Stella Donnelly: “I was able to take up space without having to apologise for it”

Stella Donnelly has returned with her new album 'Flood', a record with depth that lives up to its name.

Stella Donnelly has returned with her new album ‘Flood’, a record with depth that lives up to its name.

Words: Neive McCarthy. Photos: Em Marcovecchio.

“I’m taken out to sea in the flood,” sings Stella Donnelly on the titular track of her second album, ‘Flood’. At the mercy of the tides, plunged into the deep end, forced to go with the flow – it’s a fitting introduction to her latest album. In giving in to the powers of those unsearched waters, Stella found time to think, to breathe, to rediscover. Rather than treading water, Stella swam harder than ever. 

Displaced by multiple lockdowns, dispersed across Australia and with no idea when ‘normal life’ would resume, relaxing and relenting was crucial to ‘Flood’. Much was out of Stella’s hands, dragged into the unknown with little capacity to stop it. It provided an opportunity to slow down and engage with nature beyond that watery semantic field that echoes through the album. Crucially, Stella immersed herself in the rainforests of Bellingen, allowing herself the space and time to pause. “The infinite amount of time ahead of you…” she ponders. “That feeling, plus being in a place I’d never been before, a part of Australia I’d never experienced. Where I spent my childhood in Western Australia is a very dry place. It appealed to all of the senses and gave me a lot of time to get out into the bush, go birdwatching, and just slow down, which is not something I’d done in a long time.” 

Returning refreshed and more at ease, Stella found creativity in new places. “When I returned back to Perth, and then after that Melbourne, there was a lot more human stimulus. Stories being told between people and interactions and variety. I feel like that breeds creativity for me. It’s just being surrounded by people with different opinions and different thoughts.”

With a reminder to ease off the accelerator now and then and an armful of inspiration, it seemed the perfect time to turn to the album. In doing so, those newfound lessons seemed to resonate from life into work. “So much of it is out of your control when you’re creating something like that. You have to give up a little bit of the wheel and allow it to travel through its thing. Because there was so little else to concentrate on in that time, it really did allow me to stay completely focused and present in that process. With the first record, there was so much going on: we had to leave and play a big festival halfway through the recording, then I went to the UK and mixed it while travelling in America touring. It was very disrupted. This one was disrupted by COVID lockdowns. We had to close up the studio a bunch of times. But I could go home and be able to listen to the desk mixes. Being able to sit there and be constantly present with the record definitely helped.”

“The approach was a lot more hardworking in this case. I dug in a little bit more”

Stella Donnelly

In relinquishing that total control and perfectionism, Stella could truly immerse herself in the process and learn to trust her instincts. Things might not go according to plan, but in diverting away from your visions, there can often be something more exciting to discover. With over 40 tracks now in her arsenal, it was a challenge to narrow them down (one which was partly helped by the fact that – direct quote – “most of them were shit”). With a new perspective shift, Stella was ready for that challenge. “The approach was a lot more hardworking in this case. I dug in a little bit more. I didn’t just settle for the first take – it was very much like, let’s actually work on this and persevere. With the last record, I just didn’t have the time to do that. I’ve only done three works, but it’s always such a universe that you enter. You don’t know how you’re going to get out of it, but eventually, you do.” 

It’s easy to see why Stella perhaps got lost in the world of ‘Flood’ – it’s open and immersive and offers a deep well of comfort. It’s a universe a lot of people would love to take refuge in. On the opening track of the album, ‘Lungs’, she takes the perspective of a child, observing her family’s suffering at the hands of greedy “suits” – it’s a concept she returns to, tracking the album through a younger self’s eyes. An older sister, Stella admits she has that classic eldest child tendency of growing up too quickly – making ‘Flood’ ultimately allowed her to return to that childlike state of mind. Infinitely fruitful, it prompted an exploration of who she is and how things can stay the same. In entering this world, she learns to strip back to the core of who she is and reignite those ways of being. 

Interestingly, this return to her childhood extended to the musical process too. In an unexpected move, Stella and her bandmates chose to defer to instruments they usually wouldn’t – rather than picking up their usual drumsticks or plectrum, they instead turned to something they were less well-versed in. For Stella, that meant stretching her fingers and turning to the piano. 

“It was definitely a more innocent and exploratory experience,” Stella reflects. “There was no ego involved. It was very trial and error. And it was very fun. I think that was the main thing, that it felt more like child’s play. We just tried things. For me, being on piano was a whole new experience, so that paved the way for everyone to be a bit more vulnerable.”

It’s another layer of working through instinct and not being overanalytical every step of the way. In abandoning the pretension and expertise of instruments they’d played for years, they discovered sounds they may have otherwise never come to. In having that more innocent slant on their creation, they captured a much more unguarded, frank sound.

