Stella Donnelly looks and sounds remarkably sprightly for someone who’s only had an hour’s sleep. The rising indie-rocker has hopped over from playing a show in Dublin to Cardigan, to play the Other Voices festival’s cross-cultural exchange in Wales, when we speak.
She might be based in Australia, where she mostly grew up and is now part of a thriving music scene, but in many ways, she’s returning home, having been born to a Welsh mother and spent some childhood years in the Swansea County region of Morriston.
“It’s really, really special to be back,” she tells me, in the cosy confines of a pub, the kind where a fire typically crackles in the background, albeit not when we speak.
“As soon as we landed in Wales, I really felt a deep sense of relief and excitement. It really felt like a home feeling: comforting and energising… I grew up speaking Welsh–”
Do you still speak Welsh now?
“Ychydig bach, a little bit; but that’s really important to me, and I have a real yearning to come back here and dig into the language. It’s really hard to keep it up in Australia.
“Getting opportunities like this [at Other Voices Cardigan] and getting to be around Welsh peers and Welsh people is really important to me, and my family is still here. It’s something I’m really proud of. My sister is the same. It’s very much part of who we are because when you’re young, it’s a very formative time of your life.”
Drawing out such formative episodes of her life, in a notably precise manner, has been part and parcel of Stella’s musical output. Her 2019 debut, Beware of the Dogs, was praised for its delicate, emotive lyricism that tread the fine line of being both relatable and largely void of cliché. The record was handed the Independent Album of the Year prize at the 2020 Australian Independent Record awards as a result.
Her follow-up, Flood, came in August this year via Secretly Canadian, and continues the clearcut imagery concocted by her debut, but often with a sparser, subtler approach, underpinned by delicate piano. Opener ‘Lungs’ manages to discuss “the asbestos on the rental”, for instance, whilst hushed love song ‘Restricted Account’ feels like the track you’d play at two in the morning to soothe an achy heart.
Lullaby-like ‘Underwater’, meanwhile, speaks to both Stella of the past and of the present, with a similar theme to her searingly honest 2017 single ‘Boys Will Be Boys’. Opening line “They say it takes a person seven tries to leave it / I can remember at least five” bears the song’s main message, referring to the average number of times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship.
Its subject matter reflects the ambassadorial role Stella had with the Patricia Giles Centre for Non-Violence, a charity which helps families escaping from domestic violence. Having the centre five minutes away from where Stella grew up was “pretty heart-wrenching to know that that was happening in my area,” the singer says.
“I think it’s really important to keep shining a light on those issues… domestic violence is a really huge issue in Australia, and then pair that with the housing crisis. It’s really tough, so that’s definitely something I want to advocate for and talk about – the signs and what the circle of violence could be.”
The song’s water imagery also of course reflects the record’s title, Flood, which Stella says expresses “a deluge of many things”; including a writing process where “the songs came out in a bit of a flood”, after Stella hadn’t written in a while, and was “in a bit of a blocked state”.
“It was also just about the flood of information; I felt we were all in a flood at the time [of writing the album], with COVID. Everyone was kind of drowning in their shit.”
Just like everyone who learnt to grapple with the humdrum of lockdown – which was one of the strictest in the world in Australia – Stella picked up a hobby, whilst staying with her partner in the New South Wales town of Bellingen. Take a look at the Flood album cover and you’d struggle not to work out what she embraced: birdwatching.
“It was all I did pretty much for three months,” she jokes. “It’s beautiful. Australia’s obviously got some extremely unique bird species. The UK also has some gorgeous birds,” she adds, as though I’d be somehow offended by the UK’s lack of fine-feathered birds.
It’s an understandable pastime to pursue during a rather turbulent period and has provided Stella moments of solace needed for an artist’s busy creative mind. “I do think that just slowing down, taking stock, listening to the sounds around, waiting to see something and just being a lot more patient with myself, has allowed me to be a bit more confident and not care so much about what others are feeling.”
And whilst part of the joy of birdwatching is because it gets you outside, the birds on Stella’s album cover were actually spotted in the digital marshland of Instagram.
“I was scrolling and this photographer I follow [@moth_nut] posted that photo. Initially, I thought it was a QR code or something. Then I realised what it was, and it felt so cramped, and iconic. I thought it would make such a great record cover; I would want to pick that record up in a shop – maybe that’s just because I like birds.”
Those seemingly endless lockdown hours also granted Stella the chance to pick up – or pick up once more – a musical endeavour that goes some way to explaining the composition of her latest record.
“I had more time to play piano, and that fed into the writing and how I produced it. [That period] definitely gave me more time to make mistakes; it felt like when you’re a young teenager, and you’re not allowed out of the house.”
The result, Stella says, “definitely brought back a certain innocence” to her playing. “It definitely brings up a different way of writing and a more vulnerable way of writing.”
What’s more, it adds a new element to her live performances. “Even just the physicality of playing a guitar – when you’ve got someone in the crowd watching you – there’s the guitar between you and them, and you’re hiding behind it. With the piano, I feel it’s a lot harder to lie. And it’s a lot harder to fake it.”
Yet whilst the emphasis on the piano in Flood adds a sweeping, emotional resonance, once the main bulk of the album was finished – albeit cut down from a bank of around 40 songs – Stella felt the need to bring the album out of a slower gear.
“I felt like the record was stuck in lockdown pace, and I hadn’t looked forward, and I hadn’t imagined playing the songs on stage, in a live setting. I needed something that leant forward.” The result are the two tracks that bookend the album – opener ‘Lungs’ and rousing finisher ‘Cold’ – designed to “send it a bit more”.
Later that evening, after Stella and I speak, those lucky enough to get a church ticket at Other Voices Cardigan were able to see a beautiful blend of the two, as Stella and her band weaved between the soft and the more up-tempo.
Such tickets are a rarity for the church. But for those wishing to see it themselves, fear not. A special programme dedicated to Other Voices Cardigan will be shown on S4C and BBC Sounds tonight, 9 December, at 9pm with interviews and unseen footage.