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Austra Wants Listeners to Shake Off Apathy and Build a More Utopian World

Katie Stelmanis on the books, beats, and cities that inspired her synth-pop project's third LP 'Future Politics.'

by Denise Benson
Jan 23 2017, 9:43pm

All photos by Renata Raksha. This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.

Led by the luminous vocals and multilayered songwriting of Katie Stelmanis, Austra is a synth-pop project that has always been future-minded. Since Stelmanis founded the project in Toronto in 2009—working with musicians including drummer and producer Maya Postepski (aka Princess Century)—Austra's version of the future has been warm and reflective, aiming to make sense of the world while exploring personal topics like love, loss, and queer identity.

Austra's debut album, Feel It Break, was released on Domino Records in 2011. Shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and named "Album of the Year" by New York Magazine, the release took the band (also featuring multi-instrumentalist Dorian Wolf and keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak) to prominent club and festival stages worldwide. They followed it up with 2013's critically-acclaimed, emotionally rich Olympia, which went deeper and darker even as many songs dared listeners to dance.

Now, the classically-trained singer and pianist has set her soaring voice and sculptured synths on stun with the group's third release, Future Politics. The album was written and produced while Stelmanis spent periods living in Montreal, where she combatted loneliness and depression by reading a great deal of sci-fi and political theory, and Mexico City, where she soaked in bright colurs, rich culture, and danced to a lot of electro-cumbia.

Austra's music has always had a political charge, but it's more pronounced and urgent than ever. Austra's synthetic sound is equal parts gothic and modernistic—introspective, hopeful, and, above all, deeply passionate. Stelmanis' powerful voice leads the charge on Future Politics, pulling us into songs of both darkness and light. Tempos range accordingly, but with its rich production and vibrant mix, this album is their brightest and boldest to date.

Coincidentally released on the same day that Donald Trump officially took office, Future Politics asks us to imagine —and create—a better world. We recently spoke with Stelmanis about the books, beats and cities that served as inspiration.


THUMP: In many ways, this album begins in Montreal so let's start there. Why did you choose to relocate to that city from Toronto?

Katie Stelmanis: I wanted to move to Montreal because it's a lot cheaper to live. I think that after traveling and touring for five years, I would have moved to the forest in the middle of nowhere, that was how I was feeling. I felt like I needed to reset. I needed to be quiet and get bored and, really, get sad and lonely. And so I moved to Outremont in Montreal, which is a more residential neighborhood. At first, I thought it was amazing, but within a month, I realized that I was living too far from everything and it really did become kind of lonely.

You did a lot of reading during this period; was that a change for you?
To be honest, I hadn't really read a book since high school. It's crazy, but I started to notice that I was losing my vocabulary so I decided that I needed to start reading again and I went in full force. In high school, I hated both English and French class, but now, learning languages and reading books are two of my favorite things in life.

Why did your reading list veer so heavily toward topics like political and economic systems?
I just didn't like the idea of feeling as though stuff was messed up and not really knowing anything about it. I wanted to be better informed about why climate change is happening and what can be done to stop it. I wanted to be better informed about a lot of basic stuff. I also didn't go to university so I had to learn the foundation on my own. When I went on my reading binge, I messaged the smart people I know and asked "What are the foundational books?" or "What is the classic literature that I need to read to bring myself up to speed?" That's what I was doing for a long time, but all of the economics stuff was something I have a genuine interest in and was kind obsessed with reading and learning about.

What are the two or three books that most resonated for you and that you'd recommend?
I really enjoyed reading A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey. It sounds really boring, but it's actually kind of an easy read and it's a really, really good explanation of the economic system we're living under right now. It's an economic system that's existed since the 80s that isn't really talked about in the same way other systems, like communism and fascism, are.

I also really liked Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. That one is a bit about neoliberalism and stuff too, but it's mostly about the future and that was what directly inspired the song "Future Politics." They believe that technology will free us from the constraints of capitalism because it will eliminate the need for labour and also eliminate scarcity. It's obviously flawed, but I find that the text is subversive and somewhat revolutionary at the same time.

I was also really into reading sci-fi, and I recommend the book Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It's one of the feminist sci-fi books that I especially loved. Someone mentioned it in passing, and so I read it almost randomly, and was completely blown away. It's still so relevant, probably even more so, to where we are at this moment.

How did all of this reading help you move from a somewhat solitary place to ideas—and songs—that are a lot about collective feelings and action?
I think it was a matter of focusing my energy on something that wasn't directly related to my personal life or my career. Putting the emphasis—or switching around what I considered to be important to me—was what made me able to eventually flesh out this record.

I've never felt completely apathetic; I generally am an optimistic person. I always feel resentful when people call millennials "apathetic." If our generation is at all apathetic, I think it's a product of us growing up in a fabricated world where everything is a lie.

