Q&A: Austra’s Katie Stelmanis on the Making of ‘Olympia’

by Eliza C. Thompson

Ever since Austra‘s debut album, Feel It Break, came out in 2011, I have barely stopped listening to it long enough to, you know, do my job of listening to other music. At a New Year’s Eve party earlier this year, I got in trouble with some strangers because I kept commandeering the iPod to play “The Beat and the Pulse” so my friend and I could have a dance-off. It was that friend’s apartment, so we won that battle, but not without getting yelled at for “bringing the mood down” with that “weird techno music.” 

Luckily for me (and all of my friends who have heard me play that album 8,000 times), Austra’s new LP, Olympia, comes out today on Domino. Like Feel It Break, it’s full of moody, atmospheric dance jams, all anchored by frontwoman Katie Stelmanis’ otherworldly voice. Stelmanis, a Toronto native, grew up singing opera, a fact which becomes obvious almost the second she starts going for those crazy, warbly high notes. For Olympia, she worked to make sure her lyrics were on the same level as the band’s flawless goth pop. On melancholic songs like “Forgive Me” and the first single, “Home,” her efforts pay off–you might end up crying a little by the time you’re done on the dance floor. While the band was in town to film their video for “Home,” BUST caught up with Katie about getting shafted in choir, hanging out with Beth Ditto, and knowing people who know Drake. 

BUST: How did you get started singing opera?

Katie Stelmanis: It just happened naturally. I was in a choir when I was 10, and it just happened to be an opera choir, so whenever the Canadian Opera Company needed kids for the productions, they would use us. So I was in La Bohème and Hansel and Gretel, all these operas, basically before I was 14. I was like 11, 12, 13 years old. And being in those operas made me fall in love with it, and then I started studying opera and studying singing, and then I did that till I was 19 or 20. 

BUST: Did you ever get to play any cool parts?

KS: Not really. When I was in the choir, we would do kid operas every year and I feel like I was always shafted. I never got a solo. I was pretty bummed out about that. But I did get a solo when I was with the Canadian Opera Company, doing La Bohème. There was like one line–it was a very coveted line, because it was with the Canadian Opera Company–and I got to sing that line. So that was my moment.

BUST: What was the line?

KS: Basically in Italian it’s like, “I want a trumpet and a horse.” The whole orchestra and everyone else is quiet, so the entire theater is just focused on this one kid that says, “I want a trumpet and a horse” in Italian. It’s a big shining moment. It was the highlight of my young career. 

BUST: Does any of your classical music training influence your work with Austra? 

KS: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s just ingrained in my body and my brain. It’s just how I listen to music, and I guess how I write music. When I started writing songs, my main influence for songwriting was Puccini’s arias. So I was really into creating big, melodramatic soundscapes. Now, I think for this record, my biggest goal is to learn how to try and be restrained as much as possible. I don’t really want to be doing these dramatic, big songs anymore. 

BUST: What specific influences did you have for Olympia

KS: A lot of different things, actually. I started listening to a lot of Cat Power because while writing this album, I finally started paying attention and listening to lyrics. I had never done that before, but for whatever reason I started identifying with these albums and listening to these stories, and I decided that I wanted that to come across in this record. I wanted to make the lyrics mean something. Previously, my lyrics didn’t really mean anything, and I didn’t care about them. I was listening to Cat Power and the Perfume Genius record. That’s a beautiful record. Aesthetically, I was really influenced by the Portishead Third album. I loved that record. Beth Gibbons is one of my favorite singers in music. But I also just loved how essentially they made an electronic music album organically. It’s all kind of out of time. It sounds almost sloppily made, in a way. You can hear the keyboards are being sequenced and they’re not quite in time with the drums. It’s a little bit off, and just the rawness of that I loved, and the realness of that I loved. I was so exhausted of hearing perfectly quantized electronic music all the time, so I wanted to bring that organic feel to the record, because that was amazing.

BUST: What made you decide to go from classical music to electronic? How did that come about? 

