Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
In a long-awaited return, Toronto-based music project Austra will hit the stage following the January 20, 2017 release of their new album Future Politics. After years of exploration and work, their third and most ambitious album emerges as a powerful response to the world around them, and a call to the creation of a better future. Founder Katie Stelmanis discussed the exciting year ahead as well as the disparate and evocative aspects at play in the imagining and creation of the Future Politics project.
mxdwn: First of all, congratulations on the new album! 2017 is looking to be a huge year for you and the band with the album dropping and an international tour coming up. What are you most looking forward to?
Katie Stelmanis: To be honest, at this point I’m just excited to have it out because it’s been such a long time coming. It’s going to be almost four years since our last record, which is kind of crazy to me. All of us are just like, itching to get on tour and itching to start doing it again.
You’ve noted some of the album’s greatest inspiration came from some seminal economic and philosophical texts. How have they shaped your worldview and inspired your lyrics and sound?
KS: Well, I think I was kind of looking for things. In some ways, I was looking for answers because I was feeling this real collective sadness a lot of us feel when faced with situations—like the Great Barrier Reef is not going to exist in ten years. How do you actually deal with stuff like that? I guess for me, it was important to try and learn about it and read about it as much as I could to try and get as much information to try and find answers. That led to reading a lot of these economic texts but ultimately, I descended into reading sci-fi. Like, I got really into reading feminist sci-fi and Afrofuturism. Anyone who has any sort of like creative vision of what the future could look like I was super interested in and super inspired by.
What was it like living and working in Montreal and Mexico City? How did these very different places shape and inform the album?
KS: When I was living in Montreal, I was adjusting to being in one place, being relatively quiet and generally alone and that was a very difficult transition. I had a hard time being in Montreal in the winter. I think that if you listen to the record, you can kind of tell which songs were written during that time—the more depressing ones. I realized it wasn’t necessary for me to be in Montreal in the winter because I could really work from anywhere so I sublet my apartment and got a one-way ticket to Mexico City. On a basic sensory level, I went from living somewhere that was dark and cold to somewhere that was warm and colorful. Just the vitamin D intake definitely changed the energy that I was feeling and putting into writing songs. I think this is probably why ultimately the record ended up being quite optimistic.
You’ve said, “Our current climate leaves many feeling apathetic but despair can act as a compass – the less you can ignore, the more you have to act.” Where do you derive your energy to act?
KS: I feel like people are more motivated to act when they have a goal in mind or when they’re working towards something. It’s very difficult to find the motivation to act when things are just shitty—when there isn’t really any hope. Specifically, when there isn’t any real vision of what things could potentially look like, I think it’s really hard to feel motivated. I really think that when people are united on a common vision.
Personally, I think a vision doesn’t quite exist yet and that is what will motivate people to participate more. Really, the greatest form of oppression is dissuading people from being able to envision anything else than what’s before them. If you watch the documentary HyperNormalisation they’re talking about how in Russia, you’re just fed one source of information because they don’t want you to think beyond that. They don’t want you to imagine. They don’t want you to envision any alternative. I think that building the alternative is in a lot of ways, the most productive and powerful way to actually get somewhere better.
You’ve said, “I knew writing this record would have nothing to do with music at first. It needed to have a purpose other than just my own ego.” How was this process different than the creating of your other two albums?
KS: With this record, it had to be less about the result and more about the process. For me, it meant spending a lot of time not working on music at all. It sounds crazy, but I really hadn’t read a book since high school. So I just started reading like, hundreds of books, and constantly reading and trying to learn Spanish and French and taking ballet lessons and just trying to do as much I could outside of music. I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer, being someone who just toured and wrote music, toured and wrote music. There needs to be some interjection of another kind of thought process to make something interesting. It was definitely about enriching other parts of my life other than just that of being a musician.
This album credits only women as producers, mixing and mastering engineers. What is the reasoning for this and how did it affect the creation of the album?
KS: It happened naturally. I knew Heba (Kadry) of Timeless Mastering, NYC as a mastering engineer and thought she was amazing and wanted to work with her. Alice (Wilder) had never mixed a record before, so it took a really long time to figure it out and get it right. I think in the past, I had given songs to mixing engineers and they’d taken a lot of liberties in terms of production and she wasn’t really doing that.
It also meant that I had to really step up the producing game. It was a long learning process. It was never intended that she would be the ultimate mixing engineer, but we kept on having opportunities to work with other people and then it would fall through and scheduling was weird or whatever. Then, at the very end, we were considering getting the three singles mixed by somebody else and then, at the last minute, I was just like “I don’t want to do it.” I knew that if we had some guy mix the three singles, than he would get all the credit for the whole record. It would not do justice to the actual process. I think the mixes sound really good. Even though there will always be changes I want to make, I think it’s really important to put something out that reflects what happened.
What kind of experience do you want show-goers to have?
KS: What I’ve always felt with Austra shows—which is why I’ve always been talking about that we’re a queer band—is that I really want people to know that Austra shows are always a safe and inclusive space. Doing a lot of press, talking about being queer, it definitely worked. There’s always a ton of queer people at our shows which is amazing. I think it’s really important to have spaces where you can just feel welcome and it’s kind of rare to feel that. I went to a Discwoman show while I was in Mexico City. You have this feeling you didn’t even know you were missing, which is to have like, so many women there. All the people in the front were women, all the DJs were women, and I was like “Oh My God, I’ve never experienced this in a club,” just feeling totally at ease, totally comfortable. I just want to try and create a space like that for people to be able come to.