Austra: The Power of Imagining the Future

Austra: The Power of Imagining the Future

Austra is an electro-pop outfit devoted to creating thoughtful dance music well beyond its own boundaries. 

Behind the release of both their 2011 debut, Feel It Break, and 2013′s praised follow-up, Olympia, the Canadian band led by vocalist and primary songwriter Katie Stelmanis successfully toured the globe for over half a decade. Perhaps understandably, returning home left Stelmanis in a state of shock, and she decided to step away from music for while, putting her ego aside to study complex issues of modern politics that consumed her anxieties while exploring other art forms.

Inspired and empowered from her time spent out of the spotlight, Katie birthed activism from her negativity and found her voice again, utilizing her recently discovered spring of optimism to reapproach music and imagine a new future. Titled Future Politics, the new Austra record documents her struggle with personal depression, the collective despair of her generation, and her journey to future utopias.

With a radical message of hope, Stelmanis calls for “a commitment to replace the approaching dystopia… Not just hope in the future, but the idea that everyone is required to help write it, and the boundaries of what it can look like are both fascinating and endless. It’s not about ‘being political,’ it’s about reaching beyond boundaries, in every single field.”

On an early morning in New York City, we caught up with Katie about the new record and her road back to music.

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Hey Katie, where are you? What time is it over there?

I am in New York, it is 10 a.m. in the morning.

What did you have for breakfast?

I had a boiled egg on a piece of toast. It’s my go-to breakfast.

Let’s talk about your music. Olympia was described as your dance album. How would you describe your new Future Politics album in three words?

That’s a difficult question. It is definitely not a dance album like the other one was. I don’t think I’m capable of coming up with what it is going to be just yet.

After being on the road for half a decade, you decided to settle down and move to Montreal. Are you still based there?

I was previously in Montreal for about a year and a half, then I moved to Toronto and now I live in New York.

Tell us about the transition from being constantly on the road to coming back to a permanent address. How did that influence your creative work?

In the beginning it was kind of a shock, to be honest, because I got really addicted to touring. Not being on the road suddenly felt very lonely and isolating. Transitioning from that was quite difficult for me. But it was also really nice to be able to relax and be quiet and focus on things that had absolutely nothing to do with music.

How did you manage to get out of this state of shock and loneliness?

Well, I definitely embraced these feelings. I think it is good to have them and to be bored and lonely sometimes. I decided during the winter in Montreal, when it was -30 degrees, and freezing and dark, to go Mexico city. So I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico and ended up staying there for about 6 months. That was it on a very basic level: the shift from dark and cold to warm and colorful. The vitamin D intake fueled my creativity.

The whole record was a long process. I was able to break out of feeling of sadness and loneliness through gathering information, reading and absorbing other forms of art. I think a lot of what I felt was part of this collective sadness that our whole generation is feeling right now, with all the impossible challenges our world seems to face at the moment. By reading and absorbing information I was able to find this optimism and the power of imagining a new future.

What topics, political or not, move you most at the moment?

I definitely have been thinking a lot about different aspect of politics, but it is difficult to focus on one aspect of politics when everything is so interconnected and intertwined. There are these very deep, complicated problems that are imploding and I don’t think anybody has any answers as to how to fix things. That is very daunting and very scary. I think when talking about the future, it’s really a matter of planning for it and trying to find solutions.

What are your tips for people who feel inspired to take action for their respective futures?

There is definitely a lot that people can do. I don’t think I have the authority to tell them what that is. I have one thing that is important to me though: Don’t let your imagination be stunted by limitations that people tell you are there. I think it is important to understand that all the boundaries we face are fabricated and that, if you can think beyond them,  the possibilities are actually quite endless.

You wrote and produced the record yourself. Did you always take control of the whole process? How important is it to you to be able to do it all on your own?

I think for the most part I have been doing it this way. For the first record that just sort of happened but the second record was much more collaborative. I think for Future Politics I wanted to try to do it by myself because I needed to regain that independence. Also, I really wanted to learn a lot. I did produce the majority of the songs myself, but I mixed it all with our live engineer Alex. That process lasted over a year because both of us had never fully produced a record before.

The previous mixing engineers always took a lot of liberties there. So there was a lot of back and forth. She would mix it, I would reproduce it, she would mix it again, I would reproduce and back and forth for probably 10 times. This was a really intense learning process. Figuring out how it works was incredible. There were so many interesting fine tuning details I never would have heard in the beginning of the process. Now, the record to me almost feels like a work in progress rather like a fully finished project. I am excited to take on the things that I have learnt and put it to work someplace else.

It seems like you are working with a lot of talented women. Is choosing female engineers or musicians something that you do intentionally or did that happen by chance?

I would say kind of both. This happens naturally for the most part. Near the very end of the process I had the opportunity to bring some men into the project. It ended up being a big decision. Did I want to bring people in? I felt like I wanted to only keep it with women after we came so far. It was only women working on it for the majority of three years. It didn’t really seem to be right to take on a man for the last few months so he could take all the credit for this long process. I listen to the record now and I hear things I would like to change, but at some point you just have to stop. In the end, it made most sense to me to put out something that is reflective of process and what organically happened.

What is your advice to empower young female artists?

All I can really say is to be severe. I do believe that women face more obstacles than men and that it is more difficult for women to receive the kind of credit you need to have a long career. It is true, you really have to work twice as hard. You will feel a lot of frustration, you will deal with a lot of bullshit, you will have trouble booking gigs compared to your male counterparts. But you just have to keep on going!

Photo by Kate Young

Which is your favorite song on Future Politics and why?

I think my favorite song on the record is “Gaia.” It is the first song that I wrote. To me it almost feels like the perfect pop song, not pop in the modern sense like structure-wise or anything. It is the kind of song that was written in a day – it was very simple. It is also in a different style compared to what I usually do. It has a softer tone to it. I don’t really get sick of that one.

Is there a song that was particularly hard to write?

Yes, the next single “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” That one went through a million reincarnations. That’s because it’s really weirdly structured. The label was not really into that because you couldn’t play it on the radio that way. So I spent a long time playing with different structures and felt my way into what could be working. In the end I just had to be like “Yeah, this is it, and that is the way the song is supposed to be.”

Looking one year into the future, what was the best thing that happened to you in 2017?

I would really like to go to China. I hope that happens to me in 2017. Touring there would be great. Usually when we go to places like that we stay around a little longer and explore the surroundings. That would be wonderful!

What can people expect from the live shows?

I am really looking forward to being on the road again. At the moment I am working on creating a visual world for concerts. I want it to feel like another universe when you come to an Austra show.

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