Artist Interview :: Katie Stelmanis of Austra

by Kaelen Bell

When asked how she’s handling isolation – and the Austra tour postponement it necessitated – Katie Stelmanis pauses for a moment. 

“I have a real answer, which I’m always like, ‘should I say it?’ and I always end up saying it,” she says, laughing. “Basically, I went through another, not-related-to-my-album breakup a few months ago, and was not looking forward to touring the record because of that. And now, I don’t have to tour the record for like, another half a year or however long it’s gonna be. So I’m actually kind of happy.”

The tour was meant to be in support of Austra’s fourth record, the deeply personal HiRUDiN. And while Stelmanis admits that she’s beginning to itch for the road again, she says isolation has given her time to figure some things out.

“It’s kind of nice that I just get to be at home and chill and just kind of, like, process everything from afar,” she says. “I am doing okay. I’m doing like, as good as you can be… I think.”

When asked whether, like so many of her peers, she’ll use this sudden free time for livestream shows, Stelmanis pauses and laughs again.

“I’ve done one live concert online and I have to be honest… I’m not looking forward to doing any more,” she says. “First of all, just the technical stuff behind it is so complicated. You have to download all these third party programs and set up these loop feedbacks. There’s so much stuff going on, and you have to rely on the internet. And I’m just in my crappy basement studio when I do them. It doesn’t represent the record, or what I wanna do, at all.”

That record, the lush and orchestral HiRUDiN, is unlike any Austra record that’s come before – defined by a spirit of collaboration, it’s a towering mix of florid live instrumentation and Austra’s trademark synthetic textures. It’s true that it would likely sound out of place coming through your Instagram feed – it feels made for stages. 

“Previously my only collaborators had been my old live band, or I had just done things by myself. So this is the first time I was just reaching out to anyone and everyone to be part of it,” she says. “I think that defines the record, in a way.”

The first HiRUDiN sessions took place in Toronto, with a team of players that Stelmanis had never worked with before. Stelmanis describes these early live recordings as the bedrock of the record – a far cry from the entirely digital scapes found on 2017’s Future Politics

“I feel like I always like to do something differently than I did before, and Future Politics was the most in-the-box record,” she says. “I wrote it mostly while travelling with these tiny little setups. It was mixed by my live engineer, also kind of just on the road. Everything about it was in a laptop.”

Stelmanis says HiRUDiN is the closest thing to a “traditional record” that Austra’s ever made – inspired by 1960s pop structures and the music of British Folk legend Joan Armatrading, it’s an entirely new side to Stelmanis’ song writing. She credits her work with those session players in Toronto as shifting her vision of how an Austra record could be made. 

“It was something that I was always sort of scared of embracing, ‘cause I thought that, like, it would take away some of my own artistic integrity or something. But I found the absolute opposite to be true,” she says. “I was able to get closer to creating something and making it sound how I wanted it to sound than I ever really have before, and that was fully because I had so much help and collaboration.”

Stelmanis says that when Austra does eventually hit the road again, it’s going to look different – a new way of performing for a new kind of music. 

“I was rehearsing with my new band in March, before lockdown happened and everything,” she says. “We got about half way through our rehearsals, and there was quite a difference playing these sort of more introspective tracks. I guess I sort of have to rethink my live show in a way.”

She’s got plenty of time to think, time that she says has already begun to change how she sees her newest songs. It’s going to be a new world by the time Katie Stelmanis is able to bring HiRUDiN to the stage, and it’s likely the record itself will feel like a brand new work. 

“I finished this record a year ago, really. And my life, all of our lives, are drastically different from one year ago,” she says. “So already, these songs have a completely different meaning for me than they did when I wrote them.”

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