AUSTRA is the band realized by Toronto, Canada’s Katie Stelmanis. They emerged in 2011 with Feel it Break, a record that was a mysterious as it was unconventional. Electronic tracks and synths abound in our current musical landscape, but AUSTRA was the first to pair them with the deep and unusual element of Katie’s voice. Founder and creative genius Katie is a classically trained soprano singer who lays her operatic voice over tracks for a sound that is contemporary with old, traditional elements.
Her vocal style is almost jarring, going from accusatory one moment to a reflective tremolo the next. Her studio musicians/live band include Maya Postepski on drums, Dorian Wolf on bass, Ryan Wonsiak and twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman. Poised to release her sophomore album Olympia, available this June, the hypnotically intense and reserved Katie sat down with NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION to talk about boredom, narrative lyrics and control.
Previously you talked about promoting the last album, “Feel it Break” and the grinding cycle of touring and promotion taking a toll. How is this time around going to be different?
I don’t know if the touring cycle will be different. I guess when we toured Feel it Break I was self-managed; I was tour managing the band. Just kind of operating with these other five musicians, it’s just real exhausting to try and manage all those aspects of the project that I really shouldn’t really have been managing. I think I was a bit of a control freak and just wanted to do everything until I realized it was more beneficial for everybody to kind of let people do some of the work. I just felt by the end of the cycle I was spending more time being a manager than I was actually being creative. I had almost let that part of my brain go to rest, in a way, and I never want that to happen again.
Do you find it easy or incredibly challenging to be creative on tour?
Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t be able to write music on tour. My music writing process usually involves doing nothing for a really long time or allowing myself to get bored and think. Usually on tour you have two hours here and there to do something, and that’s not an environment I work well in.
So tell me about that, about boredom as a motivator for creativity.
I just think there’s so many distractions in the world, everything from television to cell phones to the Internet. We don’t really allow ourselves time to think anymore. Sometimes I’ll have to go somewhere and actually not pay attention to the Internet. It will take a few hours to just start having ideas again and to start. I truly think that when you’re bored is when your brain starts moving and starts working.
Your songs are written from your life to people in your life. That’s a fine line to walk. Tell me about that.
It’s something I’d never done before, I’d never written songs that were about somebody, about something, anything. Lyrics have never been an important thing for me. I’ve never listened to lyrics. I’ve never paid attention to lyrics. But with this record I felt very compelled to have meaningful, concise, almost narrative lyrics in a way. I’m not exactly sure why that happened, why this particular moment in time I finally realized that was something I wanted to do, a form of expression. Previously I thought I could get everything that I wanted to across with just the music alone or with the emotive quality of my voice. For the first time I wanted to tell a story and I wanted to communicate with different people.
That brings me to two songs, which, to me, just seem to be about break-ups “I Don’t Care (I’m a Man)” and “Hurt Me Now.” Tell me about pain and heartache as song inspiration.
Well, it’s funny, those songs actually are not about break ups. Hurt Me Now is about starting a new relationship, and about being vulnerable in a relationship. Sort of “Here I am, I’m giving you everything I have, don’t fuck me over.” And I Don’t Care (I’m a Man) was written the traditional way I write lyrics. When I was making demos I would just say anything, mumble out words and somehow make sense of them. When I was writing the demo for that song, I just kind of spilled out “I don’t care, I’m a man” and I just enjoyed how loaded that statement was. I kind of perceive it as being a sort of anti patriarchal statement. I collaborated with Sari [Lightman] on the lyrics, she’s much more of a poet than I am. I called on her to help me fill them out and I think Sari perceived that particular phrase as about a direct relationship between a man and a woman.
AUSTRA: “When you let go of control, some of the good things happen.”
You said this album is more collaborative than “Feel it Break”. Is that what you were talking about?
Yeah, definitely, I collaborated in a lot of ways. Musically, this is the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done. On Feel it Break I pretty much wrote all the songs by myself at home in my bedroom, on my computer. With this record, I didn’t want to have a solo record, I didn’t want to have a bedroom project. I wanted to have a fully realized band project. Writing the demos I was very conscious to not finish them, leaving them as a very skeletal, bare bones idea and then presenting them to the band and allowing them to fill them in, or we would fill them in together, kind of bounce ideas off each other. I found it to be a more- I feel like I was able to be more creative in that way. Working with more people it yielded something better than I would ever be able to do by myself.
Was that surprising?
Maybe. I was already really really concerned about sharing the creative control in the band, I always wanted to control all of it. But maybe when you let go of that control, some of the good things happen.
You are classically trained. Do you have a piece or era of classical music you always go back to?
What influenced and stuck with me the longest were a lot of the Puccini operas. La Bohéme is an opera I will always return to and enjoy.
AUSTRA has grown in terms of recognition. What changed for you, going from making music in your bedroom to having it be out in the world?
I think it’s been interesting. I don’t feel like the first record brought a sort of overwhelming success, I still feel like we have so much room to grow and move forward. For me the biggest change was the lifestyle change, moving from a life at home to a life on the road, and adapting to that and figuring how to make it work.
How is that for your relationship with your band mates? The first record was composed more on your own and alone and now you’re touring and seeing them all the time.
We have a pretty intense relationship, especially since I’ve been touring with six people. It’s actually more difficult.
So with more people, it’s more egos and personalities. What are the things you do to keep your sanity?
I think I kind of lost my sanity by the end of the touring cycle. It was too much, every time we would have to have this pretty intense band meeting, once a week, and they just became so heated and so passionate. It’s all hard, most of us are in long-distance relationships just kind of giving up our home lives and coming on the road. Obviously, me being the band leader I have this feeling of this being my project and everyone else in my band kind of feels like they are working for somebody else’s project. So they are constantly assessing their value or their role and that creates a lot of tension.
What do hope and passion mean to you?
I think that hope and passion should generally be the drive behind anything and everything that you do. You should feel passionate about everything you engage in whether it be a person or a job or an artistic endeavor. I think hope represents the optimism of going into that, I think it’s important to be optimistic about everything in your future because it will inspire to keep on going.