Stella Donnelly opens the door to her room in the fabled Michelberger hotel with a bright smile on her face. The young artist has quirky confidence that is infectious. She sits down on the bed; her legs crossed and looks at me with bright greenish-blue eyes. “It is funny when people ask me about the record”, she says. “It is like talking about something that you are not really sure how you did it yourself.” She humbly shrugs away the melodic confidence displayed on her new record Flood.
“Every song feels like its own universe that I took part in. It is almost like a dream and when you say it out loud, trying to explain it, it sounds ridiculous and does not make any sense.”
So, I will not make Stella Donnelly try to talk sense into music that is supposed to be listened to rather than talked about. About the writing process, however, the Australian artist says that she pushed herself a lot harder this time. Flood is a move away from the comfort zone of the singer, who usually composes songs on her guitar. Instead, the piano is the core piece of many songs. “That was definitely a new direction”, Stella says. “Writing songs on the piano take a bit more time for me.” during the covid pandemic, Stella Donnelly allowed herself to take that extra time.
“I got a lot better at staying focused on one song and learned how to dig a little deeper. Before I used to start a song and once the dopamine left, I would walk away. Now I wrestle with the songs bit more. It Is very fulfilling once you come out on the other side of it but hard when you are in the mud.”
The song resulting from a fight that Stella won is the opener, Lungs. The upbeat drums and the driving beat ring in the record on a brighter note, that the rest of the songs. “It’s the last time I watch you put too much salt on the story”, Stella sings with airy lightness in her voice. But the writing process was not as smooth as the listening experience might make it out to be. “That song was a four-month boxing match”, Stella laughs. “I hated it so much, but in the end, the songs that give you the most shit, are the once you end up loving the most. Things you work on harder and longer become a better friend because you go through more situations together.”
When the Flood Comes
Starting with her debut record, Stella Donnelly easily took a seat in our hearts with her sincere and wryly witty lyrics delivered in an unlikely high-pitched manner. And the character of the singer is still present in her music even though she has grown. How Was Your Day? For example, features almost spoken word style vocals just to blend into a catchy pop chorus. Most of the songs, like on her debut, still go back to personal experiences and lived stories. Other songs, like Move Me, came from a more autobiographical place. “The song is about my mom finding out she has Parkinson’s disease. That song came with depth right away. The story was already there.” Lungs however, was more of a fiction; Stella explains during our interview.
But even before listening to the first note of the album, Flood leaves an impression. Take a second to look at the cover of the record. It takes a moment to place the black and white looking image as a photograph of a flock of birds, black-winged stilts, Oceanside birds. “To me, Flood does not just mean water, but also this feeling of overabundance and overpopulation, of too much of the same thing again and again”, Stella says. “That is what lockdown felt like to me – living the same day again and again. The cover mirrors that feeling.”
For Stella Donnelly the cover came before the title of the album. “When I first saw the image, I did not even know it was birds. It looks sort of abstract. Almost like a QR Code from afar.” The effect that the birds have in a group versus as individuals change. The lines get blurred, and we don’t notice the individual bird, but the image they create altogether.
The World Through Binoculars
Birds have also played a special role in Stella Donnelly’s life during the lockdown. “I started birdwatching” she grins and shows me the binoculars she even brought to Berlin. Even though there is probably not much to observe from the window of the downtown hotel, she still starts her days gazing out of the window or going for a walk. “I got into it by coincidence. During the pandemic, my partner and I got stuck at this beautiful bird watching place with nothing else to do. We went for walks and a friend of mine who was already into birdwatching showed me the birds. At some point, I got my own pair of binoculars. It is the best way to wake up for me. I try to find a park or something and I can get a break from everything.”
“A lot of people assume bird watching to be an old white men’s activity, but there are actually many clubs for FLINTA to get into it as well”. Stella explains that it is especially important for FLINTA to build a community as going out onto the road to watch birds in the wild can be a little scary on your own. “It is so peaceful, and I can really slow down. It is almost a kind of meditation. You need to be fully aware of what is going on around you. You are fully engaged in nature and watching someone else’s life and not just thinking about your own.” It is obvious that this new hobby stuck a cord of passion in the singer. She tells me that the coolest bird she ever saw was a peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world.
Bird watching, like any place in a patriarchal society is still not a safe place for women. That is a fact that Stella Donnelly has been painfully aware of. On her debut album, she already sang about experiences of sexual abuse on Boys Will Be Boys calling out the expression for downplaying the societal structures which allow men to engage in violent and oppressive behavior towards women. Flood also carries the weight of heavy topics that the singer gives space to in her songwriting.
Underwater, for example, is based on an ambassadorship that Stella Donnelly did for the Patricia Giles center for Non-Violence, an organization supporting people fleeing from domestic abuse. She raised money and promoted the initiative on Instagram. “I learned a lot about abusive relationships and the struggles of leaving. As a person who existed in the adult world before the #metoo movement, I sometimes look back on situations I was not able to classify as abusive at the moment. Things that were not okay, but there was nothing to put up against it. Learning about it was a moment of closure and allowed me to put that chapter away.”
Especially during the covid pandemic, which left people confined to their homes, cases of domestic violence increased. “Feeling unsafe in the place where you should feel the safest is horrible”, Stella says. And in the confinement of the covid lockdowns the private space, the space behind the closed doors was dragged into the public eye, as that is where life happened for all of us. “It is so important to talk about it and to educate people about the circle of violence that starts with verbal abuse.” Underwater calls attention to that complex experience and is one of the heaviest songs that Stella Donnelly ever wrote. The weight comes from its importance.
There is still a political note to the writing of Stella Donnelly. “Isn’t it funny though, how as a FLINTA songwriter, everything is political?”, she raises her eyebrows. Even the songs that are not overtly about political topics are still songs of a person taking up space in an industry that is modeled after and for the white male perspective. And Stella allowing herself not to constantly do the work, but also to write about letting go and living is also political in a way. For her, the two are always intertwined anyways – the personal and the political. “It also depends on who is listening. The meaning of a song can change completely. To me, a song like Morning Silence is just a genuine diary entry about how I feel the future is going to be for women and someone else might take it as a big statement. I write about what is on my mind.”
For so many female artists just doing what they are doing is a challenge in itself. Stella Donnelly, like me, is a young woman working in a male-dominated industry. “Sometimes you walk into a venue, and it is just a bunch of dudes. I always have to go in with my guard up.” That is something that probably every FLINTA person can relate to. Especially when working with technology, but luckily Stella worked out a way for her to make music and performing a safe space. “I have an amazing team around me. That helps a lot. But of course, there are still those moments in which I have to fight back and instead of playing dumb in front of the technicians and letting them get away with it, I try to stand up to them so that the next woman walking in hopefully has a different experience.”
So, what else is there to say about Flood? It is a record that combines all the things that Stella Donnelly talked about. The detailed attention to the surroundings that comes from the constant alertness of bird watching, the mindless walks in nature that make you forget about struggles that seem overwhelming, and the fight against the prevailing patriarchal structures. If you look closely at the image of the hundreds of birds, you can pick out the individual aspects, the single birds, coming together to a sophomore record that has depth as well as playful lightheartedness.
Flood is out now via Secretly Canadian.
Photos by Liv Toerkell.