You've also said that it was a lot about overcoming apathy; how so?
I've never felt completely apathetic; I generally am an optimistic person. I always feel resentful when people call millennials "apathetic." If our generation is at all apathetic, I think it's a product of us growing up in a fabricated world where everything is a lie. If you've watched the [2016] documentary HyperNormalisation, you'll know what I'm talking about. Also, I think it's really hard to be active when everything sucks. The millennial position as of now is that we're not getting stable work, apartments are too expensive, we can't buy houses—it's a disenfranchised generation and I think that will either cause people to pull back and not be bothered, because it's too difficult, or it will cause people to do the opposite, and I think that's what's happening now.

Your bio states that Future Politics "calls for radical hope," and the lead single was "Utopia." What are some versions of a utopia to you?It's a hard question. I'm more obsessed with learning about what other people's ideas of utopia are. Adrienne Rich says that she writes because she wants a world without oppression; that, to me, is one idea of utopia—a world without oppression. Also, a world that's based on sustainability instead of growth. But then, I also love reading and watching sci-fi because I'm excited and curious about what technology could bring us. The possibilities of technology are really exciting and when I think of utopia, I think of these really expansive huge technological projects that nobody does now because nobody wants to fund them. If money wasn't an object, what kind of lives could we be living?

How do you think that artists can best contribute to building a better world?
I think that artists just have so much influence so it's important to use that influence to spread ideas. When I think about the 60s and 70s, and the hippie movement, it was kind of seen as a relatively subversive, left-field movement of young people. But the ideology surrounding it was generally informed by artists—writers, painters, and musicians. The idea of freedom and the ideals that the hippies promoted helped shaped how Americans think. That's why I think it's super important to have these discussions, and have today's cultural creators realize that they have the power to change the way that people think.

For me, clubs and music and dancing can, at their best, offer moments of utopia. The sound of Future Politics is—perhaps surprisingly, given the themes—quite upbeat. Was that deliberate?
It's definitely from absorbing different kinds of dance music because I listen to a lot of it. When I started to write this record, I had the idea that I wanted to write background music—more ambient and ethereal music that you could put on in a room and not really notice, but it would make the room feel different. So I started writing a lot of songs like that, and then realized about halfway through that I had all these songs that would never work on a live stage and that I could never tour. So I started writing songs that were more upbeat [laughs]. At the very end of the mixing process, we also sped three songs up to five or six BPM faster. The album would otherwise have felt very different.

Who are some electronic music artists you're appreciating right now?
I'm going to name all women. I'm really into Avalon Emerson, who is American but lives in Berlin. I also really like this producer Rrose; I've been listening to her a lot. Ikonika, who did a remix for us, is a UK producer who I love, and have been listening to for years and years.

Do you spend much time on dancefloors, either in the cities you live or while on tour?
I find I spend way more time on dancefloors everywhere other than Toronto. I guess it's because when I'm in Toronto, I'm more into relaxing. I loved going out in Berlin, and really loved going out in Mexico City. That was very eye-opening because I was exposed to a genre of music that I never knew existed, which is something I hadn't experienced in probably about 10 years. My friends there were like "Oh yeah, we get drunk and listen to cumbia" and I was like "What's cumbia?" Their response was, "Are you kidding me? You don't know what cumbia is?" I didn't really know, and I definitely didn't know what electro-cumbia was.

Basically, there's this trend with producers in Mexico and also all over Latin America who are taking old folk and traditional music—a lot of it is indigenous folk music from Peru and Argentina—and they're remixing it to work on the dancefloor. When you go out there, you're always hearing electro-cumbia. It's the smoothest, most amazing music to dance to. It's a really unique genre of music, particularly this guy Chancha Via Circuito from Argentina. I'm a huge fan of him.

And now it's time for your fans to get to see Austra. You guys have an intense schedule—52 shows over three months!
I know, it's crazy. To be honest, my brain is in chaos right now, but once the tour actually starts, it's easy. You're like a monkey on the road. A monkey who gets directed around, and then it's fine.

What are you most looking forward to in touring this album?
We haven't played a show in a year-and-a-half so I'm just so excited to play live again. We've remixed a lot of the older songs, from the first record, which I'm really happy about. The new record is quite a bit more chill in some ways, but I feel like when people come to our shows, they generally expect a dance party so we've been remixing a bunch of stuff to have a balance of chill time and dance time. I'm excited to try that out.

Future Politics is out now via Domino Records and see Austra's upcoming tour dates here.

Denise Benson is on Twitter.

Tagged:
Thump
Technology
Montreal
Sci-Fi
Domino Records
Katie Stelmanis
synth pop
mexico city
electrocumbia
utopia
Austra
hypernormalisation
future politics
dancefloor politics