Emma Whines caught up with Stella Donnelly, just before she beat out 120 other BIGSOUND artists and won the Inaugural Levi’s Music Prize, to chat about patience, diversity and how she is secretly studying philosophy and sociology in her are time.
Tell me about when music started for you? Was there a certain moment when you just knew this was what you had to do?
I’ve always had music around the house and my dad used to take me to different gigs all the time. From there I taught myself guitar, had a few piano lessons and then started writing when I was about 17. I then went and started playing in other peoples bands, helped people when they needed some guitar for their original projects and then finally I decided, alright, I’ve got songs that are worth putting out and songs that I really wanna put out, and now I’m here talking to you!
What was your writing and recording process like for your EP ‘Thrush Metal’?
I started out writing music for a band to play with me, and we tried to go and record that in a studio, like a proper snazzy studio, and it just didn’t come out sounding the way I wanted it. It started sounding pretty clinical and sterile so I thought, nope, cut that, I’ve spent all this money but It doesn’t matter I’m gonna not do that. I’m gonna record just me and a guitar in a lounge room. It just came out sounding the closest thing to how I sound live. No frills, Just as it is.
Do you have musical influences that you look up to or that have inspired the E.P?
Anyone that is doing anything real. There is this welsh band called Catatonia who were pretty huge in the 90’s and their lead singer Cerys Matthews is really raw and her lyrics are just real and kind of domestic in a strange way. Another one is Billy Bragg who just who sings a song like ‘Know amount of poetry can mend this broken heart, but you can take the hoover out if you wanna make a start,”. You know? just domestic lyrics that are real and just common place stuff that people can relate too has always been an inspiration to me. Its like working out a really simple way of saying things and not exaggerating things too much.
How important do you think your image is?
Image is a really strange concept. For me, I can see right through someone who is putting out an image that isn’t actually synonymous with who they are. It is cool though. I know people like that sometimes and they like that they can become a character. Some great examples would be Bowie with Ziggy Stardust, where he does become a character, but you know that that character is still apart of him anyway, he’s just that type of person. For me, I’m just really lucky that my image is just for who I am and the way that I am. I don’t really have to try too hard with that, which is great. Really, I think that people put too much emphasis on image and not enough on the music that they are putting out.
Is music your full time job?
Yeah pretty much but I do work at a cafe in the week sometimes just to make ends meet and I also work as an advocate for someone with cerebral palsy. His name is Darcy and he is so wonderful so I guess I don’t really see it as a job but more so, something that is apart of who I am, and something that I like putting my time towards as well as music. To be honest I think I get more out of it than he does! I also secretly study, but not really. My boyfriend studies philosophy and sociology and I’m super interested in world religions, so I go and sit in on his lectures once a week cause I find it really interesting. Sorry Murdoch University!
What would you say to someone a little younger than you, wanting to be in the same position?
Thats so hard cause I still feel like I’m that young person that needs all the help but I guess trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, and a fucking big wig record label dude is telling you how you should be, just get rid of him because there is someone out there for you and something that will fit in with who you are. You’ve just gotta wait and find it. Don’t jump at the first opportunity that arises. There has been a bunch of opportunities I’ve turned down just because they didn’t feel quite right.
Have you run into any problems with sexism in the Music Industry?
Absolutely. I’ve been playing for seven years so I’ve had guys jump up on stage and physically grope me and I’ve had men yelling at me during my sets. I’ve dealt with some of the worst stuff. I did corporate gigs for a while and I even had one of my bandmates grope me when I was 18 while doing that. I guess you just become stronger as you go but it is really hard. I also guess thats why I come out so strong and staunch-like on these issues because I want it to become no tolerance rather than oh yeah its not very good. It’s something that is really important to me and while I’m at Bigsound this week, I’m having lots of meetings with different parts of the music industry and my first question to them is ‘Where is your diversity? How do you represent Australia in music in that way?”
How do you deal with being groped?
I’ve dealt with it in so many ways. Sometimes I’ve just let it go and then later I think ‘God, I wish I had said that, I wish I’d done this.”. Now, I’ve become a lot better and I think if someone does or says something inappropriate you’re better off just saying ‘Hey, I find that really inappropriate, that was unacceptable’ and those words seem to cut through more than if you say ‘Hey you’re a fuckhead’ or ‘You hurt me, fuck off’. When you just tell them simply that something was inappropriate, you are kind of putting it back on them and they seem to think about it more. I mean it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Even my manger was harassed on the street last night coming out of gig and then proceed to tear this guy a new asshole. But it definitely doesn’t get any easier and it wont for a long time but I see it as a fuel and makes me more passionate about it the worse it gets.
What’s your plan for the future?
I’m gonna start recording in Melbourne in November for a new EP and then I’ve got a bunch of shows for the rest of the year and then we will just see where that goes really. BIGSOUND has been like the peak or the top of the hill and once its over I feel like we can start thinking and talking about the future and what the fuck’s going on.