One of the more intriguing bands to emerge in 2011 is Toronto's Austra, a sensually-charged electro-pop band led by the coolly insouciant, classically-trained singer Katie Stelmanis. Like vocally distinctive Domino Records labelmates Anna Calvi and Wild Beasts' Hayden Thorpe, Stelmanis' robustly operatic voice elicits attention, but rides effortlessly and prettily upon Austra's lustrous synth-scapes.
The band began as a trio of Stelmanis, former Galaxy bandmate Maya Postepski on drums and ex-Spiral Beach bassist Dorian Wolf, but has since expanded to included backing singers (and twins) Romy and Sari Lightman and keyboardist Ryan Wonziak. They head to Brisbane, Australia on January 28 for a lengthy tour, including stops in New Zealand and Singapore.
Austra dropped by The Alternate Side recently and played a generous mini-set, nestled between observations about censorship, their cryptic video for "Lose It" and working with dance producer Damian Taylor. Listen to the session this Friday, January 13, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. ET and streaming on The Alternate Side:
Kara Manning: Are you officially a sextet now, or do you still consider yourselves a trio?
Katie Stelmanis: We’re pretty much a sextet at this point.
Kara: You and Maya [Postepski] were together in a band called Galaxy, which was more punk. The metamorphasis from punk Galaxy to dance, sleek, cool Austra — was that a long process or abbreviated?
Katie: Well, it wasn’t really a process because I think while Maya and I were in Galaxy, there was a third member in the band who shaped the identity of that project, Emma McKenna. During that time, I was making computer music by myself, Maya was getting a degree in percussion at university and eventually I started playing my own electronic stuff live and [I] asked Maya to come and drum with me. So they’re completely different entities, I’d say. It wasn’t really a natural progression. We were both dabbling in a lot of different genres at the time and this one just kind of worked.
Kara:Feel It Break began as a bedroom album? Some of these songs are over four years old, so the decision to take it from being an interior album to performing it live [must have shifted] dynamic of the songs for you?
Katie: It did a lot. Even a lot of my previous stuff that I was doing as a solo artist; it was really heady music. Brainy, weird stuff, but it didn’t translate very well on a live stage. With this record we made a conscious effort to make songs that would translate easily. That pretty much meant bringing in drums, dance beats, bass and that kind of thing. We just wanted to bring in a physical element to the music, as opposed to a brainy, heady element.
Kara: Dance and electronica does seem to be a landscape that’s more open to exploration and perhaps even more forgiving than other types of music. Is that true for you?
Katie: Yeah, I think the reason I ended up in electronic music is because I came from a classical background, I was playing in an electronic punk band when I was younger and I loved so many genres of music. I found that when you’re working with electronics, you can create all of these sounds at once. You can have a violin sample next to an 80s synthesizer, next to a guitar sample. You can access all of these sounds and that’s why I love electronic music. Everything has its sound synthesized, but you can simulate any genre of music in a way.
Kara: In the writing of the album, was your single “Lose It” one of the really early tracks?
Katie: This one was kind of in the middle. I remember playing this song when Maya and I were touring DIY. I remember playing it in the UK in 2009. So it’s been around; it’s had a lot of reincarnations.
Kara: The video to this song is amazing and mesmerizing, but I have no idea what’s going. I thought it was just me and then I read that you had no idea what was going on in the video either! It’s cryptic.
Katie: It’s very cryptic. When we got the treatment for it, it didn’t make too much sense but the director was like, “It will all make sense when you see it.” Then we saw it and were like, “It still doesn’t really makes sense.” But I like it. It’s kind of weird and I really like the aesthetic. I think “Lose It” is a song that could potentially have a slightly cheesy video. It could go very wrong, so I like that it was presented like that.
Kara: Do you have your own interpretation for what’s going on? Made up something as a band?
Katie: The official concept of the video is that I’m saving the world from a giant rocket ship. That’s about as far as I know (laughs).
Kara: Katie, you’re the primary lyricist, but Maya said to me earlier that the lyrics don’t mean that much? The lyrics are quite veiled, but provocative.
Katie: Lyrics for me don’t come very easily. I’m not a natural lyricist. In the past I’d be really lazy about it and I wouldn’t even write lyrics. I’d just say whatever, but on this record I really tried to make sure that all of the songs had proper lyrics. I find that if I think too much about writing lyrics, it doesn’t really work so I say whatever. Often when I’m demoing, I’ll say something and turn those words into something that makes sense.
Kara: As an opera singer, do you view the words more as texture? Something that augments the sound you’re going for?
Katie: Definitely. The shape of your mouth will drastically affect your sound. So if I’m making a demo and I sing something that I like, I often have to fit the words into it. If I suddenly say a completely different word on a high note, it will change the sound of it. As an opera singer, technically, you’re supposed to be into the lyrics because it’s a story, but I never bothered to translate any of the music I was listening to. It was never important to me.
Kara: Until you were 19, you studied classical music and piano and trained as an opera singer — and then went into another direction. Was there a moment of epiphany?
Katie: It was a lot of things. I was at a really transitional point in my life in a lot of different ways. I was going to go to university to study opera, I was supposed to move to Montreal, but I decided at the last minute I didn’t want to do that. I was discovering Toronto in a way I never had before. Discovering an art, music and indie scene. I started to go to shows and discoverd all of these genres of music I never knew about and decided I was going to take a year off and have fun and write music. I never went back.
