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8th November 2022

Live review: Stella Donnelly takes Manchester by storm

Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly plays an empowering set at Band on the Wall
Live review: Stella Donnelly takes Manchester by storm
Photo: Stella Donnelly @ Ailish O’Leary Austin

You’d be hard-pressed to find a singer-songwriter with as much infectious, wide-eyed charisma as the acclaimed Australian artist Stella Donnelly. Boasting a back catalogue of fretful indie gems – and sporting the same fringe as everyone’s favourite sixth-form art teacher – Donnelly wows her audience at Manchester’s Band on the Wall.

Before I unashamedly gush over Stella Donnelly, high praise is also due for her support act, Albertine Sarges. The Berlin-based art-rocker launches into a set characterised by jutting bass lines, fitful staccato guitar, improv flute solos, and dance moves that Lindsey Kemp would have been proud of. Their live sound is miraculously both confusing and involving – think Neu at their most elastic, or Talking Heads at their most angular. It’s a mess. A joyous, bizarre, dance-inducing mess.

Photo: Albertine Sarges @ Ailish O’Leary Austin

When it’s time for Stella Donnelly to usher the audience into her chaotic world of festive family fall-outs (‘Seasons Greetings’), Donnelly stands alone on stage. Just her, a guitar, and a spotlight. The tender intricacies of the opening song, ‘U Owe Me’, slowly spider out across the venue, a sound laden with justified angst against a misogynist employer (“You’re jerking off to the CCTV / While I’m pouring pints of flat VB”). Suddenly, it becomes excitingly clear. We’re watching a singer who wants to put right a fair few wrongs.

Donnelly goes onto tell us that new songs are a lot like new underwear – “that sexy, new G-string… y’know the one that still hurts a bit to wear, but you’re trying to get used to it?” She then takes us “underwear shopping” (her words, not mine) with the track ‘Lungs – the opening number on her sophomore album Flood. It sees the singer cover new ground, her trademark ear-worm melodies somersaulting over a post-punk rhythm section.

Photo: Stella Donnelly @ Ailish O’Leary Austin

There’s a newfound grit that wasn’t present on her debut LP, met with the approving bobbing of heads. Lo and behold, the “G-string” comparison is apt. ‘Lungs’ features a Joy Division-tinted backbeat that is slightly uncomfortable, yes, but undeniably sexy. Another highlight from her new album proves to be the single ‘How Was Your Day?’, in which a toxic relationship narrative hides inside a Trojan horse of pure pop perfection. The crowd sing along to a joyfully infectious chorus, completely soaking up Donnelly’s self-aware juxtaposition. Again, slightly uncomfortable, but sexy.

Donnelly refers to her old material as “the underwear with holes in that you should’ve thrown away years ago, but you still just love ’em”: another fitting metaphor. With its carefree surf-guitar and unapologetic Lily Allen influence, it’s easy to forget that classic single ‘Old Man’ is about sexual harassment (one would imagine that it’s easily the sunniest song ever written about the topic). Donnelly delivers her vocals with a mix of angst-ridden conviction, as well as evident love for her younger-self’s irreverent songwriting. It’s the perfect pair of old underwear. The meaning may be ugly, but both Donnelly and her fanbase can’t ever bring themselves to part with the song’s bubbly buoyancy.

Photo: Stella Donnelly @ Ailish O’Leary Austin

Old favourite ‘Mosquito’ – a song in which female pleasure is foregrounded against a backdrop of yearning instrumentation – is met with an emotional response. Donnelly interrupts the song to inform us that she recently had to explain to her grandmother what a vibrator was, a discussion which was apparently met with confusion… and interest.

Donnelly’s tendency to highlight female-centric sexuality creates a visceral sense of empowerment. Tears, laughter and innuendo are frequently shared between artist and audience: we feel as though we are part of some sort of safe-space forum, like old friends nursing a pint together. With her rouge-red lipsticked smile, soaring stage presence, and a talent for in-between-song-chat topped only by Sheffield’s finest sex/class raconteur Mr Jarvis Cocker, it’s plain to see why Stella Donnelly’s live show is a success. Inclusive, involving, liberating: Stella, it was a pleasure going underwear shopping with you.


Flood, the new album by Stella Donnelly, is out now on Secretly Canadian Records, and you can stream it below.

Jacob Ainsworth

Jacob Ainsworth

20, he/him, UoM, Film Studies & English Literature. deputy music editor, writer, musician, illustrator and full-time Jarvis Cocker enthusiast

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