Austra

Reaching Olympia

Jul 26, 2013 Photography by Norman Wong Issue #46 - June/July 2013 - Charli XCX
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"Poetry is not one of my strengths," admits Austra founder and frontwoman Katie Stelmanis, reflecting on the Toronto band's 2011 debut, Feel It Break. "I had never listened to lyrics, and I didn't feel like it was important for my lyrics to make sense or be about something specific. But during the touring period, perhaps because of my emotional state, I suddenly felt like I wanted to sing about something."

Overwhelmed with her mission of being a DIY artist, which meant managing six people on the road at all times, the 28-year-old hit her breaking point.

"I think it got the best of me," she says. "I went a bit crazy for a while, and I had to step back and learn how to be calm again and come to my senses."

That meant a self-imposed period of living in an urban bubble with no working phone or Internet, only allowing for music-listening during moments of repose. Stelmanis found inspiration for Austra's new album, Olympia, in the worldly influences of Bollywood and a Brazilian band called Uakti. Her interest in the group stemmed from its collaboration with Philip Glass.

"It tempted me to get back to my classical roots," she says, recalling her time in children's choirs and the operatic vocal training that laid the foundation for her now trademark warble. "I had done so much to get away from the classical side before. The moment I was out of school, I formed a post-riot grrl band [Galaxy] and then I started making electronic music and was obsessed with abstaining from any real instrumentsbut with Olympia, it was the first time I wanted everything to be organic."

Feel It Break is full of texturized, dark wave synths and cascading waterfalls of rich three-part harmonies. For Olympia, the band's goal was to explore as many different sounds as they could, sounds that listeners would not associate with electronic or dance music. Stelmanis opened up the songwriting duties to her bandmates and encouraged drummer Maya Postepski to think differently about the percussion for the album. Those experiments dot every corner of the album, all the way to the final track, "Hurt Me Now," where backup singer Romy Lightman steps front and center, interjecting a surprisingly deep snake charmer call.

The recordings were realized in a small Michigan studio called the Key Club, a house in a nowhere town of 5,000 that Stelmanis calls a musician's Candy Land.

"It has a huge collection of vintage synthesizers and drum machines and Mellotrons, all this old analog gear we got to play on for five weeks," she says, noting how pleasing it was to secure producers and engineers who shared Austra's vision. "I feel like anyone in the world now can make a record using a laptop and some sort of software. We wanted to set ourselves apart in some way, to really show our musicianship."

As Stelmanis is finding more people to entrust with her "bedroom project," the self-described perfectionist is getting more comfortable with letting go of the ropes, which should bar another breakdown on Austra's summer tour.

"I'm slowly letting people into the project I know I can work with and feel confident handing over the responsibilities to," she says, before admitting, "I'm still the one in control, though."

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's June/July 2013 print issue.]

 



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