One of the primary purposes of this site is to expose you to new and rising artists from around the globe, which is why I feel just a little bit terrible for not bringing Stella Donnelly to your attention sooner. Donnelly’s debut EP Thrush Metal was released to critical acclaim in the spring of 2017 and even won the inaugural Levis Music Prize, which is awarded to emerging Australian artists poised for success on an international level. Recent winners have included Alex Lahey, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and Hatchie, all of whom have been featured in some capacity on this site in the past year. But for whatever reason, Donnelly has been a bit of a blind spot here on the site and to a degree in the U.S. Thankfully Secretly Canadian reissued Thrush Metal this past June for American audiences, and she’s now on tour with Natalie Prass that includes a stop at Lincoln Hall on Wednesday, September 19th. More details on that below.
You may be curious as to what Stella Donnelly is all about and why she’s been attracting attention. The short answer is her razor sharp lyrics and ability to craft a memorable hook. Take her EP opener “Mechanical Bull” as an example. From a purely instrumental perspective it’s a gentle, acoustic folk song, but her words tell an entirely different story as she rips into the sexist and overly aggressive guys who have harassed her over the years. “I’ll be your darling, tits, legs, honey, sweet pea,” she says, listing off some of the catcalls men have said to her. “But I’m a fucking arsehole if you ask me,” she immediately cuts back. Even more powerful is the memorable chorus of “I need to be alone / You’ve been at my throat,” where her vocal inflection goes from calm and measured at the start of the song to frustrated and angry by the end. Powerful stuff.
Equally powerful is “Boys Will Be Boys,” which addresses rape culture and how women are often blamed or feel guilty when they are sexually assaulted. “Why was she all alone, wearing her shirt that low? / They said ‘Boys will be boys,’ deaf to the word ‘no’,” Donnelly mourns in the chorus. There’s a personal side to this song as well, as she directly addresses a man responsible for raping one of her friends and vows to “never let you [him] rest.” That line may read like a threat, but the eerily restrained way she sings it, with all the gentleness of an acoustic lullaby, turns it into something truly terrifying.
The remainder of Thrush Metal focuses on the destructive power of toxic relationships, from the spread of negativity and carelessness (“Mean to Me”) to the confusion and stifled growth caused by a lack of communication (“Grey”) to the regret and heartache that results from two strong personalities trying and failing to make things work (“A Poem”). When they’re all put together it might seem sad and depressing on the surface, but the actual listening experience is rich, rewarding, and unforgettable. The dark subject matter is inventively paired with beautiful melodies and addictive hooks that draw you in, make you feel seen, then offer comfort and strength. These songs are worth your time and effort to seek out, and they’re what make Stella Donnelly a force of musical nature worth paying attention to.
So yeah, Donnelly is opening for Natalie Prass at Lincoln Hall, who has her own amazingly great music to play as well. Prass’s 2015 self-titled debut helped establish her as an immensely talented artist with a sound that balanced baroque pop and soul into songs that were as catchy as they were gorgeous. There’s an incredible sweetness and optimism that seeps through her voice as buoyant melodies swell up around it, even as she tackles tough topics about heartbreak and misunderstandings in relationships. Her new record The Future and the Past shifts things in a bit of a different direction, paring back some of the strings from her debut and focusing instead on funky grooves provided by the bass guitar and synth. You can dance to more of these songs, but they’re also a bit darker in their overall subject matter.
In some ways the record is a response to the Trump administration, though it’s more about the issues than the President himself. For example, “Sisters” is all about gender solidarity in the face of a wage gap, bad relationships, and generally being regarded by society as “less than” men. “Ain’t Nobody” goes to bat for reproductive rights, while “Ship Goes Down” addresses the shock of watching your country head down an unexpected and negative path. But there’s some fun stuff on the record too, like the super catchy love song “Short Court Style” and the hopeful “we’re in this together” vibes of “Hot for the Mountain”. Overall it’s been heartening to watch Prass grow as an artist and songwriter, and I can’t recommend her records enough. Wednesday night at Lincoln Hall promises to be something special, so come on out Chicago!
Natalie Prass / Stella Donnelly
Wednesday, September 19th
8PM / $15 (advance), $17 (doors) / 18+