm built in conjunction with the collective – which also boasts Cloud Control and Vance Joy among its number – began last June in the rural Queensland town of Brigalow. “It still is a really contradicting and confusing time for many musicians that have to travel because, for the most part, musicians are people that care about the world. I’m still trying to work it out for myself.”

Donnelly has already implemented small changes to her touring lifestyle, like her and her band taking their own bottles everywhere instead of relying on single-use plastics. She has bigger ideas though, both for herself and the industry as a whole. “For me, in an ideal world, I would love to fly to a place but then not be catching flights in between four cities and actually using trains and maybe looking at staying for longer in a place and putting money into the local economy,” she says. “And artists need to have it in their contract that plastic cups at gigs should be either banned or reusable, or people are only allowed one. There’s plenty of things we could be doing – that we need to be doing.”

Early last year, Donnelly told The Guardian she had “blind confidence” that society could change for the better. After the events of the last 12 months, she’s less sure about that. “I don’t know, I want to say, ‘Yeah, come on!’” she begins. “I do still feel that way but I’m also pretty scared. My country is on fire and it’s a pretty sketchy situation where not even the opposition party is committed to ending coal mining and things that are causing so much harm.”

And yet, the outspoken musician remains a staunch believer that getting angry about things as a society and standing up for what you believe in can engineer change. She’s already made a commitment to doing that in her music, and it’s something that she carries over into her everyday life too. “I had an argument with a man in a bookshop last night,” she recounts. “He just came out with some real racist bullshit and I had to put my hat on my night off while I was having ice cream and going to the bookshop. I just feel like we have to keep fighting and, as a privileged white person living in this country, you have to stand up for the people that don’t have a voice. There’s no real choice in the matter.”

Stella Donnelly
CREDIT: Olivia Senior for NME

Standing up for people who don’t have a voice is something that Donnelly attempts to do on ‘Beware Of The Dogs’. On the album’s slow-building, resistant title track, she challenges the government over how they’ve abolished the culture of indigenous people. “No one can deny the fact that white people have taken this country and turned it to shit,” she says defiantly.

The whole album is one that is imbued with her experience as an Australian artist, be that in tackling inequality in the country or in simpler references to “pouring plastic pints of flat VB” on the deceptively sweet ‘U Owe Me’. Having spent so much time away from the country over the last two years, it wouldn’t be surprising if Donnelly’s second album was not as tied to her home life.

“Yeah, I’m gonna be writing Brexit ballads, Trump tunes,” she laughs, admitting she’s yet to really get going on the follow-up to ‘Beware Of The Dogs’. Although she might not be sure of exactly where she’s headed next, Donnelly does know one thing: she won’t be writing about life on the road. “I don’t want to be an artist that writes about being on tour,” she asserts. “I refuse to do that.”

Instead, she’s hoping being home with her family and people that “inspired me to write music in the first place”, and indulging in her bread-making and birdwatching, will give her some inspiration. But she’s equally aware that there’s no guarantee any songs will come to her. If that happens, then she seems admirably OK with that – she says she’d rather not put anything out at all than something she isn’t proud of. “I don’t want to put shit music out!” she exclaims. “I know that’s subjective but I don’t want to put out music I don’t like because I felt like I needed to rush the second album, cos that’s just the cycle artists go through.

“I want it to be something I feel is representative of me at this time in my life,” she concludes. “So, you know, if that takes a little bit longer that’s OK. I’m trying to be forgiving.” Donnelly has already proven she can make something truly special with ‘Beware Of The Dogs’. No matter how long her second record takes, it seems a safe bet her next effort will be just as thought-provoking, conversation-starting and remarkable.

Stella Donnelly is playing Laneway Festival in Australia this February and Spain in July. See her full upcoming dates here