Austra – COVID-19 Quarantine Artist Check In | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Austra – COVID-19 Quarantine Artist Check In

“I find it really hard to get stuff done at the moment and seem to be spending a lot of time reading the news.”

Apr 07, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

We are checking in with musicians during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to see how they are dealing with everything. What has their home quarantine experience been like so far and how is the crisis impacting both their career and art? Here we check in with Katie Austra Stelmanis of Toronto, Canada’s Austra.

We’re living in future history right now, unprecedented times that will define our era. At some point we will be living in a forever-changed post-COVID-19 timeline, but right now we’re deep in it. Many have had their livelihood interrupted by the pandemic and included are most musicians, who make a lot of their money by touring and performing, two things they can’t do right now. Most record stores are closed and vinyl factories are shut down, so album sales are depressed too. Our intention with this series is to highlight the challenges musicians are going through right now to hopefully encourage our readers and their fans to rally around and support each musician (financially if you can, but we know it’s tough out there for many people).

We’re all in this together, a whole planet united in this fight, and we hope these interviews will help illustrate that. We put together the same set of questions about the current crisis and emailed them to several musicians and will be posting their responses as they come in.

Stelmanis is the main creative force behind Austra. She is releasing a new album, HiRUDiN, on May 1 via Domino. HiRUDiN is the follow-up to 2017’s Future Politics. For the album Stelmanis worked with external producers for the first time, Rodaidh McDonald and Joseph Shabason, recording it in the Spanish countryside. Additional recording was done in Toronto with contemporary classical improv group c_RL, the cellist and kamanche duo Kamancello, kulintang ensemble Pantayo, and a children’s choir. David Wrench mixed the album and Heba Kadry mastered it.

The album was borne out of a crisis of confidence (“I was losing faith in my own ideas,” Stelmanis says in a press release) and a toxic relationship. Stelmanis felt like she had to start over. “My creative and personal relationships were heavily intertwined, and I knew the only answer was to part ways with all of the people and comforts that I’d known for the better part of a decade and start again,” she says.

Previously Austra shared the album’s first two singles, “Risk It” and album opener “Anywayz” (which was one of our Songs of the Week).

Read on as Stelmanis reflects on her COVID-19 experience so far.

Where are spending the quarantine and who are you spending it with? If you’re spending it with other people, have you found that the quarantine has brought you closer together or caused tension?

I was meant to be in London finishing up a residency at Laylow in March. A couple days before governments started announcing travel bans my accommodation became precarious due to someone else returning home early as a result of COVID-19, so I made a quick decision to fly back to Toronto early. I’m really glad I booked a new flight when I did because two days later [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau made a formal call for all Canadian’s to come home and it became way more difficult and expensive to travel.

I’ve been quaratining at my parents house in Toronto because I sublet my apartment. My parents went to the family cottage and are planning to stay there for a while—my mom is a teacher and my dad is self-employed so luckily they both have the flexibility to do that. Two friends from Toronto left London a couple days after I did and also had sublet their apartments in Toronto, so we decided it made sense to quarantine together at my parent’s. I’m really grateful they’re here with me as I think otherwise this would have been really difficult to go through alone.

Is everyone in your family safe and healthy so far?

Yes! Thankfully.

What’s your daily routine been like? Have you spent much time outdoors? And since musicians spend so much time on the road, have you found it hard adjusting to so much time at home?

My daily routine has so far been really similar to when I’m at home alone writing. I usually cook a lot, drink a lot of tea, and work on my computer making music for like six to eight hours per day. In pandemic times this has been reduced to maybe two hours a day of “work”—I find it really hard to get stuff done at the moment and seem to be spending a lot of time reading the news.

What financial impact has COVID-19 had on you and your band? Have you had to cancel or postpone any tours or festival appearances or postpone an album release because of COVID-19 and how will that affect you in the long term?

I’m putting out a record in one month which feels really difficult. I don’t feel super comfortable promoting it right now because it feels like there are more important things to talk about—but at the same time, I spent the last three years working on this new music and I don’t want it to go totally unnoticed. So it’s been about finding a balance.

