Stress Dolls’ Anxiety Fuels Their Fire

Stress Dolls’ Anxiety Fuels Their Fire

Monday, 13 November 2023
Stress Dolls – “Body”

I first saw Chelsea O’Donnell perform as Stress Dolls at the Bug Jar in Rochester, NY in April of 2019. That night, she performed solo; a woman alone on stage with an electric guitar. One song, “Noise,” particularly caught my attention – it started mellow but built to her screaming, “sometimes I just want to make noise!” How could I not love that?

I started following her on Bandcamp and quickly found much more to love, especially her harder rocking material [for example, Stress Dolls’ self-titled album –ed]. The more I listened to her music, the more I heard something beyond hard rock. I heard an artist unafraid to confront the challenges of her life. In fact, O’Donnell doesn’t just confronts them, but dives deep into them. As she sings in “Crawl,” “There’s only one way out/ and that’s to crawl through it.”

Chelsea let me ask her some questions via email.

Ground Control Magazine vs. Chelsea O’Donnell of Stress Dolls

Ground Control Magazine: You’ve been on the road a lot recently. How’s that going?

Chelsea O’Donnell: Touring is something I’ve always wanted to do, but was slow to get started for different reasons, including my health. I have a few chronic issues, but at the moment everything is under control enough where I can go on weekend trips and play out of town without much of a problem.

As far as how it’s been going? It’s been so fun – I love meeting other artists and music lovers in different places and building a community that we can continue to visit.

GC: Let’s start with some history. When did you start playing music? When did you start writing music? When was your first public performance?

CO: I started playing music around age 5 when my parents signed me up for piano lessons. My teacher was super cool (still is! We’ve remained friends) and never forced me to learn anything I didn’t want to, so a lot of the time we forwent classical pieces and did boogie woogie and blues stuff instead. My favorite song to play from that time was “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington.

My first public performances were during those years as we had recitals every season.?

I wrote my first song when I was 11, it was a melancholy instrumental piece on the piano. There was a dog who lived in my neighborhood growing up who I often took for walks and played ball with, and his passing was my first experience with grief. The song was what I heard in my head in the times when I was sad; the version that I was able to pluck out on the piano wasn’t exactly close to the orchestra in my mind, but it was enough to get the idea out.

GC: What are your major musical influences?

CO: Oh man, this question… I’m going to try to narrow it down to three. When I reflect on the artists who have had the biggest impact on me, I’d have to say: Jimmy Eat World, Avril Lavigne and The Replacements/Paul Westerberg.

GC: You had a band called Wolf, which made some recordings. Was that your first band? Your first recording?

CO: My first band was actually in college, it was named Perestroika because one of our members was reading Angels in America at the time. We only lasted about a year, but it was my first taste at what it was like to be in a band.? My first recording opportunity arose out of an internship during my senior year of high school. I interned at Audio Magic (now called Black Rock EPS), a recording studio in Buffalo, and at the end was given the chance to record three of my original songs. It was just me and my acoustic guitar – a later version of one of those songs (“Cross”) ended up making the very first Wolf EP, Gold and Dirt.?

GC: When did you form Stress Dolls? Is there a consistent line-up of musicians? Stress Dolls is your name for both solo and band performances. Is that marketing decision, or is there more to it?

CO: Stress Dolls is really just a continuation of Wolf – most of the songs were carried over and, at the time of the name change, the band line-up didn’t differ. It was decided that the name be changed because there were so many bands with “wolf” in them, even locally, and it started to become confusing for people to find the band online. ? I decided to establish Stress Dolls as a solo act after a whole bunch of shit hit the fan: the band line-up dispersed, I moved to Nashville, then I had to move back home after being hospitalized for a month due to my chronic health conditions. I figured that, even if I couldn’t find consistent members, I could keep the name and hire players for certain shows and opportunities while staying solo for others. Some of this admittedly came from a desire for creative control over the project, but it was also about  my health at the time and that I couldn’t be counted on for regular practices. There was always a chance I’d have to cancel last-minute based on how sick I was on a given night; I felt it was less stressful to not involve other people. Currently, I do have a consistent line-up of collaborators that I play with. When I’m with the band, it’s TJ Luckman (bass), Josh English (drums), and Jordan Smith (lead guitar). Occasionally, I play as a duo with Sally Schaefer (violinist/multi-instrumentalist).

GC: Why “Stress Dolls”?

CO: Honestly? I think the name came to me because I tend to be a very stressed out person.

GC: You just mentioned your health issues, which you have previously discussed publicly. Your recent single, “Body,” addresses them directly. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but there seem to be references to them in previous songs (“Swollen,” “Noise,” “Pills”). Do you want to discuss how your health issues have affected your songwriting? Your career?

CO: You’re not reading into it! “Swollen” and “Noise” are for sure also about dealing with my health. Without getting too far into the weeds, the primary conditions I deal with are Crohn’s/colitis and gastroparesis. To attempt to keep it simple: Crohn’s/colitis is when your GI tract, primarily the colon, is inflamed and ulcerated. Gastroparesis is a delayed emptying of the stomach. These conditions counteract and play off of each other, and also have led to other problems (malabsorption, weight loss, osteoporosis). I started dealing with this stuff in my early twenties and, frankly, I was in denial that it was getting as bad as it was. It was hard to accept that youth no longer meant invincibility; there was something that was tearing me up, and I couldn’t see it or figure out how to fix it. So I kept going with what I wanted to do, and skirted my way around the inevitable until I couldn’t any longer. I wound up with a feeding tube and two-year long recovery process. The hard part about chronic illness is that it’s never really over. There are periods of remission, but it doesn’t mean that all of your symptoms are gone, and you can’t always count on those respites to last. It’s largely day-by-day, moment by moment. Since my songwriting tends to tap into experiences I’m going through, it was only a matter of time before my dealings with chronic illness made their way in. I’m thankful for songwriting and creativity because it’s cathartic – during times I feel like I want to give up, it usually means that there’s something pent up inside of me that needs to get out. Even if what I write never sees the light of day, that release keeps my head above water.

