Stella Donnelly On Playing Live and Her Debut EP 'Thrush Metal'
Stella Donnelly is one of the most in-demand artists out of Perth right now, as both a solo artist and with her bands Boat Show and Bells Rapids. Her unique, jazz-inflicted performance and eye-opening perspective makes her stand out a mile, and her live shows have proven to turn heads wherever she goes. Her debut EP, Thrush Metal, has been met with rave reviews, earning her a place as the Triple J Unearthed feature artist and a place at the prestigious music festival/conference BIGSOUND in Brisbane this year.
Donnelly will playing a string of shows across the country, including a Perth gig at The Bird on August 24 (with Telete and New Nausea in support, door tickets only!). We were extremely privileged to get the chance to speak with her in the lead-up, and she was as lovely to talk to as her music is to listen to!
First of all, congrats on getting into BIGSOUND this year, I can tell from your insta stories that you’re pretty excited about that.
*Laughs* Thank you very much, I’m very excited about it.
Who else are you going to be checking out while you’re there?
I mean, I’m over there with Boat Show and my solo stuff, but in the time I get to spend there I’d like to kind of just walk around and suss out the other artists. I’m really, really excited to watch Body Type and all of the Perth artists as well. I’m really pumped to go watch Teischa and POW! Negro and Peter Bibby and stuff. Just the artists that are your mates that you just really wanna see do really well over at something like BIGSOUND. You’re playing to a different sort of audience to what you’re usually playing to in Perth at Mojo’s or something, so it’ll be really cool to see us all. We’ll all just be little fishes out of water, you know?
Are you a music festival-attending sort of person? Do you have any stand out experiences as a festival goer?
Oh, absolutely. I was really lucky to have a dad that’s really into music, and he took me to festivals when I was 15. He took me and two friends to West Coast Blues & Roots. It changed my life. He also let us bring a bunch of friends down to Southbound, and I remember watching The Kooks play. And my favourite artist SoKo, who was not very well known and playing at the tent during the day, and it was, I don’t know… Those young memories of festivals when it’s all still really magic, those are the ones I really remember. I still love going to festivals now and checking out music and stuff. Particularly, like… I played at Fairbridge this year. I love festivals like that and Camp Doogs, where it’s more than just the music. I love festivals like that.
Onto your music now, do you have a usual process for writing your lyrics and music?
Yeah… It’s not really a plan, I don’t pragmatically go, “Right, this is how I want to do it.” I wish that I could do that, because I’d be writing more songs at a rapid rate. I generally come up with something on guitar, and then put words to it. Generally, an idea about what the song will be about will come after the first verse, actually. I’ll write something and it doesn’t really mean much, and then it’s like, “Oh, I could apply this to this part of my life, let’s just go with that!” That’s generally my writing process, I wish that I had something a bit more… I’m sure lots of artists wish they could just write on the spot and know how to do it each time. But yeah, I’m a bit more chance-taking than that.
Well, it seems to work for you pretty well.
Oh thank you!
How did you get into writing your own music? What started that for you?
I was probably just playing lots of covers and learning and hearing different songs on the radio, or a song that my dad was playing, or something like that, and trying to teach myself that on guitar. And then eventually… I think the first song I ever wrote was a complete rip-off of a Billy Bragg song that I listened to when I was really young. Like, a complete rip-off. All the chords and everything were the same. It was completely unintentional. But I think that’s how I started writing, by ripping off songs that I grew up listening to.
Every time I see you play I’m always amazed by how powerful your voice is. Did you have some sort of vocal training or is that all self-taught?
No, I’ve never really been taught to sing or anything like that. The only lessons that I had were in piano, I was taught piano from a young age, but I’ve never had a singing lesson. I went to WAAPA for about a year, and that was the first time I had someone telling me to do vocal warm-ups and stuff like that. It was really good to learn that kinda thing, because, like, I don’t usually do that kinda stuff but if I was feeling a bit under the weather those things are really good to come back to, just little vocal tweaks and stuff. I guess also watching other singers and different artists, that’s how I kinda developed my sound, I guess. Trying to be Nai Palm from Hiatus Kaiyote, and then I was trying to be Patti Smith; trying to be this, trying to be that, just in the shower, and then it just kinda flowed into my original stuff.
Have you bought any cool new music gear recently?
