Stella Donnelly: a voice for women’s experience

It seems that for Stella Donnelly, Brisbane is the city that just keeps giving. The last time we saw each other it was on a packed bus headed towards the Bigsound afterparty. Hours later she would take home the Inaugural Levi’s Music Prize.

For her first conference, there couldn’t have been a better outcome. Stunning the packed Heya Bar with her gripping, vulnerable lyricism and youthful lilting tone, Stella Donnelly only needed thirty minutes of everyone’s time to convince most of the Australian music industry that her voice is one which needs to be heard.

So when we caught up a second time to chat about her debut EP Thrush Metal and the success of her latest single Boys Will Be Boys, it was a charming surprise to hear she’s back in the Sunshine State performing and staying with friends.

This interview will appear in the upcoming Happy Mag Issue 6. Order your copy here

stella donnelly happy mag issue 6 magazine interview Zak Kaczmarek
Photos by Zak Kaczmarek

Honest music comes from real experiences, and Stella Donnelly thinks we need more of it.

So what comes after such an exponential rise to stardom? Her name is on everyone’s mind and her online presence is making huge waves, and when conversation turned to this somewhat overwhelming series of achievements Donnelly was enthusiastic.  

“It was insane, I didn’t think I was going to get in, Boat Show my other band got in and we were in the car driving and we found out together and I didn’t get the email until a month later when they did another round of announcements… I was just happy to get a look in and I was so happy to be there. For me it was such a great opportunity in the first place and then to be able to put that towards future travels and future music endeavours is really special, I’m really grateful.”

Having said this, Donnelly has remained far from stagnant in her success. Using her now powerful voice, her single Boys Will Be Boys has started a vital conversation within our community around sexual assault and victim blaming. However since receiving such an overwhelming reaction, it would appear that the story is one for all women.

Donnelly was quick to agree, “It happened to one friend of mine, but it’s happened to all of us in a way. That was a very close friend but it just keeps happening and happening and happening with the victim blaming and it was really hard, but I obviously spoke with my friend about the whole thing and we realised that the song was for her and by me but it’s not about us anymore. It’s not for me, it’s for everybody.”

Boys Will Be Boys is a song soaked with confronting themes, and for some this is a difficult conversation to approach. With a frank and quiet honesty, Donnelly transitions the violence and aggression of the word rape into the hurt and loneliness that sexual assault inflicts. This translated into the single’s video clip, which predictably took to social media like wildfire, captivating an audience in a way that no one could have expected.

In speaking of the clip, Donnelly shared “I wanted to look at how the mundane aspects of life still happen. It’s quite a suburban video, I’m pretty sure there is a Woolworths mud cake somewhere in there. It’s like the day still goes on for these women and you know justice might not happen, but life itself has to continue…”

“It was to see the human side of rape. It was trying to explain what happens afterwards… I barely wanted to be in the video, I wanted it to be speaking for victims and not everyone wants to identify as victims, but people who have been blamed for someone else’s actions upon them. It’s been a pretty interesting thing coming to terms with it all and it’s opened up a lot of conversations that I never thought I’d have with people. But I think it’s really important and I’ll continue to advocate for change.”

But there is a certain element of trauma that comes with such a direct conversation around sexual assault, and this hasn’t come without Donnelly having to walk with trepidation.

“It’s brought up a bunch of memories and things that I’ve gone through personally, but that’s what I have to remember and when I play live I give a content warning before I play it. Because people who have experienced this shouldn’t have it thrown in their face, but at the same time these conversations need to start happening so that change happens as well, so I’m very much on a tightrope between those two.”

“I’ve tried to be very delicate about it… I always have that worry in the back of my mind that I’m upsetting people. I’ve had a lot of people messaging me telling me it was great to hear that song, so I can only go by what people are telling me.”

Sexualisation of women in the music industry has never been more talked about. From unsolicited touching at gigs to patronising comments from sound techs, girls on stages and behind the scenes are starting to speak up about just how unacceptable this behaviour is. It really is a community that is raising its voice, and Donnelly’s decision to speak out online about her own experiences came from seeing women she admired doing the same thing.

“I was really inspired by Isabella Manfredi’s post, she’s so special. And we had dinner and talked about it all and I just felt like in Perth there are so many young, up and coming female artists that are eighteen or nineteen and just starting out and I felt like it was important for them to read that it’s no longer ok.”

“I didn’t want it to be a sob story about my experiences, but I wanted the people who did those things to me to read them and weep a little bit. Sure it was the person that did it to me, but it was also the people who were around me at that time, who didn’t really take it seriously and weren’t there to support me throughout that.”

In approaching this interview, an idea that kept coming to mind was that of women moving forward through strength in numbers. Some may argue that we should be beyond the point where we need to lean on other women to be heard, however it is through the cohort of women like Manfredi, Jack River, Ali Barter, Bec Sandridge and Alex Lahey that the impact female perspectives can have on music are finally being seen.

As I suspected, Donnelly was quick to agree.

“Strength in numbers is what’s got us here now. Look at Harvey Weinstein. The only reason that the victims of those assaults are taken seriously was because it was a unanimous callout. People like Angelina Jolie and Gwenyth Paltrow spoke out, they didn’t have to, they have money, they weren’t looking for more fame. Strength in numbers in anything is always so special and it makes people feel less isolated when they speak up.”

If you have been online in recent times, you would have caught a glimpse of the hashtag #metoo, a unifying phrase for women to share their experiences of sexually indecent behaviour, misogyny and objectification. For Donnelly this was a big moment, and one which encapsulated the ethos behind Boys Will Be Boys, providing a vehicle for the messages of women living in trauma to speak out.

Donnelly’s voice was filled with passion and conviction when talk turned to the campaign and her experience of sharing online.

“I think what’s been really good for me with the #metoo campaign, a lot of my male friends and people I have worked with have really stepped up and I have a lot of allies now. I was sexually objectified recently in a Boat Show post and some guy wrote ‘Stella is fuckable, it needs to be said’. And I didn’t see it until a couple of hours later and my friend sent me the link and being like, ‘have you seen this?’. And it was actually all these guys who play in the [music] scene who had taken the time to educate this guy.”

“Because it’s always us fighting our battles and constantly preaching, preaching, preaching and it was just such a breathe of fresh air to see guys not just be like ‘fuck you man’ but saying things like ‘this is why your actions are offensive, would you like to think about this?’. Because sometimes men who write these awful things about women will only listen to other men. So having a woman speak up to them isn’t really going to do anything. We need an effort from everybody.”

Stella Donnelly is an artist you will be hearing from a lot more over into 2018. Her other projects Bells Rapids and hard rock outfit Boat Show are coming up almost as fast as Donnelly herself. As is the case with most artists, it’s a juggling act between multiple side projects and with so much praise coming her way from her audiences and the industry alike, navigating the next few months are looking to be less than easy.

However as we have come to expect from her, Donnelly reacted to this prospect with positivity.

“It does have its challenges but Ally, the lead singer of Boat Show, is really accommodating and she knows that right now I need to ride this wave that I’m on. We’re making it work… I need to have my fingers in more pies than one, because I need to have my friends around me. I love having people around me and feeling like a part of a team. I think if I just had my solo thing I’d feel a bit isolated.”

Her first EP Thrush Metal captures Stella Donnelly in the most perfect way. Soft and natural, yet with a conviction and assertion that you cannot ignore. She has admitted that originally, her music came from her unconsciously ripping off the music of her childhood, but now it seems her voice has carved a path very much her own.

So where to from here? Slightly relieved, Donnelly responded, “I haven’t felt that pressure yet because the EP that I put out was so chilled, it was done in my partner’s lounge room. And it was so relaxed and lo-fi and couldn’t be more me. To the point where it’s almost like I could have worked a bit harder on it.”

“I was expecting to sell fifty tapes and that’s it. And now this is happening and it’s just gone crazy. I’m really lucky that people have accepted me for me and I’ve gotten success from my noodle face. Whatever I do it’s going to be the same. I always think these things are a wave and if people like the next thing they like it and if they don’t it’s fine, I’m just going to continue writing because it makes me feel really, really good.”

Of Stella Donnelly I can honestly say rarely do I meet someone so fiercely confident and resolute in their own skin. In my mind, she’s the woman we all want to be. Her music is self assured and inclusive, a shining light on the horizon of Australian songwriting.


This interview will appear in the upcoming Happy Mag Issue 6. Order your copy here.