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Austra Gets Real

We have a big crush on Austra, so we met up with singer Katie to discuss the new record, breakdowns, getting vulnerable, being treated like royalty, and ship-shaped buildings. Pretty much par for the course.

by Kim Taylor Bennett
Jun 14 2013, 1:46pm

Not too long ago we met up with Austra’s Katie Stelmanis to discuss serious stuff. Like her style evolution. It was a fun chat and with the help of band mate Romy Lightman, you can watch Katie unpack her style influences and explain the part visuals now play in her music, in the video above. But quite apart from clothes and hair and stuff, Austra have a new, third record—Olympia—which thrills in all the right ways. Inky dancefloor-ready beats are cushioned with warm strings; cascading melodies are layered with hypnotically pulsing synths, while Katie’s airy incantations circle overheard. So when we spoke to Katie this time round, we talked about music, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable in your lyrics, and about mental breakdowns and dream-crushing realities. We also ended up discussing vintage shoes and ship-shaped buildings, but you know, that’s par for the course.

NOISEY: When you look back at Olympia do you notice any themes which you continue to return to?
KATIE STELMANIS: Yeah, definitely. There’s obviously the relationship-oriented themes, feelings of guilt, or feelings of sadness, and feelings of vulnerability, which I revisited a lot on the album. We were also dealing with a lot of external issues between our friends for example, our friends or lovers. Like our friends who happen to be getting older and maybe at this point they’re sidelining their art, or things that they should be doing, because either they have to work at the coffee shop, or because of drug addiction or whatever. It’s almost like a call to motivation, or just recognizing this kind of sadness. You know these people, when they were in their early 20s, they were all making art; they had these big visions and big ideas, and then when you get older, some of those ideas just don’t happen. You’re kind of watching people’s ideas, dreams, and creative abilities just kind of crumble. And it’s really sad to watch. So that is something that we dealt with a lot on the album and on the song “Annie (Oh, Muse You)” in particular.

Do the Lighting twins contribute to your writing process at all? Or are they just members of the touring band?
Sari and I collaborated lyrically a lot. Me, Maya, Dorian, and Ryan were classically trained, almost militantly diligent is a better way of describing it. We spend a lot of time practicing and working on rhythms, whereas Romy and Sari are a little bit more free spirited, which makes it an interesting balance between us. Romy brings more art direction in terms of the project, which is cool. Sari is a writer, so lyrics are very important to her. We collaborated very intimately on the whole record.

Previously you said lyrics are almost an afterthought for you. So for this record was it a different process?
It was a very different process and they were an afterthought for me previously. I wasn’t comfortable being very direct and personal with my lyrics previous to this album. I almost felt too vulnerable doing it. But this time around, I’d been listening to a lot of records where I was actually connecting to the lyrics for the first time. Like, the latest Perfume Genius record is such an intense, intimate record. I loved how he communicated these stories and feelings. It’s just very emotional. I also started revisiting a lot of old Cat Power records and listening to them in a completely different way. For this album I was writing songs about specific things that were happening in my life and specific people. I would often have a few key phrases, like in “Home,” I had written the first two lines: “You know that it hurts me/ When you don’t come home at night/ My body can’t rest unless…” and then Sari would fill in the blanks.

Are you finding it easier to be more vulnerable in songs because you’re feeling more confident as you grow older?
I think that’s what it is. I think I have always been very conscious of everything—as an artist and as a musician. Everything that I put out into the world has felt so worked up about it. I just wanted to make sure everything was absolutely perfect. I think that working the last album cycle—touring, doing shows—I reached such a high level of stress that I kind of had a bit of a breakdown. I was going crazy. I was getting sick all the time on tour and I wasn’t in a very good place and I attributed a lot of that to stress. We finally got a tour manager and that changed my life, and a manager, which changed my life. I just spent the last year and a half relaxed. And then suddenly, we have an album and I love this record, but I’m also not being as precious with it. I feel confident in it and I’m happy to present it to the world. If people like it, or don’t, it doesn’t matter, I just feel good about it.

