Laneway Artist Profile: Austra
Katie Stelmanis, the frontwoman of Canadian electro-pop trio Austra, was one of those types always destined to make music. At the tender age of ten, she started picking up and playing any instrument she could find, until her parents finally relented and let her study classical music. From there, Stelmanis said in a recent interview with About.com’s Anthony Carew, she quickly became ‘obsessed with practicing for hours and hours’, yelling at her parents and calling them names if they dared interrupt her.
From the beginning, music was a ‘compulsion’ for the Toronto artist, ‘this thing I had to do.’ This essential quality is easy to discern in Austra’s music: you can’t help get the feeling that the songs absolutely had to be written.
Like most artists, Stelmanis honed her chops performing other people’s songs, doing time in a choir, and, while still very young, with the Canadian Opera Company. As she got older, though, Stelmanis realised opera and acting weren’t for her. ‘I've always felt more comfortable just being myself,’ she says. Toward the end of high school, she began writing her own songs, driven more by a love of the possibilities of sound than any desire to perform.
‘I never wanted to be on stage, in front of a band, leaping around performing these songs, it was just my own thing,’ she says. ‘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.’
After dropping out of opera—‘It's like perfecting an art by tailoring to someone else's ideas of perfection,’ she says of her reason for quitting—she started hanging out with people in bands, who inspired her to do more ‘individual, creative, experimental things.’ Stelmanis spent a few years playing with riot grrrl outfit Galaxy, before lighting out under her own name in 2009 with the lo-fi, deeply personal Join Us.
Touring her solo record with drummer Maya Postepski, Stelmanis began to feel like her solo project was no longer ‘hers’ alone—it was something collaborative, shared. A band. Joining with Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf, Katie Stelmanis became Austra. (Austra is Stelmanis’s middle name; it’s also the name of the Latvian goddess of light.)
Feel It Break, Austra’s remarkable debut lp released in May this year, was a long time coming. ‘The material spans almost four years’ worth of songs,’ Stelmanis says, ‘so in some ways there’s nothing uniting the material; it’s like a greatest hits from this long period. 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.’
To our ears, a lot unites the songs on Feel It Break—Stelmanis’s formidable voice, of course, but also how it never overwhelms the record’s production, always remaining a servant of the songs. The album’s eleven tracks manage to combine seemingly disparate moods and sounds—Stelmanis’s icy pipes soaring over euphoric synths and almost-danceable beats—with an easy grace. For Stelmanis, such contrasting sounds are a natural reflection of the music she enjoys. ‘I don't listen to music based on a genre,’ she told The Quietus recently, citing fellow Canuck Owen Pallett as an influence, as well as The Knfie and Debussy. ‘I listen to artists and musicians that I like, so it's only natural that I write music that's quite varied that’ll have a piano ballad in an electronic dance song.’
Despite all the time and hard work that went it to it, Feel It Break barely sounds like a debut: a hypnotic and remarkably self-assured record, it sounds like the work of a band deep into their career. Written almost entirely in minor keys, it’s a melancholic record, but a deeply cathartic one, too. Stelmanis says she’s always been drawn to melancholic music––but not to wallow. Quite the opposite. ‘I like this type of music is because listening to it creates a positive healing feeling,’ she says. ‘I don't listen to that type of music and feel down.’
Feel It Break deservedly won plaudits from all over. BBC Music wrote that Austra’s debut‘plays as a carefully balanced, organic whole, like an inadvertent concept album. That's more a testament to the skill with which it's been put together than because it lacks standout moments; in fact, half the songs here could be released as singles, as Austra are as melodic as they are melodramatic.’ NME, meanwhile, called it ‘utterly consuming’, adding that, ‘At this rate, she'll be leading the pack soon.’ (Bizarrely, Stelmanis also received an admiring letter from Clown, of Slipknot. ‘It was really, really sweet,’ she says.)
What pack Austra sits in, exactly, is a matter of some debate. ‘I'm happy… we’re not lumped into the current fad of synth-based, Gothy music,’ Stelmanis says. ‘That [people think] 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.’
Feel It Break went on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Prize, with Austra’s star rising rapidly in her native Canada and well beyond, her band becoming increasingly renowned for their spellbinding live show. ‘We’ve been making a conscious effort to write music that is specifically geared toward a live show,’ Stelmanis has said, ‘and that often has meant songs that are more focused on drums and bass because that is what gives you the physical experience.’
We’re super excited to see Austra take the stage at Laneway come summer. In the meantime, we’re very much enjoying Sparkle, an album of remixes of tracks from Feel It Break, featuring reworkings from the likes of Planningtorock, MNDR, 120 Days and DFA’s Still Going. Domino have released a double disk Tour Edition of Feel It Break, containing both the original album and the remixes. Download The Beat and the Pulse (Steffi Bass Break Dub Remix) here, and check out Austra's Laneway Personality Test, along with some great live footage, on her artist page.