Interview: Austra

Interview with Austra



Having picked up a Polaris Prize nomination for the dark synthwave on their debut, Austra are back with a brighter, more dancefloor-friendly sound. Here, band-leader Kate Stelmanis discusses the inspirations behind Olympia, and explains why, lyrically, she's decided to open up.

Questions and answers

Hi Kate, a big congratulations on the new album; we love it. Given the positive reception Feel It Break received, were there any nerves approaching Olympia?

Not really. To me, the last record seemed more like a learning process. I mean, it might have been well-received, but immediately it was finished there were things we wanted to change about it. Olympia is basically everything we wanted to do differently with the first record.

It feels a lot lighter in tone than Feel It Break.

I think it is a lot lighter. Really, the difference is that we became a very different project through touring. Our live show had become this celebratory dance party, whereas Feel It Break was quite dark and austere. And so we wanted to bring the energy of the live show onto the new record.

Were there any specific musical reference points for Olympia?

Yeah, definitely. I was really influenced by Portishead’s Third. I just really liked how raw and messy that album sounded, and that’s what inspired us to want to play real instruments. I was really into listening to really early Chicago house as well, particularly this one track by Marshall Jefferson called ‘Move Your Body’. I have this version where everything was created with real instruments, so it’s like this classic house track but with everything’s played live. I really loved that aesthetic and wanted to do that.

This was the first time that you’ve written collaboratively; how easy did you find it to relinquish control?

I used to be a lot more of a control freak when I was younger, but with this record I really didn’t want to do it by myself. Aesthetically, I didn’t want it to sound like a solo record. I really wanted to work with other people – and other people’s ideas – and create something that sounded like a group effort.

Speaking of which, you’ve expanded the line-up too, right?

Well the core band is still me, Maya and Dorian. I’ll start writing a song and then usually Maya will come in and we’ll work out most of the electronic production together, and then we’ll bring it into the studio and work with live instruments.

We do collaborate with other musicians, though. Live, we’ve been touring with Ryan Wonsiak on keyboards, and Sari and Romy Lightman from the band band Tasseomancy. But the line-up is ever-changing; I don’t think they’ll be on the road with us for the entire Olympia tour.

Back in 2011, you were quoted as saying, “My lyrics are incredibly ambiguous. I don’t ever write about literal things.” This album definitely feels a lot more candid.

Yeah, definitely. This is the first time I’ve ever written lyrics about real things. I think part of the reason for that is just the fact I’m becoming more mature, and feel able to talk about new things. When I was younger I wasn’t into the idea of being vulnerable or honest in my music; I didn’t want anybody to know what I was thinking about.

I think the decision to write more candidly had a lot to do with having performed the songs off Feel It Break for two years; as a performer I really wanted to have something to sing about. I mean, I think it’s much easier to perform a song if you’re singing about something real, or if you’re telling a story. Somehow, it just feels much more fulfilling to be able to do that. So I wanted to make sure that, every night that I played these songs, I would be able to feel the specific intent behind them. I find it quite cathartic.

Can you tell us more about the themes on the record, please?

Ultimately, there are a lot of songs that are dedicated to specific people, or that deal with specific incidents that happened in my life. There’s also one larger theme that essentially has to do with getting older, and assessing where we are in our late 20s versus where we were in our early 20s.

Back then, we were all artist and musicians and it was ok to not have any money or responsibility. Now that we’re getting older, it’s getting more difficult to face the reality of the world. I was inspired by watching people close to me struggle with their art, or struggle with substance abuse.

Do you have a favourite track on Olympia?

I like ‘Hurt Me Now’, which is the last track on the record. I think I love it because it’s the best example of how collaborating with other people can make beautiful things happen.

I started with that song and I remember giving it to Maya – thinking that it kinda sucked – and she totally changed it. She made the beat half-time and added this big organ part, and it ended up being my favourite song on the record. If I hadn’t been working with anyone else, that song would probably have been ditched.

I also love the words of that song, and halfway though Romy sings this monologue about Joan of Arc that Sari wrote the words for, which I think is beautiful.

Are you able to enjoy listening to Olympia, or are you too close to it?

I’m still able to enjoy it for now, but I know that I won’t be able to for very long. With Feel It Break, I could only listen to it for a couple of months. I could probably listen to it again now, actually, but I probably haven’t [listened to it] in two years. The same thing will probably happen with this one. (Laughs)

What would you say is the optimum environment in which to experience Olympia?

My mentality towards writing has always been that I wanted to create music that works in a club but also works in your headphones at home. I hope that people can react to it physically, but also that it can do something for them emotionally, when they’re feeling sad.

We read that there had been some debate over the album cover…

Yeah, this was originally the art for our first single, but because our album cover art was rejected we used it for the LP. The original cover was this really beautiful photograph of six people that Romy had art-directed, dealing with the idea of the sad clown and the harlequin. I think people thought it was just a bit too weird, and that it might deter people from listening to our music or something! But I do still love the photograph we ended up using; it’s beautiful.

So what’s the plan for the rest of 2013?

We’re basically on tour for the rest of our lives. At least until 2014, we’re pretty much touring constantly. I do love touring though. I mean, you have to learn to tour in such a way that it doesn’t crush your soul and your body, but I think if you can do that it’s all good. (Laughs)

What’s been the highlight of your time in Austra so far?

I guess at this point I would probably just say being in the studio in Michigan, recording Olympia with Maya and Dorian. I had never been so immersed in making music like that before; never been in such a musical environment, with access to all these different instruments. It was such a liberating process, creatively.

Finally, what’s been your favourite album of 2013 so far?

I really love the new Majical Cloudz record. I know Devon, he’s from Montreal. I remember when I heard the first track I was completely blown away; the lyrics were incredibly beautiful, and his voice was other-worldly.

June 2013