Austra takes a bright new approach
When Austra released its debut album, 2011’s successful Feel It Break, the Toronto outfit’s shadowy aesthetic and chilly electronic arrangements meant that critics were quick to label it a “goth” band. The description was so pervasive that, when it came time for the musicians to record the follow-up, they were eager to flout expectations.
“We were lumped in with a lot of other bands that we didn’t really have a lot in common with, except that we had dark imagery,” reflects singer Katie Stelmanis, answering the Straight’s phone call from a tour stop in Winnipeg. “We wanted to show people that we had more sides to us. We weren’t just a goth band.”
To achieve this, Stelmanis and her core collaborators—drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf—abandoned the MIDI instrumentation that previously characterized their sound. Instead, they created the newly released Olympia using a diverse array of analog synths, live percussion, marimba, vibraphone, and woodwinds.
“One of the main themes of this record was colour,” says Stelmanis. “Bringing colour and life into everything.”
Not only does Austra’s bright new approach help to distinguish Olympia from Feel It Break, it also differentiates the band from the many contemporary acts who create music using a laptop and little else. “At this point, anyone with a computer can make an electronic record, and I think that’s really changed the landscape of independent music,” the vocalist observes. “We tried to use as many instruments that people don’t generally associate with electronic music as we could.”
Stelmanis and company achieved their goal on Olympia. While not a complete departure from the dark and danceable Feel It Break, the arrangements are far more lushly textured; “Home” is a beguiling mixture of dense percussion, pseudo-tribal chants, and flute flourishes, while “Fire” surfs a bright tropical undertow.
At the centre of it all is Stelmanis’s blood-chilling voice. The frontwoman got her start in opera, and her soaring vibrato lends a sense of gravitas to the aforementioned “Home”, which finds her pleading with a lover and admitting, “You know that it hurts me when you don’t come home at night/My body can’t rest unless you’re sleeping by my side.”
These lyrics were penned in collaboration with Sari Lightman, an auxiliary member of Austra who plays in the live lineup. When composing the latest batch of tunes, Stelmanis would frequently begin penning the words alone, coming up with some of the key lines before bringing them to Lightman to help refine the ideas.
“She’s much more of a poet than I,” the singer admits. “I definitely feel like she was really in tune to what I was thinking, so I do very much feel like these songs are still my own. They are the most personal songs, without a doubt, that I’ve ever written, even though I wrote them with somebody else.”
Olympia’s deeply confessional themes, she explains, are part of the reason that she appears on the album cover alone, without her bandmates. In the photograph, she’s dressed in pink while standing in front of a brightly coloured painting of a peaceful blue-and-green landscape. So was this vibrant image one final jab at anyone who previously called Austra a goth band?
“Oh it was,” Stelmanis confirms with a chuckle. “Definitely.”