Toronto-based Katie Stelmanis of Austra was one of those precocious kids whose obsession with perfecting any musical instrument she picked up and whose love of singing led to her performing with the children’s choir on vast stages with the Canadian Opera Company. At 16, after “graduating” from the children’s choir, she began studying opera until she decided that she’d had enough of confining herself to singing historical works and wanted to write her own. In her later high school years, Katie picked up a MIDI controller and started writing soundtracks, which led to her own songs. She started in a band called Galaxy and then went on as a solo artist, releasing her Join Us album in 2008.
Austra formed organically, when Katie decided she wanted the project to become more collaborative and to work more with her two live musicians, drummer Maya Postepski (ex-Galaxy, currently Trust), and bassist Dorian Wolf (ex-Spiral Beach). Austra’s debut, Feel It Break, with its mix of stern operatics and euphoric big beats, piano segways and glamorous, minor chord electro scores, spans four years of songs, and was picked up by Domino Records in 2010 as a result of someone at the label accidentally seeing one of Austra’s showcases at SXSW. So you see, playing music festivals can lead to a fairy tale signing.
Austra plays NYC tonight’s Riverrocks show on the Hudson River Pier 54.
When you were with Galaxy or touring with your solo album before forming Austra, had you made it over to play the US and UK?
I made it to the US and the UK touring my solo record. I did 2 tours of Europe that I booked on my own, and 2 tours in the USA, one supporting CocoRosie.
Do you prefer your lyrics to remain ambiguous so song meanings etc. can be more left up to the listener?
Definitely. I like to choose simple descriptive words or phrases that create strong imagery, but are also vague so that the listener can interpret as they please.
When writing music, do you come up with vocal melodies first and then start putting the music together with your band or do you have a different way of working?
I write music in all different ways. Most often a song will start with a vocal melody and a bass line, or a drum beat, and I will build upon it in my room on my computer. The final step is taking it to the band so they can add their parts.
Do you keep up with contemporary operas that come through Toronto and elsewhere? I’d read that you’re a fan of Debussy (I am as well) and feel that his “Peleas and Melisande” was one of the first modern operas.
I suppose at this time I tend to think as Peleas as a classic opera, its far more traditional than what a lot of what people are doing today, such as the Knife opera that was performed last year. I spent a lot of time with 20th-century operas when I was studying. There is some great stuff out there, a lot of it is definitely an acquired taste though.
Do you like hearing other artists’ remixes of your songs or the original track something that’s hard to let go of? I’m very excited to hear Planningtorock’s mix of “Lose It” for your upcoming Sparkle release. The MNDR remix of “Spellwork” is quite a stunning one. Congratulations on your Polaris nomination too.
Thanks! We are happy to have been nominated for Polaris, its a huge honor. I love hearing other artists remix my music. It’s so exciting to give something you’ve created to someone else to completely transform and interpret in their own way. The results are always completely unexpected.
Are you already writing new material for your next Austra release or is it hard to find time while touring?
I find it really hard to wrote while touring, especially because most of my work comes out of my bedroom. It looks like I’m going to have to find a way to set up a mobile studio while on tour though because I hate not having the opportunity to write music regularly.
Thanks so much! Look forward to seeing your show this week on the pier.