Stella Donnelly on the Pleasure of Playing Music Alone

Australian musician Stella Donnelly.
Australian musician Stella Donnelly. Eve Mackey
Stella Donnelly's music is all about balance. Through her lyrics, the Australian musician defiantly confronts the patriarchy, while her voice and melodies are soothing and elegant.

Ahead of her performance at Larimer Lounge, Donnelly spoke to Westword about finding an equilibrium in her music, the creative bubble in her hometown of Fremantle, Australia, staying true to herself on her EP Thrush Metal, and the pros and cons of touring and performing solo.

Westword: When writing Thrush Metal, did you consciously decide to blend elegant melodies and vocals with lyrics that can be visceral and violent?

Stella Donnelly: When I write music, it’s not very conscious at all. It’s very what I’m feeling at that moment. I’m trying to work out the best way to get across my thoughts and my ideas to people in a way that’s natural for me and how I’ve grown up with music and other stuff like that.

I guess I try to – if I know that I’m writing lyrics that are hard hitting, I guess I try to surround that with music that is a bit sweeter, or something like that. I try to find that contrast and balance it out. It’s not a very conscious thing at all, it’s only now that I’m like, "Ooh, I guess I could do that" [laughs]. It kind of just happens.

So, why do you think your style of songwriting isn't a good fit for all artists?

Well look, I’m into a lot of music, and the music I’m into maybe doesn’t have a strong message in the lyrics, but it does so very much musically. It takes you somewhere. Even looking at classical music, there aren’t any lyrics involved, but the music takes you somewhere else in so many different ways.

With my music, I want people to be able to relate and understand what I’m trying to say through my lyrics. But I might put out songs that are not so obvious, and it’s a bit more subtle and the music, as in the instruments, has more of the power in the song.

I think people write music for different reasons, and that’s really cool. That’s what makes it so diverse and amazing, and when you find something you love, you hold onto it because it’s hard to describe and work out why you love something and why it speaks to you.

Well, what do you love about your own music?

Oh, God. That’s a really hard question [laughs]. That’s like saying in a job interview, "What are some things you’d like to be better at" [laughs].

For me, I’m very relieved that I put out that EP and it got the reception that it did, because it was so real and natural and raw and I didn’t fake it at all. It was all completely myself, even in the parts that I listen back to and think, 'Oh my god, that was a bit janky,' or something, you know? At least it was me, and it was true to me.

That’s what I love I guess. Being able to tour live and play those songs, I’m relieved I don't have to get up onstage and do an act, or put on – you know? I’ve done it in the past, I’ve played in other bands, or played covers, and you kind of have to put on a mask and perform.

I feel like the workload doubles when you have to do that sort of thing. I like that I can get up there and be completely myself and people can take it or leave it and I can get offstage and I don’t feel like I’ve pretended.

It’s interesting to think about some artists thriving in the performance and mask aspect. Both sides to it make sense.

Totally. And there are some nights when I wish I could put on like a clown outfit, you know what I mean? There are some nights when I don’t quite feel great about myself, or I’m not feeling angry enough to be able to sing “Boys Will Be Boys,” you know? Sometimes I do wish that I could get up there and completely do something different.

I also really do think that these people that have these acts that are different from who they are as a person, I still think that’s an element of them. Like David Bowie, I still think all those characters that he had were parts of his personality; they were just different aspects, different facets coming out in very dramatic and androgynous ways.

I do think the easiest thing for me is to get up there and be myself. I don’t think I’m creative enough to create some sort of character [laughs].

There are several Australian artists breaking through globally right nowAlex Lahey, Gang of Youths, Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala, you, and it goes on and on. How was growing up in Australia essential to you becoming a musician and finding outlets for your creativity?

For me, I grew up in Perth – Fremantle more specifically, along the west coast. It’s the most isolated city in the world and as a result of that, you don’t get many label reps or industry people. We don’t get that. It’s not the business hub of music in Australia, essentially. We’re kind of left to our own devices out there.

Tame Impala is from Fremantle, where I live; Methyl Ethel are from where I live, and Pond are from where I live. It’s like this little bubble that’s building up that strength, and I’m so lucky to be from there because I was able to play music with different bands and different acts for ten years before my EP came out. I was able to really build up my craft, what I want to do, what I don’t want to do – those sorts of things. Trial and error things.

By the time I was putting out Thrush Metal, I’d kind of developed my strength in a way and I hadn’t been poached by any industry people at too young an age. I think I’m really lucky to have had that experience because now I can go into this career with some experience under my belt and make choices based on who I am as a person.

So Perth, and more specifically to the question, Australia, is a really special place because as a whole, we get to do our own thing out there and build up skills. Perth, and Fremantle more specifically, is a very kind of nurturing bubble for those sorts of things.

And everyone helps each other out there. I’ve had such kindness from bands that I look up to. You get gigs from those bands, and I’m hoping to do the same for younger bands coming up now in Perth. It’s a very "let’s all do this together" rather than competing or dog-eat-dog kind of vibe over there. It’s like "oh my god, I benefit if you benefit, let’s do this!" kind of thing. I’m so lucky to be a part of the Australian scene, it’s great.

It sounds like a lovely place to visit and grow up in.

Yeah! And it’s essentially a small town in a city, so there’s that thing where everyone knows everyone. It’s great.

Why do you think you were drawn to the setup of just you on stage with a guitar?

I think it was my experience playing in so many bands [laughs]. I have actually put a band together now for the album coming out next year, but I’m still going to be half onstage with just a guitar, half with a band.

I guess I was drawn to the idea of people being able to just sit there and listen and watch someone up there and I think the best way to share those experiences was for me to be up there alone and be able to tell stories in different ways and be dynamic musically.

click to enlarge Fremantle, Australia is home to Donnelly, as well as bands like Pond and Tame Impala. - COOPER GORDON
Fremantle, Australia is home to Donnelly, as well as bands like Pond and Tame Impala.
Cooper Gordon
If I want to play "Mechanical Bull" a little bit faster that night or whatever, I don’t have to tell four other people. I’m just going to get up there and do it.

But I also see the value in having a band, especially while touring. Touring alone is great, and it's versatile, and I’m able to sort of do it on the cheap, and I’m my own boss in a way. But I see the benefit of having your friends and having a band to share these experiences with, and to be able to present the music in a fuller way.

I’m just kinda testing it all out right now!

What’s the most fun you’ve had recently?

I just spent two months recording my album, and that was very fun and testing but still fun. It was my first experience recording a full-length album, and I got to do it with some really special friends, and when you’re in a studio for thirteen hours a day, things get quite silly. You get delirious. The jokes get weirder, and you just end up having the biggest laugh and the best time.

Natalie Prass, with Stella Donnelly, Wednesday, October 10, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street.
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Ben Wiese is a writer in Denver. He covers music for Westword.
Contact: Ben Wiese