Stella Donnelly’s Debut Album ‘Beware Of The Dogs’ Is Free Of Bullshit Ironic Australiana
'Beware Of The Dog' isn't a warning: it bites back.
Stella Donnelly is sitting opposite me in a café in Sydney’s Redfern, and she’s bought a lot of baggage. There’s a suitcase and big bag behind her, and a dress next to me on the couch, in a suit bag: she’s just run over from an hour-long interview down the road at FBi Radio, and apologises profusely for being five-ish minutes late.
We’re talking ahead of the release of her debut album, Beware Of The Dogs. She’s scooting around on a promo day ahead of supporting Missy Higgins and the John Butler Trio at the Sydney Opera House forecourt that night.
I’ve been warned that Donnelly’s voice is a little sore, so we shave 10 minutes off our time together, and when she orders a hot water with lemon, I prepare myself for some succinct answers. That doesn’t happen, as Donnelly clearly wants to chat — not out of a need to explain, but a willingness to connect, even with her many trolls.
“I’m sure if I was put in a room with these people, we’d probably get along, you know what I mean?,” she tells me. “I’m sure they would find something in me to like.”
Trolls have followed Donnelly since her first single ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ broke through in 2017. A lullaby backed by just a guitar, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ has Donnelly reckon with a friend’s sense of shame and trauma around her sexual assault. Donnelly fights against her friend’s self-blame, her voice cracking with anger as it echoes the victim-blaming lines we’re used to hearing.
“I’m not always angry or sad. I’ve got funny things to say — and I’m often just quite hungry, really.”
A few days after it was released, the #MeToo movement took off with the first wave of sexual assault allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein. Suddenly, Donnelly’s song became a triple j-ready anthem, and at times, she was called upon to talk about sexual assault and rape culture first, her music second. We can hear why: ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ sears with hurt and resilience, bubbling with rage that bursts with its end line, “time to pay the fucking rent”. Of course, that brought forth cries of ‘Not All Men’.
“It became less about me really, you know when I put that song out,” she tells me. “And that song has hopefully done more good than harm.”
“It’s worth it for me, because when I think of the bigger picture… I’m a very privileged white Australian, so that platform that I have, you know, I may as well use it. In a way, I didn’t mind, I was happy to kind of just cop it, when I needed to, if it meant that I could get that point across.”
That point — Donnelly’s point — is extended on Beware Of The Dogs. Where 2017 EP Thrush Metal let her word-play shine against its DIY sound, her debut album matches her sharp, sardonic lines about wealth inequality, rape culture, dodgy hospitality bosses and homesickness with luscious, crisp indie-pop production.
It’s funny too, packed with culture cringe-inducing imagery, a whole lot of F-bombs and Donnelly’s natural wit. If Thrush Metal introduced Donnelly, Beware Of The Dogs establishes her.
“I’m not always angry or sad,” she says. “I’ve got funny things to say — and I’m often just quite hungry, really.”
‘Well, There Are A Lot Of Dogs In The World’
Donnelly grew up in Perth. After school, she went to WAAPA, the esteemed performing arts academy. Like most who study music, she has mixed feelings about tertiary gatekeeping — her real chops were built outside of the institution, playing in cover bands at weddings. That too was a mixed bag: her stories involve creepy drunk men and shitty gigs, but it taught her a lot about performing, too.
It was good money, Donnelly says, but eventually, singing other people’s songs got crushing, so she moved on. Perth’s scene is small, she explains to me, which is how she ended up playing guitar in about five bands, including punk outfit Boat Show. You can hear the same threads of thought in their music, where songs like ‘Cis White Boy’ rally against the casual misogyny detailed across Beware Of The Dogs, a title which seems like a mantra.
“I guess there are lot of dogs in the world,” she says, echoing my question. “A lot of good ones, but a lot of bad ones as well. I wanted to call the album something that captured the haunted, eerie feeling of the cover of the record — this kind of B-grade horror film that didn’t go well in the cinema, you know what I mean?”
Beware Of The Dogs can be vaguely unsettling. Lines about an old boss “jerking off to the CCTV while I poured a flat VB” straddle cultural cringe and mundane horrors — then there’s the terrible Christmas parties (‘Season’s Greetings’), breakups (‘Allergies’), and fuck-you’s to the 1 percent (the title track). Donnelly tells me “it’s such a cliché”, but it was hearing Courtney Barnett on the radio that opened her up lyrically.
“There was that first line [of ‘Avant Gardender’], “I masturbated to the song you wrote”,” she says. “At the time I was just like, ‘What the hell was that?'”
