Artist Interviews

Q&A: Austra

By | Published on Tuesday 25 June 2013


Led by vocalist and keyboard player Katie Stelmanis, Austra released their debut EP, ‘Beat And The Pulse’, in 2010, picking up rave reviews. Their first album, ‘Feel It Break’, came the following year and picked up similar acclaim.

Last week the band released their second long player, ‘Olympia’, again through Domino Records. This second album saw the band work on tracks more as a group, whereas previously Stelmanis had arrived with songs almost complete. This had a profound effect on the development of the record, while still maintaining Stelmanis’ strong artistic vision. Plus, of course, her distinct voice still rises above the music.

Ahead of a show at London Hoxton Bar & Kitchen last week, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Stelmanis to find out more.

AM: ‘Feel It Break’ received a huge amount of praise when it came out. How did it feel to have such a positive response to your work?
KS: I’m kind of oblivious to that sort of praise – we had some wonderfully big moments during our last album cycle and some low moments, as I’m sure most musicians do.

AM: Did you feel pressure to live up to that response when working on ‘Olympia’?
KS: To me, ‘Feel it Break’ felt like a learning curve. We we’re learning how to make a studio album, how to put out a record, how to tour a record, and after a few years of working at it we knew exactly what we wanted to do differently in the studio and beyond. I don’t feel pressure to live up to ‘Feel it Break’ because I feel like ‘Olympia’ is better and closer to what we have been wanting to achieve for a long time.

AM: You worked more as a band when writing songs this time, rather that you bringing them in complete. How did that affect the sound of the new album?
KS: It affected it a lot! I wanted to leave the demos really bare when I presented them to the band so that the songs we’re shaped around real musicians playing real instruments, rather than me banging out piano riffs on a keyboard. The record is a lot more rhythmic and dynamic, and some songs I would’ve ditched if I was writing on my own turned out to be some of the best on the album.

AM: Did you prefer working in that way, or was it hard to give up control sometimes?
KS: I am all for collaboration now. I used to be a control freak, but I found working with other people to be more creatively liberating. Having other brains in the mix and other ideas to build yours upon yielded some really interesting stuff. I don’t think I’ll go back to working independently for a long while at this point.

AM: How long did you work on this album for?
KS: I started in January 2012 and it took about a year exactly to get it all done. We spent about five weeks in a studio in Michigan called Key Club where we recorded most of it, I did vocals in Montreal with Damian [Taylor], and then Tom [Elmhirst] mixed it in New York!

AM: The album’s self-produced, as ‘Feel It Break’ was, but Mike Haliechuck from Fucked Up has a co-producing credit. What did he bring to the process?
KS: He is a long time friend and mentor to me, he actually helped me out a bunch on ‘Feel It Break’ and I wanted to make his role more official this time. Our music is obviously really different, but he has a really good ear for a pop song and helped structure and arrange our songs.

AM: Lyrically, what sort of themes did you cover this time around, and how does that compare to ‘Feel It Break’?
KS: This was the first time I’ve wanted to write lyrics about real things in my life. Previously, I liked to keep them really obscure so no one could tell what I was talking about, but this time I wanted to be honest, direct, and I wanted to write songs for important people in my life. I worked with Sari of Tasseomancy on the lyrics, because she is much more of a poet than I. In fact, she wrote the words to ‘Painful Like’ and ‘Annie’ on her own.

AM: Did you have an idea of where you wanted or expected the new songs to go before you started work on them, and how close to that was the end result?
KS: We knew that we wanted to record with all live instruments, and I wanted my voice to sound like it does in real life, which is something I wasn’t previously able to achieve on any record. I also wanted to write songs that we’re guided by the songwriting itself, rather than my voice, which in the past has resulted in a lot of melodrama. I was really learning to practice restraint here, though it might not seem like it!

AM: You developed a really exciting live show around the first album. How much influence did that have on the next record and what plans do you have for your live show as you head out on tour again?
KS: The live show was a huge influence! After touring for such a long time our performance became something completely different to the sound of ‘Feel It Break’. The latter was rather dark, and the former had turned into this celebratory dance party that felt way more dynamic. We wanted to bring the energy of the live show on to our next recording.

AM: The music industry has been in a state of flux for sometime now. Does that affect you as an artist? Has your connection with the business side of things changed in anyway?
KS: I put out ‘Feel It Break’ well into the internet-era so I didn’t really notice any big changes, personally. I did have my own changes though, when I released the debut I was self-managed and self-tour managed, which was insane. I took control of everything and it basically resulted in a kind of mental breakdown. Now, I have someone else taking care of the business side that I really trust, and it feels great to be able to just focus on the creative stuff now.

AM: How positive do you feel about the music industry currently, and for the future?
KS: I think its scary that the new Mac laptops don’t have CD drives – but I suppose that’s not really how people make money any more anyway. The way musicians make money has shifted many times in the last few hundred years and it’s shifting again; I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Everyone just has to readjust a little bit and figure out how people will chose to value and support the art.

Digital files aren’t worth much to anyone any more – but records are more popular. Giant stadium concerts may be becoming boring, but I think if artists put more thought into creating a special concert – like Bj√∂rk’s residencies for example – people will be more likely to buy concert tickets and it will become a more valuable experience.

I guess I feel lucky to be able to support myself and have an apartment as a musician, and a pretty small musician at that – I can’t imagine needing much more than I have now. So I don’t really know what everyone is freaking out about.