When Stella Donnelly recorded the songs for her debut release, she was comforted that Melbourne label Healthy Tapes was pressing only 30 cassettes. “It gave me the confidence to make a demo-sounding EP,” she says. What she didn’t know was that when the shaggily acoustic Thrush Metal arrived in April 2017, Healthy Tapes also uploaded it to Spotify. Unprompted, the streaming giant added the stark, self-flagellating Mechanical Bull to an influential playlist. Soon Donnelly’s inbox was filled with emails from the Australian labels and managers that she had never met as a DIY scrapper in Fremantle, thousands of miles from Australia’s music industry.
She opted to remain independent in Australia (later signing to Secretly Canadian for the rest of the world). Donnelly’s big break came six months later. Another song, Boys Will Be Boys, started building steam. Written after a friend was sexually assaulted, it sketches the contours of rape culture in deft, devastating observations that saw critics compare Donnelly to countrywoman Courtney Barnett: “Why was she all alone / Wearing her shirt that low? / They said, ‘Boys will be boys’ / Deaf to the word ‘no’.”
Then the allegations against Harvey Weinstein emerged. “A lot of people called it the #MeToo anthem when I’d written it two years before. It was bizarre,” Donnelly says, talking an endearing and eloquent blue streak in a bar in King’s Cross, London. “I still don’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing, but we’re here, so it was a thing.”
“Here” is on the brink of releasing her debut album, Beware of the Dogs, which was irredeemably shaped by Boys Will Be Boys. Donnelly didn’t want anyone to think she was capitalising “on such a tragedy”, she says. “Or a revolution.” And she was aware that fans would expect her to keep singing about capital-I issues. “I was really nervous that I was going to change the way I write, out of fear for the trolls, or to protect myself,” she says.
Ultimately, she wrote the songs she needed to. Some songs address the crumbling relationship that made the Fremantle studio where she made the album feel like a haven. Some address intimacies between friends and a new lover – and the distance from them, owing to her new life on the road – while others avenge the bigots and boors that Donnelly has encountered in her burgeoning career. “You said I’d look much better if I dropped the attitude,” she sings on Tricks, couching biting sentiment in her deceptively swooning singing and dreamy indie-pop.
But she maintains her directness. The title track addresses Australian nationalism (specifically the government’s “pious fucks”) and grew from the controversy surrounding Australia Day, which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet. “It’s a really nationalist, white pride day,” says Donnelly, “and it’s actually a very historic day for Indigenous Australians – an invasion day, and a day of mourning.” Attitudes towards the celebration are changing. This year, thousands protested in the face of stalwarts bearing tattoos of the Southern Cross, a constellation with deep significance for Indigenous Australian cultures, which has since become a symbol of white nationalism (“It’s almost like our Confederate flag”), exposing growing national divides.
“There’s so much disillusion with Australian identity because, under white rule, we’re such a new country, but in reality people have been here more than 60,000 years and we haven’t preserved any of the languages or cultures properly,” says Donnelly, wary of speaking from “a very privileged, white Australian place” and also of “copping shit” from trolls. Still, she says, “I’m more than happy to cause friction among the right wing. I’m definitely targeting media and government power in that song. ‘Pious fucks’ is about how all of a sudden we’re religious when it comes to marriage equality. Where is it in our constitution that we’re a Catholic country?”
Donnelly was relieved when marriage equality passed in 2017, particularly since the referendum followed Brexit and Trump’s election, “so I had no idea what was gonna happen”. She was equally overjoyed to play in Dublin on the night of the abortion referendum and still has her “Tá!” (yes) badge on her guitar. It made her investigate Australian abortion laws (“Ours are based on state, which I didn’t realise, and very unprogressive in many ways”) and prompted another idea: the uneasy lounge pop of Watching Telly is a characteristically conversational song that frames her abortion at 21 in the context of society’s control over women’s bodies. “It’s not an easy thing to get, and it is tough and it hurts and you have to sit there bleeding for two weeks, and it’s fucked,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s our choice. We’ve fucking chosen to do that.”
Her statements are much starker than they appear on record, where they’re often bleakly funny. Old Man uses a sly Louis CK reference to warn abusive men that their comeuppance is looming: “Your personality traits don’t count if you put your dick in someone’s face.” She subscribes to the reel-’em-in, knock-’em-out school of comedy – something she understood when she saw Hannah Gadsby performing Nanette live in New York. “I thought I was going to a comedy show and I got fucking educated! There was no way she was gonna get all those blokes into that room if she had told them it was gonna be a feminist piece.”
Too sharp to have written an album of blunt-edged protest songs, Donnelly knows that such conversational, unexpected approaches have a stronger impact than lectures. She recalls her dad collecting an award for Boys Will Be Boys on her behalf. “He said something like, ‘I hope this song helps to change the attitudes we have, even if it’s one dickhead at a time.’ Having my dad – a 50-year-old, privileged white man – do that probably made more difference than me getting up and saying it.” She has “blind confidence” that society has to change. “I know it’s gonna go there because everyone’s voice is too loud for it to stop.” She stops, laughs and mocks her utopian ideals: “I just want world peace!”
With her giant eyes and gregarious attitude, Donnelly is charismatic enough to carry the sentiment. Plus, she knows first-hand how transformative the relationship between art and the public can be. “When my dad first heard Boys Will Be Boys, he told me, ‘It won’t be yours any more and that’s OK.’ It allowed me to let go. My friend who it was about had the same attitude. That’s how I dealt with it,” she says. “Letting it be everybody else’s song.”