Sometimes, you just don’t want to be right – particularly when your conclusion is so terrifying.
It’s a cold and blustery morning in late December when I reach Katie Stelmanis over the phone. Stelmanis, vocalist, producer, and principal songwriter for synthpop outfit Austra, is visiting her parents in her home town of Toronto. Incredibly, her voice is as expressive in conversation as it is while she sings – a complicated mixture of pride, empathy, and disappointment.
“To be honest, Future Politics was written and titled before 2016 happened,” Stelmanis asserts, cutting a conflicted figure. ” I mean – I never, never anticipated Brexit, or Trump, or this right-wing insurgency. What I was writing about kind of had nothing to do with that, but it’s kind of crazy that the album is coming out literally the same day as Trump’s inauguration.”
While these concerns about geopolitics had been brewing in Stelmanis’ head for a while, it wasn’t until she moved to Mexico City in late 2015 that the themes for the album began to take shape. As the messages in the tea leaves began to crystallize, Stelmanis got to writing – but little would she know how poignant it would all be, nor how the coincidences would begin to stack up.
“In a way, I guess the concept has become more relevant,” Stelmanis adds, with a resigned laugh and a deep sigh. “When I was writing it I was concerned that people wouldn’t really connect with what I was trying to say or talk about, but that has changed since then.”
Brightest Young Things: You’ve described Future Politics as calling for radical hope and “a commitment to replace the approaching dystopia.” What do you do in your daily life to help fight this impending sense of doom? Or I guess, it’s my sense of doom.
Stelmanis: I mean, It’s difficult because I really think that one of the most important things is to abolish this individualist attitude that has penetrated the United States and Britain for such a long time. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what I do on my own, but it’s so important to rally some sort of collectiveness and reignite a collective vision, and I think that’s something you can do effectively through art and music, and through writing and entertainment – and just through like, pop culture. It’s about spreading ideas and making people think differently, essentially.
BYT: I know you’re from Toronto – which has such a rich history and legacy in the music and arts scene. Now you live in Montreal, a city that has come to the forefront as a nucleus of creativity and avant-garde music and DIY aesthetic, particularly in the anglophone scene. How has that adjustment been for you? Do you feel like you’ve found your space in the Montreal art world?
Stelmanis: Well, to be honest I move like every six months. I lived in Montreal for a year and a half, then I was in Mexico City for six months, and then I moved to New York. [Laughing] And now I’m back in Toronto again! So I guess the bio they sent you isn’t completely entirely accurate. I feel like I’m addicted to moving around because I got addicted to touring, so I really do move every few months. Every time I move I’m like [faux-determination] “this is it, this is where I’m going to be permanently, from now on” and it never happens for some reason.
I love Montreal. It’s a really good city, and it’s got so much stuff going on, but I just really missed Toronto when I was there, and it has a lot to do with missing my friends and family in Toronto. Plus, Toronto is just a bigger city – it’s harder to move to a smaller city I find; it’s much easier to get bigger and bigger.
BYT: So when you’re moving around, are you bringing all of your furniture and belongings every time?
Stelmanis: YEP! It’s crazy. I have a whole apartment worth of furniture: a couch, a TV, a dining room, I’ve got tons of records and all these books and bookshelves. I’ve got all this stuff that I’m just carting around the world, all the time. And it’s not economical at all. It’s a really stupid thing to do. [Laughs]
BYT: Yeah, I feel you on that. In 2012 – 2013 I lived in five apartments across three cities, carrying all my shit from place to place. Why the hell did I do that?
Stelmanis: Wow. Yeah! So you know what I’m talking about – you get it! It’s crazy.
BYT: What was your time in Mexico City like? Had you ever traveled to the country before outside of tour?
Stelmanis: No, I hadn’t. Mexico City was totally random – I was living in Montreal during the winter. It’s a very dark and sad place during the wintertime, it’s freezing, and I realized I didn’t have to be there as I was just writing. So I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico City. I had never been there, but I always knew I would like it, and I was right. I got really lucky because I was introduced to the perfect community right away through mutual friends, so I had an instant friend base and met the right people who showed me the city. I feel really lucky that happened. It’s definitely the longest I’ve spent in another country besides the United States.
BYT: How’s your Spanish these days?
