Stella Donnelly is the up and coming indie sweetheart that all of us are desperately in need of. We got the chance to catch her Boston performance in March, one of the first stops of her world tour. At her show, the mellow tunes her blunt lyrics worked with were stripped back through explanations of exactly what her songs were addressing. In this style of song, explanation, and backstory working in tandem, it was clear that her music is meant to do a lot more than just sound pretty. As she told the crowd, she has only written one song directly about love (“Mosquito”); The others navigate topics from her friend’s sexual harassment to a boss that had undervalued her.
What makes Donnelly’s specific strain of musical activism effective is that her songs, while lyrically powerful, don’t overwhelm the listener. They are not all ballads meant to be screamed on angsty drives late at night. They are not anthems meant to be listened to when we most need to be hyped up. Rather, they are for all those middle moments. For me, at least, they’re the soundtrack to my every day: comfortable songs I can return to when most needed to remind me that all of the sensations I feel are normal. In this way, their messages become near subconscious. Without trouble I can easily remember the catchy chorus of Donnelly’s “Beware of the Dogs”: “There’s an architect setting fire to her house/All the plans were there, but they built it inside out/No one will endure what the sign told them they would/Beware of the dogs, beware of the dogs.” With that, I can also easily recall the song’s meaning as a warning to the public to beware those in power with bad intentions. Her songs hold a certain degree of stickiness, letting their moral calls cling to the listener as much as the melodies.
Donnelly herself is just as infectious as her songs. At the concert, she appeared in a funky, oversized sweatshirt, big gold earrings, and the exact haircut I want (dark brown hair, bangs, cut short). While being anything but a musical novice, she still let the audience relate to her by making jokes about her lack of “professionalism” as she stopped to retune her guitar. Additionally, she played songs with interludes of unrelated, but perfectly intertwined stories; she shared that the last time she played in Boston the Red Sox were in the finals and that no one had come to her show. Beyond talking openly about herself, she also openly engaged with the audience about topics such as beer and changed the lyrics of her song “U Owe Me” to fit the local beer preferences. Each of these small moments not only humanized her but made her feel more and more like a friend.
Donnelly is powerful in exactly that: she is a friend. She is irresistibly ready to listen to our collective struggles, empathize with them, and write songs to help us get through them. Rather than elevate herself over anyone, she brings herself to where her audience is, joking about local restaurants during her performances and singing about worldwide existentialisms on her tracks.
If you haven’t listened to Donnelly yet, take a walk and let her words float into you as you take a new look around you. While her words may remind you that there are some troublesome forces at work in this world, at the end of it all, they will fill you with an optimism and a readiness to take everything on anew; that’s how it was for me, leaving a packed venue a tad early to catch the train home. And I know that if you listen to her enough, that’s how it will be for you too.