Brave New Voice: An Interview with Austra’s Katie Stelmanis
Katie Stelmanis spent her childhood at recital halls and chorale concerts – and aspired, at one point, to be an opera singer. A left turn in her late teens led her into Toronto’s punk scene. Her latest project, Austra, brings all her worlds together, combining punk’s DIY sensibility, classical music’s intricacies and the heady abandon of electro pop.
“I’m drawn to pop music, but I’m not drawn to pop music that’s too simple. You know, there has to be something new or something for my brain to think about,” says Katie Stelmanis, the powerfully voiced singer for Toronto synth phenomenon Austra.
Feel It Break, Stelmanis’ first album as Austra is a case in point. Its buoyant choruses and pristine dance riffs clearly belong to a pop tradition, but its complex vocal interplays and intricate arrangements reach beyond these boundaries. The Guardian’s Michael Hann observed, "Stelmanis is mannered enough to keep listeners on their toes, without tipping over into being irritating, adding a dash of spice to a record capable of intriguing both art and pop crowds."
Classically trained from an early age, Stelmanis honed her melodic sensibilities playing Mozart and Debussy on the piano and developed her clarion voice for the opera. Her turn to pop, in her late teens, was, in some ways, a rejection of the unwavering discipline required for classical success, in others a search for community.
“It was a transitional point,” she recalls. “I had started to discover Toronto in a way that’s different from how you grow up in Toronto, or go to high school there. I started to become part of a music scene, and I started to meet people in bands, people that were involved in a DIY, punk rock aesthetic, and that really appealed to me. I made the decision when I finished high school to take a break from classical music for university and delve into that world.”
Stelmanis joined a riot grrl band called Galaxy with drummer Maya Postepski (now also in Austra) and Emma McKenna. It was McKenna who introduced Stelmanis to the concept of political messages in music. “Emma was a women’s studies student, and a feminist, super-political and she pretty much taught me everything I know about that stuff,” says Stelmanis. “Maya and I were both like ‘We’re just musicians. That’s what we care about first. We have no intention of making music with a political message.’”
Still that sense of serious purpose made the transition to punk rock easier for Stelmanis in some ways. Moreover, she was not the only person in her new band with the discipline and commitment to long hours of practice that comes from classical training. Postepski, then 17 and still in high school, was already an accomplished percussionist. She would go on, after graduating, to study percussion and piano at university for four years.
Through Postepski, Stelmanis began to learn more about electronic music, too. “Maya has a lot of family in Europe, especially in France, and she’d visit them every summer,” says Stelmanis. “She’s always been really into electronic music. She was listening to Tiesto and the Prodigy when she was 13 or 14, when everybody else was listening to the Dave Matthews Band.”
Meanwhile Stelmanis was experimenting with MIDI-generated music on the side, programming orchestral samples to create soundtracks for her friends’ performance art. At first, she used MIDI simply because it was available, cheap and easy to create many different kinds of sounds. But over time, she says, “I just got very, very partial to it.” She adds, “Even after I had more resources, when I could have used real instruments, I just was used to using it.”
Her earlier efforts were more abstract and less propulsive than the songs on Feel It Break, she says. “The dance element came later, because I realized the music that I was making was very difficult to translate onto a live stage,” she recalls. “It was quite cerebral and pretty self-indulgent.”
When Galaxy broke up in 2008, she began devoting herself to electronic composition full time. Her solo debut, Join Us came out that year, and she sang on Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life. Austra came together later, when Maya Postepski joined her first and later bassist Dorian Wolf of the Toronto Band Spiral Beach. By 2010, her music had taken a decidedly more danceable, hedonistic turn. “We made a conscious effort to really bring up the bass and drum elements up in the music,” she says.
As I talk to Stelmanis, she is getting ready to leave on a tour that will last through 2012. She is touring with a six piece band with her, the three core members of Austra, plus keyboardist/saxophone player Ryan Wonsiak and two back-up singers, Romi and Sari Lightman.
Yet no matter who comes on tour with Stelmanis, or who she records with, the focus will likely remain on her voice, which has a shattering clarity and strength. It does not, at least currently, sound like a classical voice, however. Stelmanis says that figuring out what to use and what to discard from her many years of training has been a continuing conundrum. “When I was in Galaxy particularly, it took me a few years to find a voice that felt comfortable, that was different from my classical voice,” she says. “I was intensely trained, so it was hard for me to sing rock music, to switch over. And I was still singing opera at the time, so it was a really difficult transition.”
Over time, she has found a balance, maintaining an unusual strength and purity, while stripping away opera’s acrobatic flourishes. Today, she says that writing vocal parts is the easiest and most natural element in her songwriting. Yet for some listeners, Stelmanis’ voice is still too much for easy grasp.
"A lot of people just aren’t used to my kind of voice," Stelmanis says, though she points out that the success of artists like Karin Dreijer Andersson of the Knife and Zola Jesus has made her style of singing somewhat more palatable.
"Still, a little bit of an acquired taste for some people. It’s too much big voice all the time. I used to hear this a lot more in the past, like a few years ago, but I think right now in music there’s a lot more big-voiced female artists that are at the forefront right now. People are more used to hearing that now."