ABOVE: AUSTRA. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORMAN WONG
When Toronto-based singer Katie Stelmanis began playing as Austra back in 2009, her music was very much a solo project. Comprised of Stelmanis’ opera-trained vocals and an array of gothic-leaning synths, she carved out a sound that mixed big pop hooks and with darkwave atmosphere. “Previously, when I’d write a record, I’d do 95 percent of it at home by myself on the computer,” says Stelmanis about composing her past recordings.
Stelmanis’ new LP Olympia, however, is a full-band affair like nothing Austra has yet released. Dorian Wolf and Maya Postepski, who had toured and recorded with Austra in the past, now have an integral role in the writing and recording process, while many of the album’s lyrics were contributed by backup singer and Tasseomancy member Sari Lightman. “Sari was, for the most part, my ghostwriter,” Stelmanis says.
The result is a record that sounds more organic than its predecessor, while reaching deep into history of dance music and early house. “The main intention of this record was to make electronic music acoustically,” she says. Interview caught up with Stelmanis to talk the new album, listening to Radiohead in high school, and the origin of Olympia’s title.
NATHAN REESE: There seems to be such a full-band feel to this record. How was the recording process different from your last record?
KATIE STELMANIS: It was the intention for the entire record to make this more of a full-band record, so we went into the recording process with that in mind. This time I’d write little bits, or just the skeleton of a song, take it to the studio, and me, Maya, and Dorian would bust it out. It was cool—we felt like a real band just jamming out parts. Some parts wouldn’t work, and some parts did. It was just a collaborative writing process.
REESE: What songs do you think were the most shaped by that collaborative writing process?
STELMANIS: I think the first songs that we brought into the studio were probably the most collaborative and also had the longest recording process. There’s a song called “What We Done?”—the working title was “Junk,” so I always want to call it “Junk”—that was one of the first songs we brought into the studio. We spent weeks just working out sounds. Figuring out the bass sound, all those little clicks and arps. Just learning how to use all these old synthesizers.
REESE: Compared to Feel It Break, this record has a brighter feel in some ways.
STELMANIS: With this record, as a songwriter, I was really into pulling away from the melodrama and the overdramatic type of writing that I was previously always doing. I think over time my songs have become more and more restrained. Rather than focusing on big climaxes and big dramatic vocals, having subtle buildups and having a beat or a groove to follow rather than sort of getting whacked in the face with these big climaxes.
REESE: But then there are tracks like “You Changed My Life” that are hardly electronic or dance-y at all. It’s very much about the atmosphere.
STELMANIS: It does have electronics; that harpsichord is a weird synth. That was the first thing that happened on that song, and then I got Maya and Dorian to play drums and bass on top of it so we got this weird psychedelic jam out. That was just a fun jam that we had, in the sense that were making a repetitive track with electronic elements but it was all acoustic sounds.
REESE: Were you inspired by anything in particularly when you were writing the record?
STELMANIS: I was listening to a lot of really early house music tracks. Like Chicago house and Detroit. And Marshall Jefferson has a track probably from 1980—somewhere around there—that doesn’t actually have any electronic instruments, no drum machines, nothing. Just a drummer and a piano player and they’re playing this house music, but they’re actually playing it. It makes it apparent where that music originated; it’s much closer to the jazz-soul aspect of dance music than the techno side. I really love that aesthetic and wanted to bring that into the album.
REESE: “Home,” the first single, really has that Chicago house vibe.
STELMANIS: Yeah, “Home” is definitely the house track of the record.
REESE: Growing up, who were some of your musical heroes?
STELMANIS: When I was growing up, until I was 18 or 19, I was totally invested in the classical music world. I had no concept of anything else. The closest thing to a cool band I listened to was Radiohead. Radiohead were the only band I liked in high school. I was just obsessed with classical music, opera, Debussy, and that kind of stuff. I think Nine Inch Nails was a really big one for me, when I was 18. They really inspired me to start making my own music.
REESE: Seeing as Olympia is more of acoustic-leaning record, do you see your classical training coming back to the forefront?
STELMANIS: Definitely. My drummer Maya is also a classically trained percussionist. She can play the marimba, she can do all these complicated otherworldly percussion things. This record was really about going back to our roots and actually playing everything. Almost all of the percussion on the album is played live and almost all the keyboard parts on the album are played live and they’re not quantized. So we were actually focused on doing a good performance, rather than just doing something and making it perfect in the computer.
REESE: Do you think about how they songs are going to translate live while you are writing them?
STELMANIS: A little bit. I wanted to try to make songs that worked as songs, not just as productions. With Feel It Break, a lot of those songs are difficult. People wanted me to do a solo acoustic session, they were like “Can you play this song on the piano?” and I was like “Not really. It doesn’t really work.” I wanted to write songs that would work in a variation of instrumentation. We could pare it down or fill it up. I love playing the new songs live. I hate playing a new song and then having to play an old song again, it feels really boring.
REESE: “I Don’t Care I’m A Man” is this really powerful, very short interlude on the album. What was the thought process behind that song?
STELMANIS: When we first started making the record I wanted to have these little moments or interludes, kind of a like hip-hop record or IDM records—like some Aphex Twin stuff has—but it was too much. We just had to pick the interludes we liked best. Lyrically it kind of happened by accident. That was a collaboration with Sari [Lightman], a backup singer who wrote a lot of the lyrics on the album. I had that one line, “I don’t care, I’m a man.” I think we kind of perceived it in different ways. I was thinking “man” as in how “mankind” fucks up the world. And of course there are the anti-patriarchal elements as well. Sari interpreted it as [a] more direct relationship between a man and a woman—like the man is hurting the woman.
REESE: Do you approach singing someone else’s lyrics differently than you would your own?
STELMANIS: Not in this case. With the exception of a couple songs, we really collaborated together. I was like “This is what the song’s about, these are the emotions, the ideas.” Then Sari kind of worked it out poetically. Then we’d go back and forth and make changes together. Certain songs, like “Painful,” were Sari’s concept. That song is about being gay in a small town. I think it’s really sweet because she reference, “Ride past their prying eyes,” and she references someone visiting someone else in the middle of the night. And Sari’s girlfriend, actually, is a bike courier, so I know she’s [talking about] her own life. So even though it isn’t me, I love singing about it. I love thinking about it. She created a really beautiful story with that song.
REESE: When she’s writing lyrics for you, is the melody usually finished before hand?
STELMANIS: Yeah, usually the song is totally done. I’ll do absolutely everything, backing vocals—everything—but in gibberish. I’ll usually have a few lines and she fills in the blanks. A lot of times its based on the mumblings that I sing. Even though I sing in gibberish, it kind of makes sense, so she would shape my words into real words, which I think is a good way to do it because it maintains the lyrical line of the melody.
REESE: What does the title of the record refer to?
STELMANIS: We recorded the album at a studio in Michigan called Key Club. It’s run by a couple, Bill and Jessica. While we were recording the album [Jessica] was nine months pregnant. She would always talk about how whenever I would talk or sing the baby would kick. So it was responding to these sounds. And then we left, they had the baby, and we came back. We were the first band into the studio after the baby was born. They named the baby Olympia, so we decided to name the album after her. We created a new album, a new life, a new sound, and it was really shaped around the baby’s birth. We decided to commemorate that new life, that tie.