FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week, Jumi Akinfenwa meets Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose lo-fi bedroom folk-pop is spiked with wit and feminist defiance.
NAME: Stella Donnelly
MUST-HEAR: Thrush Metal (Secretly Canadian, 2018)
FOR FANS OF: Angel Olsen, Japanese Breakfast
“My poor mother,” laughs Stella Donnelly, reflecting on the title of her breakout EP, Thrush Metal. Released last April, the name of the rising Australia lo-fi songwriter’s debut began as a punchline between friends: “I was playing in a sort of punk-thrash metal band of all girls and we were talking about thrush one day and it stuck,” she recalls, adding that she still gets a kick out of seeing such a ridiculous pun on Spotify for all to see.
The stark, minimal, Angel Olsen-inspired heartache the 25-year-old specializes in, however, is no joke. “It literally sounds like a guitar and mic in a lounge room because that’s exactly what it is,” she says, of a release that turned her almost overnight into one of Australia’s buzziest new names, and packed a powerful feminist message beneath its finger-picked melancholy.
“It’s a really hard song to play and I always give a content warning before playing it live,” the songwriter explains of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, the standout track on Thrush Metal, which addresses the culture of victim blaming in relation to sexual assault. With probing lyrics like “would you blame your little sister, if she cried to you for help?”, it’s easy to see why, but conversations about sexual abuse and victim blaming are conversations society needs to be having, no matter how uncomfortable they make some feel, the artist insists.
“I wrote the song back in 2016, when these conversations were far less frequent,” she explains. “I felt that I had a lot of anger and didn’t know where to put it. The alternative is driving to someone’s house and throwing eggs, but that’s not legal.” Donnelly decided that the best way to deal with her fury and pain at a friend’s own sexual assault would be to release them through song. “I felt helpless, hopeless about what had happened to my friend. I wanted a way to get revenge without directly affecting that person and I wrote with the hope that they would hear it one day and [also] people who had blamed victims of sexual assault – even girlfriends of mine had said stuff like, ‘why did you go home with him?’”
It’s taken the best part of a decade to hone the voice, feminist ideas and confident storytelling with which she delivers ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, and the other songs on Thrush Metal. Growing up in the western port city of Fremantle, where she still lives, Donnelly began writing songs aged 16. “I started playing in Saturday afternoon markets near my house and would sing songs whilst my mum did grocery shopping. People would throw 10 cent coins because they felt sorry for me, but it was a way to make me feel independent and different.” She jokes that on her early songs, “I thought I was a genius for rhyming place with face.”
This wit and humour isn’t just found in conversation with Donnelly – it also spills into her songs: ‘Mean to Me’, on Thrush Metal, demonstrates not only her nimble vocal ability, but also her ability to laugh in the face of those that have previously put her down. “And you tell me all of my jokes ain’t that funny, and that may be so, but I know your mama loves me,” she snarls sweetly on the track.
Donnelly is currently looking forward: she’s got an exciting run of tour dates across Europe coming up, and there’s a debut full-length on the horizon. “The new album is a nice opportunity to explore music and how I want to deliver story and song,” she says. “There are more instruments than just guitar this time. The fact that I put out a minimal EP with just the guitar gives me hope that I can tell a good story. It’ll be slightly more complex, but still accessible”. Upcoming UK festival shows including a slot alongside St. Vincent, Feist and more at End Of The Road (“when I saw the lineup, I screamed”) are evidence of how her profile has already risen beyond her wildest expectations. “It kind of grew a lot quicker than I expected. It’s just really lovely that everyone got behind something so organic,” she beams. She better get used to it. Even bigger and better things await.
Jumi Akinfenwa is a freelance writer.