Austra Goes Analog And Likes It: A Conversation With Katie Stelmanis & Maya PostepskiWritten by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Jason Rodgers
Styling by Shala Rothenberg
Hair and makeup by Pascale Poma
I hate to admit it, but it’s harder to fall in love with bands these days at the same speed or with the same urgency as when I was a teenager. I don’t have the kind of time I did then to put into “discovering” cool bands like it's my full-time job. (I didn’t have that kind of time then either as I should have been doing schoolwork, but getting into music was obvs way more fun.)
Austra, though, is an exception. Their songs play in constant rotation in my head, I listen to them when I run (the chorus on “Lose It” is good for sprinting), and I spent months eagerly awaiting their new album Olympia, out this week. I recently sat down with frontwoman Katie Stelmanis and drummer Maya Postepski to talk about their new songs, their transition from classical to indie, and what it means to be a role model.
Jesse: After having such a successful first album, was it nerve-racking to make the second? Did you feel a pressure to make something again that would receive critical acclaim?
Katie: I didn’t feel any pressure.
Maya: I was just really excited to work on new stuff. When you’ve been touring for that long, you kind of get sick of it and you want to start exploring new ideas. I think we were all really stoked to get together and write.
Jesse: Have you guys been writing songs the whole time since Feel It Break came out?
Katie: Not at all. I didn’t write a song for almost two years. And getting back into the writing process was really, really difficult. I had to pretty much cut myself off from the world. I went to Seattle for a few months and I didn’t have Internet, I didn’t have a cell phone. I was alone in this apartment for a lot of the time. I just had to get really bored and start writing again. Eventually, I kind of got a groove back. But in the beginning, I actually thought I wasn’t ever going to be able to write a song again.
Jesse: Did you see other people during that time?
Katie: Yeah, I was dating somebody in Seattle, so they were the only person that I knew. They also had a full-time job, so they would go work and do whatever for like eight to nine hours a day. And I’d be alone in the apartment and they’d come home and I’d be like . . . crazy, ha ha!
Jesse: So, what did you do next? You wrote songs and then you and your bandmates got together and worked on them?
Katie: Yeah, I wrote a bunch of songs. Previously, on the last record, if I’d write songs, I would do 90 percent of the work and then present it to the band. But in this case, I just kind of left the songs to the bare bones and let the band fill them in.
Jesse: Why did you wait two years to write new material—because you guys were on tour the whole time?
Katie: Yeah, we just kind of never stopped touring, I don’t know why. We kept on trying to stop and then getting offered these opportunities that we couldn’t say no to, so we just kept on going.
Jesse: From the outside, being a successful musician seems so glamorous to a lot of people—but of course, things are rarely as they seem. What’s the hardest part about it?
Katie: Well, it’s actually really funny, I was talking about this yesterday. Being a musician, when you’re on tour and you’re doing press days, people treat you like you’re really special. On tour, we stay in pretty nice hotels, we eat at really nice restaurants, we get to go to all the most exciting places in the world. Then we get home to Toronto, and we live in these tiny, crappy apartments. We can barely afford to pay rent. It’s such a weird juxtaposition—life in Toronto and touring life where you feel like you have this standard of living, but it’s so fake.
Maya: Yeah, it’s not a real picture of what the reality is. I also feel really weird getting home, seeing my family, and even going to my dentist. People think you’re suddenly different. And it’s like, “I’m still the same person, I didn’t change!”
Jesse: That’s actually something I wonder about a lot. Do you think it’s inevitable for success to change you?
Maya: Well, I mean hopefully not, if you have a strong personality. I think it’s important to stay real.
Katie: I think it just forces you to become more confident. I was a server in restaurants for eight years, and in the beginning I was really afraid of confrontation and really afraid of speaking to people. But after doing it for so long, I have, like, no fear. I can say anything, I can talk to people, I’m not afraid of arguing with people. And I think it’s the same in this business. When you first start, you’re kind of insecure and shy and worried about what you’re doing—if it’s good enough or not. And you just get a thick skin and you become more confident with what you’re doing.
Jesse: Before Austra, you studied opera. Was transitioning into the indie scene kind of a new, weird thing, or were you always into that kind of music but not playing it?
Katie: It was a new, weird thing. I started singing when I was ten. I joined this choir and all the kids in the choir would get hired by the Canadian Opera Company to perform with them when kids were needed. And at that age, I kind of fell in love with opera and decided I wanted to pursue a career in it, so I studied it with a private teacher and I was doing all the competitions. I was going to go to university for it, but then I quit around the age of nineteen.
