As a special preview to the new AUSTRA album, Katie Stelmanis provided a showcase performance and Q&A in London…
One of the more notable electronic music acts to emerge in recent years has been Austra, the Canadian outfit consisting of Katie Stelmanis, Maya Postepski, Dorian Wolf and Ryan Wonsiak.
Austra’s striking, often baroque take on electronic pop has won them a global following through their 2011 debut album Feel It Break up to their last studio album, 2013’s Olympia.
Now their forthcoming third album Future Politics shifts to a timely rumination on the environment, human nature and politics on a release that Katie Stelmanis has described as “a commitment to replace the approaching dystopia. Not just hope in the future, but the idea that everyone is required to help write it, and the boundaries of what it can look like are both fascinating and endless. It’s not about ‘being political,’ it’s about reaching beyond boundaries, in every single field.”
Keeping the theme alive, it’s interesting to note that Future Politics will be released the same day that Donald Trump assumes the Presidency on 20th January 2017.
Recently, a special London presentation and performance showcasing Future Politics took place. This offered up an opportunity to hear Katie Stelmanis perform stripped-down versions of Austra songs both old and new, as well as conducting an on-stage Q&A session to discuss the genesis of the album. As a bonus, Maya Postepski (in her Princess Century guise) was on DJ duties for the evening.
The whole affair took place at Kamio, one of Shoreditch’s venues of choice which has an upstairs bar/lounge area and a downstairs performance room. As Princess Century, Maya Postepski played a series of intriguing electronic cuts, a few of which had a very dubby vibe to them.
Obviously Maya has been carving her own particular musical niche outside of her percussion contributions to Austra for some time. She had worked with Robert Alfons as Trust for a period of time before embarking on her Princess Century material. Under this guise, she put out a series of unusual, quirky and compelling electronic compositions. Her recent release Rendezvous featured material which she herself described as having a “weird Krauty EDM vibe” which summed it up nicely.
Speaking to Maya at the Kamio event she confirmed that she has at least 3 new collections of music in the works under the Princess Century banner, all of which will have a very different sound (one is a pop project, another more leaning towards trance). Asked about the comparison between Austra and her Princess Century material, Maya suggests “I’m much more darker”. It’s a description that makes a lot of sense when you listen to the more disconcerting tracks that appear on her releases.
On the topic of Future Politics, Maya adds that “it’s a much more mature sound” than previous Austra releases. We get a glimpse of this over the PA prior to Katie’s performance downstairs. There’s an ethereal bassy tune which features a very choral vocal elements. Others have a faster, more aggressive feel with a lot of the muscular percussive underpinnings of classic Austra tracks.
This all paves the way for Katie herself to take to the stage, dressed in a diaphanous white wrap as she sits behind an electronic piano, adding that she’s “very nervous” about performing in this fashion.
Any hint of nerves is swiftly disposed of however as she launches into a very confident version of ‘Home’, culled from 2013’s Olympia album. This is followed by a rendition of new song ‘Utopia’ which features very bold keyboard strokes by Katie whose powerful voice is a reminder of her operatic and classical background.
After a light moment in which Katie suggests that she’s forgotten what to play next, she delivers a new song titled ‘Gaia’. This Future Politics track features very dramatic chord sequences and more of Katie’s particular vocal trills as she delivers a refrain of “The physical world is the only world”.
Next up is ‘I Love You more Than You Love Yourself’ which features a more slower, brooding approach. This slips neatly into the next untitled song which has a playful arpeggio melody and some engaging key changes.
Addressing the audience after, Katie suggests “These are the more intense songs” because apparently much of Future Politics wouldn’t work on piano!
“This is the old hit!” states Katie before delivering the final song of the evening – an intimate version of ‘Lose It’.
The Q&A segment of the evening was conducted by writer and commentator Sophie Wilkinson, news editor for The Debrief. The resulting interview offered up some insight into the writing of Future Politics from Katie Stelmanis, as well as providing perhaps a timely commentary on modern times.
You said halfway through your set, “I’ve started off with my intense ones” Are any of them not intense? (laughs) – in a good way!
“I guess it’s not really capable of me to write a song that’s not intense, but then there’s definitely levels of intensity, I would say”.
And does that affect the writing process? and the time it takes to pull all that together?
I don’t think so. I think it would take just as long to write non-intense songs. All songs are difficult to write.
I’ve interviewed you previously for Olympia and then the tour you did in 2013. I was just reading the older interviews and it’s quite interesting what we were talking about, and one of them closes with you saying “Yes, feminism has started to become quite cool again”. (laughs) Which is a nice reminder of how far we’ve come these past few years, but another thing you said is that previously with Olympia you were watching a lot of old YouTube videos of Marshall Jefferson and you were looking at these old House tracks and you wanted to recreate them with real instruments. You wanted to make something very danceable, but that you can do it live as well with the rest of the band. Can you tell me a little about the process with this album? Are you doing the same kind of thing or… ?
