Whether in a cavernous music hall or a seedy goth dance club, opera prodigy turned synthpop chanteuse Katie Stelmanis can fill a room with her voice. A veteran of Toronto riot-grrrl act Galaxy, her haunting vibrato takes center stage in her latest incarnation as Austra — along with drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf, a huge, visceral take on electro.
The confluence of minor-key operatics, industrial dance, and sleazy ’80s new-wave à la Soft Cell is the result of a natural progression. Stelmanis’ roots in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus developed into an obsession with Björk and Nine Inch Nails, and she soon realized that the key to her desired “classical music with really fucked up, distorted shit” was newfound technology. “When I started writing music on a computer, like, five or six years ago, I had no idea what I was doing,” Stelmanis remembers. “But I knew, because I’m still totally into opera, that I wanted to use orchestral instruments — violin, cello, winds, all these orchestral sounds.
“So I went to a music store and learned how to use a MIDI, because I could get all these sounds electronically…I think my original music was way more orchestral sounding, the arrangements sounded a lot more like an orchestral piece. [But] I really like the way electronic sounds sounded. I knew that I was really into the synthetic instrument. I had a really DIY basic set-up, and I eventually started moving away from the orchestral samples and started discovering others, the basic samples you have when you get ProTools. It’s funny, because my drummer Maya does producing as well. We’d listen to the Fever Ray record and go, ‘I know that sound, I know that sample!’ Basic stuff. I think it’s just a matter of resources.”
The sound that her much-loved MIDI produced for Feel it Break, Austra’s debut full-length on Domino Records, is anything but basic. Full of booming synths, the heavy pulse of electronic drums and organs, and Stelmanis’ chillingly beautiful voice, Feel it Break is huge, to say the least. Heavy on neo-goth psychedelia, Austra nonetheless has instant dancefloor appeal — observe “Lose It,” one of many standouts.
Comparisons can definitely be drawn to like-minded black-clad divas, like Zola Jesus and the aforementioned Fever Ray, but Austra’s darkness is cut through with poppy warmth. Either way, Stelmanis — who flew under the radar as a solo artist and Fucked Up collaborator — doesn’t begrudge the increasingly popular landscape. “I definitely think the timing is right. I’ve been making music of a similar aesthetic for a very long time, and I remember thinking when Florence and the Machine came out, ‘Okay! I’m actually glad people are making a lot of comparisons to her.’ Like, her singing voice. Before, people didn’t really have anything to compare what I was doing to. People just wouldn’t say anything about it because…[they] just had nothing to box it into. I hope that in the future it becomes more obvious — when people are more familiar with our music — that I don’t actually sound like a lot of the other artists I’m compared to.”
Austra: “Beat and the Pulse” (Video) (NSFW)
Austra earned notoriety of an entirely different sort when the video for kickoff single “Beat and the Pulse” earned a stamp of YouTube censorship. A sexy, pounding song on its own, its Claire Edmonson-directed clip featured a collective of bare-chested dancers; the matter-of-fact nudity took on a misconstrued life of its own. “The censorship to me is so ridiculous, it’s so funny. I feel like it’s a very North American sentiment as well…like, primetime TV in Europe is more pornographic than that video. It’s just disappointing where people’s values are. People are afraid to see a bare breast, but they’re not afraid [of] intensely graphic violence on YouTube.
…[But] the dancers were like, ‘We wouldn’t have done this if it was for a boy band.’ There’s something about being sexual and it being controlled by a woman. That somehow made it more comfortable and almost more real, in a way. It was just sort of less of a fantasy depiction, more of an honest depiction.”
Such honesty has clearly paid off, and coming off a slew of successful SXSW showcases (including our very own), Austra’s future looks as bright as its synths. Stelmanis keeps it modest: “I went to SXSW last year with no expectations at all, and then we left getting signed to Domino. It was one of those scenarios that never really happen, which is kind of awesome [Laughs]. I think it’s dangerous to go to SXSW with expectations because you’re one of, like, 2000 bands, playing hundreds and hundreds of shows, and it’s really hard to get noticed. But I think we have a good chance of really increasing awareness about our project.”
With tour dates booked straight into 2012 and Feel it Break out on May 17, Stelmanis has nothing to stress about — Austra’s gripping, erotic goth pop is sure to grab hold.