“If It’s Not Great, Then It’s In The Bin!” Stella Donnelly Interviewed

From lockdown bird-watching through to her perfectionist songwriting streak...

Brighton’s The Great Escape is cited as “the festival for new music”, so at first, Australia’s Stella Donnelly appeared an odd choice. The singer-songwriter has more than proved her status as an indie requisite with her well-loved debut album ‘Beware Of The Dogs’; a collection of empathetic moments, the album includes the gut-wrenching single about rape culture ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’ which put Donnelly on the map in 2017.

Being familiar with the music scene, Donnelly’s “newness” instead comes in the form of her upcoming sophomore album ‘Flood’ – “a record of rediscovery” leading fans in a new direction. Lead single ‘Lungs’ is a indie-pop track juggling twanging bass with clear-cut piano and the perspective of a child.

Stella Donnelly performs with vivacity, having engrossed crowds of spectators from two stages over the three-day-weekender. This is no mean feat for a festival as large and as busy as The Great Escape.

Clash caught up with Stella Donnelly in a quaint pub mid-festival to discuss seagulls, The Bee Movie, and human habitation.

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Who are you looking forward to seeing today?

I'm gonna go and try and catch Alex the Astronaut. I don't know if she's playing today, maybe tomorrow. I'm gonna try and catch Let's Eat Grandma as well. I haven't seen them yet, so that'd be cool. But other than that, I just want to walk around and vibe.

It's weird, the festival feels like a liminal space where the pandemic never happened – no one's masking, or distancing, there’s no feeling of dread…

I'm in a weird space, because I've just had COVID so now I'm living up my immunity life, knowing that I can just go wherever I want, because you spent so much time trying not to get sick for work.

We’d just finished an Australian tour, so all of us got COVID in the middle of the tour. We had so many of us drop and then we had to call a friend to be like, "can you come and play tonight? Can you learn like 14 songs, please?" So that was pretty intense, but it was a good challenge. And now it feels really relaxed because all five of us are okay and we're going to be right for a little while.

I know you're inspired by bird-watching, you must be loving the Brighton seagulls. They’re huge, so I'm terrified of them.

They're so much bigger than the ones in Australia! They're double the size. They are very intimidating. I realised that these are the gulls that they use in the films. Like the sound of these seagulls… they don't use Australian ones in films. I'm not going to do a seagull sound but it's nothing like these. So these seagulls… I'm kind of starstruck by them, really. These are legends, they've been in the film industry for years. It's pretty cool. Well sometimes you just hear them crying at night, and it's pretty magical.

Birdwatching gives me that sense of calm – did you ever download Pokemon Go in lockdown? Birdwatching reminds me of that.

It's that same vibe. I never had Pokemon Go but it definitely has that feeling of I'm just gonna go out and see what I see. Particularly coming on tour and going to a new country. Like, I'll see a pigeon and I'm like, "Oh my god. What sort of pigeon is that?" You're just so excited about any old bird. It's really special. And there’s that feeling of "gotta catch 'em all", but also just watching them you learn so much more about everything else, too. Being in Australia, I've learned so much more about the trees because of what the birds eat, and seeing a [specific] tree I'm like, "right, we were gonna see that bird here" or whatever. It just gives you an understanding of the place that you're in. And I just spent the first 25 years of my life not looking up, not looking at this other universe that's happening around me. I'm almost kicking myself that I hadn't appreciated it until now.

It's really nice to just pay attention to your surroundings, it's almost meditative.

It's so beautiful. You're just in a natural space, it's the opposite of being a musician – being in a dingy venue and sound checking with squealing sounds and all this shit happening. It's like a perfect antidote to our lives. So I'm so grateful.

Everything that’s in fashion feels cyclical. It’s like we’re Romantic poets, getting back into birds again.

Totally! I love that meme during the pandemic, about trying not to get the plague whilst baking bread – it’s that exact feeling of going back in time to the medieval.

So this weekend, you're playing CHALK And Amazon music – both pretty cool venues with different vibes. Do you have a preference between bigger and smaller venues?

I find that because I play both solo and with the band, you walk out into that space, and wonder how to reach the people at the back with solo stuff. But then if it's too small a venue, how do I make it so it's not painfully searing to people's ears? I'm so sensitive to sound.

