Katie Stelmanis traded opera for Austra's dark electronica
Austra is one of those acts that seem to come out of nowhere but are suddenly everywhere—landing tours with scenester-approved bands, fielding interview requests from BrooklynVegan, and earning nominations for major awards. To be precise, Austra is up for the Polaris Music Prize alongside heavy hitters like Arcade Fire and Destroyer. The Toronto group’s debut album, Feel It Break, features 11 tracks of grey-skies synth pop showcasing the compelling, emotive singing of vocalist-keyboardist Katie Stelmanis, which is layered on dark and driving numbers like “Lose It” and “Hate Crime” like a choir of broken angels.
The album, put out by Paper Bag Records in Canada and Domino Recording Company elsewhere, has been out for a mere two months but has already elevated Austra to the upper rank of blog-buzzed artists. Reached in London at the tail end of the group’s first European tour, Stelmanis admits that she and her bandmates—drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf—released Feel It Break without much thought as to how it would be received.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest,” she says. “I’ve been doing what I do and making music for a long, long time. I put out a solo record [Join Us] in 2008 and it’s been, the whole time, a very slow process. I’ve been, like, booking my own tours and playing lots of shows, doing lots of opening slots. It just always felt very slow. I mean, obviously it helps to have support from some really strong labels, but this release we’ve definitely noticed a difference in the way things are moving. It’s been nice. I feel like we have a foundation. We feel ready for it.”
Stelmanis has indeed been making music for a long time. She sang in the chorus of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company and seemed destined for the classical world. In fact, she planned to move to Montreal to study opera after high school, but instead immersed herself in Toronto’s indie-music scene, putting her studies on hold indefinitely. This wasn’t a decision she made without a lot of second-guessing, however.
“It actually took me at least five years of sort of going back and forth, like ”˜Should I go back into it?’ ’’ Stelmanis says. “I would miss it. I was still going to the opera all the time. I felt like I had made a mistake. It took me a long time to actually feel comfortable with my decision of not doing it anymore.”
Stelmanis admits that, at 26, she’s well past the point where she could switch back to opera. It’s hard to imagine she would want to, given Austra’s success. In any case, she seems far too humble and grounded to become a true diva. Although publicity photos showing only the frontwoman’s face lend the impression that Austra is a solo effort, Stelmanis says the project is very much a band. And that band’s ranks have doubled. The current version of the group boasts six members, which could open up interesting possibilities whenever the time comes to create new material.
“A couple of years ago I never would have really imagined wanting to share decision-making processes in the studio or wanting to share writing or anything like that,” Stelmanis says. “That’s changed a lot. Now I’m working quite often with Maya and Dorian. I’m open to anything at this point. If it works out that all six members are inputting stuff in the studio and writing, that’s fine. I think at this point it’s pretty open-ended.”
Austra opens for Cold Cave at the Biltmore Cabaret tonight (July 21).
Jul 23, 2011 at 4:03pm
Great writeup John, This should give the band a boost, but it doesn't sound like they need one. It seems like they have their creative swings in their studio. I regret that I have not listened to any of their music yet, but because o your brilliant column, I will definitely be looking for anything the put out. Maybe a YouTube release?