Being on your own side is already hard enough, but the difficulty of it is often compounded by factors often outside of our control. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Chelsea O’Donnell, the heart of musical project “Stress Dolls,” about her band, her music, and how chronic illness has affected both her personal life and her creative career.
Stress Dolls is singer/songwriter Chelsea O’Donnell. The project is sometimes a solo act, sometimes a duo (with Sally Schaefer on violin, keys, and back-up vocals), and most often a full band with TJ Luckman on bass, Josh English on drums, and Jordan Smith on lead guitar. Their music might best be described as rock, with a healthy amount of pop influence, and certainly one can hear their grunge influence as well. Chelsea’s crisp and commanding vocals are a consistent shine, paired with the heavy accompaniment of the instrumentals. Chelsea was recently signed to Sun Pedal Recordings and is promoting Stress Dolls’ newest single, “Body,” and gearing up for an album release.
Yoana Tosheva: What is your relationship to writing stuff that’s pretty personal? Especially your new single, “Body” … Are you ever uncomfortable with sharing a lot?
I think the weird part about songwriting is somehow to me it feels like a shield, even if it’s not…
Chelsea O’Donnell: I think the weird part about songwriting is somehow to me it feels like a shield, even if it’s not… Sometimes it feels like it’s more veiled than just straight up telling somebody how you feel… to me that’s always felt like a protection, where I don’t necessarily feel vulnerable, but… I don’t know – does that answer your question?
YT: A little bit! One of my friends once said to me, “I feel you’re very honest, but you have a hard time being vulnerable” and that was so interesting because I had never thought about those two things being different. Do you recognize that difference when you’re writing? How do you go into writing a song?
CO: It’s always different. Just in general, I’ve always felt more comfortable in writing than I do speaking. I think I’m more concise in writing and I don’t think so hard about what I’m saying. I feel like with my words, even in this very interview, I’m already feeling like I’ve tripped up several times [laughs]. Not your fault at all, I just get in my head, and I have a hard time speaking how I feel but – uh – now, see?
YT: I feel like you’re being very eloquent! To talk more directly about your current single and the conversation about your relationship to chronic illness – what has helped you come to an understanding and partnership with your body? How did your mentality shift from pitting yourself against yourself to being a friend to your body and self?
…the more I was upset at myself the worse it was going to make things because of the stress that causes…
CO: Therapy was definitely helpful in that process. I think, too, the realization that the more I was unhappy with my body – obviously I’m going to feel unhappy and frustrated – but I think the recognition of realizing how the more I was upset at myself the worse it was going to make things because of the stress that causes, and the amount of angst internalized… I still am working on it. Therapy has been helpful not just in pinpointing those issues but also pinpointing long standing issues I’ve had regarding body image and how I’ve viewed myself since I was a kid… I’m still working on that.
YT: Has performing and being on stage influenced how you feel about all this? Were there mental blockages you had to get through to be able to perform?
CO: For sure. I always knew it [performing] was something I wanted to do, but I was absolutely terrified. When I would sing at home, I would always make sure to do it when no one was home… I couldn’t even admit to myself that I liked to sing… But I wanted to do it so bad, and I knew I wanted to perform so badly… But it took me years and years to find my voice. I mean I still feel like I’m finding it.
The last record I made was called Forward and it was very intentionally not about any of those things [chronic illness]. The record I released before that one was all songs pretty much exclusively about the experience of having to leave Nashville and being hospitalized. After that I was like, you know what, I just don’t want to talk about my body issues for a change. For this upcoming record, there’s a few songs that deal with chronic illness stuff, but there’s a lot of songs that don’t. It’s not something I intentionally always want to focus on, but since my songs do tend to be personal it’s impossible for me to not have it bleed into what I’m doing.