This album was written basically on a computer. So this one doesn’t have the real instruments anymore. This was a more independent writing process. It was something that I wanted to do it all myself because I wanted to be in control of all parts of it and I also just wanted to be able to get really deep with it.
I find when you go to a studio sometimes and you engineer there and you’re thinking how much money you’re spending in the studio. I find it can make things feel rushed in this way and I didn’t want to have to feel like that. So I tried to do as much as I could just like um.. at my own pace at home without having to worry about paying some engineer or having someone I don’t really like offering their input in the studio.
Have you had any bad experiences that you can mention?
I’ve had amazing experiences in the studio. I mean the whole process of making Olympia, it was like a wonderful, beautiful process. But there were some dark sides to it as well, absolutely and… I don’t want to tell you (laughs)
I’ll tell you one thing. I kept on getting challenged. I feel like I know how to record my own voice and whenever I was like “I think we should do it like this”, this one particular engineer I was working with was like “No way man…” We got in this huge ridiculous fight and I started crying and I went up to my room and I took a shot of whisky, because he stressed me out so much. And then I recorded the vocals on this record by myself and I did it exactly how I think they should be recorded and I think they sound a lot better! (huge cheer from audience)
So you performed ‘Utopia’ just now and, interestingly, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, which is the first use of the term, is 500 years old this year. I feel in some way we’re being punished as a result of that. Also, interestingly, in another book called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves there are still slaves in that utopia and it’s actually not as utopic as you might think. What does your kind of Utopia consist of?
That’s a very difficult question to answer and I think everyone would have their own idea of what their utopia would look like. But, you know, for me I just imagine a world without oppression and a world that is based on sustainability and holism, rather than growth and profit.
You talk about a lot of people passing each other by, not really noticing one another. I feel like it sounds like a lot of major cities where you wake up, you can walk past people, walk past hundreds of people and you don’t really acknowledge any of them. There is quite a weird psychological impact. Is that something that you were thinking about in…
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean I think that it kind of causes this collective depression in a way. And that was what I was trying to do with the ‘Utopia’ video, we were trying to create a world that’s in the future but kind of also now. You know, a woman living alone in a condo because… I think it’s the same in London, but in Toronto it’s just being completely overwhelmed by new condo developments that are all hideously ugly and look exactly the same. All of them have the Starbucks and Tim Hortons, which you don’t know because you guys are British.
I think that kind of living in a city – that is just basically seen as a business rather than a thriving connection of people – just causes this really strong collective depression that I’m witnessing among all my friends in my community that I think is set to only get really worse from this point on, if we continue in this direction.
I guess there’s a lot of pleasant things going on (laughs) I mean I’m trying to think of a better analogy than the elephant that’s in the room, but ‘elephant’ really works because that’s the Republican symbol (laughs). But just looping back to the last time that you were promo’ing an album we were talking about Rob Ford, who was the mayor of Toronto and he was very much of the same ilk of someone like Trump. Ford was the one caught on camera smoking crack and he continued his job. He’s now dead (laughs) – not because of you!
It can happen! (laughs)
You’ve got Justin Trudeau in charge now. Is there some hopefulness, politically, in that respect?
Unfortunately Justin Trudeau isn’t really that awesome. You know, he marches in the Pride Parade wearing pink pants, but meanwhile he does all this other pretty bad stuff in the background, which I guess is maybe what you’d say about Hillary Clinton? I don’t know how you guys feel about that. Like socially very progressive, but in terms of what you’re actually doing, what you’re doing, it’s kind of fucked up.
When I listen to the record I was thinking this is super upbeat and super happy and then I asked, “Can you send the lyrics” and I was “Oh this is quite bleak” and there is a kind of paradox, which I’m guessing is that you want people to get the message in the lyrics, but also to have a fairly good time. Do you feel that listening to this record, for people, many of your fans listening, do you think there’s an act in itself, a catharsis in singing along, dancing along and having a good time?
Yeah, I mean part of what inspired me to go in this direction with this record was… after my band played a show at some festival in Belgium and we played before Massive Attack. I had never really listened to Massive Attack or thought about them, but I stuck around and watched the show and it was one of the best shows I’d ever seen. And I really loved – apart from making such beautiful music – the show was also very overtly political. They had all these newspaper headings in the background on this big LED screen going throughout the whole time of the show.
I just think that’s such a beautiful way to communicate a message in politics. You’re reading this and while you’re listening to this beautiful music and I think that, as a musician, emoting about it somehow opens up the vaults of compassion in this way in that it allows you to identify with it. Whereas if I was just standing here being like “Hillary Clinton is buh-buh-buh-blah!!!” you’d probably hear differently than if I’m conveying how it makes me feel and doing that by singing or like pairing it to music. And so, yeah, I think in that sense, music is a beautiful way to talk about this kind of thing.
In that sense, I would see this album as a kind of companion record to Anohni’s Hopelessness. Would you accept that comparison?
Oh yeah, I mean obviously that record is one of the most beautiful records ever. It’s such an amazing record and I feel like when I first started writing this record that I was definitely feeling a lot of similar things to what Antony was able to say in that record. You know, it was like 3 years ago or something like that so before all this election drama, but it was just kind of like a deep sadness about everything that’s happening lately – the environment – I think we can all agree that the fact that for example the Great Barrier Reef is going to be dead in 20 years. It’s this kind of stuff, at least for me, makes me feel deeply sad. It’s like, people can write love songs about broken hearts, but why can’t people write about being sad about things that are happening as well? That’s definitely a place that I was in for a lot of the record.
But then I also started reading a lot about the future in a lot of different ways, like all these kind of economic texts about post-capitalism and I was reading a lot of sci-fi and a lot of feminist sci-fi and this dystopian/utopian stuff. One thing I realised is our millennial generation is, in a way, very depressed and sad and hopeless feeling because we’ve just been raised in this capitalist nightmare. It’s difficult to imagine a future, it’s difficult to imagine something good. I just think that in order to combat all of the horrible forms of fascism and evilness in the world it’s going to take an actual, solid idea or a plan which all of us are in charge of making.
I’m speaking really esoterically , but I just think in the 1960s and ‘70s that the free love and peace movement, at the time that was a very subversive movement. But all of the ideas totally filtered through the mainstream and shaped the world after that, even though people may have taken it for granted at the time. So I think it’s very possible that in the cultural underground new paradigms can be created and infiltrated into the mainstream. (huge cheer from audience)
Ecologically, I found with ‘Gaia’, which was a song performed tonight, you talk a lot about the physical world is the only world. Jews don’t believe in an afterlife. The whole idea is that you have to create the best world here and now and I was kind of wondering where you’re coming from about the physical world being the only world.
I was reading a lot about this religion called new pantheism, I think that’s what it’s called, and it’s this religion that basically believes that the spiritual thing they worship is the earth. I do know that a lot of highly religious people justify environmental destruction because “Well, we’re only here for a little while and then I go to heaven or hell or whatever so it doesn’t matter”. But I think it’s just such a shame to take apart the miracle that we have in front of us in terms of physicality of the planet.
There’s a track on the record called ‘43’ and my first thought was “43 what?” and you talk about secrets, the cops are covering up the reasons, there’s a kind of gospel hum beneath all of it. I was just wondering what the story is behind ‘43’.
Well when I was writing the record I spent a lot of time in Mexico and I learned about this situation that happened whereby 43 students disappeared and nobody knows what happened to them to this day. It’s caused a lot of protests in Mexico, it’s caused a lot of controversy in Mexico and I wrote this song… well because of course I don’t think you can go to Mexico and kind of not acknowledge it. I don’t want to be the person who goes there and be like “Yay! Sunshine and eating!” without participating or making some kind of commentary on kind of the more fucked up stuff that’s happening there. So I wrote this song from the perspective of a mother singing about her lost son. And I felt it was also relevant in terms of the lot of the police brutality stuff that we’re dealing with in the US and Canada and I think here too.
There’s a lot of it reminds me of electronic stuff like Yazoo and Depeche Mode. I don’t know whether there’s an interpolation there of Depeche Mode’s ‘Everything Counts’ which is all about grabby, greed. I think the video for that song was all like lots of 80s bankers and hedge funders and stuff. Are you making a nod to that time with the electronic stuff?
I’ve got to be totally honest, I haven’t spent much time listening to Depeche Mode. Not that I don’t like them. I was really influenced by a lot of ‘90s bands, like Portishead. I mean a lot of these bands in the ‘90s all seemed to integrate these ideas into their music and after seeing that one show I was like “Why don’t people do this anymore?” When I first started writing this record it was like “No one is talking about politics” and now that I’m putting out this record there’s like 25 million records about it! (laughs) which is a really good thing! It’s like there’s a commonality between artists.
Just to kind of strip it to the most simplistic question, but also the most hopeful question: what does future politics look like to you? What do you we need to do next? What do you want everyone to go out and do?
I think the most important thing for me with the concept of Future Politics is using the word “politics” as an adjective, you know like “they have good politics, she has good politics”. But basically for me future politics is important because it’s just… I wanted to communicate how important it is to understand that every barrier or paradigm that we have around is totally a lie, even all the way down to the existence of money.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has this quote being like money is just being a little blip in history of humanity that we’ll look back on and laugh at. There’s just so many things that we take for granted. Like there’s an absolute reality that does not have to be a reality at all and I just think it’s important when you’re imagining this future world and building whatever is going to come after like scary Trump fascism, just to realise that there are many boundaries that can be broken and many ideas that can come true – that we will all be told many times over that cannot.
Future Politics is released 20th January 2017 on the Domino label. The album is available to pre-order on Amazon.