I met Austra, aka Katie Stelmanis, at a remote hotel in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district on one of the first warm and sunny spring-days this year. The atmosphere was wonderfully miss-matched with the darkness-obsessed music coming from Domino Recordings latest signing utterly opposing the sun that was shining outside. She must have listened to a lot of NIN and The Knife after she studied viola and piano for many years and the result – her debut album called Feel it Break – is danceable, shimmering and sexy. And just a bit dark.
Hello Katie, you were trained as a classical musician, you joined the Canadian Children’s Opera at 10, you sang for the Canadian Opera Company whilst learning viola and piano. As Austra your music has a dancefloor-friendly vibe. Is your sound part of a rising alliance between classical and electronic music?
I definitely recognize that right now there are a lot of artists with a classical background trying to push things forward and I think this has a lot to do with the cycle of music. Recently in the past there was this DIY-movement, but now its time for something new. And yes, classical music was my love. I was devoted to it, it was some kind of escape playing classical music, when I was young. But I was always creative and sorta looking for inspiration and with the time the whole classical education was limiting me, so I tried out new possibilities with my laptop.
You took your computer and added electronic sounds to classical music?
Yes, I got a midi controller and a laptop – that was my way to invent new sound structures.
Your computer and all its tools opened the door?
Definitely. I was then a so called Bedroom-producer: I got ProTools and Logic and there you go. That’s the great thing: now everybody has access and everybody can use these technologies.
So your bedroom-producing was kinda successful: Now there is Austra and the debut album, Feel It Break is set to drop next month.
Yes, but it was a very slow process. Last years we toured under the name of Galaxy in a more punky-way through the US – on the typical DIY circut. And I used to play with different musicians, when we were playing live, we are up to six people. But now we are Austra: that’s me plus the drummer Maya Postepski and the bassist Dorian Wolf. But what I really like is the mystery name: Austra. You don’t know if its a group or solo band. It’s just Austra and I dont wanna define it, the line-up gonna change all the time.
The album was produced and mixed by Damien Taylor, who earlier produced acts such as The Prodigy, Björk or UNKLE – how came that you both work together? How was the collaboration?
I had already finished the record, when I started to work with Damien – I gave it to him to mix it and we ended up re-arranging a lot of the songs, improving the sound quality. Originally I started working with him because he moved from London to Montreal and there is a major lack of electronic producers and engineers here in Canada. As soon as I found out, that he moved here, it was clear I wanted to work with this guy, because I really wanted to work with someone who makes the record club-friendly – it was a no-brainer to work with him.
The first release off of the new album was ‘The Beat And The Pulse’ – which came out with a video. A very special video, shot by Claire Edmundson, a collaborator of Jaron Albertin, one of the most famous and influential canadian music-video directors.
Yes, right. It is just the 2nd video of Claire’s. We both wanted to develop something together – without a big budget. We both wanted to work on a video. But in the end the video is all her: her concept, she organized it – everything.
The video is quite sexual, there are lots of girls having obviously a good time, flirting, teasing and: you can see nipples – no big surprise it got shelved from YouTube. Was it your intention to produce some sort of a scandal? Is this state-of-the-art marketing?
It’s funny, because it wasn’t planned at all. Nothing about this video was planned -we didn’t even intend it to be all women. There was a casting call to all my friends and it ended up being all women. But you know what, it felt totally natural to me, even if from an outside perspective it might look different. My favourite thing about this video is that it is just a bunch of friends: we hung out, had a great time: its truly authentic. It’s very sexual but not in a objectifying way, it’s just a real picture towards female sexuality. It’s about girls being themselves. It felt real and honest.
But there was quite a buzz around your video. Did you checked the feedback in the internet or…
…yeah, when it first came out I quite liked it, but I was also very nervous to put it in the world. Not really because of the nudity, but I thought the reviews might judge it as too trendy. But then I realized that I am very happy that it exists.
Is the gender-thing on of your tools?
I am truly open-minded, I am not afraid talking about gay stuff, but I think music speaks for itself, and I would never use gayness or something as a markeing tool. Definitely not. I am totally fine and I dont see us getting labeled as a Toronto gay band.
So a month ago you played the SXSW – there you had your acclaimed show and there you got signed to Domino. How was this experience?
SXSW is a really funny festival, because every band sort of has to play it, it’s one of those things you have to do with your band, it’s where people discover you, where labels or journalists discover you – it’s where you get the buzz. It’s so funny because it doesn’t actually support artists in any way. You dont get paid and it costs so much to get down there, you never get sound-checks. All sets are really short, the sound is usally disaterous, you’re essentially playing like the worst show of your life and at the same time the most important show of your life. It has a funny energy. Everybody is just drunk, partying…
And now you are with Domino Recordings.
Yeah three years ago I couldn’t have dreamed of it, but I have the feeling that everything that happens to me or to the band happens when I was ready for it. It feels natural, it doesn’t feel that something big is happening, it feels like a logical step and now we do have some backup from the label side. Feels like now we are starting, now it’s a new thing: We are a new band, but we are also very experienced. We know what to expect and I think we have a lot of perspective.
You have any plans for the summer, playing festivals?
Yeah, we playing some festivals in the summer coming back to Europe in June and in August/September. There are lots of touring plans…
Austra’s debut album ‘Feel It Break’ will be released on May 16th 2011 – through Domino Records.
Published April 29, 2011.