It was the floor-length gowns that drove Austra’s Katie Stelmanis out of opera. “I was always in these dresses and these long skirts. It just didn’t represent who I was at all," she says. "I couldn’t fit into that world."
So it was out of the gowns and into a world of her own making, one orchestrated more by MIDI controllers than classical currents, though she doesn’t dwell on the distinctions.
Austra's Feel It Break, the band's 2011 debut album, originated as a solo bedroom project for Stelmanis. She added a band after a chance meeting with an agent during SXSW. The record has garnered comparisons to Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson— pioneers of pop mysticism and masters of expansive sound.
You can hear that sound on September 13 when Austra co-headlines at the Mohawk with DIANA.
Ahead of the band’s return to Austin in support of their second album, Olympia, CultureMap caught up with Stelmanis to talk about finding comfort in new territory, melding feelings into sounds, and learning to create music collaboratively.
CultureMap: How was the production of this album different from your previous work?
Katie Stelmanis: Being in a studio in general was a different experience. I never really made a record in a studio before. We went and lived at a studio for a month and kind of made a record in an old-school way; we just experimented with all our instruments in there rather than having everything planned out in advance.
"On the new record, we got to relax and have fun and just experiment. That made it a completely different experience." – Austra's Katie Stelmanis
CM: You’ve talked about really delving into the history of house and electronic music. Do you think of that history in the same way you think of older history of classical music?
KS: Well, yeah. Obviously, disco really happened in the 70s. And then electronic music really happened in more of a club sense in the 70s and 80s. Dance music founded so many genres that have taken off, and it isn’t given a lot of credit.
CM: It seems like the way you learn about music and integrate it into your practice is very deliberate and methodical.
KS: It doesn’t feel so methodical to me. In my experience studying classical music as a kid, everything felt so regimented and so calculated, and there was a specific way of doing everything. I feel like with the world I’m in now, music is just a big free-for-all. There’s nobody expecting anything from me or telling me how I should be doing it or how I should be writing.
I’m going into it pretty blindly, which I think is weird. I think in other art practices you have mentors and people that guide you in this way, and I guess that’s what producers are in some way. I’ve never had a producer; maybe that would make a difference.
CM: You’ve said you wanted to make electronic music acoustically on this album. How has the progression from classical music to electronic music to now, when you're bridging those two, changed your perception of each genre?
KS: I don’t actually see that much of a distinction. I think I see more of a distinction between computer music and electronic music, because there’s a huge world of analog electronic music, and that’s something in itself, as opposed to, say, MIDI. I’ve always loved and been interested in electronic music, but this was the first album where we were focused on mainly analog instruments and therefore playing everything.
CM: The lyrics of a lot of your songs are sentimental, and the sounds seem to bring up a lot of feeling. How does that come about for you?
KS: I typically start with demo lyrics that suggest what the lyrics will be, but generally it’s the last thing that happens. The music drives the lyrics more than anything else.
CM: You’ve talked so confidently about how how you knew what you wanted to change from the first record. I’m wondering how you channeled that confidence even as you were trying new things.
KS: I don’t know that I would call it confidence, more that I was really comfortable. Working with all the musicians and engineers, the entire experience was just really easy and flowed really well. I was intimidated by the studio experience [while recording Feel It Break], whereas this time it was a much more familiar experience, so I wasn’t scared of it. It was a comfortable space.
But it’s interesting, you know, because you can feel so comfortable and so good during the recording process, but as soon as the music goes out into the world, suddenly everything is terrifying, and you start questioning everything that you’ve done.
CM: With the record having been out for a few months, is that a feeling you’re getting comfortable with, too?
KS: Yes, I think so. I think ultimately your own perception of your record is never going to be the same as everyone else’s perception. That’s just something I need to learn as a musician. I’ll read some reviews that I feel like are so different and focus on things that I never think of focusing on. People just perceived it and absorbed it differently from how I would have intended. Not everyone did, but it’s just weird to experience that.