I loved David Burns' TED talk about writing music with architecture and writing music for a space and creating sounds to suit a certain venue. I feel like we don't have that luxury as up-and-coming indie bands to be like "no I'm only playing in cathedrals, thank you." So until then, you've just got to adapt to whatever the venue is. Smaller crowds are more intimate which tends to make me more nervous, so you'll have a tendency to not want that, but then that always ends up being the most fulfilling. But, saying that, I did the End of the Road festival in a tent, and there were a lot of people there, but maybe because it was in the light of day, it felt very intimate. So it really depends. I like the adventure of it. I like that it's always different.

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You previously mentioned your new record, ‘Flood,’ came from “hard moments of introspection”. Was it a conscious process to push yourself into moments of self-reflection or did you evolve naturally?

I think I'd found, during the three years I was touring, I'd become a bit uptight. I don't know if it was fear or exhaustion but whatever it was, I was trying to control everything around me constantly so that I could feel safe and secure. Everything had to be a certain way and then if it wasn't, it was a catastrophe for me and my brain was probably not processing it well. And then when COVID hit, it was like, okay, well the biggest catastrophe's happened now. I allowed myself to be a bit more vulnerable and a little bit more comfortable with the unknown. That opened up the floodgates to writing songs – shit songs – I wrote so many shit songs. And then finally I wrote a couple of songs I was happy with and worked on it.

I was a bit more resilient, I think. There was a lot to work through. My brain is still catching up to me. I don't know if you've ever seen that YouTube video where it's like The Bee Movie and every time they say "bee" the speed gets faster. It just felt like that was happening. It was all catching up to me and birdwatching was a really good way for me to just fully dig my heels into something else, and then that just kind of allowed me to relax.

I feel like you should release these songs you think are shit in a special edition.

Most of them are on the record! (laughs)

[At this point in the interview, we’re interrupted by Tame Impala’s well-known banger 'The Less I Know the Better', blaring from some speakers installed directly above Stella’s head. She reveals Tame Impala hail from the same West Australian town as her: Fremantle.]

What’s Fremantle famous for?

Fremantle is a port, and there's a big Italian community that emigrated there. The architecture is quite Italian and there's beautiful Italian restaurants everywhere and lots of lime and lemon trees and stuff. Mediterranean vibes. It's very much got its own culture separate from Perth. Perth itself is a bit dry. Yeah, Fremantle has its kind of music scene. It loves the coffee culture.

Do you think it imbued you musically?

Yeah, from just being around the people. I didn't grow up there. I grew up in a kind of outer stick suburbs city limits vibe. So it definitely exposed me to things I've never seen before. So, yeah, just constantly being exposed to new music – you have to absorb it.

Do you feel at home amongst the coast?

Yeah, I really do. I grew up in Wales as well, so I've got quite a connection to the ocean. We grew up kind of near Mumbles beach, down in Swansea, and I really like dark, grey, cold seas. When it's a dark, grey day in Perth – which is very rare – that's when I want to go down to the beach and watch the big waves. There's just something so lonely about it. When it's a nice day you feel like you're in control of the ocean but when it's not like that, you're it's bitch. [The sea:] "Don't you fucking come near me because I will literally kill you." It's a very humbling space. I love a brood.

Travelling whilst writing this album must've felt almost overwhelming with inspiration, then.

Yep! Although it wasn't really my choice to travel around. It's a really weird thing. Australia, when the pandemic hit, split. All the states had their own rules. Western Australia, where I'm from, closed its borders and my partner and I were in another state. When that happened we actually couldn't return home, so we're forced to live out in the countryside where he grew up, which is why the bird watching thing became so big for me.

We eventually got back in. Then the pandemic relaxed a little bit for a second so we went over to Melbourne to play some shows and then it hit again and WA closed its borders again, so we got stuck in Melbourne. Melbourne had the world's longest lockdown, so we were living in a house there for months, just not leaving the house. I was just a victim of consequence, I guess. And it kind of worked for me writing-wise, because I was able to be stimulated by that space. 'Flood' – a song on the record – came to me in Melbourne and then a bunch of songs came to me in [Fremantle].

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In 'Lunch' you speak of the displacement you feel when you return home. Did you end up finding a new normal whilst travelling this time around?

At the time, when I wrote ‘Lunch’, I was in a relationship with a nester – somebody who really makes a home and then really attaches to that place. I was probably quite influenced by that. But I have found, lately, home for me is… my partner plays in my band now, we tour together, and I just know what I need to be happy. Obviously, I've missed the people I love so much.

