Friday, November 25, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Austra


Austra is an operatic dance trio from Toronto featuring vocalist-pianist Katie Stelmanis, bassist Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski. Though Stelmanis’ name has graced other albums, including 2009’s “Join Us,” Austra’s latest release, “Feel It Break” (Domino Records, 2011) is considered by many to be her true debut. Stereogum called the trippy, hypnotic collection of tunes “excellently dark and danceable” and "100% dud-free." I spoke to Stelmanis in anticipation of her show at the Triple Rock Social Club on Nov. 26.

Your music career originally started in opera. Talk about the decision to move away from that genre of music and how it still influences you today.
Katie Stelmanis: When I was 19, I went through a transitional point in my life and I decided to take a break from opera because I'd discovered different types of music and I just never went back. I still go to the opera and it obviously influenced how I got into music, but it's not a big part of how I'm making music now.

The focus of the music you make now is not lyrical, so when you compose a song, how do you know when it's finished? Is it a feeling that you're going for?

It's a feeling, in the same way you know any piece of art is finished. The lyrics are one small aspect of the completion of a song. When all the pieces fit together, it's finished.

Is the aim of your songs to help listeners zone out or are you trying to get them more in touch with their bodies through dance?
KS: Both. Previously, I would write music to be listened to with headphones, but that didn't translate well to the stage, so as a band we decided to try upping the drums and the bass. That reverb, the heavy drums and the bass lines are what make the live show more enjoyable. It's the best of both worlds.

The band's name is also your middle name, which means “goddess of light,” yet your music is so often labeled as dark. Can you speak to the other contrasts of dark and light in your life?
KS: Austra is my middle name, but I didn't know that it meant "goddess of light" until well after the band was formed, so it wasn't conscious. The variation in contrast is exactly what we're trying to attain in the music with the major and minor chords, the slow and the fast-paced music.

As a Canadian who has spent a lot of time in the United States, what’s your take on the differences between the countries as far as censorship is concerned, particularly regarding your "Beat and the Pulse" video?
KS: That video being censored is a clear depiction of the United States and its stance on censorship. There's so much hateful, violent, racist material that is not being censored on YouTube, while our video just has female nudity. In contrast, the video is on Daily Motion, a French-based site and it's not censored. It's another example of North America being afraid of embracing sensuality and nakedness.

You’ve said you’re a musician first and a lesbian second. How much of a role does your sexuality play in your music?

The questions was "How would you define yourself?" and I said, "A musician first and a lesbian second," but as I thought about it, I realized they were integrated. I can't label myself one and not the other. As a musician, my sexuality is not at the forefront, but it is for me as a person. Both are important.

Does it offend you more when an interviewer does or does not ask about your sexuality?

I'm not offended either way, to be honest. If they don't ask, I think it's normal, because it's not the focus of the music. If they do, I won't shy away from answering. We are a band of diverse sexualities and diverse backgrounds. We celebrate that.

Tell me about performing at SXSW this year. Were there any other musicians you were excited to meet?

SXSW is amazing. It does big things for our band. We played a whole bunch of shows, big and small. We didn't get to see many other musicians play because we were so busy going to and from gigs. There are no cabs or transportation in Texas! But SXSW is where things happen for us; we were signed to Domino there and we were introduced to a lot of media and press. It's a very worthwhile experience for musicians.

What do the holidays look like for you, either traditionally or this year in particular?

This year in particular we will be finishing a tour on Dec. 18 in Europe, then playing New Year's shows in Germany and Latvia, so we'll be spreading out and staying with friends. It's going to be a fun, relaxing holiday.

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Nov. 2011