Stelmanis: It sucks now. I was trying! I was taking intensive Spanish courses when I was there, but it was really hard because I was living with my girlfriend who is also an English speaker. I wasn’t practicing at home, and all my friends spoke perfect English, so it was really hard to pick it up. But at this point now I’ve got survival Spanish, but I definitely want to go back and keep taking those intensive courses because I felt pretty good about it while I was doing those.
BYT: You’ve talked about discovering and enjoying certain musical styles and artists in your 20s that you didn’t really enjoy before – including artists such as Kate Bush and Frank Zappa, and jazz as a genre. Are there any other artists or bands you’ve grown to love despite not really “getting” them when you were younger?
Stelmanis: [Smirks] I didn’t get anything when I was younger – I was such a classical music snob until I was 19. It was to the point that my parents were wondering what was wrong with me, as they had much better musical taste than I did. But yeah, I’ve slowly been figuring stuff out.
The first transition band for me was Nine Inch Nails; I got really into them when I was 18 or 19. And shortly after I got into Bjork, Kate Bush…it’s kind of cool that there’s so much new music to consume all the time and easy to hear, and I find that whenever a new band launches they’re all over the internet immediately. Whereas when you’re delving into the past to find stuff – that’s where you really get the secrets.
You know, I got super into Massive Attack right when I started writing this record, and I’d never listened to them in my life. And unless they’re putting out something new, nobody’s going to be writing about Massive Attack albums from the 90s. So that felt like my personal discovery – which obviously it’s not – but I felt like I was engaging with something that only I was experiencing at that moment, at least.
And the jazz thing is pretty recent too. I just find my brain suddenly gets some genre of music. I remember when I just “got” techno, or instrumental music. It clicks and you like it, and I like when that happens.
BYT: What sonic qualities or styles are you attracted to? Are there any things you’ve tried to incorporate into Austra’s sound as you’ve matured as an artist?
Stelmanis: When I started writing this record, I had this idea that I wanted to write background music because Austra has always been a bit aggressive in the past in the ways that I delivered and communicated music. It always had this slightly angsty undertone to it. WIth this record I wanted to make the kind of music you could put on in a coffee shop, and it sets a vibe, or I had this term that I wanted to make music that “colors a room.”
So I wrote all this really chill and really slow music, and halfway through I realized none of it would work live, at all. [Laughs] And my band – we survive by playing live. That’s what we do. I had to adjust that and write stuff that’s more suited to the live stage, but I think there’s more balance and texture and ambience on this record that maybe there has been in the past.
BYT: What was the return to bedroom production like for you? Do you feel like you’re helped or hindered by the sense of total control?
Stelmanis: I think both. It was really important for me to go back to that and use all of my new knowledge about producing and keep on developing that knowledge. When you’re working with other people it’s easy to hand things off and not think about it much, but forcing myself to do all of it – I definitely have a much better understanding that will definitely help with future collaborations, and that’s what I’m excited about at this point. This record was a very independent, DIY procedure, but I’m excited to start collaborating again in the future. I’ll have a lot more confidence in my own abilities and opinions in working with other people.
BYT: Speaking of collaborators, are there any contemporary artists that you’d love to work with?
Stelmanis: In terms of collaborators, I’m constantly intrigued and inspired by the instrumental producers. The stuff they’re doing is so exciting. The producer Objekt is one, Avalon Emerson is another – she’s this woman from Texas living in Berlin. I also love Holly Herndon out of San Francisco; I just want to collaborate with all the weird producers so I can learn all their tricks. [Laughs]
BYT: Were there any records that you discovered in 2016 that stuck with you?
Stelmanis: Well, I really, really loved the ANOHNI record – like, a LOT. I was also listening to a lot of Nina Simone this year, but it was mainly this live record. [Pauses] I was also playing a lot of Miles Davis this year, particularly Kind of Blue. I guess that’s kind of a cliche, but I love it. I worked at a restaurant a few years ago and they had it on rotation all the time – it’s total restaurant music – and I think that’s when I got it because I listened to it every day. It’s amazing.
When I moved to New York I bought these really old speakers and was buying a lot of jazz records. I like listening to old music on old speakers. It’s a very enjoyable experience. [Laughs]