Feature

Getting physical with Austra

Austra

Polaris short list nominees, Austra headlines its first Canadian tour. NORMAN WONG PHOTO

“Queerness is important to music, and to what we’re doing.”

I think it’s important to be honest.”

Katie Stelmanis uses music to share her darkest thoughts and innermost feelings. Her lyrics, hauntingly sung, are weaved and layered with seductive electronic beats.

Stelmanis fronts Toronto-bred electronic group, Austra.

“Girls are making me feel right…feel right,” sings Stelmanis over an erotic beat, one Trent Reznor would be proud of.

“I feel that in general, dance [and] the electronic genre [is] a more sexy genre,” says Stelmanis.

“There’s more sensuality and you’re encouraged to dance,” she says. “And dancing is a sensual, physical experience, and I think that was a really important part in what we wanted to do.”

Along with drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf, Austra formed as a collaborative effort to what eventually became Austra. Their debut album, Feel it Break was a short list nominee for this year’s Polaris Music Prize, alongside Canadian darlings and winners, Arcade Fire.

But making sensual dance beats was not the original road for Stelmanis.

Initially, she and Postepski played together in their previous band, Galaxy, an all-girl indie-punk trio based in Toronto. They eventually “grew out of it,” and took the experience they gained as a learning process.

“Neither of us knew anything about being a band or how to sing or perform rock music,” recalls Stelmanis.

After the mutual demise of Galaxy, Stelmanis proceeded to perform as a solo artist, but was soon reunited with Postepski. Third member and bassist Wolf completed the puzzle, and Austra, a new sound and idea, was born.

“We came out of an obscure indie rock community, which is kind of the most asexual kind of music that exists,” she says.

“I think finally embracing ourselves as a dance band took a long time.”

A unique band that has gained rabid attention for its sound, Austra has also turned heads with their openness with themselves. Stelmanis has been honest with her music and open with her sexuality—one of Austra’s tracks is ‘Young and Gay,’ after all.

“Our band is like a smorgasbord. It’s like gay, lesbian, straight­—like everything,” says Stelmanis.

“It seems difficult to be a songwriter and pretend that aspect of you doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to connect with people in a personal way, like through song writing and musical writing, and as a performer, I don’t see how you could pretend that it doesn’t exist.”

Stelmanis lists Owen Pallett and Gossip’s Beth Ditto as ‘out’ inspirations, and respects the artists that are open about their sexuality and uniting it with their musical act.

“The community that we’re involved in, and the music we’re listening to, and the people we’re working with, it’s just a huge part of who we are,” she says.

“Queerness is [important] to music, and to what we’re doing.”

But among her many inspirations, she admires strong female artists in the industry. Of recent talents, Stelmanis is particularly fond and appreciative of tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus.

“I think the reason why I’m really inspired by [Merrill] is because I find her project to be really brave in what she’s doing,” says Stelmanis. “She’s often just a solo performer, sometimes as a band, and she’s not making very palatable music, but she just owns it.”

Praising tUnE-yArD’s live performance, Stelmanis says people are blown away by the rawness of Garbus’ shows.

“Right now, it’s really difficult to find honesty in music, and I think when that exists, it makes a big difference in the integrity of a project.”

Austra’s style has indubitably proven to show raw emotions in its music. Album closer, ‘The Beast,’ showcases Stelmanis’ classically trained voice with nothing but a piano. As the final track, her haunting and captivating voice leaves the listener with nothing but an unexplainable craving.

The attention and exposure the group has seen has been tremendous, and the band is ready to headline its first Canadian tour, despite being Canadian themselves.

“I personally felt that I had to really work hard outside of Canada and develop a reputation there, before I was really noticed in Canada,” she says.

Stelmanis admits Canada is a difficult place when it comes to electronic music.

There’s a lot of great artists   but there isn’t really an infrastructure to support Canadian electronic music,” she says.

“The CBC doesn’t really have any daytime electronic radio, and it’s hard for a Canadian electronic band to make their way into that world, because there isn’t a national palette for people to talk and discuss and discover music.”

To help support her genre, Stelmanis hopes to see more major electronic-based blogs and radio shows.

“I think Canada will get there, but we’re just such a huge country with such a small population, that it’s hard to focus on these smaller genres,” she says.

“[Canada is] very, very close-knit in this pop-rock zone.”

The group is ecstatic to headline in Canada and to see what reception Austra gets.

Promising to focus on the more upbeat and dance-infused numbers on the album, the band has been working hard to create a unique experience for concert-goers.

“We’ve been transitioning the music to make it more spacey and more dance-y over time, specifically because we wanted to have these high energy, rough shows,” she says.

“Canadians love electronic music, and they love listening to it, and I think over time, people will start to recognize this electronic culture that exists in our country.”

Austra plays The Hi-Fi on Nov. 19.

For a chance to win a pair of tickets to this coveted show, answer the comprehension question:

“What was the name of Katie Stelmanis’ band prior to forming Austra?”

E-mail your answer to entertainment@theweal.com

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