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Interview: Katie Stelmanis of Austra

"At our shows, it's really obvious that it's a queer-positive space."


Musician Katie Stelmanis of Austra
Imeh Akpanudosen/Stringer/Getty Images Entertainment

Austra is the project of Katie Stelmanis, a 28-year-old Canadian singer whose powerful voice is the product of a long stint of childhood opera study. After her 2008 solo LP, Join Us, Stelmanis began Austra as a more electronic project, and recorded, played, and produced the first Austra LP, 2011's Feel It Break, by herself. The record proved a huge breakout, earning a Polaris Music Prize nomination, earning its stripes as one of 2011's best albums and turning Austra into one of the planet's hottest new bands. By then, Stelmanis had assembled a six-piece band for live-shows, including chief collaborateur Maya Postepski (on percussion and programming), plus backing vocalists Sari and Romy Lightman (of dark-folk act Tasseomancy), keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak, and bassist Dorian Wolf. That was the band that worked together on 2013's brilliant follow-up Olympia, an album whose turns towards both lyrical confessionalism and dancefloor-friendly sounds were symbolized in first single "Home."

Interview: May 23, 2013

Having made one album, what things did you want to try to do differently on your second?
"There was a lot of changes we wanted to make from the first record. Firstly, I didn't want to do it by myself, I wanted to do it as a band. So, this was a pretty collaborative album, whereas [Feel It Break] it was pretty much a bedroom project. I also didn't want to do anything on MIDI, on computers, so we tried to play live as much as we could, using real instruments, in the studio. Which sounds like it should be pretty normal, but I had never made a record using real instruments before. And I really wanted to focus on lyrics, which is also something that I'd never done before."

You'd never focused on lyrics?
"I just never really cared about lyrics. Lyrics weren't important to me. I never really listened to lyrics in music, I never appreciated lyrics, I didn't think it was necessary to have lyrics that even made sense. I thought that the music would speak for itself, and it didn't really matter what I said. But, then I changed my perspective, and changed my opinion on that matter, and decided that for this album I really wanted to write songs that were about real things in my life, real stories, that had a real narrative to them. I had ideas for what I wanted the songs to be about, and I'd start them lyrically, but then I'd work with one of my bandmates, Sari, who's much more of a poet than I am. And she'd help me make the songs into their fully-realised stories."

Did you have any trepidation about that lyrical disclosure?
"Singing about things that had happened to me or dedicating songs to specific people actually ended up being a very cathartic process. Writing the songs, recording the songs, and then performing the songs, the whole thing feels really good. It feels more like I'm able to connect with an audience during performance."

How much did performance dictate so many of these changes: making things with band, live, having lyrics that seem to build more of a bridge between you and listeners?
"I think it was all based on performance. We toured for such a long time as a band that the songs we were playing from Feel It Break were, by the end of the entire two-year touring cycle, totally different songs. I wouldn't consider Feel It Break to be a dance record, but our show always turns into a dance party, everytime. There was some sort of new energy that arose through years of touring, and basically we wanted to bring that energy into the new record, and bring it into the studio."

There's an interesting dynamic at play on Olympia, between the communal elements —playing more as band, playing more for the dancefloor— and the individual elements, from the personal lyrics to the way your voice sounds. Is that a contrast that you wanted to play with?
"I've always wanted to write music that would work at home on your headphones, and also work in a club or at a liveshow. It's always been an intention. And I also think that contrast is important: if you're going to have these dancey, upbeat songs, I like the idea of having more personal, darker lyrics behind them. If you pair sad lyrics with sad music, they almost cancel each other out; they loose their intensity or their importance, because it's all just too much. But, I find if you have dark lyrics on top of happy music or vice-versa, each one stands on its own in a very different way. I really like the idea of mixing those things together."

This idea is played out to this really dramatic extreme on that Kevin Saunderson remix. There's that bit where the song stops midway, then winds back up to the drop, and there's such a crazy contrast between how the remix is functioning —and the possibility of it playing it front of a classic techno-club crowd— and what you're actually singing about.
"Yeah, it's an anti-party song, in a way, that's been turned into this total party club track. I love the Kevin Saunderson remix. I'm so glad we got to work with him, because when we were working on this record we were so inspired by the really early Detroit and Chicago house and techno artists, like Marshall Jefferson and Kevin Saunderson. The fact we got a remix by one of them was pretty amazing, and it's a pretty amazing remix, even if the words are the opposite of a party banger. I remember when one of my band-mates, Ryan [Wonsiak], started playing with me, he thought the chorus for 'The Beat and the Pulse' wasn't 'Feel it break' but 'Feelin' great!' I think he thought that for a long time. I loved that."

