Interview: Stella Donnelly on 'Beware of the Dogs'

In March, Australian singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly released her debut album, Beware of the Dogs. It’s a record that’s smart, empathetic and uncompromisingly funny. The first single “Old Man,” for example, contains the equally damning and laugh-out-loud lyric, “Your personality traits don’t count if you put your dick in someone’s face.” And on “Tricks,” she sings, “You only like me when I do my tricks for you / You wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo”—a symbol of nationalism in Australia. It’s evident even in those two examples that Stella’s songwriting is motivated by social issues, and her introduction to the public eye was 2018’s “Boys Will Be Boys,” a quietly powerful song about rape culture. The songs on Beware of the Dogs address a range of issues, from environmental destruction caused by the government, to a woman’s right to choose, as well as songs about family reunions and allergies. Beware of the Dogs feels complete, full of critical observations from someone who has a lot to say. We got a chance to chat while she was on tour in the U.S. somewhere between Detroit and Columbus, fresh off of playing a sold out show at Rough Trade here in New York.

Her Campus: Congrats on the release of the record! My introduction to your work was the song “Old Man.” I was wondering how that one came together because it tricks you a little, it sounds like a light, happy song but then you get those gut punches of lyrics in there.

Stella Donnelly: Thank you! I wanted to create almost a celebratory mood to it in a way. It's like when I repeat those lyrics at the end of the song ("Oh, are you scared of me, old man?/ Or are you scared of what I'll do? / You grabbed me with an open hand / The world is grabbin' back at you"), as sad and serious as it is, it’s not celebratory, but [representative of] a strength that is coming from women that I've been seeing happen over the last few years. I've just seen so much strength and unity among women.

HC: Barnard is a women’s college, so I’ve of course been seeing it too, and I’m happy to hear it reflected in the songs I’m listening to. Before “Old Man” was your first single “Boys Will Be Boys,” which discusses similar topics but with a much more serious tone. You got a big reaction to it, both positive and negative. What was it like to continue writing songs after starting there?

Stella: I think 90 percent of the people who were hitting me up about the song were absolutely supportive and grateful, and then there was this 10 percent of trolls and people who did not want to even begin to look at these issues with that element of compassion. Sometimes the negative side, even though it’s only 10 percent, can feel like 50 percent, because you always remember the insults you’re given and never the compliments [laughs]. But I’ve been able to process it now and realize that it’s only a tiny number that really hated it and found it really kind of confronting, and that’s what I expected when I wrote the song. I never expected many people to hear it, but I always expected out of all of the people that heard it, I wouldn't be met with just compliments. And I guess that’s why we write music and why we speak up because we know it’s going to be met with some resistance. Writing after that was pretty challenging, I found that I had this moment of like, do I want to continue writing music? If it's something I want to do, am I going to be able to write a song again?—all that pressure. But then I just took some time out, went back to my hometown, and I realized that I still had things to tap into about myself or about what I see in the world.

HC: You mentioned the pressure you were feeling. Did you feel any pressure to keep being “political”? I don’t see the issues you spoke about in the song as “political,” but that was the conversation surrounding it.

Stella: To people who have never experienced these issues firsthand it’s very easy to call them political, I completely get what you’re saying. I find it funny because it’s mainly just like old white men that have called me political [laughs], because to them it’s difficult to comprehend. Yeah, I definitely felt a little bit of pressure, but I put it aside. It’s part of me to speak out about issues. It's always been part of me as a person, music aside. I’ve always been outspoken, I’ve always been that way so it’s only inevitable for that to come out in the music. So there was pressure but I didn’t let it get to me.

HC: I also feel that inherent need to speak out, I feel like that’s part of me too, so I really appreciate you putting it in your music. But when I started to do these interviews I was wondering how much I wanted to ask about current events and “political” topics, because I feel like so many women are asked about these things just because they’re women.

Stella: Aw, thank you very much. Yeah I can completely understand the dilemma there because a lot of women purely get asked "what it means to be a woman in music" which is so crazy! [Laughs] But I appreciate that, and that stuff is what I write about so it’s completely okay for you to ask me about it.

HC: As a joke I’ve been calling this series Woman In Music™️ because of that question.

Stella: [Laughs] I love it.

HC: On a different note, you’re from Australia, and your music feels very grounded in its culture. Do you feel like, when you’re touring in America, that your lyrics apply to us?

Stella: That was a fear that I had coming over, thinking no one’s gonna know what I’m talking about! And then I spent a month touring the U.S. with Natalie Prass and people would come up to me and say, I can totally relate to this. Like for example, “Beware of the Dogs”—people can relate to the idea of the white privilege that exists in Australia, but also [in the U.S.] in terms of the treatment of First Nations people and not treating the land as it was made to be treated, and the effect that that then has on the environment too. People were able to find a link between that and their experiences in [the U.S.] So I was really glad for that. And you know, I've always liked the idea of listening to someone’s music and not knowing what that lyric means and then googling it and then finding out Oh, that’s what Phoebe Bridgers or Lucy Dacus was talking about! I like the idea of looking into someone’s lyrics, and that seems to be the case here. It allows us to look into other cultures and other countries.

HC: I definitely did that for some of your songs! You mentioned Phoebe and Lucy; who else are you listening to right now?

Stella: I’m listening to Julia Jacklin’s record non-stop, it’s such a great record.

HC: Julia directed the video for “Tricks”—how did that come together?

Stella: I contacted Nick [Mckk] who does with Julia's video clips, and Julia is very heavily involved in visions for her own videos. … When I contacted Nick, because he's also done videos for a bunch of my friends, he messaged me and was like, Julia’s actually keen to do some co-directing and co-producing, and she has a vision for this video, do you want to make it with both of us? And I was like, [screams] yes, oh my god, yes! It was like the best time, we had the best time. She's such an incredible artist, and I look to her for how she conducts herself, she’s very strong and she knows how to say no, and I really respect that. I’m very grateful for Julia Jacklin.

HC: Something I love that about that album is that it feels really uncompromising not only in how funny or outspoken it is but overall it seems like nothing was held back. Was that your experience making it?

Stella: Yeah absolutely. That was where I was at in my life when I recorded it. There was no mask on.

HC: So then what was the process of making this record like? How did it come together?

Stella: I’ve got no idea. [laughs] I pulled it out of my ass! I went into the album without enough songs for an album; I went in going holy fuck, I’ve told everyone that I’m ready, but I’m not ready, and this whole thing is going to explode when they find out I’m not ready!

HC: That’s my entire college experience!

Stella: Yeah, it’s like fluffing for an exam; I have no idea what I’m saying right now. But thankfully my brain came to the party and I, whilst recording songs that I had written like “Old Man” and “You Owe Me” and “Season’s Greetings," would stay after everyone went home at the end of the day and write a song, and then another song, and another song. I had a lot of stuff happening in my life at that moment as well, I was home for the first time in ages, I went through a breakup, and it felt like everything was happening right in that moment—so I had a lot of stimulus [laughs] and a lot of stuff to write about. That’s how it happened for me, people all have different ways for writing an album but for me, it was like the shit was hitting the fan, so I write songs!