I can’t remember the last time I went to a gig where there was such an equal chance of crying with laughter or melancholy. Or even the last time I went to a gig where dad-like dance moves were encouraged. Or the last time someone endorsed Cyndi Lauper as still relevant (okay I lie, she always is). But as Stella Donnelly and her band awkwardly danced the crab, side-to-side across the stage of Scala, I couldn’t help but confirm that she is one of the most refreshing artists of the last few years.
Opening with restful ditty’s ‘Grey’ and ‘U Owe Me’ (a song about her old pub boss and terrible tasting VB), Stella opens on her own and brings the crowd to a tentative silence. Her gently conversational singing and drollery evokes a praised likening to other indie-rock real-talkers from Belle & Sebastian to Courtney Barnett and Free Cake For Every Creature. But her triumphant, and yet underrated, debut album ‘Beware of the Dogs’ is almost expertly executed. And so is the lead track on its own terms, leading up to a crescendo as she maps the anxieties of a 20-something year old.
‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is the only moment Stella’s voice quivers under a slight rasp, as she references the recent #MeToo movement in a personal narrative. It’s a soul-touching moment, one that brings the entire crowd to silence. A song that Stella intended at first to only be heard by a handful of people, she gained quick attention for her 2017 song – a meticulous indictment of rape culture that’s an unshakably powerful centrepiece. “Your father told you that you’re innocent/told ya women rape themselves,” she sings over a guitar that’s pointedly ironic in its reassuring softness, making every line feel more devastating than the last.
Elsewhere, she returns to wield her wit as a weapon against a world that shows little interest in meeting her expectations. ‘Old Man’, ‘Watching Telly’ and personal favourite ‘Season’s Greetings’ are jazzier live and induce some of the first out of character movements from a typically invested but static London crowd (yes, this is the northerner coming out of me). ‘Watching Telly’ turns what should be a simple, funny bit of comedy into a commentary on the link between sexism and capitalist commodification (apparently). The combination of humour and craftsmanship means she always makes it out of the deepest situations looking like a hero.
‘Bistro’ and ‘Die’ provide the “electronic” part of the evening (see the aforementioned link to Darude). Stella Donnelly has been on a hell of a ride this year, releasing her debut album to widespread love (including here), touring to adoring crowds, releasing great videos and generally winning hearts everywhere. She and her band wrapped up 2 months of touring this week with this excellent show at London's Scala, but to add a cherry on top is the release of the video for album highlight 'Die'. And even in her live shows Donnelly and guitarist have some hilarious dance moves that emphasise its effervescent playfulness. The video goes the other way, taking 'Die' to fatal extremes - but with a comedic twist. With Donnelly taking up several roles, the video plays on several classic horror and noir tropes, all glued together by the singer's energy. Watch below.
‘Tricks’ takes on the perils of dating a selfish drunk, and affirms how incredible it is to watch an artist so emotionally in touch with the goings-on of the world around her, able to translate that into gutsy lyrics that still feel somewhat uplifting. “I need to be alone” she calls; the sentiment of ‘Mechanical Bull’ not lost on a generation surrounded by a constant buzz. In the moments she sings about love, she smiles, and in the moments sung about hate and pain, she smiles. I know it should just be about the music, but it’s impossible to separate the person from the sound in the case of Stella Donnelly.
Rounding out the gig, she chooses to return to a soulful rendition of cult classic ‘Mean to Me’; reminiscing about her embarrassing EP album cover and now “not so funny” title ‘Thrash Metal’. Her eyes flicking back and forth between individual faces in her crowd, each one of them completely absorbed by her energy. I even hear people singing along (shocking I know).
Stella Donnelly played:
2. U Owe Me
3. Beware of the Dogs
6. Boys Will Be Boys
7. Old Man
8. Watching Telly
9. Season’s Greetings
14. Mechanical Bull
15. Mean to Me
16. Time after Time (Cyndi Lauper cover)
Written by // Richard Maver
See Stella Donnelly play her NPR Tiny Desk Session here: