Meet Katie Austra Stelmanis. Katie didn't know that her middle name means goddess of light in Latvian mythology until someone brought it up recently, but it makes a great name for a band - in Stelmanis' words "its ambiguous." Austra, who is due to release their first full length album entitled Feel It Break next week, is one part gothic, wagnerian siren Katie Stelmanis, one part brooding, angst ridden bassist Dorian Wolf, and one part high school outcast, black lipstick wearing drummer with a resentment for all cool people Maya Postepski. I don't know any of these people personally, not in the least, but you can just feel it in the music - especially in the songs Villain or Darken Her Horse. Feel it Break is the kind of album that plays when you head back to your apartment, and you realize you've forgotten to pay the gas bill in ages and its cold as shit, and you decide to break all the pictures of your girlfriend, and then it still plays, faintly in the background, on a radio maybe, as you spend the night shivering - knowing full well the meaninglessness of life.
"...as you spend the night shivering - knowing full well the meaninglessness of life."
As if to live up to the record's name Stelmanis' voice could very well break your heart more than any girlfriend could. In a powerful, heart twisting contralto, Stelmanis' voice soars violently-but-sweetly above a digital backdrop that gives both a sense of longing and an uncontrollable urge to tap your feet. Wherein the record seems like a large abyss with plenty of high places to jump to your death - it is also extremely danceable, cathartic, beautiful, strange, weird, and a little surreal.
Stelmanis, who is classically trained, is part of a slowly rising wave of Canadian musicians in the same boat as the violin looping, honey-voiced Owen Palett, all starting to make a name for themselves - all blossoming from the seedlings of musicians, sharpening their knives in a Toronto based music collective called The Blocks Recording Club. The Blocks is an innovative recording club that was set up by the musicians themselves to help cultivate their musical careers. It is common knowledge that when you're an artist or a musician its kind of like being born with a congenital disease - there is not much else you can do in life, but make art and play music. Stelmanis, who is Latvian-Canadian, joined the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus at the age of 10 and sang regularly for the Canadian Opera Company - she almost became an opera singer. After trying her hand in many bands, solo projects, this self admitted chameleon has found herself a musical style that generously amalgamates classical with the deeply saturated electronic genre, but therein this amalgamation lies Stelmanis' uniqueness, rawness, and a realness that makes her a true artist - a musician to watch out closely for, because who knows who she'll be next time around.
Pas Un Autre got a chance a chance to ask Katie Stelmanis a few questions and she was kind enough to answer them....
So, firstly I want to start off with a question that will seem one dimensional, but is actually meant to be construed with more of a Proustian depth - I've been reading a lot of interviews and articles full of hyperbolic assumptions - who is Katie Stelmanis and what is Austra?
I am Katie Stelmanis and I used to perform under my own name. Over the years the project became more collaborative and so I felt a band name would be more appropriate. Austra is actually my middle name, and I like using it because I think its rather ambiguous whether or not it represents a person or a band.
So you're album thats coming out, Feel it Beak, is not your first album as an artist, but the first for Austra - and it's a consistently powerful album that is garnering a lot of buzz - out of all the music you have put out how does this album compare - does it feel like you've hit upon some kind of stride?
The main difference between Feel It Break and Join Us to me is production. I really had no idea what I was doing when I put out my first record. I didn't understand what role a producer or engineer was supposed to play, and I didn't know what mastering was. Everything was recorded by myself in my bedroom and I think the songs were pretty self-indulgent. I guess in that sense Feel It Break is just the product of someone who has a better understanding of how to make a record, and how to take advantage of all the possibilities in a studio.
I have been watching a some videos of live performances from only few years ago and you have a totally different look now - almost like an artist who has come out of their shell - a maturation of sorts - is there anything to this?
I'm a bit of a chameleon to be honest. I will drastically change the way I look every few years. Its quite funny if you look at pictures of me since I was a teen. Aside from that, I also used to be quite lazy with how I would present myself on a stage. Now I make more of an effort to really put on a performance, and the way I present myself aesthetically is part of that.
I know that Owen Palett has been making quite a splash lately, along with some other notable Canadian musicians, and there is sort of Canadian music scene happening - can you tell me a little bit about the Blocks Recording Club and your thoughts about the Canadian music scene?
The Blocks Recording Club is a collective of artists and bands from Toronto that help each other put out records. Its really an amazing concept, basically a label run by bands. I learned a lot being a part of Blocks, it helped me book my own tours, promote my music, and I connected with so many great musicians including Owen. The Canadian music scene is quite funny to me. Its a bit insular. There are a lot of bands that have great success in Canada that no one else in the world will have heard of.
I wanted to ask you about the two music videos for the songs Lose It and Beat and the Pulse - two very different music videos, one being incredibly surreal and absurdist and the other sort of sapphic and ritualistic - but they are connected, creatively in some way - can you tell me about the videos and Austra's creative direction - its look?
I love that I have the option to work with so many different artists. I myself have never been too inclined visually, so when I meet someone that I connect with and I think understands my project its really satisfying to collaborate. The Beat video and Lose It were made by two different directors that I like and admired, so it made sense for me to work with them despite the fact they had very different aesthetics.
As aforementioned I have read some interviews and they seem to be quick to jump on the queer train right away - in the second decade of the 21st century doesn't it seem like all that should be irrelevant by now?
Well definitely not irrelevant, but I am surprised how much journalists seem to want to talk about it with me. I guess they are excited cause most artists like to keep quiet about things like that.
People have also been quick to jump on the musical comparisons, Kate Bush, Nine Inch Nails - as well as some others - but with your operatic vocal range against the mellifluous electronic background its actually really unique - can you shed some light on that?
I think because we are new band, people probably aren't too familiar with our music yet and hear superficial comparisons that may fizzle out over time. I am happy to be compared to those artists though, they have both been huge influences and have inspired me in different ways.
It's also understandable that an artist would have inspirations outside of their medium - who are some of your artistic influences - writers, sculptors, painters?
Too be honest I've got a bit of a one track mind - I don't know a lot about many other artistic fields. I am most inspired by the people I'm surrounded by in Toronto to be honest, like Kate Young who is a photographer that does all of our album art.
If you could look into a crystal ball - whats next for Katie Stelmanis and Austra?
We will be on the road until 2012, so lots of driving and lots of hotels are definitely in our future.
Austra's debut LP Feel It Break is set for release worldwide on May 16th on Domino Records. www.austramusic.com
Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper
Photos by Norman Wong