KS: Well, that kind of happened by accident. I started working with electronic music originally because I wanted to write orchestral music, and with my MIDI controller and my computer, I was able to trigger orchestral samples. I was using whatever program it was and playing fake violins and fake cellos, and I was sampling orchestral drum kits that would have big gongs and all this weird stuff. I was also really obsessed with Nine Inch Nails at the time, so I put distortion on everything. So I had violins, but I’d distort the violins so they sounded like the most unpleasant thing you’ve ever heard in your life. From there, instead of actually switching to real instruments, I became very partial to the synthetic sounds, and just started experimenting in that world more than anything else. 

BUST: How did you end up forming Austra after you did your solo album [2009’s Join Us]?

KS: It developed slowly. I asked Maya [Postepski, the Austra drummer] to come on tour with me during my solo record, and we worked really well together and I really liked having her on the road, so we decided just to become an actual band. And at that time I was playing with Dorian [Wolf, the Austra bassist] as well, so Dorian joined the project. It just made sense because we were starting to collaborate. And then we invited Romy and Sari [Lightman] and Ryan [Wonsiak] in to join the live band and start playing with us, and now it’s essentially a six-piece. 

BUST: Feel It Break was mostly just you right, in terms of the recording?

KS: Yeah, it was like 90 percent me, and then Maya came in at the end and did a bunch of programming. We updated a lot of the beats. The beats that I had written a few years prior were just not very good. 

BUST: Has that changed for Olympia? Has it become more collaborative now? 

KS: Yeah, definitely. For this record, I basically just started a bunch of songs that had the bare bones of a song, and then Maya, Dorian, and I went to a studio in Michigan and fleshed them out together. We were experimenting with sounds. Maya did a ton of experimentation with percussion, especially. She was just basically hitting anything that we could find in the studio that sounded cool. We were able to live at the studio for a month because it was in the middle of nowhere in Michigan, it was affordable, and they had a combination so we could sleep there. We were just creative. We’d wake up in the morning and start working on the record, and we’d work until midnight or so, and we’d go to bed. It was just the best working environment. 

BUST: Why did you decide to call the album Olympia?

KS: Actually, it’s because the studio that we worked at was run by this couple, Phil and Jessica. The first session we had was in July and Jessica was 9 months pregnant at the time. Every time we’d play or she’d come downstairs, actually every time I would sing, the baby would kick. Jessica thought that I had this certain frequency in my voice that the baby could always hear, I guess because I’m loud. And then we left, Jessica had the baby, and we were the first band in as soon as the baby was born. So basically from the last days in Jessica’s stomach and the first days out of her stomach, all the baby was listening to was our band, and they called the baby Olympia. So we decided to name the album after her because it kind of commemorated a new album and a new life. I just kind of wanted to recognize that someone’s life was started during the writing process, the creation of this album.

BUST: Were her parents excited about that?

KS: I don’t know. They’re kind of new-age, hippie-ish a little bit, and I emailed them about it once and they never wrote back. I had to ask permission. I emailed again and I was like, “Okay, we’re doing it,” and they were just like, “Cool!”  

BUST: Maya has done a stint in Trust, and Romy and Sara have their own group Tasseomancy. How do you guys balance everyone’s side interests?

KS: Well, Maya’s not in Trust anymore. But for Tasseomancy, they definitely put their project on hold for Austra. They work on it whenever we’re home for a week. They’ll always be recording. They’re always doing as much as they can whenever we have some time off. 

BUST: Your music videos are always really cool. They’re really more like short films than regular videos. Do you guys have a lot of input in the direction of them? 

KS: Well, not too much actually. I think we will more so in the future, but the previous videos that we’ve done were pretty much just handing over a song to a director and letting them do their thing with it. I think that’s why our videos are so different. Like “The Beat and the Pulse” video versus the “Lose It” video–it’s like night and day, totally different concepts. I really love that we have those two different representations in the world. I think it represents who we are. I see us in general and me especially as being pretty all over the map and pretty versatile, so I never want to be categorized by one particular aesthetic or sound or image. I like it to be constantly changing. For this video we’re doing this weekend [“Home,” below], we just approached a director, and they presented a treatment and I liked it, so we’re gonna do it.