“I hadn’t heard a woman just get out there and say something like that — the last woman that did that was Patti Smith, to me, anyways. Probably more women have, I just haven’t accessed that. [But Barnett] is someone who made me feel free in what I was gonna write about. Made me feel liberated.”
Donnelly’s no stranger to Australiana, with lines referencing Christmas gravy and Kyle & Jackie O regularly popping up. But they feel more deep-seated and less affected than the Inner West or Brunswick musicians we’re used to hearing them from: there isn’t as much distance, or irony, in their delivery. There’s empathy in the way they’re depicted, rather than used for a punchline — though it can be funny.
“[Playing live], people generally just laugh, or they cry,” she says.”And I think that’s the great thing about Australia: we can pull the piss out of ourselves just as much as anyone can pull a piss outta us. I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously. And I think it’s important to be able to question those things. I question the Southern Cross Tattoo and what that means as an Australian-identity icon. People should be able to deal with it — people should be able to hold up a mirror and go, ‘what does this mean?’.”
“I question the Southern Cross Tattoo and what that means as an Australian-identity icon. People should be able to deal with it — people should be able to hold up a mirror and go, ‘what does this mean?'”
Donnelly’s referencing a line in ‘Tricks’, where she sings about a shitty boy “wearing her out like [they] wear that Southern Cross tattoo”. Perhaps this says more about me than Donnelly, but I was surprised to imagine her dating someone with that sign. She’s less likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“Generally, people who have Southern Cross Tattoos aren’t quite aware of what the actual Southern Cross means,” she says. “If they’d done their research they would understand it’s actually, in many cultures, the emu’s footprint. But I don’t think many people know that. Hopefully people with Southern Cross Tattoos still feel like they can come and see me play, maybe not.
“I did have a guy with [a tattoo] come up and have a photo with me after one of my gigs, I just played that song. He couldn’t have been listening too hard, or he didn’t mind.”
‘Are You Scared Of Me, Old Man?’
Donnelly’s in a rare position, which is why she’s okay, in her own words, to ‘cop’ trolls every now and then. Her music covers big topics (rape culture, worker exploitation, toxic masculinity, wealth inequality) with humour and charm, allowing her to push beyond the audience you might expect from socially conscious guitar-pop.
Back when ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ debuted on triple j, a farmer called in to tell Donnelly he’d broken down crying in a field — the song had opened him up to a world of fear he’d never considered. The anecdote is, essentially a line in ‘Old Man’ in praxis: “So have a chat to your friends/’Cause it’s our words that’ll keep our daughters safe.”
“I think it’s about rather than talking about people, I think it’s about asking questions,” she tells me. “And if someone got upset about [‘Old Man’], I would go, ‘Well why? What upset you about that?'”
“That song’s not targeted at all men by any means — it’s targeted at the patriarchal power system that we have, and the exploitations that come with that. So, I mean, I’ve had to have some interesting conversations. I’ve had to have them on panels. I had a chat with Henry Rollins on a Splendour panel, that was challenging.”
“It’s easier to give them a song than to try and have an argument with them.”
The other line that sticks out from ‘Old Man’ is: “Your personality traits don’t count/If you put your dick in someone’s face”. Beware Of The Dogs is filled with ‘larrikins’ who ruin lunches and plates for fun, and we all know (and can love) those guys — but some use that as a guise for shitty behaviour. Donnelly’s pointing out cause and effect by pulling from her life, and that’s a hard conversation to have
“I can feel like an impostor when I talk,” she says. “But I know my opinion is valid. I know what I have to say is valid because it comes from experience, it doesn’t come from this derivative — the idea — it comes from what I’ve had to deal with. I’m interested in what everyone has to say and I feel like everyone has a valid opinion with it. I guess that’s why I wrote [‘Old Man’], because it’s easier to give them a song than to try and have an argument with them.”
Sometimes though, you just wanna swear — and Donnelly does. A lot.
“Well, I said ‘fuck’ 16 times in ‘Season’s Greetings’, which I think is a record for me,” she says. “To hear the radio edit version is just [to hear] blank space the whole time. But yeah, it’s how I speak.”
“Obviously I’m not swearing at you right now, though after a couple of coffees, maybe I’d just be speaking in my usual colloquial way. Unfortunately — or fortunately — swearing is just part of my language and if I’m gonna get a point across, I’m generally gonna swear. It’s probably pretty cheap. I could probably come up with better things [to say], but I’m not that deep.”
Stella Donnelly’s Beware Of The Dogs is out now.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Pooneh Ghana