Much of the album revolves around those experimental piano progressions – ‘Move Me’ begins with an emotive sequence before it grows in size, weaving a story of an uber-specific character and experience. Those initial piano parts conjure up the vivid emotions the track stirs – Stella’s vocals wrap serpentine-like around the keys in such a way it would be nigh on impossible to untangle the two. “Piano is a really human-sounding instrument,” contemplates Stella. “It takes a lot of people back to their childhood – whether it’s that old piano that was sitting in their grandparents’ house or something like that. For me, that’s where I go when hearing a piano. The flugel horn, as well, is really round and a gentle sounding instrument. I always want to hear sounds that feel nice to my brain and soothing. That’s why a lot of the songs go back to that place for me. The last time I played piano was when I was quite young, so it was a very innocent and exciting prospect to be playing that. Just look at babies’ faces when they realise they’re making that sound from pushing those buttons – it’s so exciting!”

It’s an impulse so many of us feel – an itching to press the keys whenever we come across a piano, wherever it may be. Stella indulges that here. It lends ‘Flood’ a uniquely soothing quality, as if by satiating those needs and thoughts held by a younger version of herself, she endorses our own reconnection with that version of ourselves. ‘This Week’, with its stripped-back, percussive drive, seems to meditate on how we become better and begin to take care of ourselves in those small ways. It’s as though by having that inner child in mind, we are better able to act the grown-up. 

It’s far beyond a return to childhood, though. It’s fundamentally human. Forever the observer, Stella steeps ‘Flood’ in the qualities of those around her. The stories she’s overheard, the way someone acted, the thoughts they may have had. It encompasses each track – an exploit in exploration through and through. She dives deep into herself but also into a multitude of other people. The scale of feeling is unparalleled.

It achieves this through Stella’s deep intimacy with the album – beyond writing and creating these tracks, she also had a hand in the production sides of things, which she hadn’t had a chance to before. “I loved it,” she professes. “Working with Anna Laverty on the bulk of the record, and also with Jake Webb on ‘Cold’ and ‘Lungs’. Having the permission to speak my mind and have my ideas heard and put into practice. I feel like I was able to take up space that I needed to take up without having to apologise for it like I may have done in the past.” 

“It felt more like child’s play. We just tried things”

Stella Donnelly

‘Flood’ feels sliced from the core of who Stella is, and for Stella herself, it served as proof of her own capabilities, too. By putting so much of herself into this record, she could assure herself that this was the right path. “I felt I stepped up in terms of my work ethic and my creative pursuits. I feel a lot more confident in myself. It was just knowing that I could do it. After ‘Beware of the Dogs’, I wasn’t sure I could. I didn’t know if I had the skills or the desire to try and put something out there again. In a way, just the fact that I was able to write that many songs feels really rewarding and healing. Giving myself the space to do it is key, and turning up for it and keeping the muscles flexed. If you leave it for a long time, it’s really hard to go back and work it up again.” 

It feels like a very different album to what came before – those muscles have been flexed, but so have many new ones. It’s a full body stretch, an expulsion of relief and harboured thoughts – so, so many thoughts. It’s often hard to sort through them all; they whirl ceaselessly through the mind and throughout the album. There’s always something new to think about. On the album’s artwork, a huddle of banded stilts crush together, heads down. They’re claustrophobically close, much like the frequency of thought on ‘Flood’. Squint, and you can’t quite see where one ends and another begins, but up close, they revel in their individuality. Much of the experiences on ‘Flood’ are universal, but there’s still some pride that tells us when we feel those things, they’re uniquely our own. It’s a fine line, which Stella has captured in that image.

“We’re all flailing around doing the same thing and trying to make something work out of what we’ve been given,” Stella says. “That photograph is so evocative to me. When I first saw it, I wasn’t even sure what it was. Whether it was birds or not. It just felt like this overcrowded feeling – I wanted to evoke that overcrowded nature of life, and I felt like the title ‘Flood’ really worked with that. Those birds are also migratory, so they’re constantly travelling from the north to the south of the world. I find them really beautiful and symbolic of humanity. I can’t just tell one story over eleven songs. I get bored. It has to be a put-together thing with random things to keep it interesting.” 

A flood of different stories, a flood of emotions, a flood of newfound realisations and understanding. It’s all too easy to get caught up in that. The weight of Stella Donnelly’s second album is enormous – it overcomes you and forces you to feel the extent of every moment. It’s an intense experience, but one that will have you completely okay with being taken out to sea. ■

Taken from the September 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Stella Donnelly’s album ‘Flood’ is out now.

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