GC: You say you’re a stressed out person. That does come out in several of your songs, “High Anxiety” (Wolf),“Nervous,” “Alone,” “Capillaries,” just to name a few. Do you find a connection between anxiety and your music? Does anxiety inspire you? Do you find music and/or expression eases anxiety?

CO: This response kind of ties into the last question, but I guess the answer is yes. I don’t intentionally set out to write songs only about challenges I’m facing, but that tends to be what comes out. I think that being able to harness the negative energy of anxiety and turning it into something creative helps to ease it for me, although I could probably do better at calming myself down in my day-to-day life outside of songwriting. ?

GC: Tell me about your latest single, “Ghost Writer.” It seems to me to be about losing control of the story of your life, a theme I also see in “Crazy” (Who needs the whole story/ when you’ve got a summary”). Thoughts?

CO: “Ghostwriter” is a song that I wrote and then, in hindsight, realized was mostly a metaphor for my relationship to anxiety (a fitting follow-up question! haha) I want to be the narrator of my own story, but there are lots of times where I feel as though my anxious feelings take the reins, even if I don’t want them to. I take the credit, or blame, for my own actions, but the metaphor of anxiety as a ‘ghostwriter’ felt fitting to me.? The music video for Ghostwriter just came out on Nov. 9. It was directed by Brandon Schlia:

Since you brought it up – “Crazy” is very much about social media and my overall distaste of it… even though I recognize it as a necessity at this point. I wrote that song nearly 10 years ago but I still think it holds true today. The line “Who needs the whole story / when you’ve got a summary” was inspired by how often I was seeing the “TL;DR” (“too long; didn’t read”) acronym at the time. I felt like people, myself included, were having their patience, empathy, and time chipped away, but were resigned to it, whether that resignation was subconscious or intentional.

I’ve had to develop a better sense of social media over the years and I do see more perks than I used to. But sometimes I wonder if we’d all be better off without it.

GC: How’s the new album going?

CO: The new album is done! It has been for a while; we wrapped recording for it last year and mixing/mastering finished in early 2023. The plan is to release a few singles before dropping the whole thing. I’m really excited to share this one! A lot of the material is previously unrecorded, but there are a few oldies that I had been wanting to do over and I think people who have been following this project for a bit will, hopefully, enjoy.?

GC: Tell us about Urge Surfer, your recent collaborative project.

CO: Urge Surfer is a collaboration between my friend Jordan Smith and I. I met Jordan through working at the Central Library in downtown Buffalo; he recorded a Tiny Desk Contest Entry for Wolf. We didn’t really reconnect until the pandemic when I was recording my album, FORWARD. I saw him constantly posting clips of his original guitar riffs and really liked the sounds, so I asked him if he’d be interested in writing some leads for a couple songs.

After recording for Stress Dolls, he reached out to me via email and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on some metal riffs he had been writing: he’d send me the music and I’d write lyrics and vocal melodies. That was fun, but our collaboration really grew legs once he started sending me some electronic tracks he had been writing. Jordan was just beginning to experiment with modular synths, and he was getting some really interesting and unique compositions. It set up a fun new challenge for me creatively and got me out of my comfort zone, which was freeing. As much as I like to work alone, I think that collaboration is necessary for growth. If nothing else, collaborating on, and outside of, Stress Dolls has always inspired me in new ways and helps to keep things fresh. I fall into creative ruts like anyone else, but getting to be around others who challenge themselves is stimulating and motivating.

GC: And you have a weekly radio show.

CO: The Scene is a regional music hour that airs Sundays at 10 AM EST on WBFO The Bridge, a station that is part of Buffalo Toronto Public Media (our local NPR affiliate). Years ago I worked in commercial radio on a station called Alternative Buffalo, hosting a show named Localized. Producing that program aided me in meeting tons of artists in the area, and opened my eyes to the amazing music scene we have in Western New York. What’s so cool about The Scene is that now I’m also discovering more about the music scene in Southern Ontario, which has been amazing. There’s a lot of interesting music coming out of Toronto in particular.

If you’re an artist from WNY or Southern Ontario, please feel free to submit your tunes! We only ask that there’s no swearing (FCC regulations) and that you submit the songs in .wav file format: I feel it is absolutely important to support other artists! Without community, we’re nothing.

GC: Thank you for being so open in this interview. Makes me think about a line from your song “Pills”: “You feel better with the lights out/ You look better with the lights on.” I read that as it’s important to be open about things, even if it’s difficult. Or am I way off base on that?

CO: I think the beautiful thing about music is that it’s written from the experience of one person, but can be translated to many other experiences based on who’s listening. Therefore, your interpretation of those lines can’t be wrong. I wrote that song about a person in my life at the time who I saw struggling, but there are pieces of my own story in there as well, and an amalgamation of who knows what else. When words start flowing most of the time I just roll with it; I can figure out what it means later. 🙂 ?[G. Murray Thomas]


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