An Interview with Katie Stelmanis of Austra

When January 20th, 2017 was selected as the release date for Austras third album, Future Politics, the group did not have in mind that they would be sharing it with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election, Katie Stelmanis, Austra’s principal songwriter and overall mastermind, wrote the album as both a rejection of worldwide trends occurring in the past several years and as a possible way forward from here on out. CJLO’s very own Ashes to Ashes host Alex had the privilege of discussing with Stelmanis the new album, whether Canada could have its own Trump, and more, before Austra’s Montreal performance last month at the Théàtre Fairmont.

Alex: Did you watch the Trump inauguration yesterday?

Katie Stelmanis: [shakes head] No.

A: Couldn’t bear to watch it?

KS: I was napping [laughs]. I was so... I had so much to do before, because our record came out yesterday, that I didn’t sleep at all the night before. So, then I had a radio thing yesterday morning and then I came home and I slept through the entire Trump inauguration.

A: Are you happy you slept through it?

KS: Yeah, I don’t really have any desire to see it [laughs].

A: On Instagram you posted a photo of the Women’s March going on right now in Montreal. I’m guessing you enjoyed that a bit more.

KS: [Laughs] Yeah definitely. I was only there for not too much time. I guess at the time I was there they were speaking French, so I didn’t understand what they were saying. It was great. You’re there for five minutes and it just feels really good.

A: Do you think it’s possible something like what’s happened in the States with Trump can happen in Canada now, because we have [Conservative candidates] Kellie Leitch, who wants values tests for immigrants, and Kevin O’Leary, [who] is now trying to get that Trump magic?

KS: Yeah, it kinda seems like Canada is always about ten years behind the United States. It’s like we have our Obama right now, so I definitely wouldn’t be surprised, I guess, if it happened. But I also can’t imagine Trudeau just not being in power forever, because people love him so much.

A: Do you think he’s going to be like his dad?

KS: He’s going to be in for the long haul, for sure.

A: Do you see your shows now as being a place of solace for the audience, since I’m guessing most Austra fans are not Trump supporters? I mean, maybe there are some, but I’m assuming more of them are unhappy with the results of the election. So, do you think the shows are going to be more of a bonding experience?

KS: Maybe, I guess I feel like the new record is kind of a lot more emo than [the] previous ones, and so our set’s kind of divided up where the first half is much more intimate, I guess, and the second half is more of a party, which is really new for us. We don’t really usually have the intimate part of the set. I was worried people wouldn’t react to it, but it seems like people are kind of embracing that moment, they just kind of wallow in the sadness a little bit.

A: Do you feel like with your songs you’re not sure how good they are until you perform them live and get a reaction from the audience?

KS: Not necessarily, because some songs just translate live and some don’t. Some of my favourite songs on the record we’ll never play live, because I just know it wouldn’t work [laughs]. And then some songs really come to life in a live setting. Some of the best records out there don’t really work in a live setting.

A: Do you prefer writing in the studio, or performing live for an audience?

KS: I guess I prefer performing it, maybe. I love being in the studio and I love writing, but there’s nothing quite like [performing live]. I suppose writing is like 98% gruelling and 2% extremely rewarding, like when you’re done or when something good happens, whereas performing live it’s just this kind of constantly euphoric experience.

A: In terms of songwriting for this record, while your last album [2013’s Olympia] was a group process, Future Politics is a return to the more independent songwriting process of Austra’s debut album [2011’s Feel It Break]. What necessitated the change from group to solo songwriting?

KS: I think I was just ready for it, I suppose. I had spent a long time touring on the road and I had just done this massively collaborative project, and I was just kind of ready to do it on my own, and I think I really wanted to kind of master all the aspects of the project I suppose, as opposed to depending on other people to make it better, and I definitely think this whole process did teach me a lot, more than I had ever learned making a record before. But, now I feel ready to collaborate again, because I feel like I have a stronger arsenal.

A: I read that you actually started writing in Montreal, but it didn’t go so well because you wrote it in the winter, and our winters aren’t great, to say the least.

