Stella Donnelly Puts Her 'Middle Finger Up' To The Patriarchy Of Rock

Mar 9, 2019
Originally published on March 11, 2019 2:22 pm

Stella Donnelly is not afraid to ruffle feathers or disrupt the status quo. At 26, the Australian singer-songwriter has already made that clear with songs like her breakout singles, "Boys Will Be Boys," and "Mechanical Bull" off of her 2017 debut EP, Trush Metal. Both songs attack the folkways of misogyny and rape culture. And in the last two years, she's made a name for herself far beyond her country's borders.

In the era of the #MeToo movement where attention to such issues are accompanied by a heightened sense of urgency, Donnelly's biting wit and honesty in her songwriting has gained traction internationally. The lighthearted, upbeat sound of Donnelly's debut album, Beware Of The Dogs, acts as a conduit for such heavy, but necessary, topics.

Donnelly spoke with NPR's Michel Martin from Sydney about personal experiences that inspired the album, how her music fits into the #MeToo era and more. Hear the radio version of their full conversation at the audio link and read on for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On her songwriting reflecting her life

I mean for me, music is about portraying myself and about being really honest. And so when you put an EP out, you've only got four or five songs to really do that with. But whereas with an album, you can take your time and there'll be a song that's sad but then straight after that, I'll be a bit more lighthearted or funny or heartbroken and those sorts of things. So yeah, absolutely my friends would definitely say that [these songs are] me. It's as me as it could get, really.

On public response to her breakout single "Boys Will Be Boys"

It came out three days before Harvey Weinstein was called out online and then following that, the #MeToo Movement resurfacing after all those years. I was never expecting the listenership and the the broad audience I got for that song. I think it was possibly as a result of that whole conversation starting to take place and at the time, people were very threatened. It was the first time that the powers had to show some sort of compassion, and that maybe the pendulum was possibly swinging back a little bit towards women having the freedom to speak out about these issues.

YouTube

When I put that out, I received extreme feedback. I had extreme feedback on both sides. So whilst I was getting sent inappropriate pictures or horrible messages from people or just constant barrage of comments on my stuff, I was also receiving letters from fathers who had heard that song and [said] they're gonna use that song as a resource to teach their children. I was hearing from young women out there who had used that song to kind of process things that had happened to them. I was hearing from old women. I was hearing from all sorts of people positively about that song. So, it was just a very extreme time. I think everything just heightened for me, good and bad. So it kind of met in the middle in a way so it wasn't too harrowing for me because I was able to look at the positives that I was getting out of putting that song out.

On the song "Old Man"

It's based on many experiences that I've had. I definitely didn't want to make it too specific. I guess, created a character, an amalgamation of many people that I've come across as a female artist and also looking at what had just happened in my world. When I put "Boys Will Be Boys" out, the #MeToo campaign hadn't reemerged yet. Then post that, I had watched life for me change as a female musician in this industry and I had watched life for my possibly future children change — if I had daughters and, you know, those sorts of things. It was also a way for me to put my middle finger up to anyone who had given me grief for "Boys Will Be Boys." I wasn't going to let that stop me from speaking out and staying true to my, I don't want to say cause, but to my values.

On the contrast between upbeat melody and heavy lyrics

I actually wrote kind of the music before the lyrics kind of came together, and often when I write something that sounds quite pretty or sounds quite energetic and upbeat and uplifting, I generally want to counter that with some heavy lyrics. I like creating that contrast. For me it's about communication skills.

Even just talking to you now, if I was yelling at you, "This is what I think OK, Blah blah blah!," you'd be too distracted by the fact that I was yelling at you to actually take in what I'm saying. I might be saying something really positive, but because I'm yelling it just doesn't quite get through as easy. I guess that was my technique of communication and education, maybe.

But it's kind of celebratory as well. It's a way for me to to sing about something heavy, but for the music to kind of cushion that. Especially playing live every night, there's the bed there of pleasurable sounds that allows me to kind of sit with those lyrics and feel comfortable saying them.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, let's go to Australia to check in with a singer who's making a name for herself far beyond that country's borders - Stella Donnelly. She's getting noticed for a tell-it-like-it-is style that tackles some of the toughest issues. Here's her breakthrough track from 2017, "Boys Will Be Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS WILL BE BOYS")

STELLA DONNELLY: (Singing) They said boys will be boys.

