Austra: ‘People now understand the idea of a female producer’
Ahead of her return to Body & Soul Festival, Katie Stelmanis of Canadian electro-goths Austra discusses the reaction to her latest album, and why female producers are only now being taken seriously
Austra, alias electronic artist Katie Stelmanis, unveils her new album ‘Future Politics’, with a distinctly post-capitalist utopian feel, in Toronto, Canada on Jan 20th with a show at the Mod Club. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The sign of a talented musician isn’t only innovation or detail; progression is the deadliest giveaway of all. That’s evident with Katie Stelmanis, the driving force behind Austra, who’s evolved from electro-goth as found in debut Feel It Break, to incisive commentary on what society could become, with current album Future Politics.
Earning Polaris Music Prize nominations and critical acclaim along the way, the Canadian group’s interest in weightier issues comes at exactly the right time; the album – still blending Stelmanis’s fragile, operatic voice with glitzy beats, but with more elaborate layers for those looking – was released on the day of Trump’s inauguration, and offered more optimistic approach to the reiterated idea that the system is breaking.
“When we first started touring it, Trump had just been elected and people really didn’t know what to do or think,” she says. “The gigs were possibly the first time people might have been in a public space after the election so they became about bringing people together.
“In fact, the album was written before any of the stuff we’re going through had come to a head, but it was obvious people were hungry and desperate for a different way of organising. It’s disappointing that it’s since ended up coming in the form of right-wing nationalism, but it still could change.”
Her interest in societal politics stemmed from a concern about the environment, which led to reading about capitalism, and in turn, future outcomes, with tomes such as A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey and even the feminist sci-fi classic Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy on the reading list.
“The inspiration of the album was the idea of the future, and the power of imagination of what it could be,” she explains. “Oppressive regimes always try to inhibit imagination because it’s really powerful and can lead to concrete actions. The album tries to encourage people to think about what the options for the future could be.
“A lot of people in my age group, millennials, had a pretty comfortable upbringing and a confidence we could move through the world if we worked hard. The cold reality is that this security doesn’t exist for us,” she says with eloquence. “Our security is mainly based a lot by the decisions our parents made in the 1980s. So there’s a lot of disconnect for young people.”
Critically – especially for those expecting much-needed escapism at Body & Soul, at which Austra holds a prominent place on the line-up – “it’s not a political message as much as an emotional response to the whole thing”. A case in point is Utopia, a shoulder-shimmying track with the chorus “I can picture a place where everybody feels it too/It might be fiction but I see it ahead/There’s nothing I wouldn’t do”. It’s far from the treatise one might expect given the song and album titles.
“Our festival set will be a good balance between the new stuff and the old stuff,” she says, speaking on behalf of the rest of the band: Maya Postepski, Dorian Wolf and Ryan Wonsiak. “We’ve remixed some of the old stuff to make it a bit dancier, there’s a nice balance between introspective moments and some odder moments. I’m looking forward to playing the festival again; I’m sure it will be like every show we’ve played in Ireland, the best fun ever.”
While Austra have visited Ireland since their first international tour in 2011, Katie’s beginnings as a musician came much before; aged 10 she joined the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus and played or fronted in various projects until she found her footing with solo work, for which Maya also aided.
Changing the self-titled project to Austra so the semi-interested wouldn’t mistake her for a folk artist, their 2011 debut Feel It Break benefited from both reverence (it was New York magazine’s album of the year) and the absence of fast-burning hype, allowing the group to develop at their own pace.
That allowed the aforementioned progression; over the years, their lyrics have become more meaningful, live instrumentation has replaced programmed beats, and happily, they’ve outrun the usual comparisons that hound female-fronted acts at the start.
“I gave people so much to write about that they didn’t have to do the comparison thing,” laughs Katie. “I think it’s just a symptom of being a new female artist on the scene. You’re always going to be compared to one of five artists like PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Björk, depending on the type of music you make.
“But since we started, the archetype of what is possible as a female musician has changed; because there’s been a ton of press about being a female producer, it’s now possible to receive recognition. When I put out my first record as Austra, I was never ever written about as being a producer, and now it’s in every article. It wasn’t that I was speaking about it differently – I think people now understand the idea of a female producer.”
It’s not only the gender dynamics that have improved in this short timeframe. Being queer, she also appreciates that collective openness and acceptance has moved the concept of a queer musician from a sub-genre to a non-genre.
“I remember when we first started, I knew musicians who were touring and putting out records that were gay, but nobody was talking about it. And now, almost all of them are out.
“People were always afraid that their music would be judged in the wrong way, and that’s definitely changed – it’s now possible to be gay but not be pigeonholed as a gay musician,” she pauses, listening to her words. “Which is nice.”
– Austra play the Body & Soul main stage on Sunday, June 25th