Austra is the work of Katie Stelmanis, a 26-year-old Toronto native of booming voice. Where, on her 2008 solo LP Join Us, Stelmanis belted out over barreling piano, on her first Austra LP, Feel it Break, she carols over Gothed-out electro-synth jams.
Interview: 13 May 2011
What were your beginnings in sound?
"I've always been obsessed with music since for as long as I can remember. My parents figured out I'd do well in music lessons when I was 10 or 11, but only after I'd already picked up any instrument in sight and started playing it for myself. They definitely weren't pushing me into it, nobody else studied music in my family. Beginning at that age is actually a little bit 'late' for most classically-trained kids. I studied it pretty intensely for a long time; I was pretty competitive about it, and became obsessed with practicing for hours and hours. Like, literally four hours a day. I'd yell at my parents if they were interrupting me, call them 'white trash,' be really awful. It felt like this compulsion, this thing I had to do."
What was driving you?
"I was just really into studying classical music. That's what I listened to, that's what I spent my time with. I got really into opera, because I was signing in opera choirs, and performed on big stages with the Canadian opera company when I was very young. Being in big productions, hearing that wall of sound all around you, it can be intoxicating."
So you were always comfortable on stage?
"I don't think so. One of the main reasons I didn't go into opera was that I didn't feel comfortable as an actor. I never really took to being in a theater, acting never felt very natural. Performing music is a different thing to getting on stage and portraying this other personality. I've always felt more comfortable just being myself."
Owen Pallett once compared a childhood love of modern classical music to "growing up with polio." Did you have that same sense of secret shame?
"Not really. A big part of it was being in the choir. I connected with the people I was singing with way more than anyone at school, so it was a very big social thing for me. I never felt like an outcast because this choir, rehearsing together 15 hours a week, was such a huge part of my life."
When did that cease being a huge part of your life?
"In some ways it never did. Even though, at 16, I 'graduated' from the children's choir, I just went straight into studying opera. That was a whole other world. There were so many competitions and events and recitals. It's a lifestyle. You don't do lots of the other things kids your age are doing, because you have to be really careful about how you treat your voice and how you treat your body. Performing opera is such a physical experience, it can be really scary, too; it's such a raw, naked thing to do in front of people."
When did you begin with your own music?
"When I was finishing high-school. I got the idea that I wanted to start writing my own music, and compose soundtracks. But I'd never been that good at theory —the writing out and planning of all the orchestral parts— so the easiest thing was for me to get a MIDI controller and take stock all the instruments that way. I never wanted to be on stage, in front of a band, leaping around performing these songs, it was just my own thing. I was doing soundtracks by myself, for things my friends were making: dance performances, performance art, short films. It took me a few years to actually start performing songs."
How did you fare suddenly performing personal things after so long performing historical things?
"I loved that. It was a big part of why I was doing this. I felt so constricted by opera, by the fact that you're always singing someone else's music, and that there's so much expectation of how operas should be performed, how they should be sung, what kind of production there should be. It's like perfecting an art by tailoring to someone else's ideas of perfection. It got to the point where I just didn't relate to the world of opera any more. Socially, it didn't jive with me. At that point, I was hanging out with people in bands, and I was inspired by people doing more individual, creative, experimental things."
Did you feel part of a new community?
"I had lots of friends in bands, but in terms of the music I was making I felt isolated. In terms of the other musicians in Toronto, I really didn't feel like anyone else was doing what I was doing; experimenting with electronic music, making pop in this specific way."
When did Join Us come into being?
"Well, it came out in 2008, but it was stuff I'd been recording in my bedroom, pretty lo-fi and personal. From there, I basically toured for three years, booking my own tours DIY. The whole time I was playing with Maya [Postepski], my drummer, and collaborated with a whole bunch of different people over the years. Obviously, eventually, we weren't playing any songs from my solo record anymore. I wanted it to become a more collaborative project, and it didn't make sense for it to be under just my name. I wanted to validate the other musicians I played with. Everytime I heard them say 'I'm in the band Katie Stelmanis' I just hated it."
What did you want to try and achieve with Feel it Break?
"It was hard to think of it like that, because took us a really long time to put out this record. To get the funds to record it, find a label to put it out. The material spans almost four years' worth of songs, so in some ways there’s nothing uniting the material; it's like a greatest hits from this long period. Most of them were just songs that had never gotten released, that I could bring myself to retire. Things I just wanted to get out into the world one day. It was a long journey for this project, and getting this album out into the world."
How does it feel now that it is?
"It feels good! I’m so excited to get the songs out there. Admittedly so we can finally get on to writing new songs, put these ones behind us. But, it's funny, I've been wanting to put them out for so long, and now the record is coming out next week it's suddenly really scary. But I'm happy that people like it. That we're not just being lumped into the current fad of synth-based, Gothy music. I'm happy that most of the reviews recognize that it comes from a stronger background, and that there's a lot more depth than that. That we're not just desperately chasing something that happens to be popular right now."
You don't get scores of Zola Jesus comparisons?
"Oh, I definitely do. But it's not bothersome to me. It makes sense. Zola Jesus and I come from the same background, she's an ex-opera singer like me. And I think, honestly, our voices are quite similar. And we have a similar aesthetic, too. We're both different in a lot of ways, but to people who aren't too familiar with us, it definitely makes sense as a comparison."