Oh my god. I’m currently saving up for a Fender Strat or Jazzmaster, depends on which one I can get my hands on first. I’m trying to think… Nup, nothing, honestly. I just borrow all my friend’s shit and then one day I’ll be able to afford a bunch of my own stuff. *Laughs*
I think it’s awesome how there are now so many talented artists like yourself talking about things that need to be said through music and otherwise, do you feel a lot has been gained through putting these perspectives out into the world? Have you had any particularly good or bad reactions to what you say in your music?
Yeah, it’s quite interesting. When I started playing 'Boys Will Be Boys', and ‘Mechanical Bull’, I probably picked the wrong venue but I was playing a New Year’s party. I played those two songs, and someone, this rich old white guy was there, and he turned to the venue manager, and was just like, “When is this bitch gonna be over? She makes me suicidal.” Or something like that, he made a really dark comment about my stuff. In my head, I was like, “I should be upset about this,” but I was actually feeling quite empowered, like that was the sort of person I want to feel that way after I play those songs, you know what I mean?
It’s interesting though, most of the responses I get from my music, and especially those two songs, are really good. Some people will come up and say, like, “that song hit home to me,” and that’s, I guess, all I would want out of putting those kind of songs out there. I guess any song that has that kind of motion of, like, how do I say it… Okay, even with, say 'Cis White Boy', the Boat Show song, watching all the cis white men and watching their postures and that kinda thing, it’s interesting seeing how that goes. But most of the responses I’ve got have been really supportive, and really grateful that I’ve said it, which is really nice. I wasn’t expecting to get a response like that from my stuff, I just put it out because that’s how I felt. So it’s interesting to see how shared my experiences have been with people.
You’ve played your fair number of gigs now, both solo and with Boat Show and Bells Rapids. What shows stick out in your mind the most?
In good ways or bad ways?
*Laughs* For me, one of the most beautiful shows that I’ve done, I feel, was in the chapel at Fairbridge. That was really special to me. I’ve been to Fairbridge, and I’ve watched artists play in the chapel, and I’d be sitting in the pews crying, you know what I mean? And then I got the opportunity to do something like that, and it was something really special to me, and I was pinching myself.
In terms of Boat Show gigs, any gig that we get to do where there’s no stage. It’s just a flat ground, and then the audience. We just did Hidden Treasures at The Orient. Any kind of show like that is generally the most fun show, because you could just, like, jump out into the crowd and go crazy, and everyone is sweaty and on you and that’s the best vibe for a Boat Show gig for me.
And for Bells Rapids, the best gig we had was a Rosemount show. We had a really amazing sound guy, and it was the first time we played that wasn’t in a rehearsal studio or in a crappy venue. So hearing all our instruments actually getting played really loudly through the speakers was really, like, “Woah, this is what our band can sound like!” I guess those are three really great experiences for me.
This might be a bit premature to ask, given your EP Thrush Metal hasn’t been out long in the grand scheme of things, but I know you’ve been playing some new songs live lately. Are there any plans to release those in some format soon, or is that guarded information?
Yeah, that’s a really good question, and I’m asking myself the same thing. I am going to be doing some recording this year, in November. I’ve just got to get my shit together before then to get that happening. But yeah, I’ve definitely got plans to keep putting music out. And, you know, I wrote half of the songs that were on Thrush Metal two years ago and it just took me that long to get it going, you know? So this time, I’m like, “Write a song, record it, get it done. Actually do it.” So that’s my plan, definitely.
Speaking of new songs… We have an article in our archives which is a sort of guide to using Tinder. One of your songs is about a bad Tinder date. So, to finish this off, what advice can you pass on to those poor members of society who find themselves trapped in a bad Tinder date?
*Laughs* Oh my god. Well, for me, it’s just like, “Okay, I’m in a really bad situation right now.” And instead of being like, “Fuck, this is terrible,” I just thought, “I cannot wait to tell my friends about this!” And then, essentially, I wrote a song about it. But every experience has something… You grow from every experience, and for me, this was a really bad Tinder date. So, I guess you just get to learn about someone that you’ll never be with! *Laughs* Also, I’m not on the dating scene anymore, but I’ve heard Bumble works a lot better.
Well thank you for speaking to us, and I look forward to seeing you at The Bird soon (again)!
Thank you, I’m looking forward to that show, it’s gonna be great!