When you finished the touring cycle for the last record, what did you do to recalibrate?
I had to kind of shut myself off from the world. Aside from just dealing with the stress of touring I also had tumultuous things happening in my personal life, so I really had to take some time by myself. I spent some time in Seattle. I didn’t have a phone and I didn’t have internet where I was staying. I was there a lot by myself so I just had to dive into the writing world. And it took a long time to actually get into it. Just to learn how to write a song again, because I hadn’t done it in two years. But once I got my groove back it was easier. I was able to just write song more fluidly, but it took a specific amount of time and decompression to do it.

Do you miss the opera environment or singing in that way?
I miss being in the classical music environment because I love classical music, and I love singing and performing in operas. I don’t miss that world though. It just wasn’t for me I couldn’t do it. I just find it very restricting. I used to do all of these singing competitions where you might as well not show up if you’re not wearing a full-length ball gown. I was my late teens, like 18 or 19, and I was just a really awkward looking lesbian with braces. It was just totally not my vibe to show off. I had braces till I was 20.

I got them when I was 17 and it was the worst thing ever at that age. It’s like, why didn’t this happen when I was 14, when everyone had them?
When it was cool! Exactly. So I wasn’t into it. There’s also just such defined gender roles in that world. Meanwhile, I’m wearing a full-length ball gown right now, but I guess it’s from a different place.

Do you find there are less defined gender roles in the music world these days? I’m not sure I would really agree.
I wouldn’t say defined gender roles, as there are expectations or stereotypes. Like in the opera world there are literally roles. You’re playing a role in an opera and there is just an expectation of how you present yourself in that world. Whereas in our world people can be transgendered and people are okay with that.

You said in one interview that being gay affects the music you make. Could you elaborate please?
I think I meant, because being gay lends you to part of a certain community and I’m influenced by that community. Like the people I’m friends with in Toronto, or the people I work with in my band, or the bands that I am friends with on the road. It always seems that I am being surrounded with other LGBT-labeled people. That’s the only way that it influences my music, because I’m obviously influenced by the people I surround myself with.

What would you say is your most treasured possession?
My computer. Its not just because I’d want to go on Facebook, it’s also a means of making music. Absolutely everything I do is through a computer. It is basically my instrument, in a way. Otherwise I would probably say my shoes, because I also love shoes. I wear pretty much only used, vintage shoes—only because most of the shoes that I like are very expensive. So I try to find similar aesthetics in the vintage world.

It’s hard to find great vintage shoes. It takes a lot more hunting.
It optimally happens in the middle of nowhere. Shoes to me are very important. I really like shoes because they add height, and height feels good. Height usually makes me feel bigger and more important. I often build a whole outfit on shoes, pretty much. Like I can dress really girly, if I have really intense, scary looking shoes.

What do you think is the most surreal thing about being in a band?
The funny thing is, when you’re a musician, while you’re touring, you’re pretty much treated like royalty. Of course the more famous you are, the more you’re treated like royalty, but we stay in fancy hotels because we buy them on Priceline or whatever. We stay in hotels I’d never probably stay in, we’re eating at the most fabulous restaurants. I get to go to all these amazing places in the world like Australia, Singapore, Istanbul, but then we get to home, I live in this crappy apartment in Toronto and all of us can barely afford to pay rent. What a juxtaposition. When you’re in Toronto you’re like a bottom feeder and when you’re traveling, you’re like royalty. So it’s very weird. In that sense the most surreal experience was probably Singapore. It was like living in a video game. The architecture is insane. They’ll have these really tall buildings that have a giant ship on top of them! This is what their skyline looks like: buildings that are shaped like a ship! Like there are offices in a ship. And then they have a football field. I think it is football, it might be another sport, but they have it in the middle of this body of water. We stayed in this hotel, which the festival hooked us up with, I think it was the Ritz in Singapore, it was the most insane hotel that I’ve ever stayed in my life. Nevermind the technology in the room with the rising and falling windows and doors. Whatever. Just the entire hotel and the view of the surreal skyline! You know my band were like six rats from Toronto staying at the Ritz in Singapore. We were like what are we doing? What is our life right now? So it is pretty cool.

Olympia is out on Domino Records on June 18.

Kim wants to work in an office shaped like a ship. She's on Twitter - @theKTB.

Style Stage is an ongoing partnership between Noisey & Garnier Fructis celebrating music, hair, and style.

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