How did you feel when Austra shows started becoming dance parties? Was that surprising or unexpected for you?
"When we very first started touring as a six-piece, we'd have the two backing singers on stage, and I'd be in the middle, and none of us knew what to do with ourselves. Then, I remember there was this one show, one of the very first times we played in New York, just before or after [Feel It Break] came out, and Romy [Lightman], one of our backup singers, started sexy dancing on stage. It was mind-blowing for all of us: dancing on stage was this idea we'd never even thought about, somehow, it seemed so weird. It just inspired us to see this performance in a new way, and it's just gone off from there. Now at our shows people are jumping around, people are dancing, it's a lot more fun and lively."

Experiences like performing your music in different places?
"I love touring. I love playing in different countries for different audiences. I especially love playing in places where less bands tour. We did a show a couple of years ago on New Year's Eve in Latvia. I'm part-Latvian, and the name Austra is a Latvian name, so the Latvians were just freaking out that this was this band called Austra playing on New Year's Eve. I love playing in Poland, I love all of Eastern Europe, we did some shows in Istanbul that were incredible. When you tour places where less bands tour, people tend to freak out more. A lot of the small towns in Middle America, you think they might be a bummer to play, but they always end up being the most crazy, wild audiences. That's what I love about touring."

You dedicated single "Painful Like" to anyone "growing up gay in a small town." Have you found small town individuals or audiences connecting to you as a queer band? And how much is that identity something that's important to you?
"I think the identity is important to me. As a queer woman I think that visibility is the most important thing in the queer movement. Visibility makes people comfortable with it, makes people understand it; when people become more familiar with the idea they become less freaked out. I think it's important in my position to talk about it. Surprisingly, there isn't a huge number of people in the indie-rock community who are particularly vocal about it. I don't consider myself to be politically active beyond what I do in music, but talking about it has always seemed really natural to me. i grew up in Toronto, Ontario, which is a fairly forward-thinking and liberal city, and my parents are cool with it, and my family's cool with it, so I wouldn't have any reservations, it didn't seem weird to talk about it, it was just a part of everyday life. I realised through touring that it wasn't like that everywhere else. In a lot of different cities and countries, people would be really interested in the fact I was talking about it, I really didn't realise people would care."

Have you encountered listeners for whom your openness proved helpful?
"Yeah, I think so. I just did a whole bunch of interviews in France, and it was right at the time there was some huge debate about legalising gay marriage, and every single interviewer asked me about it, both being a queer woman and being from Canada. It's a discussion that, as of late, a lot of people have gotten into talking about. And talking about it is important for your audience, because at our shows, it's really obvious that it's a queer-positive space, and it's somewhere that's really comfortable for queers to hang out, be themselves, dress up, have fun, be liberated."

Is writing more personal lyrics on Olympia almost like a next step on from this? That writing about love or relationships, from your perspective, is part of that discussion?
"I don't really see it as part of the discussion in any sort of intentional way. It just so happens that I wrote songs about very personal things in my life, and they happen to be gay-related things. That's just what they are. It was just being truthful, not political."

Tell me more about "Fire," a song that I really love on the new record which is a little bit more mysterious about its content.
"Oh, that's funny. I almost cut it at the last moment, because it was my least-favourite song on the record! Now I like it. The chorus was the very last thing that I added to any song, so I think that's why it sounds a little out-of-place to me, feels a little bit disjointed. But, basically, I wrote that song and Maya played the entire thing on marimbas. We were really influenced by this South American group called Uakti, these five guys who make all their own instruments. They kind of sound somewhere between pan flutes, oboes and wind instruments, and marimbas. They collaborated with Philip Glass, and they made this record together [Águas da Amazônia], it's one of the most beautiful records I've ever heard. It's all based around percussion and flutes and these woody harmonies, and we really wanted to make a song that was based around that aesthetic."

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