Stella Donnelly - Flood (Secretly Canadian)

Stella Donnelly – Flood (Secretly Canadian)

Grace, stillness and self-awareness: underrated qualities in music, and in our attention deficit culture fueled by doom scrolling and hyperactive streaming platforms, they are scantly observed.

Stella Donnelly‘s songwriting aches with grace and swims in a self-awareness forged of the last few years, a pandemic that darkened our lives and separated us from the ones we love: our connections to the world. She spent that time contemplating her next move, exploring nature, the rainforests of Bellingen where she spent days bird spotting with her partner (see the banded stilts on the album cover).

Stripping away the artifice of being a musician, taking time to breathe and reassess. On her superlative second album Flood, Donnelly displays a voice of rare clarity that can crystallise her emotions investing her deft songs with previously uncharted depths: exploring her inner child, her place in the world and the boundaries of her and others’ relationships, capturing moments of brevity in songs that reveal themselves over multiples plays. In the process, with Welsh heritage and based in Perth, Donnelly offers a gentle arm on the shoulder a guiding light out of the dark, in a time of uncertainty and fear.

As well as being sophisticated and layered, Flood is also a vulnerable and empathetic record. More subdued but no less powerful, there are less instant hooks than her debut, but it’s actually better for it. The arrangements have a subtle openness that stretches out like a warm embrace; this is a tapestry, produced by a new perspective of experimentation and thoughtfulness forged with her band, Donnelly has mentioned Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief and Broadcast in interviews and you can trace those influences in the sparse elegance of these musical suites: each of her band playing new roles and learnt new instruments, with piano and organ playing a more prominent role.

“It freshened things up for sure”, Donnelly says, and writing with band members Jennifer Aslett, George Foster, Jack Gaby and Marcel Tussie, felt like playful rediscovery with co-producers Anna Laverty and Methyl Ethyl’s Jake Webb helping to foster a spontaneity in the studio. “They all brought themselves to the record in such a beautiful way. A lot of us were playing instruments that weren’t our first instrument: me on piano, Jack doing all these synth sounds, George trying a bunch of stuff out, Marcel singing! It was quite vulnerable for all of us.”

On the supple lead single and opener ‘Lungs‘ she writes from the point of view of a child whose family has just been evicted. Marrying twitchy percussion with intricate instrumentation and a myriad of insightful couplets given life by multifaceted wistful harmonies, so we hear her plead, “History again teach me like a friend what you know and why,” and this curiosity extends into many of the songs exploring the dynamics of relationships. It sounds like a cry for help, but also a hanging onto hope at an unsettling time, universal themes.

Donnelly not only possesses a beautiful voice but also a glint in her eye as she delivers each line. She has a withering wit and a blunt turn of phrase, that she flashes amidst a melody to surprise the listener like a hyena showing its teeth; poetic and striking couplets that can cut you to the quick, distilling the essence of a song in a few killer lines.

“White knuckled mum in the passenger seat/the home invaded trying to sleep” she quips on the sublime ‘How Was Your Day?”, it is a skilful, tuneful song laden with pathos, balancing like a sea-saw; with skippy percussion, glistening guitars and bright melodies in the choruses with Stella’s deadpan spoken delivery in the verses, her vocals are dipped in sardonic irony as she examines the every day conversation of partners who struggle to open up to each other, its also a nod back to her superb 2019 debut album, Beware of the Dogs.

On ‘Underwater‘, Donnelly sings tenderly but also with the kind of brutal rawness she delivered on the sublime ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, it also provides a mirror of that songs theme of abuse. “They say it takes a person seven tries to leave it/I can remember at least five” she sings, inspired by the shocking stats that it takes seven times for a victim to leave a violent partner for good. Donnelly sings tenderly and empathetically with her eyes closed, with this duality as she inhabits the pain of the voiceless the victims of domestic abuse, it’s absolutely devastating, swelling with an almost unbearable vulnerability, that has elements of the work of Cat Power. “I’d visited these refuge centres and learned a lot about the process, the signs and the circle of violence,” She told Line of Best Fit of the inspirationAt that time I looked back at some relationships I’d been in and reflected on parts of those relationships which I began to look at differently. That made it really cathartic to get that song out. It’s a real fuck you from me.”

The title track gently sprouts forth on a bed of scattered piano notes and clipped percussion, Donnelly’s tone now resigned and plaintive and hoisted aloft by Marcel Tussie’s supportive backings: “I’m a drop stitch on a new scar/hold on hold”, she throws out majestically, confessionally and yet somehow life-affirming. She swims against the tide of the flood of trauma that spouted forth around her as lockdown took hold. Typical of Donnelly this harmonic gem is sympathetic and comforting despite the despairing themes. Donnelly says: “This song feels like a sad little adventure. I wrote it in the dark depths of a Melbourne winter lockdown where it had been raining for consecutive weeks. Everyone around me was falling into their own version of depression at different times. It felt like a flood of trauma yet at the same time, we were allowed of time to work through stuff that we’d been distracting ourselves with for so long before the pandemic.” 

The hushed daubing organs and piano note sprinkles of “Oh My My My”, are invested with the heart tugging memories and grief of the passing of her grandmother, whose parting casts a long shadow, this is painfully poignant and haunting. “danced out the door /oh my my, my part of me died” she sings solemnly. It’s a solemn richly drawn piece ripe with personal loss.

“The organ-sounding synth on there had a certain reverence about it, and it was a lovely enough sounding thing that it let me be able to articulate the grief of losing Nan” , Donnelly told a line of best fit “She was the youngest 80-year-old you’d ever meet, just such a youthful person, so it was a real moment of sensitivity from me that I was happy to get out on a song.”

The mournful brass, finger plucked acoustics and entwined harmonies of ‘Morning Silence’ echo elements of early Simon and Garfunkel, these intimate note carry slow-motion brevity of vulnerability, detailing those tiny moments of being that haunt and bond us.

Cold‘ is a final deft sign-off, and one of the best songs I’ve heard this year, juxtaposing dry side-eye with a chorus that releases Donnelly’s glorious vocals brimming with radiance and love. This wonderfully arranged song, replete with pianos, organs and forgiving percussion envelopes you and takes flight, with its wonderful tenderness. The closing communal outro of “you are not big enough for my love” is both life-affirming and full of a steadfastness that refuses to be messed around.

If ‘Beware of the Dogs‘ depicted a songwriter of formidable personality with an ability to write bittersweet guitar pop songs laden with wit, rare energy and poignant issues. Flood depicts one who is fast maturing, allowing her songs to come naturally, taking her work to uncharted new territories, peeling away to reveal the essence.

What’s left is her grace. A profound and rare ability to invest songs with a heart, to process moments of intense trauma of her own and others, to inhabit personas with wit and charm and compassion, that reveal a complex interplay of human relations. Most of all to produce with her band, wonderfully drawn songs that whilst still possessed of a melodic knack, aren’t weighed down with production tricks. These are living breathing moments you want to return to over and over again. I agreed with a friend recently when we discussed Self Esteem, that the music that lasts, that actually connects in this era where there is a deluge of choice and music has become devalued, has something to say, has a personality and heart and Flood is overflowing with both. It’s simply a gorgeous record, drink in every moment, it’s positively a revelation. Astounding.

Stella Donnelly – Flood (Secretly Canadian)

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.