In three years, Stelmanis — an opera singer in a previous life — has spearheaded two albums of brooding electro pop from Austra: 2011’s bedroom creation Feel It Break, led by the electronic opera of Lose It, and last year’s Olympia, created as a 6-piece band with analogue instrumentation.
Last in the country for Laneway Festival in 2012, the group returns in February for a run of solo shows as well as a set at Perth Festival.
Stelmanis spoke to Music Feeds from her house in a very chilly Toronto (50 degrees Celsius less than the temperature in Sydney on the day) about the perils of creating the perfect pop song, anti-disestablishment and the evolution of her live show.
Music Feeds: Hi, Katie. Where in the world are you at the moment?
Katie Stelmanis: I’m at home in Toronto.
KS: It’s freezing!
MF: Are you excited to come down?
KS: Yeah, I’m really excited. I love Australia.
MF: Last time you were here was for Laneway in 2012. How has your live show developed since then?
KS: I always felt with the first record when we were playing, we were always desperate to have enough material because we always felt like we were reaching really far to maintain energy and momentum but now that we have so many more songs to work with it feels a little more relaxed. I feel like we can experiment a lot more with peaks and valleys in the set. We can have a few climaxes and a few low tempo songs and it doesn’t drag.
MF: Has the band expanded?
KS: We toured Feel It Break as a six piece and then because we spent so much time on the road together, we made Olympia as a six piece. As soon as we first released Olympia we were like, “We’re a six piece band,” but immediately after we released the record we we’re like, “Actually, there’s no way we can maintain the stability of a six piece band.” Originally Austra was a solo project. Going from one to six doesn’t really make sense. In the future I think I’ll return to a smaller working dynamic.
MF: What changed in between Feel It Break and Olympia in terms of the writing process?
KS: A lot. It’s interesting revisiting that time because it seems so long ago now. Production wise we were obsessed with making everything analogue – we didn’t want to have anything digital on the album. I think that was mostly because we’d exhausted that synthetic sound with the first record. We wanted to go old school again. And then also the collaboration. I essentially wrote Feel It Break by myself.
MF: I’ve read your music influences range from Nine Inch Nails to Bjork. Is there a common thread?
KS: Naming those particular influences, I think it’s pretty obvious that I was a child in the ’90s [laughs]. That’s what I listened to in high school. Now there is so many more influences and so many different types of music.
MF: Who’s inspired you the most in terms of recent artists?
KS: I feel like now days my inspiration is from electronic producers. I’m really inspired by the club scenes in the UK and Germany. I feel like indie bands and major label bands are trying to achieve a wide audience whereas with producers they know they’re never going to be famous. They’re just trying to develop cred. It’s cool to see people get really into making the most unique sound they can.
MF: Did you listen to operatic music when you grew up or was your taste separate to what you were training in?
KS: I was studying it and training it but when I was a kid that’s what made me fall in love with it. I was pretty obsessed.
MF: Do you think it still influences you now or to a much lesser extent?
KS: It’s a foundation now that’s ground in my brain. I hear other artists that claim to have classical training and at this point in our lives classical training generally means you went to university. I see myself in a very different league to someone like Owen Pallett or Julia Holter. Those people are classically trained and you can hear it in their music. They know what they’re doing. I come from a love of classical music rather than an in-depth understanding.
MF: How does that training and interest in classical music mould into the sound on Feel It Break?
KS: I didn’t really set out to be an electronic or synth artist, it was just about the resources I had available. At the time I had a computer and my primary instrument was the piano so essentially I could play any instrument through a computer which I found to be really liberating.
MF: Was there a certain sound you were trying to channel going into Olympia?
KS: Aesthetically I was really influenced by Portishead, the Third album. I was also influenced by the really early house and techno music, kind of when everything was played live and it almost sounded like a live band and everything was all messy and all over the place. That’s why I wanted to make music with a live band. I wanted it to have that raw feel.
MF: Have you got a favourite show or country from touring Olympia?
KS: We just went to Asia for the first time which was pretty cool. We got to play in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok. Those are unlike anywhere else I’ve ever travelled before.
MF: Is it bizarre to have a crowd of predominantly non-English speakers, sing along?
KS: No. To be honest, we do better in place where the people don’t speak English [laughs]. I believe our music is less about words and more about music. I think that the words can be distracting but if you don’t have a full understanding of what the words mean they don’t get in the way. In America everyone is so obsessed with analysing the lyrics and it’s like, “That’s not the point.” I’m not trying to be a poet, I’m not trying to be a writer.
MF: Sorry. I’ll have to borrow the persona of an American critic for a moment, but what brought on the lyrics of a song like I Don’t Care (I’m a Man)?
KS: The main way I personally write lyrics is by mumbling out words on the demo. That song, I was demoing vocals and I said the line ‘I don’t care / I’m a man’. And I kinda liked that statement because of how loaded it was. I feel like it had a pretty strong anti-patriarchal vibe which I like. There’s a pretty strong anti-patriarchal movement in music right now. A lot of bands like The Knife and Yoko Ono and Coco Rosie are perpetuating this movement of anti-patriarchy. It’s not anti-man. It’s anti-disestablishment that puts people in their roles. I like that.
MF: Are you looking towards album number three?
KS: I am really excited to start writing. I’ve started writing demos. I have, like, five. But I definitely want to wait until I have, like, 40 until I go into the studio.
MF: Is there any sound shift you’d work towards on album number three?
KS: I’m just shaping that out right now. I feel like with Olympia, there was a lot of intentions to formulate the perfect pop song. We wanted to make simple, accessible music whereas I feel like with the new record I want to do the opposite. I want to get a lot more experimental.
MF: Once you’ve delivered that accessible pop, do you think it liberates you to be more experimental?
KS: A little bit. It’s funny because even though the record in my opinion has more of a pop direction to it, it didn’t really have a pop single on it like Lose It. So I don’t think we really achieved the pop goals that we were going for.
MF: Do you feel like you could test any new songs live yet?
KS: No. Maybe by Australia, actually. I guess Australia is in like a month. Maybe by then.
Austra are in the country next month for Perth Festival and headlining tour dates – details below.
Austra February 2014 Australian Tour
Thursday, 13th February
Uni Bar, Adelaide
Tix: Handsome Tours
Friday, 14th February
The Standard, Sydney
Tix: Handsome Tours
Saturday, 15th February
Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tix: Handsome Tours
Also appearing at Perth Festival