It’s late 2017 and a then-25-year-old Stella Donnelly is sitting in her house in Perth, scrolling through death threats on her phone. She’s not a rogue politician or an errant sexual predator or any of the things that tend to rile people up in the real world. In fact, her crime is merely that she’s written a song saying that rape is, y’know, not actually OK, no matter how you spin it.
“The moment I realised I’d broken the bubble was when Pitchfork posted ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ online. I got trolled so hard and then I realised it was reaching audiences bigger than people who are like-minded,” she recalls now, a year on from the track that first put her in the public eye. “I got death threats and graphic images, unsolicited dick pics, threats to where I live… It really pissed people off, which is fascinating. I think it’s white male supremacy and it’s coming from a place of fear; the idea of a woman doing anything in the public light and having that voice is a challenge to what they’ve been brought up to believe. And a woman who’s speaking out against the norm of that attitude is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. But it just fuels my fire.”
Since then, the song and following EP ‘Thrush Metal’ - a collection of acoustic tracks full of witty, stark, sometimes forlorn, more often just frustrated musings on the complexities of life - have taken the singer around the world, becoming one of SXSW’s most exciting new finds and sending her on the European jaunt that she’s taking the afternoon off from to chat to us in a London cafe today. While there might be some butthurt chauvinists lurking in the murkier ends of Stella’s internet inbox, there are far more people that have taken her bold, bright voice into their hearts. And if the singer seems fairly resilient to the trolls, then maybe it’s because resilience is the thing that’s been her backbone so far.
“I think I definitely challenge a lot of stereotypes.”
Perhaps surprisingly for someone whose uncompromising outlook is one of their defining traits, Stella started out reiterating other peoples’. “I was in a covers band, the only girl in a band full of boys, and I had to wear high heels and a dress and sing The B-52s ‘Love Shack’ and ‘Walking on Sunshine’ and fucking P!nk… I mean, full respect for The B-52s but there’s only so many times you can sing ‘Love Shack’ in a year and that was my job four times a week. Weddings, corporate functions, pharmaceutical company awards nights…” she grimaces, with a shudder. The experience took its toll and, she explains, her “connection to music wasn’t in a healthy place anymore”. “I was having anxiety and I’d had a couple of things where men had got up on stage and groped me. I felt like I was becoming a piece of meat, and I was getting attention but not in the way that I wanted it and not in the way I needed it.” So she quit and started working on her own music properly. “It really shaped me and made me mad and gave me that insight to what I don’t wanna do,” she explains.
Then, when it came to recording ‘Thrush Metal’, Stella had to stand her ground and stay firm in her self-belief again. Though the EP itself now stands as a solid testament to where the singer was at at the time, there’s a whole other version that remains on the cutting room floor. “I had tried to record it in a studio before, but it was so shiny and so not me; it felt like the whole thing had been taken away from me so I canned it,” she says. “The real clincher was when I was recording ‘Grey’ and the guy was like, you should just get this other guy to play it because your guitar playing isn’t working. I had to go through those experiences though; I haven’t always been this [bold]!”
“I’m pissing people off, but I’m pleasing people more.”
But the cumulative effect of all these tests is that, now, she stands as one of the most uncompromising, exciting new voices out there. Whether she’s dryly calling herself a “fucking arsehole” on ‘Mechanical Bull’ or lamenting the colour-faded death of a relationship in the aforementioned ‘Grey’, she’s a raconteur in the truest sense - informed by a love of Billy Bragg and songwriters “where the words are the most important part”. She’s funny, too. Which is another thing that tends to piss off the old men. “One of the worst reviews I’ve ever had was someone telling me I had ‘boyish humour’, because why can’t women be funny? Why can’t women be crass? Why is that attributed as a masculine trait? Why can’t femininity be funny, and angry?” she questions, exasperated. “It really pissed me off because we need to change the way that we look at what femininity and masculinity is. And I think I definitely challenge a lot of stereotypes, but that’s nice!” she laughs. “It’s fun! And it’s a cheap trick to swear and I’m trying to find ways of swearing without swearing in my lyrics, but sometimes you just need a ‘fuck’ in there! It’s the only way to get your point across!”
Now, she’s gearing up to get an even bigger point across in the form of her debut album - set for release in spring. Recorded in Freemantle, near her home town, and finished literally the morning we speak she says, toasting the news with a customary broad grin and an orange juice, it’s set to see the singer broadening her sonic palette - but, this time, entirely on her own terms.
“Why can’t women be crass? Why is that attributed as a masculine trait? Why can’t femininity be funny, and angry?”
“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” she says. “When I did the EP, I didn’t have the luxury of having the resources to have a band or use special equipment. But now it’s such a dream to be like, if the song needs a band it can and if it doesn’t it won’t and there’s no pressure either way. Half the record is solo and half is with a band. There’s a couple of songs with synths and drum machines. It’s confused, but that’s me! It’s a perfect representation of who I am.”
Warm and engaging, but with a visible cage-rattling streak, you can indeed see Stella’s personality doused all over her music. It’s a point she’s fought to get to, but now she’s there you wouldn’t bet against the whip-smart, no-fucks-given singer to take it all the way. “I’m pissing people off, but I’m pleasing people more and I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she notes with a mischievous smile. And that works for us just fine.