Anybody who’s had a dog can tell you, they’re a lot of work. They take up your time and energy and demand all your attention. In Stella Donnelly’s Beware of the Dogs, she takes care of all the dogs that follow her with grace and style, without even breaking a sweat. The Australian singer–songwriter is known for her abrasive lyrics and airy, effervescent voice. Her 2017 EP, Thrush Metal, was centered around her words and her guitar. However, on Beware of the Dogs, she brings in a full band to expand her sound, but never loses sight of her message.
On the opening track, “Old Man,” Donnelly digs right in. “Your personality traits don't count/If you put your dick in someone's face,” she sings in the second verse, directly addressing an assaulter, but framing it in the second–person point of view. Meanwhile, the music digresses from the mood set by her lyrics, a slinky electric guitar across the song and a cool groove underneath while Donnelly delivers threats. Her ability to pair serious topics with a catchy hook only highlights her message, and when she says, “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” it’s haunting, but one can’t help but to sing along.
The entirety of Beware of the Dogs is filled with these moments, like on the track, “Tricks,” when she sings, “You only like me when I do my tricks for you/ You wear me out like you wear that Southern Cross tattoo” calling out the white nationalist movement in Australia, which has co-opted the Southern Cross as a symbol of prejudice and xenophobia. Donnelly said of the song in a press release, “This song is a playful zoom-in on the ‘Australian Identity’ and a loose dig at the morons that used to yell shit at me when I played cover gigs on Sunday afternoons. It probably served me right for singing ‘Wonderwall’ every weekend.”
The 26–year–old Fremantle, Western Australia–based musician cut her teeth in cover bands, and playing in Perth’s Bells Rapids, all the while absorbing the Australian music scene and jamming with her dad, who is himself a musician and a music teacher, she explained on World Cafe. She started writing music on her own, and first gained wider recognition after her song, “Boys Will Be Boys,” went viral. The song, similar to “Old Man,” directly addresses an assaulter, and expresses her frustration at victim–blaming. She sings, “Why was she all alone/ Wearing her shirt that low?/ They said, ‘Boys will be boys’/ Deaf to the word no.”
She said of the song in an interview with Fact Mag, “I wrote the song back in 2016, when these conversations were far less frequent. I felt that I had a lot of anger and didn’t know where to put it. The alternative is driving to someone’s house and throwing eggs, but that’s not legal.” Clearly, Donnelly is not one to shy away from anything. In her song “Mosquito,” she sings, “I use my vibrator/ Wishing it was you/ I was thinking of ya/ Tuesday afternoon” in a sweet, soft tone expressing unrequited love. Her lyrics are entirely up–front, and she rarely holds back from saying what’s on her mind.
Although just as lyrically adept as she was on Thrush Metal, her sound has evolved considerably. Her electric guitar is sharp and jangly at times, at others rounded and soft–spoken. On songs “Bistro,” “Die,” and “Watching Telly,” Donnelly throws out her guitar for a synth and drum pad, with woozy, slightly psychedelic loops that break up the album. With the addition of fingerpicked solo songs like “Boys Will Be Boys” and “U Owe Me,” the album is filled with enough variety to maintain a steady listening.
Between all her musical skill and her raw, unadulterated lyrics, Stella Donnelly is one of the best artists to come out of Australia in the past few years, joining greats like Camp Cope and Courtney Barnett—with just as much no–bullshit attitude. Her music bears relistening, not because it’s easy to listen to, but because at times, it’s hard. When she sings, “Have a chat to your friends, 'cause it’s our words that will keep our daughters safe,” she’s looking to the listener to take action, even in small ways like starting discussions around these topics. Although much of her music is filled with whimsy and flair, it’s important not to let that get in the way of her message. The dogs, too, have something to beware of.
Stella Donnelly will be playing at Johnny Brenda's this Saturday, Mar. 16.