Interview: Stella Donnelly Needs To Be Alone!

Illustration by Leyli Ghavami

When Stella Donnelly said “Hello,” to me on the phone, I sighed. I thought that I had reached an answering machine. But no, it turns out that Stella’s just got a really nice speaking voice. Her words carry clarity and cheer that most of us reserve for customer service jobs and reciting poetry. When she asks me what kind of dog I have, she sounds like she is over the moon that I have a dog at all, and that she’d like nothing more than to know what breed I have. When she wishes me a happy holidays, she says it in the same way I’d imagine a talking Christmas card might. So, of course, this interview was not only intellectually stimulating, but it also acted as something of an ASMR session for me.
Obviously, that voice extends itself beyond soothing conversation skills. Her debut EP, Thrush Metal, released in April, showcases her undeniable talent as not only a singer, but a songwriter and poet, too.
Boys Will Be Boys, a cut from the project that generated buzz and discussion from such outlets as Pitchfork, NPR, and Huffington Post, addresses the habit of society to defend rapists and villify their victims.

“I wrote that song about a friend of mine,” she tells me, “and it’s really about how people would rather question the abused rather than their abusers. You know, you’ll hear things like ‘Why was she even out, why did she drink so much, she just wants attention.’ I think it’s very harmful, not only because it discourages honesty, but also because it’s so unfair for men and boys to be held to no standard at all. I have a younger brother, and it would be so damaging if we treated him like he was incapable of self-control, you know. Give men credit, because when you say “boys will be boys,” you’re really saying “boys will be awful and it’s not their fault.”

Give men credit, because when you say ‘boys will be boys,’ you’re really saying ‘boys will be awful and it’s not their fault.’

We discuss the dehumanization of women in literature, and I hear her audibly groan when I mention Charles Bukowski. “It was so conflicting to read Bukowski,” she says, “because the poetry was so good, but he treated women so poorly.” She confesses a secret: “When I read Bukowski, I used to pretend he was a woman while I was reading.” She laughs.
Well, Bukowski should listen to Stella’s EP, Thrush Metal, if he thinks women are incapable of being more than a pair of legs. My personal favorite track, Mechanical Bull, is an outburst of anger from Donnelly. “I need to be alone!” she shouts over acoustic guitar. “At the time when I wrote [Mechanical Bull], I had been working in a bar, and you know, it’s fun, but you get a lot of the wrong kind of attention from men working at a bar, and I guess it was just one comment too many.”

Stella went to music school from age 18-19, but dropped out of her own volition. “With music school, there are these 3 or 4 years that you need to set aside for not being yourself creatively; you’re really just going to be a piece of clay, and coming out of it, it took a while before I felt like myself, and not like every other student at the Academy.”
On the recording of Thrush Metal, Stella calls it a “beautiful, organic process”. The recording was done in a friend’s lounge. “I tried a studio before, but it was too…contrived…sterile, really. It was so tense.” That DIY ethic shines through musically too: Stella says the EP was heavily punk-inspired. “There was this one band in the 90s, called Catatonia, and the frontwoman was very angry, but she was also really sweet, so I tried to channel that. I’d also been listening to a lot of Angel Olsen and Broadcast, too, which I guess doesn’t sound much like the EP, but maybe sometime soon I’ll make something that does.”
When we talk about her non-musical influences, we circle straight back to books, especially work that’s been historically considered to be ‘feminist literature’. “A big part of what allowed me to become myself was reading, especially reading books by women, like all of Patti Smith’s books, which is important because women in the media are oftentimes supporting roles or not emotionally complex.” Her voice lights up when I respond that women are either written as “perfect or perfectly awful”. “Yes! And in Patti Smith’s books, women got to be more than just pretty faces!”
By the end of the interview, Stella has somehow flipped the interview onto me. “Where are you?” she asks. When I tell her I’m at home alone with my dog, she sounds thrilled. “That sounds lovely! What kind of dog do you have?” We riff off of each other regarding our dogs (hers pees in her room exclusively), the snow (I inform her how terrible it is), and we wish each other both a happy holidays. When the call ends, I am left with a grin on my face. If you know me, you know that I do everything I can to avoid talking about “vibes” of any kind, but Stella Donnelly is nothing if not an opinionated, talented, joyous bundle of good vibes with some mad guitar skills thrown in there.

This interview is taken from the upcoming issue of Criss Cross.

Thrush Metal is Available on Spotify and Bandcamp.

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