BUST: You guys are going on tour in Europe soon. What do you like most about touring?

KS: I just love traveling. I never get sick of it. I love when you visit the same city over and over again, you start to become somewhat familiar with it, you start to have a routine in every city. In London, I always have the same place that I go out for dinner, I always have the same place that I go shopping, and I always have this little zone. I start to learn something about every city and I learn more and more about it every time I go. I really like the concept of being a citizen of the world, having a place in so many different places. I think we’re lucky as a band because we’re not just traveling. We’re going to cities and people are embracing us and being like, “Here’s my city, check it out!” We’re not just showing up with a backpack and having people spitting on us. 

BUST: Do you have any favorite New York spots?

KS: I really like Vanessa’s Dumplings. There’s really good ramen here, I really like Ippudo. I know there’s more. I really like that arepas place, Caracas. I always go there when I come here. There’s so much good food in New York. I actually have a list on my iPhone of all the restaurants that I have to go to or check out in New York, and it’s like 500 restaurants long. 

BUST: What kind of stuff does Austra do for fun between tour stops? 

KS: While we’re traveling, we always try and do special things. Most often I end up going to natural places, like to parks or waterfalls. We went through the Black Forest the last time we were in Germany and we went on a little waterfall hike. I think going for hikes and just getting into nature is really important, because everything about touring is so not environmentally friendly and there isn’t really interaction with the natural world in the venue or hotel. So I think it’s really important to make sure you get outdoor space, get some real air. 

BUST: Where would you like to go that you haven’t been yet?

KS: I’ve never been to Japan. I would love to go there. I’ve also never been to Mexico and I would love to go there. 

BUST: What is the music scene like in Toronto? Is it big?

KS: Yeah, there’s a huge music scene in Toronto. It’s kind of all over the map. There’s a lot of kind of different scenes. There’s a dance music scene in Toronto, I don’t know that much about it. There’s kind of like the sort of Broken Social Scene type scene, indie rock. And then there’s…I don’t even really know anymore, to be honest. I’m so out of touch with what’s happening in Toronto. My friend Mike though, from Fucked Up, he started a label called One Big Silence and he puts out a lot of local Toronto music. And it’s good. I don’t even know where he finds these bands. He still has an ear to the ground in that city and knows what’s going on. 

BUST: Did you guys play a lot of local shows when you were starting out? 

KS: Oh, yeah. I’ve probably played in Toronto like 15,000 times in my life. Every single venue in Toronto. I used to be very involved in the music scene, but I guess you just kind of leave. I really feel like I’m a part of more of a global music scene now. When you start going on the touring circuit, that’s its own scene. We play with the same bands all the time, and we always see the same bands at festivals. 

BUST: Are you pals with any other bands?

KS: Yeah, totally. We just did a tour with the xx. It was awesome, a really really fun tour. They’re our pals. 

BUST: You guys toured with the Gossip, too, right?

KS: Yeah, they’re our pals, too. I love the Gossip. Those were like the two funnest tours ever, back to back. They’re so different. The bands themselves are obviously so different, they have such different personalities, but we really got along. 

BUST: Is Beth Ditto the coolest person ever?

KS: Beth Ditto is awesome. She was almost like, untouchable, in a way. In Europe, she’s literally a pop star. The paparazzi follows her around. She’s kind of like, extremely friendly and very generous and welcoming to everybody, but to a certain extent. She always has an arm up. I would hang out with her and she’d be so nice, like, “Oh my God, blah blah blah!” and then she’d just leave and go to her hotel room. Whereas with the rest of the band, we were able to bro down. Beth is good at being really, really nice and making everybody feel important, but still having her own life. 

BUST: You do a lot of awesome dancing on stage. Do you have any requirements for your concert wear? 

