It’s (almost) the end of the world as we know it, but for the moment, Katie Stelmanis feels fine. When I connect with the leader of electronic pop outfit Austra, she’s “in this weird tree house, in Amiens, a small town in the north of France – kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty sweet, actually!” The space is serving as her (literal) green room for a local show that’s part of a six-week European tour. While it certainly makes for a nice change from the usual graffiti-and-band-stickered backdrop you find in most backstage areas, it’s also the perfect setting to talk about Stelmanis’ latest album. It’s a record that’s consumed with deep thoughts on the state of our planet – and what humanity must to do to protect its proverbial rickety treehouse before its supporting branches collapse.
Future Politics is the third album Stelmanis has released under the Austra name, but, as its title suggests, it’s the first to really point her usual inward gaze outward. Informed equally by Naomi Klein’s eco-conscious critiques of capitalism, and the utopian promise of ’70s science fiction, Future Politics grapples with the fragile state of civilization – socially, economically, environmentally – but sees hope in technology’s mobilizing and liberating potential. By sheer fortuitous coincidence, the album was released on January 20, 2017, the same day a certain egomaniacal reality TV show host was inaugurated into the highest office of the world’s biggest superpower, effectively putting his itchy-Twitter finger on The Button. It’s a circumstance that has elevated Future Politics’ songs – whether the house-throbbed title track mission statement or the electro-shocked Mother Earth address “Gaia” – from speculative social commentary to unofficial soundtrack of #TheResistance.
Of course, such an outcome was the furthest thing from Stelmanis’ mind when she holed herself up in Montréal two years ago to start writing the record. “Future Politics is obviously more political than anything I had ever done, but I also wrote it before we’re in the position we’re in now,” she clarifies. “This was before Donald Trump was even on the horizon, before Brexit happened. I was just unearthing these problems on my own that I wanted to bring to light, and then they exploded into this neo-right wing movement. I don’t know if I could do it in the climate that exists today. I definitely wouldn’t make the same record right now.”
But for all its focus on the big picture, Future Politics also contains some intensely personal songs, like “I’m a Monster” and “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” For Stelmanis, they all come from the same unsettled place. “With a song like ‘Gaia,’ I wasn’t intending to write about climate change,” she says. “I was writing about the emotional reaction to reading about climate change and the degradation of the environment. It was based on a very real reaction and, to me, that reaction is not that different than breaking up with somebody.”
As Stelmanis tells it, writing in isolation – first in the midst of Montréal’s “cold, dark, depressing” winter, then in “colourful, warm, sunny” Mexico City – was a deliberate attempt at cutting herself off from the outside world, after spending the previous four years constantly touring and recording collaboratively with core bandmates Dorian Wolf (bass) and Maya Postepski (drums). “I always like to go to the opposite of what I’ve previously done,” she says, and it’s a theme that recurs throughout her musical career. Raised in Toronto, she received classical training for piano and voice as a child, only to turn her back on a future in the conservatory by picking up the guitar in her teens. “I don’t know why I started playing it, because I didn’t listen to guitar music,” she says. “I guess I liked Ani DiFranco. I used to do open mics, even though I didn’t really know how to play acoustic. I’d just do Spanish style; like, the strumming would be really fast and intense.”
“I wasn’t intending to write about climate change. I was writing about the emotional reaction to reading about climate change… To me, that reaction is not that different than breaking up with somebody.”
Alas, Stelmanis’ proverbial path to Lilith Fair was road-blocked when she befriended Emma McKenna, who inspired her to switch to electric and form Galaxy, a scrappy, punky power trio in the Sleater-Kinney vein. But once that short-lived group ran its course, Stelmanis pursed a solo career in earnest. In 2009, she released a debut album, Join Us, that bore evidence of her classical training, through its baroque piano arrangements and operatic vocal flourishes, but shot it through a mischievous, synth-freaked DIY spirit acquired through her time in the indie rock trenches. The record was released through the Blocks Recording Club, the Toronto co-operative that nurtured the rise of everyone from violinist Owen Pallett to hardcore heavyweights F__ked Up. And in the latter’s guitarist, Mike Haliechuk, Stelmanis found an unlikely mentor.
“I would send him tracks and he would offer advice,” she says. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but Mike has more of a pop mentality. He was able to make my songs more listenable, with more classic, regular structures and arrangements.”
With Haliechuk’s help, Stelmanis produced the demo that eventually landed her an international deal in 2010 with Domino Records under her new name: Austra. Though as Stelmanis sees it, “there wasn’t really a definitive transition. It happened really slowly. The Austra songs were more developed and more thought-out. They were recorded and mixed professionally, as opposed to the Katie Stelmanis stuff, which is way more DIY. I think Austra is just a more normal version of Katie Stelmanis.”
But if Stelmanis viewed that shift as a natural progression, to those who had followed her career up to that point, the contrast was blinding. Where the ultra-low-budget video for the calamitous 2009 track “Believe Me” sees Stelmanis and friends cheekily traipsing through the woods to stage a cosplay showdown between puritans and witches, the visual for Austra’s debut single, “The Beat and the Pulse” (initially issued as a 12-inch on Haliechuk’s One Big Silence imprint) introduced a much darker, more disturbing vision. Over the song’s icy, strobe-lit electro thump, Stelmanis presents herself as the peroxide-blond high priestess of an underworld strip club populated by mutant, demonic lap dancers.
That aesthetic boldness carried over to her live presentation, which has grown more elaborate and choreographed as 2011’s Feel It Break and 2013’s Olympia elevated her to the international touring circuit. Where Stelmanis once meekly tucked herself behind an electric piano when playing solo, with Austra, she holds court centre stage, dramatically punctuating her vocal ascensions with arm gesticulations like a goth Stevie Nicks.
“It was just a matter of becoming older, more mature and more comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “In the beginning, I just couldn’t take myself seriously and the imagery reflected that: it was always a bit tongue-in-cheek, and a bit of a joke, but that was just me being totally insecure in front of a camera. And over time, it’s become a learned thing. Now that I’ve been in front of the camera more, I’m a lot more comfortable with it. It’s easier to try to take yourself seriously and present an image you’re imagining in your head. But that definitely takes some courage.”
However, even as Future Politics cements Stelmanis’ reputation as one of the most striking and provocative voices in contemporary indie pop, she admits she’s still acclimatizing herself to certain aspects of life in the limelight. As the lines between the underground and mainstream have become ever more blurred, it’s not uncommon to see artists from the former realm take a crack at writing songs for artists who dominate the latter—think of Justin Vernon’s dalliances with Kanye, or Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth picking up credits on Solange’s A Seat at the Table. But when Stelmanis’ label recently suggested she collaborate with a seasoned L.A. song doctor, with the goal of shopping of the results around to the highest-paying diva, she couldn’t quite work up the gumption to accept the offer.
“Like, how would that work?” she ponders with a laugh. “It seems like such a cheesy thing to do. Like, does one person do the chorus? I can’t even fathom it. Writing is such a super-vulnerable thing for me, because 90 percent of what you do is probably terrible. So being in a room while other people are hearing that 90 per cent would be horrible! The world only ever hears the top 10 percent of what you’re working on.”