For teachers, Professional Activity Day is designed to participate in activities that help them evaluate students, attend educational conferences and consult with parents and/or pupils for professional development, among other things. For students, it's a day off as precious as any statutory holiday. For parents without a day care provider, it's often a forced, possibly unpaid day off and huge pain in the ass. So for my daughter's PA Day, I opted to put her to work.
Last September Beatrice got a taste for music journalism when I asked her to review the Toronto Urban Roots Fest for Noisey so I didn't have to. For once I was the relaxed, carefree spectator and she was the focused critic. We both loved the role reversal, and when she expressed interest in doing it again, well, I kept my eyes peeled for another opportunity. Enter Austra.
I must admit, my daughter was not aware of Austra when I first approached her with the idea of interviewing singer/songwriter/producer Katie Stelmanis. But her musical curiosity has always left her open and willing to listen to new artists I introduce to her. This is especially true when it's an artist that embraces technology (namely synthesizers) and melody the way Stelmanis does. (Beatrice also prefers female vocalists, mostly because she can better relate to one when she sings along.)
Despite featuring some of the band's most alluring compositions to date, Austra's new album, Future Politics, isn't exactly the kind of thing most second graders would be drawn to. As it states in the bio, Austra's third album imagines our future world as a dystopian society, but one holding out hope for humankind to rise above and bring change. It is a bleak environment where the apocalypse is "not an inevitability, but the product of human decision-making," however, in it "human compassion and curiosity drive technological innovation rather than profit, the necessity of labor is replaced with time for creativity and personal growth, and the terror and destruction wrought by colonialism and white supremacy is recognized as a dark age in human history." (So in other words, it's basically a premonition of what may come to be in the next four years.)
Stelmanis took an extended break to make this album. Originally beginning the process in Montreal, she relocated to the warmer climes of Mexico City, absorbing the city's vibrant culture and history, but also learning more about how Mexico has become a victim of evils such as capitalism and colonialism. Future Politics was created before Donald Trump shared his plan to build a wall, but the parallels between the album and the American political climate is uncanny. Also uncanny is the fact that Future Politics was coincidentally scheduled for release on January 20—better known to Americans as Inauguration Day. This was also the date of our interview.
My daughter and I met up with Stelmanis at Toronto's Mod Club, just hours before she kicked off Austra's three-month world tour. Of course, Beatrice didn't get too deep into the socio-political prescience of Future Politics and instead kept it simple with the kind of inquisitive questions seven-year-old kids like to ask.
Beatrice for Noisey: Why did you call the band Austra?
Katie Stelmanis: I appreciate you pronouncing it correctly. I have to say, most people do not. I called it Austra because it's my middle name and we thought it sounded cool.
How did you learn to sing?
I've been singing my entire life. Since I was a kid I would sing a lot. So my mom put me in a choir and I sang in choirs for a long time. It's just been something I've always done. I had some training when I was older. I trained to be an opera singer for three years, but after that nothing.
What is your favorite song you've sang?
My favorite song I've sang in the world? When I was younger, like 10 years ago, do you know who Roy Orbison is?
Well, he has a song called "Crying" that I covered. I think that was my favorite song to sing.
How often do you change your hair color?
A lot less than I used to, I have to be honest. It's been pretty blonde as of recently. Although I guess I have a lot of orange hair in the press photos. And I guess it was neon green last month. I'll say three times a year. Just average it out.
What is your favorite hair color?
I've had? Well, when I was younger I used to have shorter hair and I had a bright green ponytail, this turquoise-y green, and I think that was my favorite color.
Is that you on the cover of the album?
It is, yes.
Why is there a horse on the cover?
Well, I had this idea for the cover to have me on a horse. I wanted the character I was playing to be a superhero, so I had this idea where her name would be Revolutionary Rhonda. She was sent from the future to save us from our dystopian fate.
What is the name of the horse on the cover?
That's a really good question and I should know but I don't. The horse had a Spanish name but I don't remember what it was. So, terrible answer.
Was it nice?
Yeah… it was actually pretty scary. The horse didn't know me at all and I think it was a bit freaked out. It was supposed to be the most relaxed horse on the ranch. I originally wanted the photo to be of me on the horse, but I couldn't stay on the horse long enough to take the shot. There was a man there to lead the horse but he couldn't be in the photos, so he had to leave me alone. At one point I was trying to steer the horse and walk and we just walked right into the tree. I had to hang on to the branches and the horse kept walking so I was dangling from the branches in the tree. It was scary.
That was the alternate album cover I assume?
[Laughs] Yeah, that's the alternate cover.
What kind of horse was it?
A brown one? That's all I got.
Why did you make some of the album in Mexico?
I made it in Mexico because I had some time off and I don't have a day job, so I could do it wherever I wanted. I was in Montreal at the time and it was winter, so it was really and dark, which I didn't like. So I decided to go to Mexico City where it was warm and sunny.
Was there any food in Mexico that you really liked?
Oh my God, all of the food in Mexico is so good. I ate like a million tacos a day, and so much Oaxaca cheese and ceviche. It's the land of plenty. Just amazing food everywhere.
Today is the American inauguration. What do you think of Donald Trump?
I mean, I think Donald Trump is a goof. He is a fool. He is a dangerous fool because he has so much power. But I think he's gonna mess up pretty quickly. I don't think his presidency isn't gonna last. That's what I hope. Fingers crossed that he will mess up and get kicked out.
Did you write "Utopia" because of Donald Trump?
No, I actually wrote "Utopia" about living in Toronto. Because I grew up in Toronto and I felt like since I was younger the city has gotten a lot more expensive, and there are a lot more condos everywhere. Even though I grew up here and I live here, it feels a lot like an unfamiliar place. I feel like a stranger in my own city because of how quickly it's changed. So that is what that song is about.
Are you going to march tomorrow?
I think so. I'm going to be in Montreal tomorrow and I just looked it up. They don't have a march but they do have a rally in Montreal, so hopefully I can go. [Ed. Note: FYI she marched .]
I like how you made the record with just girls. Why did you do this record with only girls?
Well, to be honest, I didn't mean to in the beginning, it just kind of happened. My first choices for everyone I wanted to work with just happened to be all girls. And when it was in the final stages of making the record, there was one moment where I almost mixed tracks with this man, but I decided not to at the last minute because I thought it'd be really cool to say that my album was only worked on by women, because that doesn't happen very often.
There is a song called "I'm A Monster." What kind of monster are you?
[Laughs.] I think that everybody has some monsters in their head that tell them to do bad things or think bad things, and you have to try to keep them in their cages. So it's kind of about the monsters you have in your head that you're trying to figure out how to collaborate with.
What does the number 43 mean?
Well, the number 43 is a very sad story. In Mexico there were 43 students that went missing and nobody knows what happened to them. When I was living in Mexico City it was something that people were talking about a lot, and protesting and asking questions about it. But nobody really had any answers. Even today nobody really has any answers for what happened to them. So I felt it was important to make a song about it.
My daddy told me that science fiction inspired your album. What is your favorite Star Wars movie?
I guess my favorite would be one of the earlier ones. I can't tell them apart right now. I would say the first one [ A New Hope]. I'm more of a Star Trek fan. In terms with space on TV, that's where I like to go. I love The Next Generation. What is your favorite Star Wars movie?
I think probably The Force Awakens and Return of the Jedi.
Yeah, those are classics.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto and we think his daughter is after our jobs. Follow him on Twitter.