Music Interviews

Q&A: Austra

Austra Olympia, the second album from Canadian electro group Austra, marks a progression. While 2010’s acclaimed debut Feel It Break was very much the work of songwriter and focal point Katie Stelmanis, the follow up is an altogether different prospect.

Olympia is the collaborative sound of Austra blossoming as a band. It is a deeper album that sees them exploring intense emotions while progressing further into the realms of dance music and techno.

We spoke to Stelmanis ahead of the album’s release to find out a bit more about the album’s conception and the changing group dynamic.

When did you begin the creative process for Olympia and what did you hope to achieve when you embarked on that process?

It began a year after we started touring Feel It Break. I started writing songs and had a few objectives in mind. I want to write about real things in my life, whereas previously I preferred lyrics to be more obscure. I also wanted the new record to have the same energy as we do on stage, and so I felt the best way to do that was to make a record with a live band.

Olympia is described as a far more collaborative album than Feel It Break. How does that work in practice?

Usually I will start a song, pass it to Maya, and she will add some new drum programming or whatever. We left the computer demos pretty bare this time around though because we really wanted to fill out the songs in the studio. That meant actually “jamming” and experimenting with tons of sounds and ideas and recording all of them before narrowing in on a specific aesthetic.

Was it always your desire for Austra to gradually move from a bedroom based solo project to a more collaborative entity? Does Olympia feel like the work of a fully formed band?

Yes, definitely. I feel like Austra is becoming something very different than my solo work was, and its finally starting to feel like it has its own identity. I really feel that identity is specifically the collaboration between me, Maya, and Dorian.

What did the other band members specifically bring to this record?

Maya does everything – riffs, percussion, beat programming, organ, recorder, etc. She is a real multi-intramentalist. Dorian spends all his time in bass world. He writes funky bass parts that I never would, and also makes the bass parts I do write sound better. Sari, one of the back up singers, helped me write the lyrics. And in fact some songs are entirely her own, such as Painful Like.

You describe the album as “fundamentally a dance record”. What is it about electronic music, with particular reference to dance/club sounds, that appeals to you? How did this dance music aesthetic manifest itself in this record?

I like the idea of making a dance record because I like that our show is a dance party. I think when people see live music it should feel liberating and should be a physical and emotional experience. Dancing makes this possible.

As well as being more expansive musically, Olympia is a deeper and more evocative record lyrically. How does it feel as an artist to reveal so much of yourself emotionally?

It felt very cathartic to write and perform this record. I was in a position in my personal life where I felt it absolutely necessary to write these songs for people, they were fueled by deep emotions I had never felt before. I’m really bad at communicating in my real life so this ended up being a way I could do that more effectively.

The songs seem to deal with relationships and desires. Is it easier in a certain respect to write about those powerful emotions? Is there a different dynamic to the music when writing these confessional songs?

It’s definitely easier to perform these songs. As a singer I am much more easily able to harness the exact emotional feelings I want to communicate to the audience, whereas with Feel It Break that was a lot harder. I like the idea of story in the music driving the song rather than just the voice.

There is a great contrast between the intensity, grandeur and darkness of your voice and some of the melodies that are really quite lovely and upbeat. Are you conscious of that mix when writing the songs? How important is it to have that degree of musical lightness to offset the often-dark lyrics?

I love contrasts in every respect. I think with every moment of darkness you need to have light, or it becomes to saturated. Like, you never know how happy you are until you’ve experienced sadness.

Musically, while the album is very electronic it’s still organic and natural. Everything was played by the band in the studio. What was the benefit of using that organic approach?

We were able to make a record that felt warm and felt real. I’ve been listening to a lof of old vinyls from the ’60s and ’70s and I love how it sounds like the musicians are in the room with you. I wanted to create that effect with this record.

When you were writing these songs and making the album did you envisage how they would sound in a dancefloor/club environment?

Yes, definitely. We thought about how they would go over in live performance and in the clubs, it shaped this record a lot I think.

What are the main electronic music influences that go into your work?

So many – I was listening to a lot of early house music while writing this. I have a track called “move your body” by Marshall Jefferson where everything is played live on the floor. Real drums, piano, bass, yet its still such a classic house track. I wanted to acheive that with this album.

You produced Olympia yourself but also worked with Fucked Up’s Mike Haliechuck. At first glance, someone from a hardcore punk band may be a strange collaborator. How did you meet up and start working with him and what did he bring to the album?

Mike actually has a really keen ear for pop music and song structure. He helped tame our arrangements and make them into more pallatable songs. Like he would insist we had a chorus somewhere, or cut something else.

I’m interested in your feelings when it comes to making a second album, is it important to you to push your sound forward or to consolidate the success of the debut?

I want every album I release to be something completely different. A new idea with a new objective. I think it’s best to think of each album this way to keep developing as an artist.

There seems to have been a wealth of like-minded, largely experimental electronica based artists emerging from Canada in the past few years. Why do you think this scene has coalesced around Canada?

Well I guess there are a few, but I probably know all of them by name. Canada is still pretty far behind the rest of the world when it comes to dance music. Juan Atkins played in Toronto the other day to about 150 people. He could probably draw hundreds more in London.

Are there any unheralded Canadian musicians that you can recommend to us?

Diana! And Mozart’s Sister. We are taking both of these groups on tour!

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2013 and beyond?

Touring forever!

Austra’s second album Olympia is released through Domino on 17 June 2013.

buy Austra MP3s or CDs
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More on Austra
Austra – HiRUDiN
Austra @ Village Underground, London
Austra – Future Politics
This Music Made Me: Austra
Austra – Olympia