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Review: Stella Donnelly @ Thekla

Stella Donnelly drew us into her world of intimate human empathy guided by true indie rock ambition.

By Jake Paterson, Co-Deputy Music Editor

With an infectious Australian charm, Stella Donnelly’s heart lies in true human empathy. Every song feels anecdotal and distinctly individual such that, despite the dreamy precision of the indie rock she produces, we never feel far away from something captivating and deeply emotive – whilst always being around the corner to another profanity.

Having watched her stripped back live version of ‘Die’ for the Green Man festival in 2019, her songs have been circling around my head whenever I’m in need of a chance to escape. Her aura attracts an undeniable charm that disperses out into the crowd as one smile in unison. It’s just darn fun to watch and participate in.

Walking out on stage to perform her first two songs solo, we’re caught almost by surprise with her sudden appearance. Walking into ‘U Owe Me’ off of her fantastic record Beware of the Dogs, she demonstrated both her vocal range and songwriting ability without hesitation. This led into ‘Beware of the Dogs’, after which she said that after performing much of the song with her eyes closed, she opened them to a load of purple lights on the crowd which she said looked like eyes of monsters in a nightmare. Such was her imagination and light to transform everything into something wonderful and unique.

Stella Donnelly / Jake Paterson

Suggesting that the tracks off of her new record are like pants, in that new ones are tight and slightly uncomfortable to navigate in compared to the old reliable ones put on day after day without second thought, we were treated to the piano led ‘Flood’ and ‘Lungs’ from her new record. “Hit us with that Norah Jones sh**!” Donnelly said for her keyboard player, whilst detailing some of her most intimate songwriting yet, and then returning to the profane in suggesting that she hadn’t flooded this set of pants just yet.

Every song existed as an experience in itself, each grounded in a story with people connected to it. Playing ‘Seasons Greetings’ on the harmonica having just put on lipstick, telling us about her failed acting classes, failed attempts at getting a perm and a story about her Welsh grandma and her discovery of the existence of vibrators, they all contributed to a rounded sense of her performance – that whilst the music itself was captivating, our attention was kept entirely on her, our interest not in what song she was going to play next, but exactly how she was going to play it, and what stories would emerge from it.

Taking a break halfway through to take three crowd requests, we were treated to ‘Talking’ from her 2017 EP Thrush Metal and then ‘Mosquito’ and ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, both capturing rape culture and toxic relationships. “You father told you that you’re innocent / told ya women rape themselves / would you blame your little sister / If she cried to you for help?” she sings on the latter – casting a tight blow onto us and creating a sense that where once the purpose was joyful storytelling, action and change are never far behind.

Stella Donnelly / Jake Paterson

This theme continued on ‘Old Man’, her glittering summer anthem about men taking advantage of women expecting no consequences in return. “The world is grabbing back at you” she sings, that this time is beyond any sense of that being a normal thing.

In the silences between tuning afterwards we returned to a more joyful world. The crowd asking questions like “what’s your favourite colour?” and “what do you think of the Marmite up here?” were met with giggles throughout the band and audience. “The Marmite? Get f***ed” she replied.

After telling us that Big Jeff (the local legend who was hospitalised this year after severe burns) had come down to soundcheck straight from hospital, which was met with some of the loudest cheers of the night, we were set into the final run of tracks: the indie-rock infused ‘How Was Your Day?’ and the optimistic pessimist of a song, ‘Die’. The latter was accompanied with a full dance routine which the audience joined in in full strength. It was joyful and precious, and I can imagine will be the only time I pretend to dance as a crab at a gig.

Stella Donnelly / Jake Paterson

Closing with the indie rock anthem ‘Tricks’, Thekla was singing loud in unison, and everyone left with a smile on their face and plenty of stories to remember and retell. God bless Stella Donnelly.

Featured Image: Jake Paterson

Have you seen Stella Donnelly live?