There’s no doubt we’re living in strange times. Luckily, when things get tough, we’ve always got music to guide us through the darkness. Undeterred by the chaos of the present moment, we reached out to Katie Stelmanis of Austra to discuss how the quarantine is affecting her, what she’s been inspired by lately, and of course, Austra’s upcoming record HiRUDiN.
mxdwn: Hi. So I’m here with Katie from Austra and we’re going to be discussing their new album HiRUDiN. And so I wanted to start off this interview with, of course, the thing that’s been on everyone’s mind as of late, which is how is the current social quarantine been affecting you and what have you been doing to sort of keep yourself sane in these crazy times?
Katie Stelmanis: Yeah. Well, I’ve been, I was in the middle of a residency in London, in the UK and that was supposed to be for the month of March, and mid-March I guess it kind of became clear that things were about to get really crazy. So I booked a last minute flight to Toronto. My apartment was subleted out already, so I’m staying at my parents’ house while they’re away. So I’ve been living in my childhood bedroom for like the past two and a half weeks basically. But it’s been good because I had two friends that were also in London for a totally separate reason at the same time, [they] are staying with me because we decided to quarantine together. So I’ve had like a couple of friends, which has been really nice cause I think I probably would have been going completely insane living here by myself as many people are doing. But it’s been, I dunno like I feel like I haven’t been very productive. I’ve been trying to watch tutorials online of learning things like Photoshop and I’ve been trying to learn, like Premiere but all things that don’t take too much brain power or like creativity, power.
mxdwn: No, I think that’s great. And I think it’s really good that you have like a support network in place. I’m currently living with my girlfriend, so that’s been helping keep me sane as well. I definitely feel for all the people that are stuck alone in the house.
KS: Yeah. I think it’d be pretty intense. Yeah.
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
mxdwn: So going off that question, what was it like to have your plans suddenly change because of this outbreak? With the new album coming out, I imagine you had pretty grandiose tour plans and lots of promotion plans that you were hoping to do that are now sort of scattered to the wind. So what was that like?
KS: I mean, to be totally honest, I don’t think that I want to be talking about my personal life, but at the same time I just can’t do these interviews without being totally transparent and saying that I also went through a breakup. I’ve been living in London for the past three years and I broke up with my partner in January. So I was already planning to come back to Toronto, but I just ended up coming back a little bit earlier than planned. But because of this, like unexpected, like the breakup already was such a turn of events in my life that I wasn’t really looking forward to the album promotion because I was talking about something, an album that I had written over the past three years that didn’t really have anything to do with my new current situation. So in that sense, I’m actually not that bummed that like my residency was cut short and like my tour in May is canceled and like a whole bunch of stuff is canceled, but I actually feel glad that I now have time to just be at home and be alone to really process what has been happening outside of coronavirus. So yeah. So I’m not, I’m not devastated that everything is completely gone awry.
mxdwn: Well that’s I think an interesting way to look at it. So moving in towards a discussion of the album, I got to listen to it a little bit yesterday and the day before and I just think it’s absolutely fantastic.
KS: Oh, thank you.
mxdwn: Of course. One lyric really stuck out to me on the song “Mountain Baby.” There was a lyric where it said, “I sit and wonder, do my mistakes, keep me at the gate?” Was there a particular moment that inspired that lyric, or was there a specific thing that you were thinking about when you wrote that?
KS: Not really. See, it’s interesting because this whole record in some ways was written about things that I had experienced in the past, but then there’s a whole bunch of songs that were not really about anything I had experienced in the past, but have become suddenly totally relevant to what I’m experiencing now. So I feel like I almost have this weird psychic power where I was like able to like tell what was going to be happening in my life in the future. And I feel like “Mountain Baby” is kind of one of those songs in a way because the lyrics were sort of pieced together. And because I worked with another writer, Cecile Believe, who wrote the chorus in that song. So we kind of had two different ideas of what the song was about but the narrative of it sort of became more clear to me like quite recently actually.
mxdwn: Interesting. I think the way that collaborators can help bring out things that you may not have even noticed about yourself can lead to some really interesting creative discoveries.
KS: Yeah, totally.
mxdwn: So when you wrote this album, was there a specific thing that you were hoping your listeners would gain from it? In terms of knowledge about you or just knowledge about the world as a whole.
KS: I really wanted to make a record that could connect with people in a very personal way. I think that my last record, Future Politics was a lot of songs that were about society and about politics. And I just felt this deep desire to go more deeply into my own thoughts and ideas and emotions. I wanted to make something that people could connect with in a more personal way. It’s interesting, I did another interview this morning where someone was saying that he feels like there’s a trend right now of artists that are trying, that are all making a lot of like self-care records or something and like, and I think that that’s definitely like a response to the times that we’re in right now because like even before coronavirus like we are in quite difficult times and I think that as artists, a lot of people are trying to find coping mechanisms and that’s something that I needed for myself and that I also wanted to be able to offer.
mxdwn: Yeah. No, I think that’s a really interesting observation about the self-care elements. Like you were saying, with all the crazy times, it does make sense that people will be making stuff that’s a little more personal to them that can help them get through the difficult times as well.
