A body of sad tunes from the Canadian siren won't stop her from feeling optimistic.
Words and Interview by Shirine Saad.
Toronto’s Katie Stelmanis grew up studying the opera and classical music. Now she mixes noisy electronic beats with her deep, dramatic voice to create melancholy music that will make you dance— hard. For her, that’s not an oxymoron. Her first album, Feel it Break, almost won the Polaris Prize this year. And while Arcade Fire scored in the end, Austra is still dancing.
You’ve been touring for several months now. How has the music evolved?
We’ve been reworking old songs and creating new material for the next albums. We’re not very proficient. It feels like we’ve been touring for such a long time since the last record was released. We’ve been touring all over the world now. We’ve picked up very early on in Germany and France. We also went to Australia and Singapore; Istanbul was the most exciting show that we’ve played. It’s just nice to go to a place where you don’t have 20 bands every day, and so when you do play people are very excited and appreciative. We played one of our best concerts there. I love playing live — it’s one of the things I love most about being in a band. We’ve played about 200 shows since the record has come out. We’ve reached a level now where we’re relaxed and that’s what’s nice.
Has the music changed since Feel it Break was released in 2011?
We’ve been evolving a lot since we started touring. Most of the songs are recorded on a computer at home, which is always hard to translate onto the live stage. Now our approach is changing; we’ve started writing for the stage and experimenting more with sounds and vocal elements. Writing on a computer at home is kind of a very private interaction. You can tell the difference between writing for yourself and writing with an intention. When you write for live shows, you write with the intention of another instrument playing. When we play live, we bring out the dancier aspects of the songs. Our music has a pretty dark vibe, but we try to create a dance party on stage. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing dark music live, but it’s nice to have both; having a really dynamic performance, a few quiet songs and some that are really dance-y.
Were you mad when Arcade Fire won the Polaris award you were shortlisted for?
I think Arcade Fire deserved the prize. We just happened to be nominated and that did a lot for us — the award has a lot of credibility. To be nominated alongside them was a big moment for our career.
You’re working on a new record now. What should we expect?
Yes, we start recording in the fall. This time we want to make the record on real instruments. This record is a lot more collaborative than the previous one; we are six musicians and we’re recording in the studio. Before I was more obsessed with controlling everything. I didn’t have a lot of perspective. I liked doing everything myself and I liked having the control, but now I realize it makes the music better when several people work on it.
Your music is quite dark – some even say gothic. Are you a dark person?
I’ve always been drawn to melancholy, dark music. My singing voice lends itself to it because I have a big dramatic voice. I like making dark music and sad music, it’s kind of a therapy in a way. I can’t actually write music if I’m depressed, but I write the best songs when I’m coming out of those feelings — it’s kind of optimistic.
Do you prefer singing pop or classical?
As a classical musician, you’re playing other people’s music and performing things in the very specific way in which they are intended to be performed. In a pop band, you can just do everything you want. It’s nice to have an outlet where you can do anything. I made that decision when, after studying opera, I started making my own music. I do miss playing classical music though, I do miss that kind of diligence.
Who are your influences?
Growing up, Bjork was the one who pulled me away from classical music, and Nine Inch Nails too. I think it’s a really exciting time in music right now and I’m listening to a lot of things. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of techno music and dance music. DJs from Europe, the UK and the US — there’s something happening there that I’d never heard before. I really like Paul Woolford, XXXY and Egyptrixx.