MARTIN: The bold storytelling continues on her debut album, "Beware Of The Dogs." And Stella Donnelly is with us now from Sydney, Australia.

Stella Donnelly, welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

DONNELLY: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, your songs have so much their own style. I mean, they can be witty. They can be laugh-out-loud funny - at least to me - and yet, they really pack a punch. And I understand that you spent years on a cover band. So I'm wondering - like, how did you come up with your own sound?

DONNELLY: I spent about four years in a cover band, and then I went on to play in other original projects that weren't my own but I was kind of contributing to as an instrumentalist. And I think it was just all of it put together eventually shaped what I wanted to sound like and what I didn't want to sound like. And it just eventually seeped into my songwriting.

MARTIN: I have this idea that this is what it sounds like when you're with your friends talking. Do people who know you say, yeah, that's how you are?

DONNELLY: Yeah, absolutely. And I think when you get to record an album, it really allows you to show that. For me, music is about portraying myself and about being really honest. So when you put an EP out, you've only got four or five songs to really do that with, whereas with an album, you can kind of take your time. There'll be a song that's sad. But then, you know, straight after that, I'll be a bit more lighthearted or funny or heartbroken and those sorts of things. So yeah, it's as me as it can get, really.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, let me revisit the song that is considered your breakout - "Boys Will Be Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS WILL BE BOYS")

DONNELLY: (Singing) My friend told me of a secret, told me that she blames herself.

MARTIN: It explores something that sexual assault survivors have long told us that they have experienced, which is being blamed for what happened to them. And I understand that you got death threats after this - I mean, death threats.

DONNELLY: I was never expecting it, Michel. Honestly, it came out three days before Harvey Weinstein was called out online - and then, following that, the #MeToo movement, resurfacing after all those years. And I was never expecting the listenership and the broad audience that I got for that song. And I think it was possibly as a result of that whole conversation started to take place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS WILL BE BOYS")

DONNELLY: (Singing) Why was she all alone?

I think at the time, people were very threatened. And it was the first time, I think, that the powers had to show some sort of compassion and that - maybe that the pendulum was possibly swinging back a little bit towards women having the freedom to speak out about these issues.

MARTIN: It seems shocking, right? But maybe not. I mean, I don't know. What was it like for you to experience that? I mean, you were talking about people sending you explicit pictures. I mean, what was that like? Was it shocking to you? Were you - how did you react to that?

DONNELLY: Yeah, it was really shocking. But, at the same time, I guess it's just one of those things that when I put that out, I received extreme feedback. You know, I had extreme feedback on both sides. So whilst I was getting sent inappropriate pictures or horrible messages from people, I was also receiving letters from fathers who had heard that song and were going to use that song as a resource to teach their children.

And I was hearing from young women out there who had used that song to kind of process things that had happened to them. And I was hearing from all sorts of people positively about that song. So it was a very extreme time. You know, I think everything just heightened for me, good and bad. So it wasn't too harrowing for me because I was able to look at the positives that I was getting out of putting that song out.

MARTIN: Well, and obviously it hasn't stopped you because your new album, "Beware Of The Dogs," continues to share your thoughts very directly - and especially the first track, "Old Man." Let me play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD MAN")

DONNELLY: (Singing) He's reading sports on the news, white man, white teeth in a suit, he's got that style. And then, alone in his house, he wants to take baby out, give us a smile.

MARTIN: You know, I have to say, when I get a new album or CD to listen to, I generally just listen to it at first. And I was playing it on my way to work, and I just was howling.

DONNELLY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Because, you know, at first, you think it's like the Beach Boys. You know, we're going to the beach. We're going to hang out. And then you're, like, whoa, wait, what, you know (laughter)? So the couple questions I have, first of all - is this about something or someone in particular, some particular experience that you had?

