Stella Donnelly has recalibrated.
Like all of us, the 30-year-old WA-raised, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter feels like she’s been washed up on a beach after a rough couple of years dealing with stop-start pandemic panic.
“It did have its dark moments. But I was at a point where I just needed to be able to refocus my energy, my adrenaline after touring non-stop,” she says with trademark poise.
In the enforced downtime she prepared her second album, ‘Flood’, and tried to juggle love, life and an elusive muse.
She also made two life changes. One, she became an avid birdwatcher. Two, she found herself serendipitously drawn to a piano where she was staying and ended up making a mostly pensive, always vulnerable, completely fascinating second album.
“I think the piano was so great because it was like making a first record on a different instrument, y’know. That allowed me that newness,” she reflects over bánh mì lunch at her house in Brunswick.
“Generally, I know I’ve done something good if the comments are bad”
‘Flood’ is a bold pivot, topped and tailed by three faster cuts that are effectively red herrings. The 11-track effort is mostly an album of restrained keys and lyrics that deal with heady themes such as abusive ex-partners (‘Underwater’), online stalkers (‘Restricted Account’), the menstrual cycle (‘This Week’) and a parent with a debilitating condition (‘Morning Silence’).
“Then I finish the album with ‘Cold’,” Donnelly says of the concluding track which sounds like a victory lap on horseback with Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and Methyl Ethel (Jake Webb co-produced the song). “‘Cold’ is me saying, ‘I’m still the fun aunty! It’s not all in lockdown-tempo’,” she laughs, her curly hair bobbing left and right.
And the birdwatching? “I found it really meditative. I find it really humbling going out there and watching other things live their lives; they don’t give a shit about what you’re doing,” she says, finding the anthropological in the ornithological. “They’ve got their systems; just being witness to all of that.
“And also I’ve constantly got bad songs churning in my head from my teenage years. Birdwatching is the only thing that will actually mute that because I am listening in so clearly to try and identify different bird calls. It helps get rid of Sugar Ray’s ‘Every Morning’.”
It’s been a rewarding and turbulent five years since Donnelly stopped gigging with BOAT SHOW and Bells Rapids and became the breakout star of BIGSOUND 2017, winning the inaugural $25,000 Levi’s Music Prize on the strength of deafening buzz and her ‘Thrush Metal’ EP. It housed a confronting – and head-turning – song about rape culture, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’. Donnelly is the friend you shouldn’t have fucked with as she promises an abuser: “I will never let you rest.”
In 2019 she released her debut album, ‘Beware of The Dogs’, which earned her a nomination for Breakthrough Artist at the ARIAs and won Best Australian Album at the NME Awards 2020. And over the years, Donnelly has become a well-loved live act, touring to healthy crowds across Europe and North America and a sunset slot at Laneway 2020. She’s a charismatic presence – able to switch the mood from tragedy to comedy and back with panache.
Though the pandemic sank the touring machine in 2020, Donnelly continued to roam, writing 43 (!) songs “in super strange places” as she shuffled through Bellingen, Fremantle, Williams, Guilderton, Margaret River and Melbourne.
She’s frank about the outcomes: “Most of the songs were shit, you just got to trust the process.”
“I find it really humbling going out there and watching other things live their lives; they don’t give a shit about what you’re doing”
In 2020, she had an unexpected breakthrough while scrolling on Instagram. “The Banded Stilts photo!” she says as NME holds up the cover shot of her album – a group of black-and-white native Australian birds definitely not social distancing.
“Banded Stilts are these amazing birds who migrate from Siberia and come to Australia, so they’ve already seen some shit, right?” she explains. “That picture helped me write ‘Flood’. I had only written ‘Cold’ and ‘Lungs’ and it just carried the rest of the record through.”
The title track, which Donnelly has described as “a sad little adventure”, has tinges of introverted ’80s AM pop and a Nashville-tuned guitar she used while recording in John Butler’s studio. “It felt like a flood of trauma. I wrote it in the dark, rainy depths of a Melbourne winter lockdown and everyone was going through their own version of depression,” she says. But she finds the silver lining: “we were all given an opportunity to work through stuff.”
More emotional lacerations come on ‘Underwater’, not least the opening, sledgehammer line: “They say it takes a person seven tries to leave, I can remember at least five.”
“I was working as an ambassador in WA for the Patricia Giles Centre for Non-Violence, a women and children’s refuge. The biggest statistic I walked out of there with was, on average, it takes seven attempts to try and leave an abusive relationship before you can successfully do so,” Donnelly says.
“That really fucking hit me. It made me look back at, y’know, a relationship that I’d been in personally and I kind of just wanted to gain some power over that time. I was dating this person before #MeToo. I guess it’s a more mature ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, maybe? Most of my songs are about me getting the last word in an old argument. Take that!” she says, and karate-chops the air.
Donnelly is up for the responsibility of listening to fans with similar experiences. “I definitely preserve energy for it. Obviously, the content of what we talk about is heavy as fuck. And, y’know, it’s pretty full on but I wrote that song for a reason.”
This of course attracts keyboard warriors who want to take pot-shots. They don’t bother Donnelly, though – quite the opposite. “Generally, I know I’ve done something good if the comments are bad,” she says, her smile so bright she makes the room shrink.
It’s this murky space on the internet that helped Donnelly write ‘Restricted Account’, which she calls a love song to herself.
“’Restricted Account’ is when I put myself into the mindset of a stalker. It’s my ‘Every Breath You Take’.” Donnelly inhabited the parasocial headspace of a real fan who was contacting her. “I wanted to channel that devotion. I had this person who was kind of just writing me paragraphs in my DMs on Instagram, and then I blocked that, and then they’d get another account. It wasn’t at all malicious or unsafe. I was their diary in a weird way.”
“I said ‘Right, we’re doing a cheesy singalong, everyone.’ We did it in Manchester and it was like ‘‘Ow was yer dayyyyyee, ‘ow was yer day!’” she sings.
“The German crowds were so polite. We supported Mitski in Utrecht and Berlin. Her crowd were very young TikTok fans who are amazingly supportive, screaming and lighting their phone torches up and throwing roses as soon as we walked out on stage.”
Stella Donnelly the fun aunty is back and ready to tour. We’ve finished our food and the next interviewer is about to call, but before NME wings it, our eyes drift back to the Banded Stilts.
“That cluster, everyone kind of locked in together into this space – I wanted to find a way to, like, open the doors and let that all out,” she says, then chirps:
“I just came up with that, stop the tape!”
Stella Donnelly‘s ‘Flood’ is out now on Secretly Canadian.