Canadian dark wave/electro outfit Austra began as a solo recording project in frontwoman Katie Stelmanis’ Toronto bedroom. Over the past few decades, Toronto has fostered the innovation of pop musicians such as Broken Social Scene, Peaches and Feist, and Stelmanis recalls the positive role the city had in cultivating her artistic identity.
“I spent my early 20s in Toronto and it was a pretty exciting time for the city,” she says. “Blocks Recording Club was putting out artists like Fucked Up and Owen Pallett and a lot of other really experimental music. It was a totally DIY artist-run collective that was actually pretty successful. I feel lucky to have grown up in this really vibrant scene.”
However, as in many other artist metropolises (Manhattan, San Francisco), big business has begun to besmirch Toronto’s bohemian core. “It’s kind of sad when I go home now because it feels like Toronto’s changed a lot. Toronto’s had the biggest condo boom in all of North America. It’s made rent skyrocket. It used to be this cheap place to live, where lots of artists lived; now you really have to work three jobs to have an apartment in Toronto.”
Meanwhile, Austra have long since stretched beyond their bedroom origins. Stelmanis expanded the project into a six-piece band to play the songs from 2011 debut LP Feel It Break, and after an extended touring stint Austra returned this year with a second album, Olympia.Now working collaboratively, the group sought to carry the energy of its live performance into the new record.
“The live show had become this really high-energy dance party and the album is a lot more introspective and a lot darker,” says Stelmanis. “We wanted to put this energy into the new record and into the new songs. So now we have a balance of the old, more ethereal material and the new songs, which I think are a little bit more direct.”
Olympia’s dance-focused uplift is paired with emotionally driven lyrics. Placing overtly tough personal themes in front of an extroverted musical backdrop is a duality Stelmanis was interested in exploring. “We made a conscious effort to make this album a lot lighter musically; it’s a lot more rhythm-based rather than big, dramatic sweeping vocals and harmonies. The lyrics on this album deal with some pretty dark subject matter and it’s a very personal record.”
Feel It Break had seen Austra progress from playing in small clubs to being festival drawcards capable of selling out theatres. Stelmanis says Austra’s updated habitat encouraged her to write more immediately comprehensible lyrics.
“I had an intention to make lyrics that were very direct and narrative and cohesive and would have obvious interpretations. When I first started making music as a solo artist, I really would sing gibberish. I was OK with that because those were songs that I was writing for myself in my bedroom. This music, I’m not really writing it for myself anymore, I’m writing it for a live stage.”
In that spirit, Austra make their anticipated return to Australia next February, and Stelmanis says the live show provides plenty of stimulation.
“We have a DIY light show now that somebody made for us, which adds a different element. Then of course we can also bring [in] other musicians. We’ve been touring for a while with a trombone player and we had a flute player at a couple of shows. It’s nice to have flexibility.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY