“I definitely have self doubt all the time but I think that’s healthy? I’m not walking around going like ‘I’m the best song writer, I’ve made it, I could just retire next week’. I think that is really damaging. It’s healthy to have that doubt, but when it cripples you, that’s when you need to put things in place.”
Perth-based singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly releases her debut album Beware of the Dogs today, and for a woman who sings so assuredly (and entertainingly) about women’s rights and, frustratingly, their perpetual disadvantages, it’s fitting that the launch coincides with the date of International Women’s Day. Here, filmmaker Jordan Watton captures Donnelly in Sydney where she talks about the strength and vulnerability needed on and after touring and how switching off leads to her best songwriting.
What do you miss most when you’re on tour?
It depends on the time of day. I miss my loved ones, that’s the big one. I miss the slow speed of Fremantle; it couldn’t be more opposite to what it’s like touring. It’s so slow and relaxed and you know everyone you walk past on the street, it’s really chill. I miss Fremantle a lot.
On the subject of Fremantle, there is so much press about how much talent is coming out of Perth. Do you have any theories as to why that is? And what role has geography played in your career path?
That’s a really great question! I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts about geography and how it impacts music and how that effects. There was the heatwave of 1974 or something in England and it shaped the music scene in England; the Kinks and [other bands] rose out of that time. So I’m a firm believer in geography and weather and how that effects music. But [with] Perth being so isolated it really determines the fact that you have to work at your craft for a while before you get your ‘break’. There’s no industry in terms of labels and publishers. There’s nothing over in Perth; no one’s at your shows, there’s no scouts at your gig at Mojos in Fremantle going ‘Hmm, I’m going to make a million dollars out of you, 16-year-old girl who’s just written one song’. You have to work at it for a long time and save a lot of money and be the best at your craft by the time you come and play in Melbourne and Sydney and those places.
Where do you like to write your music? Is there a specific place?
No, I wish there was, I wish I could just enter this room and be really creative and write 3 albums but no I don’t really have a space. It’s generally if I’ve been In a place for more than four days, I feel comfortable enough to write in that space. But yeah, I just essentially have to be in one place for a little while to get comfortable.
You write really cleverly about issues such as gender, gender inequality and rape culture. How do you approach tackling those heavy weight topics?
Someone asked me a question yesterday, it was like a Belgian magazine I think, and he was like “you do political and personal”. And he separated the two, and for me the political aspects of things affects me as a woman. It’s easy to paint me as a political singer when those policies don’t affect you. As a woman you hear of Eurydice Dixon and all these terrible things and then you see the police enter the screen and say ‘women need to take responsibility for themselves, you need to have situational awareness’, and that affects us. It effects my little sister, it effects my future children, and I find it quite easy to write about that stuff because I can tap into quite personal things. All those songs come from very personal places and then I translate them into a broader story and a broader message because it can be quite exhausting keeping it very personal with those issues.
What was your way into [Beware of the Dog]? Was there a specific song that really cracked it open for you?
I think Old Man … this is more sonically, in terms of having a band set up. That really made me realise that I can have a band, and I just kind of built that around there. When we went onto the other songs we just sort of kept that style throughout. So Old Man was the big one for me.
I know you’ve received social media backlash in the past, especially after releasing Boys Will Be Boys (track six on the album). What did that feel like?
I felt like I was reading a script of a movie I was about to be in where someone was about to be mean to me. You know what I mean? Like, I’m just me, and people are just telling me that they’re going to rape me, they’re going to kill me, and they know where I live, and all these things, and I just thought, ‘this is bizarre’. It took me one day to just like cry and adjust to it. I wasn’t just like ‘it’s fine, I don’t care, fuck them’ – it did affect me. But I realised that I’m so privileged as a white girl in Australia, and for me to be using that platform to speak out isn’t that difficult … so I kind of just used it to put it all into perspective. It’s not that bad. And it’s worth it! If I’m pissing off those people I’m doing something right.
What do you want people to feel when they listen to your album?
I want people to be able to relate I guess. I hope that they can find something in there that they’ve experience or maybe they could learn. I don’t know … I wrote it for me, mostly. Going into it I made a very conscious decision to not let the outside world effect what I wrote, and not letting the trolls affect me writing a song like Old Man. That song was like a middle finger to them, like I’m not going to stop speaking out because I got a little bit scared. I hope that they can hear me in there, I guess.