KS: It just has to be comfortable. I like to wear shoes that have big heels. Well, actually I’ve started moving away from that. I used to feel like I always had to wear high heels on stage, mostly platform-style heels because I feel too small. You want to just feel really confident in what you’re wearing so as soon as you get on stage you’re not thinking about anymore.

BUST: Do you think Austra would ever do a fashion campaign or anything like that?

KS: I feel like we kind of are a fashion campaign, a little bit. As much as we resist it…half the interviews I did today were for fashion magazines. But I think that’s what happens when you’re a woman in music. You just kind of like, also happen to be a fashion model simultaneously. Somehow it just happens, even though that’s the last thing I would ever expect for myself in my life. Ten years ago I never would have imagined myself being in fashion magazines, but that’s the way it is. 

BUST: Have you gotten do a shoot with fancy clothes yet?

KS: Not yet. I’m not at the fancy clothes level. Whenever I do a fashion shoot, if it’s styled, it’s usually a nightmare. They usually bring kind of the discount fashion stuff and I’m like, “I could actually just dress myself better than this.” But hopefully we’ll get there. We’ll get to the real deal. 

BUST: How was SXSW this year?

KS: We’ve been a few times. It was definitely the easiest SXSW we’ve ever done. We had backstages at all of our shows. It wasn’t much of a struggle. Usually SXSW is a real struggle. It’s usually more of a whirlwind. When we went two years ago, it was when people were just kind of discovering our band, so everybody came to like, check us out. This year we didn’t really have people that were coming to check us out. We had people who liked our band. It wasn’t a giant media fest for us. It was just like we were playing shows for fans, which was nice. I saw the band Savages, they were good. I didn’t really watch a lot of bands, to be honest. Mozart’s Sister is really good, she’s opening for us on tour. I pretty much just watched my friends’ bands, like Doldrums, they were really good. 

BUST: What else have you been into recently, music-wise? 

KS: I feel like this year for me has been a juxtaposition of listening to really intense singer-songwriter music like Perfume Genius, and I got really into Feist this year. Either that stuff, or scary haunted house film music. So it’s one or the other.

BUST: Do you still listen to a lot of classical music?

KS: Not so much, but still sometimes. I have it on my iPod and I still enjoy listening to it, but I mostly like a lot of the 20th-century classical music. I also really love listening to classical music on vinyl. It’s a real experience. So I’ve been building up my classical music vinyl library, which is so easy because every thrift store in the world has every classical record for one dollar, so it’s really easy to access. 

BUST: Have you ever seen fellow Torontonian Drake wandering around the city?

KS: No, my friends have, though. I think. He went to high school with some of my friends. I think we’re the same age. I’ve never seen him. I actually was completely unaware that that entire scene existed, to be honest, and then suddenly Drake became famous and he was like, [does deep, macho man voice], “Yeah, the Toronto music scene!” And I’m like, “Which one are you talking about?” 

BUST: Yeah, I didn’t know there was some kind of Toronto hip-hop scene.

KS: Apparently. I kind of knew about it, I had some friends from high school who were involved in it, but I didn’t realize that it was actually full-on happening. Drake’s funny, he says the Toronto sound is him and the Weeknd. That’s what Drake always says, which I think is funny. 

BUST: Because there are so many other bands from Toronto.

KS: Yeah, there are a lot of bands from Toronto that have really different sounds from Drake and the Weeknd! But you know, that’s what he thinks. 

BUST: This part of the interview is all my roommate’s fault. He told me I had to ask you if you knew Drake. We listen to a lot of Drake in my house. 

KS: I definitely do not know Drake. 

BUST: He also wants me to tell you that he thinks Austra should cover “Take Care.” 

KS: That’s awesome. 

BUST: So if you did that, you would have at least one person buy it. 

KS: Cool, I’ll do it then!

Catch Austra on tour this summer throughout Europe and North America, and check out Olympia now!


Photo courtesy of Domino.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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