KS: Yeah, definitely. And just being observant of what I was connecting to in music. You know, I don’t necessarily feel better when I’m listening to somebody sing about politics or about what’s going on in the world. But what really affects me on an emotional level is people like being vulnerable. And so I think that seeking out vulnerability is something that is very sort of healing for people in general.
mxdwn: Yeah. So you mentioned listening to albums that were a little more vulnerable and a little more focused on healing. So I’m curious, what were some of the things that you were listening to during the creation of this record?
KS: Well I spent a bunch of time, in the beginning, listening to Joan Armatrading. And it was funny cause one day at dinner my mom put on Joan Armatrading and she made me listen to one of the songs from her first record and analyze it. She was like, ‘Tell me if you can tell the moment in the song when the mood changes,’ or something like that. And I was kind of like, ‘Okay, shut up mom, whatever.’ Like, you know, I’m still like a teenager when I talk to my mom a little bit. But then I went home and I don’t think I ever told her, but I actually became obsessed with this record after she played it for me and obsessed with the song and it ended up being super influential on a lot of the stuff that I was writing. So I’m trying to pull up, I forget the name of the song and I’m going on the internet to try and pull it up. But the internet isn’t working. But maybe it’ll work before we end our conversation.
mxdwn: Yeah, for sure. You know, if it pops up, just let me know. So aside from what you had just mentioned, were there any other big influences on this record? Either musically or narratively that helped shape what it eventually became.
KS: Yeah. There were definitely a lot of influences on this record. I was really obsessed with when it came out. The latest Mount Kimbie actually. And I just really liked how they were using mostly acoustic instruments but still making undeniably electronic music. I just liked the sonic quality of that record with the live drum and live bass. And actually, as I had been living in London, I was going out to see a lot of jazz and I was quite influenced by that as well. There’s a group in London called Sons of Kemet who are pretty amazing. They put out a record a few years ago, I think it was nominated for a Mercury Prize. But anyways, I actually eventually saw them play live for the first time in Toronto, funnily enough. The show is so good, I don’t think they played like one song from their record. They just played random stuff for an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the audience was going so crazy and someone at the back of the venue just screamed ‘MUSIC!,’ everybody started screaming cause it was just like, I don’t think anybody had seen just like, players play like that where you’re totally captivated for that long. So I was really, really inspired by that and I’m obviously nowhere near being the type of musician that they are, but just being able to maintain this energy using live players is something that I really wanted to try and do.
mxdwn: I do think that that came through on the album, also Sons of Kemet rock. They’re really good.
KS: Yeah, totally.
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
mxdwn: So I noticed that this album, you know, we kind of discussed this a little bit earlier, but this album takes a slightly softer approach in terms of its tone than Future Politics did. Was the reasoning behind that shift because you wanted it to be more personal or were there other reasons behind that as well?
KS: Yeah, I mean I think it takes a softer tone in a lot of different ways. Like production-wise it definitely does. And Future Politics was written entirely in the box and it was mixed by my live sound engineer / girlfriend at the time so there wasn’t a professional studio involved in the making of that record at all, at any point. And you know, it was sort of a result of just being totally mobile, like I was moving a lot, I was still on the road a lot. So it just kind of made sense to sort of make it like that. But I feel like whenever I do something, I always want to do the opposite after. So with this record, I wanted it to feel completely different. I wanted it to feel as warm and alive as possible, so I spent as much time as I could doing sessions with players in proper studios and just working on getting everything to sort of sound as good as I could.
mxdwn: That definitely comes through. So even though the sounds, especially the production was a little softer than some of your previous work, the lyrics felt even more pointed than usual. Was there a reason you wanted to be so specific when writing those lyrics?
KS: I feel like lyrics for me have kind of been a journey since the beginning. When I started making music, lyrics were just something that weren’t important to me at all. So on my first record half, the lyrics just make no sense, I [was] just thinking about nothing. And I slowly realized that lyrics are important to other people, so I started to try a little bit more with the lyrics. But I think because I never really cared about them I always had this idea that I was not good at writing them. I had insecurities about it, but I think like with many different things that a lot of these sort of barriers that you create for yourself are just not real. So when I just decided that I can write lyrics, I made a conscious decision to be like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ and that was Future Politics. In a way, it was my first effort of writing lyrics myself with intention, but they weren’t super personal. So this record is my first time writing more personal lyrics that I actually care about. Which is, it’s a journey for sure. Lyrics are really difficult, but I am starting to enjoy writing them, which is nice.
mxdwn: So expanding off that, how did you find the process of writing lyrics that were of a more personal nature? Did you find it a harrowing or did you find it freeing or a little bit of both?
