The band Austra comes from Canada and specializes in sweeping sounds and larger-than-life emotions. Their first record, 2011’s Feel It Break, sounded like a discussion among aliens regarding human emotions. Their live show is an experience that I’d recommend to anybody—for one thing, you just will not believe how incredible singer Katie Stelmanis’s voice sounds up-close and in person.
Austra’s new EP, Habitat, comes out tomorrow on Domino, and it’s everything we’ve come to want and expect from the band: universal feelings set to weirdo futuristic dance beats. Here, see for yourself in this exclusive advance stream!
I recently talked to Katie over the phone about pretty much everything. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
LAIA: Hi, Katie! Where are you right now?
KATIE STELMANIS: I’m in Toronto, relaxing a little before we do a full tour in July.
Do you have any rituals that you do before you go off on a long tour?
My life is pretty much perpetually on tour—I’m definitely more often on tour than not. I don’t even really unpack between tours—I kinda just keep everything in suitcases. I get home and do laundry and then leave again. I didn’t even have an apartment until just about a year ago. I was just sort of moving between cities and tours for like three years. My girlfriend and I got an apartment in Montreal about a year ago, but the longest I’ve been there is probably a month.
Tell me about making the new EP. I’ve been listening to it a lot—it’s so good!
Thank you! We had actually written the song “Habitat” like almost three years ago, but it just didn’t really fit on any of our records. We played it live for a long time, and people got to know it just from coming to our shows, and then eventually people started asking for it. I didn’t think it would ever actually make it onto a [full-length] record, but it seemed like a shame to never release it, so we decided that we’d put it out on an EP. It’s kinda nice putting out an EP—there’s no pressure to sell anything, because it’s not part of an album cycle, so we can really do whatever we want with it. That’s why we decided to include three instrumental tracks, which we might not be able to do on a [full-length] record.
This whole EP feels very cinematic, like the soundtrack to something. Is there a story you were trying to tell?
For this release, [Austra's drummer] Maya [Postepski] and I both had some instrumental tracks just lying around that we didn’t now what to do with. I started with “Hulluu” and then she [wrote] “Doepfer,” and we felt like we needed something in between [those two] to sort of tie it all together. That’s why I wrote “Bass Drum Dance.” It was kinda like writing songs specifically for the fluidity of the release, like “We need a song that sounds like this now” to kinda create the vibes.
Do you like writing that way—creating songs to fit into specific vibes, rather than just going into a room and seeing what happens?
Yeah, definitely! I mean, I like both [ways]. I think it’s good to sometimes go into a room and let something come out of nothing, but I also really like the idea of having a goal, especially when you’re writing soundtracks, which is actually how I got started making my own music. I was doing soundtracks for a friend who was making videos of all of her performance-art stuff, and I just really loved finding music to fit something that had already been created. It’s almost practicing music as a craft, rather than as just some sort of impulse that you don’t have any control over.
I’ve read that you studied classical music. What did you learn from that that you still use?
I feel like studying classical music is kind of a double-edged sword. Obviously, I learned how to play all these instruments, and I learned so much about the history of Western music. But at the same time, in some ways that’s a really restrictive way to learn, because it really doesn’t allow for any sort of freedom or creativity. Everything is following directions, everything is set to a strict time grid, and all the songs are meant to be played in a certain way—and if you don’t play them the way they’re meant to be played, people get really mad! Coming out of that discipline, it took me a long time to get away from that [structure] and learn to be more adventurous in my writing.
What were you like as a child and as a teenager?
It sounds cheesy, but music was totally my salvation as a child. I mean, I was really awkward and shy, and I was really bad at sports. My parents tried to put me in everything—gymnastics, dance—and nothing worked out. But then music ended up being something I became really obsessed with. Eventually I took it to kind of an extreme level where my parents were like, “You know, you don’t have to play so much!” But I loved it. Generally, I can be pretty ADD—I have a pretty short attention span when it comes to watching movies or just having conversations with people—but as a kid, the one thing I could focus on was playing piano. I could play piano for like five hours! For whatever reason, that’s always kinda been my form of…I guess I would say meditation?
Is anyone else in your family a musician?
No, not at all! Which is why my parents were like, “Oh, what happened?” But I was obsessed with music. I was in choir, I played viola, I played piano. My parents really were baffled. But they had much better taste [in music] than I did when I was a kid. My mom was listening to Kate Bush and K.D. Lang and Bob Dylan, and my dad loved Frank Zappa, so I had all this great music around me, but I didn’t even process it. I didn’t even realize it was good until I was in my 20s and looked back and was like “Oh, that’s good taste!”
What were you listening to then?
When I was in high school, my friends listened to stuff like Dave Matthews and Ben Harper, but I was always kind of bored by that stuff. But I didn’t know about anything else besides classical music, so I just listened to that. I was like, “This is way better than Ben Harper.” [Laughs]
Did you have a favorite composer?
Did you always like to sing?
Singing was actually one of the first things I did as a kid, because I was in choir. It was a pretty intense choir. I started doing opera a little bit when I was a teenager, but I didn’t pursue it past high school. At my school, no one else was into opera—not even my high school music teacher. I’m like this 15-year-old kid being like, “But I love opera!” I was definitely the odd one out.
I think opera seems really inaccessible to a lot of people. What’s a good place to start for someone who’s interested in getting into it?
