Listening to Stella Donnelly has always been something I’ve sought comfort in. Never failing to take up space, her songwriting encourages you to feel everything fully, and for lack of a better phrase, to call it like you see it; without shying away from the feelings that might otherwise make you hesitate.
On Beware of the Dogs, her debut full-length released in 2019, we familiarised ourselves with Stella’s sound as brash, sharp, and wide-eyed. On her latest record, Flood, the listening experience is almost her debut’s exact opposite – gentle, childlike, and adrift with vulnerability, all the while continuing to maintain what we know Stella so well for: feeling everything fully. If Beware of the Dogs is what it feels like to be jolted awake, Flood is what it feels like to stay afloat after a passing storm.
To dive deeper into this record’s headspace, we recently asked Stella to pick up a film camera and give us a glimpse into a weekend away with her – looking out for birds, whales, and taking some time to appreciate stillness. Looking over the photos from her trip, we talked all things Flood, from rare bird spotting, tidal systems, and what it feels like to be intimidated on stilts.
Slumber: This new album feels completely different to Beware of the Dogs; while the guitar lends itself to an almost playful side of songwriting, the piano seems to have encouraged more introspection, which we see so much of on Flood. How did these new instruments shape your songwriting process?
Stella Donnelly: On piano, I felt like I almost wasn’t allowed to lie, or – I haven’t done this before, but, what it must be like to go into church and do a confessional. I would try all of my old tricks with the piano, and it was as though the piano just went: Don’t bullshit me. Nice try.
Certain sounds of the piano would bring about more of an earnest honesty. Not that I haven’t been honest, but in general, the piano held more of an almost holy space, as such an honest instrument. So, I had to work harder to make it fit with my songwriting.
Slumber: I imagine a lot of these new songs were written throughout lockdown – some in the extended Melbourne lockdown, but also throughout lockdown in general, since you were between a few different places during that time?
Stella: “Flood”, “Morning Silence”, and “This Week” were written between New South Wales and Victorian lockdowns – the rest were written in Fremantle, Western Australia, in a weird reality where COVID didn’t exist in the same way. Lockdown gave me the break from music, allowing me to stop; while coming back here to WA allowed everything to flood out. The piano I wrote on was in this house in WA.
“I would try all of my old tricks with the piano, and it was as though the piano just went: Don’t bullshit me. Nice try.”
Slumber: I guess a lot of this album was written in a more solitary environment as a result of that. Did it feel like a shock to the system to bring these introspective songs into a more collaborative studio environment, after spending so much time with these songs alone?
Stella: It actually felt like they all came alive in that space. It was actually quite a relief. We were all really grateful to be making music again, and so it didn’t feel overwhelming. Working in a studio can be overwhelming in a sense, but it wasn’t any more overwhelming because I’d been in lockdown – if anything, it was far more enjoyable!
In a way, being in the studio feels like a lockdown; you get a bit cabin-feverish, looking at the same people, in the same four walls for quite a long time. So, really, we were well-versed.
Slumber: It sounds like it was almost nurturing, after spending all that time songwriting on your own?
Stella: That was the tone of the whole experience, really – because I was playing keys and it was new territory for me, it made me quite vulnerable. Because I was quite vulnerable on the keys, it kind of gave permission for everyone to be vulnerable on their instrument, or try a new instrument out themselves. The walls came down and everyone was making music for making music’s sake, I guess. All the roles got a bit blurred between band members; like, George played drums on “Restricted Account”, when he’s usually on guitar.
Everyone was just in it for the song. Whatever song we were working on, that’s what everyone was thinking about – it wasn’t about their instrument. Which is a testament to the amazing people I play with.
“Because I was quite vulnerable on the keys, it kind of gave permission for everyone to be vulnerable on their instrument, or try a new instrument out themselves. The walls came down and everyone was making music for making music’s sake.”
Slumber: I actually wanted to talk to you about vulnerability, because it feels like it’s shaped this album – some songs have a childlike vulnerability about them. Do you think that was influenced by the experience in the studio, of trying things out that you weren’t necessarily super confident in?
Stella: I think so. Often, I feel that by being a little more childlike, I give myself permission to be more to be scathing in my lyrics, or more bratty, or to just say what I want to say. I’m wondering now if it’s not even childlike, but maybe because I’m a child!
Music is one of the few things I can still do as an adult that’s play – music and sex, they’re the things that act as the last frontier, where adults can find playfulness and spontaneity. In that way, it does lend itself to playing characters, or going back to being a child. Which is what makes it so fun.
Slumber: Totally. The video for “Lungs” feels like it has the energy of a child. When I watched it for the first time, I felt like I was watching a video that a big kid had directed… in the best way possible.
Stella: Definitely! The intention was to celebrate the child. On the stilts, I wanted to look like a wobbly adult that was kind of trying to be cool, like I had my shit together, but I really didn’t.
The kids in the video were just super badass, to the point that you’re kind of scared of them. Even on the day, I was scared of them. They were really good dancers, and walked in like: “so… is there going to be, like, anything in the background? It’s just a white wall.” And I went “shit, you’re right…” They’re just so honest! I fucking love that. I hate that it gets pushed out of us as adults. It’s really liberating to be around the honesty of kids, and I wanted to represent that in the video. I also wanted to visually connect to the album cover, bringing the birds that are on the cover to life a little bit, in terms of movement.