Katie: I definitely didn’t delve that deep when I was 18 or 19. I found out about Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galás quite a few years later, but the big catalyst for me were artists like Björk or Nine Inch Nails. Previously, all of the pop culture music I listened to I found quite boring, but that’s because I didn’t know about the good stuff. Bjork and Nine Inch Nails was really smart music, I found it inspiring and it pushed me in another direction.
Kara: Speaking of Björk, you worked with Damian Taylor who mixed this entire record and worked on Biophilia and Volta as well as [on albums by] The Prodigy and Arcade Fire. Did you know him socially or was he someone you wanted to work with?
Katie: It was kind of right place, right time. He was friends with the guys at Domino and he moved to Montreal from the UK, just about the time we were recording. He set up a studio in Montreal — he has a wife and kid now and was looking for a place to settle down. Basically, he put the word out that he was looking for Canadian bands to record in Montreal. As soon as we found out that he was there, I was there within a few months. Not only has he worked with lots of great artists, but there aren’t really many notable Canadian electronic producers and engineers — at least none that I know of. It’s a very folk and rock-oriented music scene. To have someone who has been living the London club scene for the past decade for us … it was a no-brainer. The mixes we did with him versus with a lot of other people; I don’t know where it comes from, but the bass he’s able to create, well … he could have spent a week on a single bass drum in a song and made it so epic, but we only had a day a song kind of thing. For Damian, the songs he was really excited about were “Darken Her Horse” and “The Beat and the Pulse.” Those are the ones that we put the most energy into and I think you can hear that. When you listen to the whole record, those are the two songs that are the heaviest, most intense and have a big bassy sound. I could tell that’s where he put most of his energy.
Kara: You met Dorian [Wolf] where?
Katie: I used to have a guitar player named Carmen Elle and we were looking for a bass player and she recommended Dorian. We knew of him because he was in a band called Spiral Beach, who were notoriously the youngest, tightest band in Toronto. Other bands were intimidated by how young and how good they were with their instuments. When I found out that Dorian might have some extra time, I scooped him up immediately. Kara: Dorian, Spiral Beach is no more?
Dorian Wolf: We broke up two days before I started playing with Austra.
Kara: Because these songs are older, Katie, I assume that you’ve been working on new material, yes?
Katie: No! Not really.
Romy: Well, here and there!
Katie: Well, we have new material that we started writing before we started touring that we’ve been working with and introducing, but I personally haven’t written a song since January. I find it kind of impossible to write on the road. There’s songs that we’ve started to introduce [in sets] now that we've had since we started touring.
Kara: So the song “Identity” is an older song that just didn’t make the record?
Katie: Yes, it was an official b-side. I recorded it with all of the other ones in the fall of 2010. It just didn’t make the record and we just introduced it as the b-side to our current single, which is “Spellwork,” so we’ve started playing it live.
Kara: How do you take care of your voice?
Katie: I never felt I had to do anything; I always thought it was easy, but just from touring over the last six months, I’ve noticed that I have to be a lot more careful. I can’t get drunk that often, I can’t stay out late. My nickname is “Grandma.” If I have one late night and if I catch a cold, I can still sing, but it sucks. It’s really hard. This past tour we had in Europe I was sick for half of it and it’s such a struggle to get onstage and perform. With singers, you go one way or another. You have either dryness or congestion problems. I use lots of honey. Black licorice is really good for me.
Romy: Slippery elm bark. Ginger.
Katie: Black licorice has always been my secret weapon. I’m not the humidfier kind of singer. My problems are from getting sick or congestion.
Kara: Another little problem you’ve had is with YouTube. Your video for “The Beat and the Pulse” was actually censored for showing female breasts. Were you surprised?
Katie: No! We were expecting it. We also put it up on Dailymotion which is a France-based site and did not get censored. I think it’s just a pretty clear depiction of where North American values stand. You can put someone who is as brutally offensive as Tyler The Creator on the internet and no one complains about it. You show a woman’s body ... and people go nuts.
Kara: I know you’re very open and out and it must have been very strange for you [as a Canadian] to see all of the hoopla about same sex marriage being passed in New York.
Katie: We were just saying, “Finally.” It seems completely unreal that a city that’s as artistic, creative and progressive as New York City wouldn’t have gay marriage. Obviously, I know it’s all of New York state, but it didn’t make any sense. It’s completely archaic. There’s a lot of things around here that seem a little archaic, to be honest. But that was definitely was a big one.
Kara: Do find that it’s important, as a musician who happens to be gay, that it becomes a part of your identity as a musician? Or is that secondary? Your lyrics aren’t very political in any way, but there’s great eroticism in what you’re doing. Or in the video for “The Beat and the Pulse.”
Katie: I think that for us there’s definitely an audience that we have that listens to us, likes us and it’s important to them that we’re open about it. In order to connect with those people, I’m happy to be open about all of our different sexualities. Otherwise, people don’t generally care that often. I don’t try to talk about it too much; people ask me about it and I’m open about it. I guess it’s just that we’re comfortable talking about it. We’re Canadian. We’re naive. The most important thing is that it’s been an important thing for people who are fans of our band. It’s nice to give people a voice or some kind of representation. If we’re doing that, then that’s great. We don’t really have to try that hard.