Austra talks TO’s scene, queer videos and growing up on Kate Bush
Today marks the release of Austra’s Feel It Break (Paper Bag), one of the most anticipated electro-band albums to come out of Toronto since Crystal Castles’ debut. The album’s dark, operettic, trance-inducing pop can be heard in full at NPR. I recently spoke to 26-year-old Torontonian Katie Stelmanis, who is surprised at all the attention, given Austra is just a continuation of her solo work: She changed the outfit’s name partly because going by her own name would direct people to the wrong genre. (i.e., a woman’s name often indicates singer-songwriter.) After that, a little danceabilility, an intriguing live set-up and smart mixing – not to mention backing by Domino, one of the most famous indie labels in the world – was the tipping point to Austra’s international hype.
Why did you become Austra?
I wanted to choose a name that was so obscure we could basically make it into whatever we wanted it to be. Austra is my middle name, it’s pronounced “owstra,” goddess of light in Latvian. It’s my own name so no one can really claim anything on it.
The stuff I was making before I only intended for people to listen to in their headphones or at home because it commanded a lot from the listener. It became not that fun to perform, so now we’ve been making a clear effort to make songs that translate onto the dancefloor. We have slow songs and fast songs and in general I like to build up an energy with dancier songs with bass and that kind of thing.
They sure aren’t “feel-good club songs”
They’re definitely still dark. To be honest my background in opera. I don’t think there’s one happy opera and that’s translated into what I write. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song that’s not in a minor key.
Do you have any conscious influences?
A lot of people create music starting with an aesthetic more than anything else. Your like ‘I want to start a band that sounds like the Smiths’. To me, writing music is not with the intention of sounding like something. It turns out how it turns out. I listen to a lot of things form big acts like Bjork to Nine Inch Nails and The Knife. I didn’t start listening to Kate Bush until I was 23 or something because I’d started to be compared to her.
My mom loves Kate Bush so I heard it in my house growing up. In fact, mom named me after her.
I figured your Italian background would also have influenced your music.
Mom born in England, Dad in Italy. Italians are quite unmusical. If anything it comes from my mothers side, grandma was in choirs and had a love for classical music.
How did your racey video for Beat and the Pulse come about?
(Clare Edmonson) had the idea for it to be a ritualistic thing and was inspired by Vanessa Beecroft, an artist who will often photograph a room full of women standing naked, maybe wearing red underwear or something like that, these beautiful art installations.
I’ve heard it described as ‘a lesbian video’: Was sexuality the intention?
When we were doing it the video didn’t feel very sexual in a lot of ways. The attitude of all the performers, it just felt very natural. And it wasn’t even the intention to make the video all women, that’s just how it worked out … I identify as queer and most of my friends are lesbians so when I made a video and called up all my friends to be in it, it just so happens they were all lesbians. You don’t even realize, like I have a birthday party and like 12 girls show up. It’s just I mostly hang out with women. Its funny because when I look at (the video) I don’t see it as being gay I see it as just a bunch of women in a room, but its kind of like when I go to a party, I don’t think I’m at a gay party, I feel like I’m at a party. Whereas if a straight guy goes, he’s like ‘OK – I’m at a gay party’.
Have you felt very much love from Canada?
The first tour I booked by myself was in Canada, and immediately after we realized we weren’t going to find success in Canada – at least not before we found it elsewhere. So I’ve been booking tours in Europe for at least two years now and the Domino (signing) kind of happened through that… Obviously Europe supports electronica music more than North America does, particularly with our type of music with big female voices.
Is there any pressure for you to live up the the hype at your home town shows?
I don’t think this is the moment when people are going to decide whether I’m good or not. Whether you play a show to 7 people in some other country, you just never know what is going to happen. I’ve been reviewed by NME after playing to 6 people in London versus playing to 1200 people in New York. We try to treat every show with the same importance. I would never want to psych myself into thinking any one show is more important than any other show.
Speaking of Toronto, what do you think of ‘the scene’ here
I don’t think you can make a living an artist in only one city, but Toronto has been a great place to evolve and grow as an artist. There’s so many people doing interesting things so I’ve been influenced by them, but I’ve also had a lot of friends who offer advice on how to book tours and how to be a band … The media contacts and promoters are very supportive. Blocks Recording Club were extremely helpful with booking and mostly because its just a network of musicians mostly DIY musicians who’ve been doing it that way for years, which is very important.
Austra play Lee’s Palace Thursday May 19.
- Marsha Casselman