“Music is one of the few things I can still do as an adult that’s play – music and sex, they’re the things that act as the last frontier, where adults can find playfulness and spontaneity.”
Slumber: Is that what drew you to the album cover you landed on – the movement of the birds, and the wobbliness of them?
Stella: I’ve never seen stilts in a confined space like that – I birdwatch a lot, and I’ve never seen them that crowded. I’ve watched them in feeding times with other birds and the movements are really, really interesting and random. It’s very otherworldly to watch. The photograph itself really captured this feeling, like, everyone’s stuck in this space trying to do the same thing. It gave me a really haunted sort of feeling, so I went with it.
Slumber: Now that you’ve pointed it out, I can really see the birds in the “Lungs” video – the long, toppled over legs, which would have made you feel even more intimidated by the kids on set, I imagine! Just because you’re taller doesn’t necessarily make you more confident, when you’re wobbling around on stilts.
Stella: I can tell you, I was not confident on those stilts. My housemate built them – they weren’t exactly industry-grade. It was 40°C on the day we filmed the video, so I was sliding around off the platforms. But it worked!
Slumber: Birdwatching is obviously a big interest of yours. Is it a recent hobby you’ve taken on, or have you always been into it?
Stella: I got into it before COVID, I was going hiking with a friend of mine who I live with now. He’s been birdwatching since he was around 10, or even earlier. We went for this walk and he learnt me his binoculars. He pointed out this bird to me and I just couldn’t believe it. I’d hiked a lot prior to that, along with camping and bushwalking, and I was so shocked that I’d never noticed what was happening around me up until that moment.
After that, I was hooked, and began to notice the birds around my house. We still had a tiny bit of tour to go before COVID hit, around Singapore and New Zealand, so I was starting to notice the birds around there. Once lockdown hit, my partner and I were on the East Coast of Australia, which is an area quite famous for its birds – so I think anyone that was there at the time would have been locked on to birds after that. That kind of spiralled me… I don’t know if I spiralled up or spiralled down! I just became obsessed. It was quite a meditative thing for me to go out and tune into the sounds birds were making.
Slumber: I noticed the binoculars came out in the film photos you took for us. Where did you take your camera for that trip?
Stella: I went down to a place called Aireys Inlet. We got an Airbnb and went for a walk along the coast and took the binoculars with us, for the birds but also for the whales that you can spot around there. But on that trip, I saw an Albatross – and I’d never seen an Albratross before! They’re quite rare to see, because they sleep on the wind, while they fly, and live mostly over the ocean.
Slumber: I loved that the photos you’ve sent us are by the water – obviously the album is called Flood, but aside from that, I noticed a lot of references to water, and listening to it almost feels like being submerged at times. If the album was a body of water that you could swim in, what do you think the water would be like?
Stella: Honestly, it would be like sitting at the same spot at the beach, for like eleven days in a row. I feel like each song has a different part to play in the tidal system, sort of. I use water so much to describe how I want something to sound or feel, when recording or writing. I think it would feel like a familiar place, but there would be stormy days, warm days, and stillness. As well as awkward currents that come through and displace you a little bit. The song “Flood” was definitely focused on the feeling of displacement; displacement in our own homes.
When I try to relax and calm down, if I’m ever experiencing bad turbulence on a plane or feeling panicked, I tend to go to a place where I’m diving under a soft wave, coming over me. That’s the feeling I reach for to relax. I’m probably trying to bring that into my music in some way, because music is comfort.
“When I try to relax and calm down... I tend to go to a place where I’m diving under a soft wave, coming over me. That’s the feeling I reach for to relax. I’m probably trying to bring that into my music in some way, because music is comfort.”
Slumber: I can absolutely see the tidal system interacting with each track on this album. Sometimes, it feels really gentle, while other parts feel more overwhelming, which you can experience in water as well – some songs might feel like dunking under that wave, while others feel like getting hit in the face before you manage to make it under.
Stella: “Cold” feels a bit like that for me, the last song on the record. I wanted it to feel like there were waves hitting a big wall, like there was a feeling of destruction in something beautiful.
I love going down south to Albany in Western Australia, where you can sit on the rocks and watch the southern ocean be so violent, with waves just crashing into the stone. I definitely wanted to create some storms in that space.
Slumber: For anyone that hasn’t listened to Flood yet, where do you think they should listen to it in full for the first time? Do you picture someone sitting on the beach, experiencing the whole tidal system? Or somewhere completely different?
Stella: I can’t help but relate it back to where I listen to music for the first time. With an album, I always do a first listen, and for the most part, I never enjoy it the first time. I almost have to absorb it first. For me, it’s the second listen that feels the most important. I remember listening to Aldous Harding’s new record at night, with headphones on, in the dark.
I imagine wherever you’re having your alone time – whether that’s in the kitchen, or sweeping the house. This record was written mostly in a home space, and when I was recording and writing it, that’s where I imagined it being listened to, in that stillness.
Listen to Stella Donnelly’s Flood, out now via Secretly Canadian: