Interview: Stella Donnelly on the radical power of honesty

STELLA DONNELLY with FAYE WEBSTER at Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), Sunday (March 24), doors 8 pm. $13.50.,,

“It’s so good to be heartbroken,” Stella Donnelly, the Australian singer and songwriter, says joyfully. 

Speaking over the phone just after 10 am in Sydney on the release day of her excellent debut record, Beware Of The Dogs (Secretly Canadian), Donnelly laughs at the ludicrousness of what she just said. But she doesn’t back down. 

“You grow from it and there are so many positives to come out of it, to be kind of be vulnerable.” 

She’s talking about her new album through the lens of the song Allergies – an astonishingly and gruesome song of disappointment and impending loss. It’s so emotional and raw that you can hear her sniffling on the recording from crying. 

“That’s the whole bit about honesty, and painting myself as a human being who is going through it. I might be strong, but I can get my heart broken.”

There’s also a furor edging through her work – politically savvy and aware of the climate we live in. Boys Will Be Boys is a song for the times, detailing sexual abuse with clarity and directness. But the subject matter is, unfortunately, also timeless. Which is why she is so furious. 

Sensitivity and emotional candour are baked into Donnelly’s (small) body of work, which also includes the buzz-gathering 2017 EP Thrush Metal. This sensibility puts her in a class of independent singer/songwriters that includes Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Mitski, Waxahatchee, Courtney Barnett, Vagabon and more.

Each of these musicians has a unique perspective on issues they face and the world they live in. The fact they are women is not separable from who they are. It also doesn’t define their individual approaches. Together, they create a broad portrait of women’s experiences in the late 2010s, but it’s one that isn’t, and could never be, singular.

Waxahatchee wrote candidly about the end of a tumultuous, painful relationship on her last full-length, Out In The Storm, while Courtney Barnett sang about masturbation on the track Lance Jr. and Mitski highlighted problematic cultural mores on Your Best American Girl. The spectrum of experiences covered in the work of her peers is comforting and motivating for Donnelly. 

She’s humbly enthusiastic about being brought up in the same sentence as them, and suggests a common link in their work: honesty.

The authentic and forthright honesty in all this disparate songwriting isn’t new, of course, nor is it particular to women. But at a time when women are reclaiming power by speaking up, their music is an implicit demand to be taken seriously on their own terms, no matter how heavy the subject matter. For Donnelly, watching other artists who are women take up space without asking permission provides a sense of security in a world so often antithetical to the work they perform.

“The more honest female artists there are out there, the safer it is for me to be myself,” Donnelly says. 

While Mitski explored her themes through character-based songs on Be The Cowboy, Donnelly says she can only write as herself. 

“Getting to go out there and be myself is really a nice kind of self-preservation thing in a weird, kind of contradictory way,” she says. “I feel like it’s the only way I could perform in such a fulfilling manner. It’s the only way I could really enjoy being an artist.”

Women have been marginalized so often throughout the history of popular music that a surge of songwriters who say things plainly, all around the same time, becomes a special and important thing to rally around. But they don’t want to be modern idols, to be mythic. They just want to be included and heard – really heard.

Donnelly, a generous and kind interviewee, talks a lot about compassion – how she is compassionate in her work and what compassion looks like.

Beware Of The Dogs opens with Old Man, a playful but biting track directed at the patriarchy – a song about men who have committed abuse finally facing consequences for their actions. “Cuz this is not 93,” she sings. “You grabbed me with an open hand / The world is grabbing back at you.”

Donnelly describes the song not as angry or accusatory, but as compassionate.

“There are some people [who could say], and I could even say it myself, that Old Man isn’t a compassionate song,” she says, “but I think compassion comes in different forms, like showing compassion for yourself. I can be compassionate to somebody else until it is compromising my own self-worth and safety.”

For Donnelly, being truly honest is an act of compassion – and perhaps a gentle reminder for us to be, too. 


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