I have Crohn’s but I also have another condition called gastroparesis. These conditions counteract each other. It’s tough because ways you try to treat one are not the same ways you try to treat the other and not everybody has both. My whole lifestyle has changed as a result of this illness. I have eating times. I have osteoporosis because of being on steroids so much, which means my bones are brittle. I have to try and get adequate rest; I have to build in/be conscious of when I have to use the bathroom during the day.
YT: How do you manage this with live performances?
…if I have to run off the stage, I have to run off the stage. If I shit my pants, I’m gonna shit my pants! I’m just gonna have to learn to be okay with that and so will everyone else because this is something I want to do…
CO: The live performance really helps me to feel like myself, so I wanted to continue to do it and fortunately evenings are usually a time when my symptoms are calmer. The solo thing was great because it always meant I was performing early in the night. I think, too, I had to start to mentally prepare myself, like, well, if I have to run off the stage, I have to run off the stage. If I shit my pants, I’m gonna shit my pants! I’m just gonna have to learn to be okay with that and so will everyone else because this is something I want to do.
It’s always in the back of my mind. I do think of Pearl Jam: Mike McCready has Crohn’s and I’ve heard that, apparently, he keeps a porta potty on the side of the stage, and you’ll see him just run off [laughs] and then just come back on. Well, I guess my goal is to get successful enough where someone has a porta potty waiting for me on the side of the stage.
YT: I hope that for you! I hope you get successful enough to be able to have a porta potty side stage.
And now you have a record deal! How do you feel about that?
CO: It’s cool! I think I’m still getting used to it. I’m still very much doing a lot of the management of things myself, to be honest. But, it’s been nice to be able to work with a producer who worked on some of the records I listened to growing up. And obviously to have a team of people that are helping me out with some aspects of the marketing is cool, so… one day at a time.
YT: How did you come to work with Jim Wirt (music producer and engineer for Incubus, Fiona Apple, Jack’s Mannequin and more)?
CO: They reached out to me! I got an email from, I guess an A&R scout for the label… and honestly, I thought it was spam… I just shrugged it off… Weeks later, I mentioned it to my boyfriend… and he was like why don’t you just try responding to it, what’s the worst that can happen, even if it’s fake? Obviously, long story short, it was not fake and that’s how we came to work together. It was really fun to work with Jim, he’s a really sweet soul.
YT: Do you feel like working with a producer has changed the way you go about making or recording your music?
CO: It honestly helped me immensely when it comes to my vocals. Leading up to meeting Jim, I had gone to a vocal therapist. My voice was feeling very overused and hoarse. Honestly when I listen to the past recordings I’ve done… it makes me cringe a little bit because I feel like I was really abusing my voice. So, I felt like I was on a better path. Especially since with the GI issues I deal with, a lot of stuff comes back up my throat very often and because of that my voice was kind of settling back into a deeper packet than usual… and causing a lot of vocal fry… Then I met Jim and when we got in the studio, he was just like you are pushing way too hard and gave me some pointers that were appreciated.
YT: How far along are you now in making the next record?
The next record is done!
CO: The record is done! It’s sitting… I don’t know if it’ll be [released] before the end of the year, but perhaps. I have a meeting with my label tomorrow, so we’ll see what they say!
Talking to Chelsea I am again reminded that when you’re not able to let go of something, you’ll find a way to continue your pursuit of it, despite your fear.
Keep an eye peeled for that album release announcement and if you’re in the Buffalo area, make sure to catch a Stress Dolls show.
© Yoana Tosheva (8/22/23) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Visit the Stress Dolls website to find tour dates, merch, and more.
Visit WBFO’s The Bridge to listen to Chelsea’s radio show. (If you are a band &/or an artist from Western NY or Southern Ontario, submit your music.)
Visit YouTube to watch the two-part video series Chelsea created on living with Crohn’s and gastroparesis.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo/Middle Photo: Chelsea playing the guitar. (Colorized crop by Jan Lisa Huttner.)
Bottom Photo: Chelsea gives her guitar a rest.
Photos courtesy of Peter Heuer and used with his permission. All Rights Reserved.