It would be really hard to just go to an opera and enjoy it, because it’s definitely an acquired taste. You have to give it a real chance, and then you can understand it. But I think a good place to start might be with that movie Amadeus, because it presents [opera] almost like a musical. It’s presented in a very theatrical way, and it gives you a bit of background on all the pieces, which are played in small little snippets. That’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
What are some other of your favorite movies?
I also really love Fantasia. To be honest, I just started to get into movies and books recently. I didn’t read anything after high school—I didn’t go to university or anything, and I feel like I missed out on learning a lot of stuff. A lot of my friends have master’s degrees and PhDs by now, and I feel a major void in my brain capabilities. So I started to try to consciously read as many books and see as many movies as I could. I find that once you get started with that, it just starts rolling! I used to have a really hard time getting through a book. When I was in high school I was like, “I can’t be bothered to read this!” And as soon as I was done high school, I was like, “Great! I don’t have to read any more books!” But now I can read one pretty quickly.
Just the other day, I watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and I’ve seen that movie before, but I’d never appreciated how beautiful it is: the cinematography and the colors and the costumes and the art direction. I was just totally blown away! I don’t understand how that stuff didn’t register in my brain before. So it’s almost like as soon as you open yourself up to it, it becomes very easy to find new things and learn.
What’s the last book you read or the last book you read that you really, really liked?
I just finished reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is probably the longest book I’ve read since high school. It’s about a person who grows up as a hermaphrodite but doesn’t discover it until puberty, and it’s sort of about the history of the family. I definitely recommend it. I loved it.
After this next tour’s over, are you planning on going back to the studio or are you going to take some time off?
I want to get back into the studio. We toured our first record for so long—we basically spent three years touring without any real breaks. And then I found it really difficult to get back into writing. I just hadn’t used my brain like that in such a long time, so it took a long time to get back into the groove. I don’t want that to happen again, so as soon as we started touring [this year], I packed up a little travel-size studio—like a mini keyboard and my laptop—and have just constantly been writing. I mean, you can make music anywhere! Now I have at least half a record that I’m happy with, and I kinda just wanna keep going. It’s been really liberating to be creative again and be more casual about making music.
What’s the songwriting process like when you are on tour?
The music-writing process is mostly very independent. I will start or finish a lot of songs by myself on my laptop, or Maya will start a track by herself on her laptop. We don’t really do any writing collectively. I personally find it very difficult to be creative with people in a sort of communal environment. I need to be alone to really flesh out my ideas.
I could talk about this shit forever, but basically I wrote that after a girl I’m friends with, who runs this really cool distro/label/blog thing called Wyrd Canada with her boyfriend, wrote a Facebook post about the fact that all the press surrounding it rarely mentions her but always mentions the male co-founder. The most upsetting thing was that so many cool dudes I know were challenging her experiences rather than trying to understand or even listen to what she was saying or feeling. It made me realize how deep we are in this patriarchy thing. Like, if my peers can’t acknowledge it exists, the power it has over all of us must be pretty all-encompassing.
Are you constantly thinking about how to smash the patriarchy? I mean, I know I am. Do you think we’ll ever be satisfied?
I’m a proud feminist and I like talking about it, but it’s something that is scary to bring up in the media, because I don’t want to be defined by my politics rather than my music. I have a lot to say about feminism, but I also have a lot to say about being a producer, plug-ins, synths, digital versus analog delay, DJing vinyl versus WAV files—you know, all that other nerd stuff. That’s why in the post I was asking when in your career is the best time to reveal your feminist agenda. Like, figuring out how to say the right amount so that people listen, but not so much that the message overshadows [your work].
I do have to mention, though, that I have been so inspired by artists like Lorde, teenagers who are so much more comfortable in their own skin than I am. I come from a place where some dude in music actually told me that I didn’t have enough “hetero sex appeal” to be a pro artist, and that really affected me way back when. It’s sometimes hard to see where I fit into the equation among so many female artists that double as fashion models, but having this new movement of women and teens who are championing a variety of bodies and flaws is really inspiring.
We at Rookie really like karaoke. Do you ever do karaoke?
Yes, I love karaoke! I like to do the big ballads. Usually I’ll do Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and I also like to do Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” I take karaoke really seriously. I want people to go, “Whoa, she really knows how to sing!” But most of the time it backfires! I have this idea that I’m really good at karaoke because I’m a singer, but when it actually comes down to it, I kinda suck a little bit. Some of my friends that don’t sing at all are really good at putting on a show, and they get really into it. I don’t do that. I’m like way too uptight.
That’s funny! How do you like playing live?
I love playing live! I mean, I’m standing in front of a thousand people, there’s noise coming out of my body, and it’s a physical experience, you know? And then to have people respond to that—it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
I was at the show you played with DIANA in New York in the fall, and everybody in the audience was kind of getting sexy while you guys were playing. It turned into a giant lovefest.
[Laughs] That’s funny. Yeah, I guess that happens sometimes.
Did you know that you have that effect? Can you tell from the stage?
Sometimes! It’s kind of rare that I can actually see the audience because it’s always so dark, but there are times where I’ll be singing “Lose It” or something and I’ll see people making out or whatever. But that’s kinda dangerous, because it actually makes me really emotional when I see stuff like that happening! When I can tell someone’s having, like, a real moment, I’ll just crack onstage. My eyes will well up while I’m singing, and inside I’m just thinking, It’s so beautiful! ♦