KS: A little bit of both. I think for me, the most personal lyrics on the record are probably the ones that came out really easy. For example, the song, ‘All I Wanted’ was written basically in 10 minutes. And that’s how I find I’m able to write the lyrics is when they just are sort of happening when I write them without really thinking about them. But when I’m really deliberating them and spending a lot of time with it, that’s when it feels more forced, then it’s more of a struggle and I just find they’re not as good or something. So what I’ve started doing, what I did with this record is that instead of like forcing myself to sit down and like kind of push the lyrics out, I just wait with them, you know? For instance, I’ll have a song for like months and then I’ll just wait until they just come out. Which I guess is kind of a weird way of doing things. But I’ve learned that giving the song space and just like letting them happen when they happen has been a more successful strategy for me.
mxdwn: Speaking of waiting, I’m curious, once this quarantine is over are there any big plans that you have in regards to the album tours? Something fans can look forward to?
KS: Yeah, I have like four months of touring starting in September through the end of the year. So hopefully that will happen. I mean, I definitely think it’s still up in the air as to whether or not we’ll be able to travel at that point, but that’s what I’m hoping for and I feel lucky because that tour was booked and ready to go like a couple of months ago. Now every artist that was meant to be touring this year is trying to play shows at that time. So I’m glad that like I already had a bunch of the venues locked in cause I think it would be, well it is still going to be really competitive and I’m a bit nervous about that, but I’m also just now excited to be able to play those again.
mxdwn: Keeping in the vein of touring, if there was one artist or band that you could tour with, living or dead, who would you like to tour with?
KS: Let me think. I’m just going to go with the first thing that comes to my head, but I think I would like to tour with Queen because touring with Freddie Mercury would be amazing. I’ll say that.
mxdwn: I always like to keep things a little fun towards the end. So is there anything that you’ve been enjoying lately? Books, movies, TV, anything outside of music that, you know, you’re just really enjoying?
KS: I’m trying to decide which thing to say, but these are the things that, these are the things that I’m enjoying. So I’m obsessed with this cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop called The Food of Sichuan. I’ve been cooking like constantly in quarantine, which I guess a lot of people are doing, but it’s super good. I’m also obsessed with the book by Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl. That is one of the books that I read this year that I’m really, really into. So I’m giving you three things. I hope that’s okay. And then the third thing, which is like a long term obsession is just Star Trek. I’ve spent the last like six or seven years watching The Next Generation, the whole series but I find nobody ever wants to watch it with me. So I’ve watched it when I was like by myself, usually on tour and using it as a way to relax. I find the absolute most relaxing thing to do ever is just to watch Star Trek. And I’ve been watching it a lot during the pandemic because there’s a lot of anxiety. But fortunately the two people I’m living with right now also love Star Trek, which has never happened to me before. So we’ve been watching it together and it’s been really fun. I have two episodes left for the entire series of TNG, so I’m kind of conserving them.
mxdwn: Since you’re a Star Trek fan, have you been keeping up with that Picard show?
KS: Well actually I’ve been asking around because I can’t tell if I should watch it or not because I’ve heard mixed things about it. Some people say it’s good and some people say it’s not, but I’m really obsessed with the character Jean Luc Picard and I don’t want to ruin it, so I’m nervous to watch it.
mxdwn: That totally makes sense. So last question. I know that lots of bands because everyone’s stuck at home, have been doing some live streaming concerts and things for their audience. I know that you had tinkered with some of that lately on Instagram, do you have any upcoming live streaming concert plans or just live stream interactions with your audience coming up?
KS: I know that I’m supposed to, I don’t know yet, but I know that they’re meant to happen. To be honest. I’m not the hugest fan of live streaming. I think that it’s not the same as playing live. It’s just not the same experience. It’s kind of crazy to me because we spend so long making these albums, which are meant to be listened to from the comfort of your own home to sound amazing in the comfort of your own home. Then [to] just be like, ‘actually listen to me streaming from your iPhone on Instagram instead,’ it’s like, actually you should just listen to the record if you want to best experience it. But I’m sure that I will do it and I will enjoy it. So we’ll see.
mxdwn: Great. Well, you know, thank you so much for your time. I love the album. It’s, it’s so good. Everyone reading this definitely go check it out when the album drops. And is there anything else you’d like to say before we head off?
KS: No, I think that sounds great. Great.
mxdwn: Well, thank you again for talking to me and hope you have a great day and a non-stressful quarantine as much as that is possible.
Austra’s latest record HiRUDiN will be available for purchase and streaming on May 1st on all major streaming platforms. The record is being released by Domino Records.
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna