Stella Donnelly is really fucking good live and it's refreshing as hell. On a particularly dreary Tuesday evening, I had the chance to see the Welsh-Australian musician play at Barboza. The singer rose to fame with "Boys Will Be Boys," a track about victim-blaming and rape culture that came out right around the time the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke.
Donnelly relates that she didn't expect more than 10 people at her local pub to hear the song and was surprised by how fast it took off. "I wrote it around a time when conversations like that weren't happening around my hometown," she told the audience. Now, Donnelly is fresh off releasing her debut album Beware of the Dogs and nearly every track on it is great. They're even better live.
I came in during the opener Faye Webster's set, an Atlanta-based singer-songwriter who was up on stage with a light crew: just her and a dude on the steel guitar. I liked her kind of weirdo, folk-inspired music until she did that thing where she played a tongue-in-cheek cover of a rap song, "Cheap Thrills" by Father. It's like, I get it you're cool, that I'm supposed to find it hilarious that a white girl with a guitar is interpreting a song by a black rapper in a context where it's inappropriate and out of place, that she wants to stay relevant, etc. but folky covers of rap songs are almost never good and certainly aren't funny.
But where Webster was maybe a little less in command of the stage, Donnelly swooped on and took full control. She seemed completely at ease on the stage and remained ready to engage the crowd in an authentic way. She and her bandmates (she referred to them as her best friends) had created a little dance to "Die," which Connelly commented that she wrote because she wanted a song to jog to. Donnelly has not jogged since writing it. There was banter between the crowd and her regarding PBR before playing "U Owe Me," which she wrote before quitting a shitty job at a pub. It was lovely.
This came into stark contrast to a couple of acts that I've seen recently who are visibly and vocally stressed about audience engagement. Donnelly's approach to performance is collaborative and light-hearted—she was frequently laughing and joking around with everyone on stage and in the audience. But she's still very earnest and serious about her craft, giving trigger warnings before "Boys Will Be Boys," talking about her privilege as a white Australian, reminding us that no one is ever "asking for it." She's a different kind of force to be reckoned with—and listened to.