I’m not sure how well it could go given the circumstances: record stores are closed, tours are cancelled. But, the music is still going to come out, I hope that it can help people connect in some way.

Do you trust the government and our leaders (such as President Trump) to effectively deal with the pandemic? What most concerns you about the response of elected leaders at home and abroad?

Most elected leaders are incapable of dealing with this crises and that is something that’s becoming painfully obvious all over the world. The rise of neoliberalism since the ’90s and the financial crash in 2008 has meant social services and healthcare have been cut through government austerity for decades and we’re now paying the price. Most governments are enacting some sort of emergency social welfare measures in response to the crises—I hope that these stick around once the disease has been controlled.

How do you think the crisis will affect this November’s U.S. presidential election? Will it make it easier or harder to defeat Trump?

I think it could go either way. The act of voting itself will likely be difficult which could easily work in Trump’s favor.

What do you think will be the lasting effects on society of all this isolated time at home?

I think it’s impossible to know what the lasting effects of isolation will be. Will we get used to being isolated? Will we all continue to buy our groceries and necessities online and conduct out meetings and hangouts online? Or conversely—will we embrace a life that is more rooted in real life experiences? My hope is after a period of time spent at home, on our phones and on our computers, people will want to be more active with each other and within local economies. Going to record stores, little grocery stores in the neighbourhood, going to shows, going to parties—I hope these are things people will embrace after this period.

What other steps should record labels, music streaming platforms, and other music industry entities be taking to help struggling musicians through this time?

If anything, the most important and useful thing for musicians at this time would be for our governments to enact a universal basic income. It would relieve so much stress for us in so many ways! Not having to tour constantly and rush out albums in order to stay afloat financially would make being a musician for the long term much more viable.

I think record labels and musicians alike should be campaigning for UBI.

What is the best way fans can support you financially right now? Buying vinyl and CDs, downloading and streaming your music, buying merch, supporting your Patreon page or other crowd sourcing platform (if you use one), or some other means? Is there a particularly cool piece of merch you’d like to highlight?

At this stage the best thing people can do is buy music and buy merch. I’ll be okay for this year, but I usually get paid for my work up to a year after the fact, so I’m actually more worried about what 2021 will look like. More immediately though, I’m worried about my band and crew. The live touring industry is made up of freelancers who depend on regular work that has completely dried up. I’ve seen some artists make special merch items to sell and support them and this is something I’d definitely like to look into.

Have you been doing any live-streamed concerts during COVID-19 or do you plan to? A lot of artists have been doing them, do you think it’s a challenge to make them original and interesting?

I haven’t done any live streaming and I’m honestly reluctant to do so. I just know it won’t sound very good, it won’t look great, and there will probably be WiFi connection problems. I don’t want to further cheapen the experiences people have interacting with music. Already, most listeners expect music to be free—I don’t want people to start expecting live music to be free, too. Live performances are very special and unique experiences that have the potential to impact audiences in a meaningful way. I can’t imagine being able to create such an experience via a live stream, but that’s just me!

Has the quarantine been a fertile creative time (are you writing or recording new music, for example) or have you found it hard to focus on creative endeavors?

I’ve been too stressed out to be “creative” in a way that would mean coming up with songs and ideas from thin air, but I’ve been able to do work that has more structure. I’ve been taking a bunch of free online courses in music production trying to brush up my skills which has been fun. I haven’t put any pressure and am trying to allow myself the space to just be, and to recognize I’m not going to be super productive during this anxious and scary time.

Beyond the obvious items (such as toilet paper), what things have you made sure to get from the grocery store when stocking up? And, also, do you have any toilet paper?

Being in strict quaratine has made grocery shopping really difficult. I’ve been cooking a LOT but am constantly faced with situations where there is like one key ingredient I’m missing. I live around the corner from a bunch of really great little shops and sometimes I’ll walk by them and look in the windows longingly thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to go in and just BUY an onion. Wow.

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