THE SINGER AND THE SONG

Photo: Stella Donnelly at RTRFM's In The Pines, University of Western Australia, Sunday, April 29, 2018. Credit: GordonCo Visuals

Stella Donnelly may be in the midst of a European tour, but home is where her heart was a fortnight ago when she took out both the Pop Category and Grand Prize at the WAM Song Of The Year Awards Party for the assertive and poignant single, Boys Will Be Boys, from her debut solo EP, Thrush Metal.

“I was getting a running commentary of the whole night,” she laughs down the line from UK seaside town of Brighton, where she was readying to perform at The Great Escape festival. Donnelly’s friend and colleague, Jennifer Aslett (Boatshow, San Cisco, Cuss) messaged phone footage of the proceedings, as the SOTY winner sat next to her mother on a couch in Cardiff, Wales.

“It was great,” Donnelly notes. “I was like, ‘okay what’s happening now?’ Then I didn’t get a response for a while and I was wondering what was going on. Then she sent me the video of Dad accepting the award, so it was really lovely.

“It was so nice and was such a weird feeling because my Mum is here with me at the moment and we were over in Wales visiting family. It was so weird knowing all that was happening while we were just sitting there. It was kind of strange, but really lovely. I felt like I was in the room, which was really nice.”

Donnelly was also excited to learn of some wins on the evening by her close musical friends back home in WA.

“I’m so happy for Feels, they won the Electronic Category,” she notes. “And for Bolt Gun, my friend Talya (Valenti) is in that band, and for Helen Shanahan (Folk Category) as well, she’s amazing. They’re all friends of mine and I wish I could have been there to celebrate with them as well.”

While Donnelly was half a world away, she was able to record a pre-record a video message in London, which saw her flanked by two (quite loveable) Golden Retrievers.

“I did! That was in London. The dogs were Noah and Joe. We were staying with Phil’s (Manager, Phil Stevens) best friend in London, he let us use his dogs as props, which was really nice of him.”

Deserving of such awards and so much more, Boys Will Be Boys details the kind of bad behaviour and mistreatment that’s gone on through the ages, but also captures a moment. It did so, in its own way, before the moment, preceding the #metoo movement in 2017.

In accepting the Grand Prize of her behalf, Donnelly’s father, John, noted that he first heard Donnelly perform it at Fremantle venue Mojos and subsequently told her that she had to record that song ‘because it would change her life’. He also echoed the sentiments of his daughter and her song.

“It’s been so amazing,” Donnelly notes of the song’s embrace and trajectory. “For my Dad to get up there and say the things he did - he didn’t actually know he was getting up there to accept that award, he thought he just had to do something for the ‘Pop Category’ which is when he swore his arse off (laughs). So he got up there impromptu, he didn’t know he was going to go up there. For him to say what he said, I just think, my Dad being a middle-aged white man, saying what he said, probably… I hate to say it, but there may have been a few opinions in the room that didn’t agree with what I had to say in Boys Will Be Boys… to hear a grown man say it might have actually changed a few minds in that room, because sometimes men like that only listen to men like them.

“Hearing my Dad say that made me cry, honestly, because it meant so much to hear him say something like that. All I’ve ever wanted to do is to try and fight the notion that ‘boys will be boys’ and try and challenge that generalisation because I know so many men in my life that don’t deserve to be bundled into that sort of category and it’s such a dangerous thing to do because it takes away accountability and responsibility and those sorts of things. That’s all I was ever trying to do with that song.”

The subsequent response to the song here and around the world has seen Donnelly become, somewhat unexpectedly, a spokesperson about sexual harassment and abuse in the music industry and beyond.

“For it to be embraced like that I had to really step up as well,” she notes, “because I wasn’t never expecting it to go the way it did and become what it became… big and all of those things. So I had to step into that role of being able to speak up and being about to talk about it a lot and being able to promote what it is the song promotes.

“I did a lot of learning; being a white girl myself, I have to acknowledge my privilege and how lucky I was to be able to get that song out. My voice was heard because of my privilege. All of those sorts of things came into play, but I’m so grateful that people have listened to it and hopefully it helps some people, or helps educate them on it.”

Donnelly’s solo European tour has seen her perform throughout the UK, accompanied by her mother and manager, Stevens.

“The shows have been so much fun,” she says. “I’ve had the best time; I love travelling in the UK. There are some wicked little venues out here as well. I played in this old Mining Institute Library in Newcastle which was just ancient.  And I played in a little band room which was like a glorified barn in the Yorkshire moors, which was incredible as well. It all adds to the magic.” 

The tour included the stop in Wales, where Donnelly caught up with family and warmed herself in her Welsh heritage.

“I went to school in Wales and I speak as much Welsh as I can,” she notes. “My family is a very strong Welsh-speaking-family. I’ve got strong ties with Wales and it was so nice being there.

“I’m relearning the language at the moment. It’s really important to me to keep the language alive, only 21 per cent of the country speaks it. It’s really important to me to nourish that side of my heritage and getting to play there was really lovely.”

The stay in Cardiff had Donnelly pondering on social media if doing radio interviews would see the return of her childhood Welsh accent. The jury’s out on that one…

“What do you reckon?” she asks. “Because I think I’ve gone back to Australian now. I’m in Brighton and I’ve seen a bunch of Aussies… it clicks back over (laughs).

“It doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve been with my family the past four days trying to speak Welsh and living that life. It’s kind of strange, like I’ve got these two identities. It’s really nice.”

It’s been a grand tour, especially as Donnelly is undertaking it as solo artist (a live band line-up is being prepared for touring later in the year). The chance to have a family element has been both treasured and invaluable.

“Honestly, I’m so lucky to have that,” Donnelly says, warmly. “So lucky to be able to have a little break in there; catch up with my grandmother and go for walks, help around the house, just doing stuff like that.

“It feels good for it to just not be all about me all the time (laughs) because when you’re on tour sometimes, especially solo, it can get quite, ‘you’re going here next and you’re doing this next, blah-blah-blah’. It can get quite full on sometimes, so it’s nice to escape that.”

She does help out, though. Donnelly was something of a social media correspondent for manager Phil Stevens during a recent bike race. A keen cyclist, he managed to combine a tour-stop with a major race event, with Donnelly documenting his progress and the moment he crossed the finish line.

“That’s true!” she laughs. “He had a big bike race in Yorkshire. That was so, so funny that he managed to do that. He’s amazing. Then he went off to Paris and I took the car to Wales and I had to drive his bloody bike around, didn’t I?

“He’s had a pretty good run with me. I also had to take his stuff with me as he just took a backpack to Paris. I don’t know who’s tour-managing who at this point!”

Donnelly returns home to record an album in June-July before performing at Splendour In The Grass and setting off again to Europe then a tour supporting American singer/songwriter, Natalie Prass, across the US. Meanwhile, Boys Will Be Boys continues to win hearts and educate minds.

“It came from a very real place and it came from a very personal place and then for it to become bigger than me was really special,” Donnelly says of the award-winning song. “It did become so much bigger than me, and I think that’s amazing to watch, because I feel like I’m also someone that’s just watching it as well, sometimes, because I never expected it to do what it did. I’ve been lucky.”

Stella Donnelly performs at the free, all-ages State Of The Art festival on WA Day, June 4 at Elizabeth Quay. Details at www.celebratewa.com.au/sota

 

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