DONNELLY: It's I think it's based on many experiences that I've had. And I definitely didn't want to make it too specific. I created a character, an amalgamation of many people that I've come across as an artist, as a female artist, and also looking at what had just happened in my world, you know? When I put "Boys Will Be Boys" out, the #MeToo campaign hadn't reemerged.

And then, post that, I'd watched life for me change as a female musician in this industry. And I guess it was also a way for me to put my middle finger up to anyone who had given me grief for "Boys Will Be Boys." You know, I wasn't going to let that stop me from speaking out and staying true to my values.

MARTIN: Well, yes. In fact, you said, I've worked too hard for this chance to not be biting the hand that feeds the hate. So have a chat to your friends because it's our words that will keep our daughters safe - definitely a message there. But the fact that it's so up-tempo is also one of the things that struck me. That's part of the reason it packs such a wallop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD MAN")

DONNELLY: (Singing) Oh, are you scared of me, old man? Oh, are you scared of what I'll do? You grabbed me with an open hand. The world is grabbin' back at you. Oh, are you scared of me, old man?

I actually wrote kind of the music before the lyrics came together. And often, when I write something that sounds quite pretty or sounds quite energetic and upbeat and uplifting, I generally want to counter that (laughter) with some heavier lyrics. So I guess that's how it came together. I like creating that contrast.

And, I mean, for me, it's about communication skills. And even just talking to you now, if I was yelling at you going, this is what I think, OK, blah, blah, blah, you'd be too distracted by the fact that I was yelling at you to actually take in what I'm saying. And I might be saying something really positive. But because I'm yelling, it just doesn't quite get through as easy.

So I guess that was my technique of communication and education, maybe. But it's kind of celebratory as well, you know? It's this kind of a way for me to sing about something heavy but for the music to kind of cushion that, especially playing live every night. And there's the bed there of pleasurable sounds that allows me to kind of sit with those lyrics and feel comfortable saying them.

MARTIN: You touch on a lot of things on the album I want to mention. And also, I think a number of the songs work on a number of levels. It could be political, but it could be personal. And, for example, I want to play "Tricks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRICKS")

DONNELLY: (Singing) You only like me when I do my tricks for you. You wear me out like you wear that southern Cross Tattoo. You said I'd look much better if I dropped the attitude.

MARTIN: I was thinking that this could be about a relationship because a lot of people have had this experience where the other person only likes that person to the degree that they're kind of putting on a show or fitting an image, right? There's even a word for it, right - arm candy. What were you thinking about when you wrote this?

DONNELLY: Yeah. I guess I wanted to create a character again, much like "Old Man," that is based on sort of many people I've come across over the years. But the really specific picture I have was when I used to play solo cover gigs, I used to sit in the corner of this bar every Sunday afternoon and sing covers. And I would have these men standing at the bar, and they'd have these tattoos, and they'd be yelling, and they'd be screaming at me to play "Khe Sanh" by Cold Chisel, which was a - Cold Chisel are a fantastic Australian rock band.

But, you know, that's the only song they wanted me to sing, and they wouldn't be happy until I played that song. I guess I wanted to kind of paint that picture of that character that used to just give me grief every weekend. I'd go back and do the same thing. Both of us would. You know, and it'd just be this "Groundhog Day" of heckling.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRICKS")

DONNELLY: (Singing) You've got all of your ducks lined up in a row, driving back from the job with Kyle and Jackie-O.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything. What's next for you?

DONNELLY: Well, I'm about to head across to see you. I'm coming over to do a tour around North America and then across to Europe and the U.K. So I'm looking forward to it.

MARTIN: What do you want to go out on?

DONNELLY: Oh, I think I'd like to go out on "Lunch." It's probably my favorite song on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUNCH")

DONNELLY: (Singing) Cracking my neck in the consulate line while a homesick American flag's hanging by in the fluorescent light. Up close, I see how they stitched on the stars and stripes.

MARTIN: That was Stella Donnelley. Her album "Beware Of The Dogs" is out now, and as she told us, she's just about to head our way on tour. And we'll be looking for her.

So, Stella Donnelly, thank you so much for talking with us.

DONNELLY: Thank you so much. See you soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUNCH")

DONNELLY: (Singing) I like the way that you tell all your tales. Would it kill you to listen? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.