IN AUSTRA, TORONTO NATIVE KATIE STELMANIS HAS FOUND THE PERFECT VEHICLE FOR HER BEGUILING VOICE. CHRIS FAMILTON DISCOVERS HER MUSICAL JOURNEY FROM OPERA CHILD TO CRAPPY SYNTHS.
Canada isn’t renowned for its electronica outside of recent tourists Crystal Castles and Holy Fuck yet their indie scene has experienced a boom time in recent years thanks to bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene and its various offshoots. Austra’s Katie Stelmanis sees herself as straddling both musical communities but with Austra she is firmly ensconced in creating electronic music to incite dancing and satiate headphone listeners.
Classically trained as a child and with a future seemingly pre-determined in opera, it took Katie till her teens to discover contemporary music and see it as a viable alternative. Since then she released a solo record in 2009 and played in the band Galaxy before forming Austra as an outlet for her distinctive voice and her hypnotic, retro synth compositions.
“I’ve been playing classical music since I was 9 or 10 years old. I was pretty obsessed with classical music and pretty much militant about practicing the piano and I was in choirs and the state opera. I knew I wanted to pursue music. Up until the age of 18 or 19 I thought I basically thought I would pursue classical music and be a professional opera singer and as I got older I was drawn towards the dark side [laughs] to do my own thing and be in bands.”
Once she latched onto the dark electronica that is Austra she still felt like she was on her own path, not identifying or connecting with any simpatico local scene in her hometown of Toronto.
“I don’t know it is just me or the circles I’ve been involved in but I’ve always been a member of Toronto’s indie community and I felt like I was one of the only ones making electronic music. It has changed a lot now and there are more artists doing it without a doubt which is cool. There has been a DJ culture that I didn’t really know about but it is nothing on the scale of London and New York. There isn’t really a strong electronic scene but there are people doing it. It is kind of hard to find and navigate. I found as an artist doing this music it was hard to learn about it as there weren’t many people to talk to about it.”
Stelmanis’ voice is one of those ones that catches the ear and makes you lean into the speaker. She has the quirky phrasing of Bjork and Kate Bush while tonally she is comparable to Siouxsie Sioux, and more recently Zola Jesus and Anna Calvi.
“Bjork is definitely a big influence and Kate Bush more recently. I haven’t really spent much time with Siouxsie – I should and I’d like to. I’m happy to be compared to all those people. They aren’t just singer songwriters, they’re composers and artists and I just hope that people see my music like that. I don’t see myself as a singer/songwriter with a piano, there is a lot more depth to what I’m doing,” explains Stelmanis.
The debut album for Austra, Feel It Break, is a dark and richly textured collection of songs that conjures up images of late nights, lust and loss. They are coated in washes of and boldly pulsing synths that hark back to early 80s acts like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode who share a dark sexual undercurrent to their music. Stelmanis openly acknowledges her influences but doesn’t see Austra as simply a rehash of the 80s.
“I definitely take influence from that sound and aesthetically I’m really into that sound – I like crappy synthesizer sounds. There are a lot of bands that have the 80s sound but I think generally most people are doing it in a new way – very influenced by the original synthesizers but my stuff isn’t overly drenched in reverb anymore. There are a lot of aesthetic things that have been laid to rest and it is still nice to revisit a lot of those cool old synths and stuff.”
Though happy with the final outcome of Feel It Break, Stelmanis describes the recording process as being a difficult and prolonged one as she battled to settle on definitive recorded versions of her songs.
“The process of writing an album and recording an album in a studio is so difficult and you need a really different perspective. I think when we were mixing and finishing the record I was really unsure about it. I was flip flopping back and forth and listening to so many different versions of songs and it got to a point where I thought ‘I just need to put this out’”.
“With this album I had a bunch of songs that I wanted to put out into the world. I wouldn’t say it is the most cohesive album of all time for me personally but they were all songs I needed to put out. The next record will be more of a concise idea with songs written in a smaller period of time but in this instance it was a wide range. I had to actually go back and re-arrange a lot of the older songs just to fit them into the record a bit more because things were sounding so different. Having not listened to it for a long time and going back to it I think it’s really nice. Now I can listen to it – not with entirely fresh ears – but at least I’m in a completely different mind state and I feel good about it,” she says with a satisfied tone.
Feel It Break wasn’t Austra’s only release in 2011 – there was also the Sparkle EP made up of remixes of the singles Beat and the Pulse and Lose It that threw up some interesting variations to the originals. That willingness to embrace other artists’ interpretations of their music has been a fascinating process for Stelmanis.
“It was really fun, I’ve never really experienced something like that before. It is really interesting to just hand over your songs and have someone re-interpret it in a way that you would never ever think of and every single one was a total surprise. It is so interesting what people grab onto in the songs and use in their remix,” she enthuses.
Since the release of the album last May Austra have been on the road playing shows across Europe and the US and the experience and groundswell of support and interest in the band has been a revelation for Stelmanis.
“The most exciting thing has been out shows. It has been so nice to have people come out to our shows. We’ve all been playing music for a long time and we are used to playing to 20 or 30 people and to suddenly put out a record and have 300 or 500 people turn up has been amazing. To be able to tour all over the world and have people turn up to our shows has been pretty special for us.”
The live band that Stelmanis is bringing to Australia has expanded during the year to now be a six piece that includes two additional vocalists (Sari and Romy Lightman) who have allowed her to focus more on specific elements of her own singing and performance.
“In the beginning it was really interesting to have them there as a performer because I wasn’t totally confident to be a front-woman by myself. Now I am a lot more confident but they add so much more dynamism to the performance. It is a nice other element. We are confident independently so together it is a bit of a spectacle which I really like. Technically it isn’t that different, we are still using keyboards, live bass/drums, backing tracks and back up singers but as performers we’ve come a long way this year. Playing as much as we have we’ve had a lot of practice on the stage and in general we feel a lot more comfortable there. We are nearing the end of our touring run but I feel like we are just starting to get the hang of it.”
Austra’s appearances at Laneway Festival and various sideshows will be their first time in Australia and as such the band are looking to make the most of the visit before they start looking toward the next album.
“I’m just excited to be a part of a touring festival. In my mind it’ll be like a touring circus. I’m excited to hang out with a bunch of the bands on the bill and tour with them. We’re flying in a couple of days early before the festival and we’ll have some time off during the festival and after it. After Australia is the time we’ve allotted to the next record. It’s hard to say what it will sound like until we get to the studio as the songs are so long at the moment. Getting into the studio with fresh ears and ideas is going to yield something different for us but I can’t really say what that will be yet. It will definitely be more of a collaborative experience.”
this interview was first published in The Drum Media