Katie: Well, that was also the time I had discovered other types of music. Before then, the only type of music I was exposed to was music from the classical world, and the music all my friends in high school were listening to, which I was completely uninspired by, you know, Ben Harper and Dave Matthews Band. I didn’t know about anything else. And then in my last year of high school, I went to an alternative school and started meeting people who were into other types of music. That’s when I went to my first live rock show.
Jesse: What was it?
Katie: It was this band from Edmonton called the Red Hot Lovers. There were probably like eight people at the show, but one of my best friends who had moved out west was dating one of them. So they came through Toronto together and I went to the show and I was completely blown away by the sheer volume of the sound. In my brain, it didn’t make sense that I would like that because there weren’t beautiful melodies, beautiful harmonies, all these things I was drawn to in the opera world. It was just this volume and intensity, but I loved it. And from then on, I started discovering other types of music.
Jesse: Did you guys know each other from the classical world? (Maya was a classically trained musician too.)
Katie: No, we were in a band together called Galaxy.
Maya: These two girls called me up one Sunday afternoon, Katie and Emma. And I had no idea how they found me.
Jesse: How did you find her?
Katie: Well, my friend Emma and I had started this band—Emma was really into riot grrrl music, and she just kind of found me and thought I would be a good band member—and we wanted a girl drummer because it was essential that we were an all-girl band. My roommate went to high school with Maya and was like, “I know a drummer.” Sure enough, ten years later, here we are.
Jesse: How much of your set is electronic these days?
Maya: We used almost exclusively analog gear for the new album. There’s still a little bit of programming in it, but we tried to make an electronic album with all analog gear. In the live show, it’s impossible to play it fully because we’d have to hire, like, fifty people, but we’re trying to make it as live and real as possible. And it’s more fun for us this way because we’re all musicians. It’s like, I don’t want to push a button. I want to play the song.
Jesse: Katie, I read in an interview that you did a few years ago that lyrics haven’t really been that important to you as a musician. I was wondering if you still felt that way.
Katie: Not at all, actually. One of the main differences between this record and anything else I’ve done is that for the first time, I really wanted to focus on lyrics. In the past year, I started listening to albums in a different way. I don’t know why it happened, but for some reason, I was suddenly hearing lyrics for the first time. One album in particular, the Perfume Genius record that came out, the last one, those songs are so raw and so beautiful. And the lyrics are just so expressive and I was really inspired by that, and kind of decided that I wanted to be able to communicate with my listeners like that. I wanted to have songs that were actually about things in my life. And to do that—I’m not entirely comfortable as a lyricist—I was working with one of the backup singers Sari. We did a lot of the writing together.
Jesse: I also read that you’ve been careful to separate your sexuality from your music, and I wondered why you feel strongly that they’re two different things. And, do you aspire to be a role model for the gay community, or not so much?
Katie: I used to say that, like years and years ago, but in the past few years, I kind of just gave up on that because I think it discredits the importance that being gay has on this project, and what it is and where it comes from in the community that we all live in. And I think it’s important to talk about it, especially in the indie rock community because there isn’t much of a voice unless it’s in the form of a riot grrrl band or a very stereotyped, gay-positive genre of music—there isn’t a huge representation of what we’re doing. I’ve only felt a very positive response talking about it. People are very happy that we’re open about it, so I would never think about hiding it in any way.
Jesse: What about you, Maya?
Maya: I’m not always that vocal about my sexuality in this band, but I know a lot of young gay people come to our shows and I think that we are role models for some people, and I’m really proud of that. I think it’s amazing that people can look at us and feel comfort. I remember when I was a gay teenager, like, “Oh my god. I’m all alone. I don’t know anyone who’s gay.” And as soon as you meet someone who you admire who’s gay, you’re like, “Wow!” It’s like a superhero, you know?
Jesse: And other members of your band are gay, too, right?
Katie: Yeah, we’ve got a pretty high gay ratio in our band! We’ve got two lesbians, two bisexuals, a gay man, and a straight dude.
Jesse: What’s next for you guys?
Katie: Just touring. We’re gonna do exactly what we just did, again, but this time it’s gonna be different because there’s much more of a performance and live element with the new songs.
Jesse: You guys do a lot of interviews—speaking to press must get repetitive. What’s the question you dislike answering the most?
Katie: Probably, “How do you describe your music?” is the hardest one.
Maya: And also, “What are your influences?” is such an impossible question to answer. That one’s really tough because it changes every day, you know?