But I mean, my house in Fremantle – I've got no fucking art on the walls. I go to my friends’ houses and I'm like, "this room is amazing! What the fuck? Plants are alive." And you go to mine which is this blank wall, underwear on the floor. I don't look after this space. Maybe it's because I know that I'm not going to spend much time there. I'd like to nest one day, but at the moment, I'm just really happy to be in new places. I find public spaces really comforting. I like libraries and parks.

A lot of your songs have personal politics woven throughout. Is this a conscious decision?

I guess it's just part of me to question societal things. Yeah, it's my personality coming through, so there's always going to be a part of that that comes through. But then there'll be the part of me that's a self-sacrificing nice person that tries to wrap it up and be like, "Look, I'll yell at you, but then I'll give you a hug." It's all just part of who I am as a person coming out in the musical notes, which sounds pretty lame.

Is there a lot of this on the new album?

I definitely played a child a lot more on this record because I play a lot of piano, which is not my first instrument. I'm quite vulnerable. I'm observing human dynamics and there's still heartbreak songs on there, but then also songs where I'm just pulling apart one person specifically. I want them to hear it but I'll never say who it is, you know, that sort of feeling, like "fuck you I hope you hear this song." And then the rest is a bit more broad and stuff. So yeah, pretty much the same as the last record in terms of content. It's a sad diary of shit.

In what way are you playing the child?

If I play the child, I'm able to get away with saying heavier stuff and that's how I kind of was able to be more bratty in my lyrics and see the world from that point. It was me giving myself permission to be more honest and obnoxious, I guess. It probably won't even come across in that way. But I think if I was singing from my true self, I wouldn't write because I have to play a character. By playing the child I am playing myself. I never want to write if I'm coming from anywhere else – it's like a perfectionist thing. If it's not great, then it's in the bin. Whereas as I was saying before, I write so many shit childlike songs on the piano that allowed me to then go on a journey to getting a bit deeper.

I see parts of this in the art of the 'Lungs' video. I hear it was inspired by banded stilts?

The banded stilts are on my album cover – it's a big flock of them – so the initial thought for the video was that I would be a banded stilt. I had my housemate build these stilts for me but it was becoming a little bit gimmicky. I was like, "ah, do I want to be Big Bird on these videos? I haven't put music out in years, is this what I'm gonna lead with?" So I thought let's make it a bit more conceptual, let's get rid of the beak (there was talk of beaks.) We get it, you like birds!

I brought in friends of mine that I grew up with – three sisters that have a little dance company where I grew up out in the suburbs. And it was really cool, because the song was written about watching people from richer places and the way that they treat people that are a bit more working class. It's about classism and judgement that I've witnessed. So it was really cool getting to incorporate these kids from my town. One of the kids in the video, I played netball with her mum in school, so it felt really close to my heart. It was a big fuck you to pompous pricks. Eventually I was playing this wobbly adult on these stilts and I was quite a weak character. The kids were the strength. They embodied this kind of honesty and "fuck you" and people. That was kind of what I wanted to depict. The kids were amazing, they dance so well.

Why did you choose 'Lungs' as the lead single of the album, the marker of the project?

I liked the song the most at that time. I think that was pretty much it. I just recorded it and it felt really strong. I got really good reactions from friends that I showed the song to. It wasn't very tactical, it was more like, "Oh, you like that one the most? Okay, first single." Which is pretty bad… But the people that I show the music to I trust so much, and by the time you finish your record, your fucking logic is just gone. It's mush. Your brain is mush. You don't know what's good or not anymore. You don't know what colour the sky is. You're just a mess. So being able to outsource those decisions was really nice. It felt right. I had video ideas for it too.I knew that I could commit to a video and make it happen. It's very different from the rest of the record, actually.

How so? Is it more electronic?

Yeah, a little bit. It's very thick and rich. The rest of the record has those moments but it's definitely the most different from my usual thing. Now that I've released it, I was like "why the fuck did I put that out as a single?" It's a bit brave. It's so different from my last shit. It was a bit of a risk. But if it doesn't pay off, I've got a boring song coming out next (only joking).

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Stella Donnelly's new album 'Flood' is out on August 26th.

Words: Gem Stokes

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