KS: No [laughs]. I had moved to Montreal... I love Montreal and I feel like I can still live here, but at the time I was just touring in the summers and off in the winters. So, I was like, “Okay, my only time to hang out in Montreal is like January/February [laughs] like this sucks.” Yeah, so that’s why I left and went to Mexico.

A: Do you think if you would have written it during the summer, where it’s a bit more pleasant, it would have lead to a different record?

KS: Definitely, for sure. I was also living pretty far out in Outremont, to the point where I couldn’t really walk over to Mile End, and like everything kind of closed at 7 p.m. near me. So, unless I took a cab I was just completely isolated.

A: Do you have any other places for a future record you’d like to write in?

KS: I mean, there’s lots of other places I’d like to go to, I suppose, that I’ve never been to. I’ve never been to Argentina, and I’d really like to spend time there. I’ve never been to... I don’t know, there are a lot of places [laughs] anywhere.

A: Do you ever hope, maybe, to get some airline to promote you to go write somewhere?

KS: Uh-huh, that’d be cool. I feel like with the next record, whatever situation I’m in, I want to make sure... like with this record it was written very mobile. I just had a little tiny keyboard and the most compact setup possible. But I feel like when I write the next one, I want to make sure I have access to a real piano. So, I feel like I’ll be staying in one place for the majority of the time.

A: You read a lot of political and science fiction literature while writing the album. I was wondering, do you ever see yourself moving into a long-form writing format as well, instead of a three/four minute song?

KS: Yeah, maybe. I mean, me and some of my friends, my dancer friend Emily Law and Zeesy Powers, an artist, we applied for a Canadian grant to do a more long-form production that would be a collaboration of musical, visual, and dance performance. So, if I get that I guess that’s what I’ll be doing next, but I don’t know if we get the grant yet.

A: That makes me curious. I don’t think we understand often how important grants are for artists. Could you maybe explain?

KS: I absolutely wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for grants. I got a grant to record my first record, and then I got a grant to go to SXSW and perform it, and then when I got to South-by I got a record deal based on the record I had made. So, if I didn’t have that opportunity I wouldn’t have done any of those things.

A: I hear Trump now wants to cut the National Endowment for the Arts.

KS: Musicians in the States don’t get anything [laughs], at least not in the independent music world, like as we do in Canada. I never understand how Americans do it at all.

A: Do you recommend then artists move to Canada, put your feet down?

KS: Well, I think... I mean it’s not too easy to move to Canada [laughs]. I would say so, but I don’t think people realize... people think that Canada’s just like welcoming open arms, but it’s actually really hard to immigrate to Canada and to become eligible for the grants in general. I guess I was lucky I was born in a place where they give you money to make music.

A: You produced and engineered the album yourself, and you were saying you’re looking for your next project to go back to collaborating. But, do you feel that, well, “Now I’ve done it and I know I can do it, why would I need someone else to do it for me?”

KS: I’ve enjoyed doing what I did, but I also feel like that there’s limits to my abilities in all those realms, and so I’d really like to work with people who have completely different abilities and collaborate.

A: I know the record overall is optimistic, but do you feel yourself, personally and professional, optimistic for the next year?

KS: No... Oh, personally and professionally. Personally and professionally, sure. I’m super excited to tour this record and it just came out yesterday, and it seems like people are liking it, which is great. I’m just excited that people seem to be responding to it and it seems to be resonating, so I guess I’m optimistic about that.

A: Do you feel that if Hillary Clinton got elected instead of Trump you’re record would have had the same effect?

KS: Not to the same extent. Maybe the Bernie Sanders supporters would have got it [laughs], but definitely not. There isn’t the same rage towards Hillary as there obviously is to Trump.

A: It’s ironic then that while Trump is obviously a disruptor, to say the least, it’s great for your new record in a way.

KS: I mean, I don’t even want to say that [laughs]. I was writing about stuff like three years ago that has culminated into something. At the time there was sort of like all this, sort of like tension brewing, and that’s really what I was writing about, and then it’s resulted in Trump.

Check out Austra’s video for their latest single, “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself,” below.

Photo credit: Renata Raksha.