Katie Stelmanis, also known as the electronic musician, Austra, grew up playing the piano. She was obsessed from the start. She took lessons and played for hours, endlessly satisfied by the music. Soon, she fell in love with classical music, with its lush complexities and delightful compositions. But it was a rock concert years later in Calgary, Alberta that would change her life again. Stelmanis, who will release the latest Austra record, HiRUDiN, on May 1st, says that live events helped her see music in a new and affecting way.
“One of the first shows I ever saw was this hardcore band from Calgary,” says Stelmanis, a native Toronto, Ontario. “One of my friends was dating one of the members so we went to the show. It was my first time seeing loud guitar music in a live setting. I was floored by the volume and the intensity and the power. It kind of changed me for life.”
Afterwards, Stelmanis began to play guitar, along with piano. The instrument and all of its musical possibilities began to supplement her background in more classical compositions. She began to open up to other genres and styles of music. Possibilities flooded in. And Stelmanis, who began writing songs at 19-years-old, hunkered down and invested more in music. Growing up in Toronto, life was inexpensive (though, she says, that’s no longer the case). So, as the time passed, Stelmanis could work part-time and still make music the rest of the hours.
“The other thing about Toronto,” she says, “is that there’s always been a really strong queer scene. That’s something I didn’t realize doesn’t exist everywhere else. The parties I would go to in my early 20s were these legendary events. But they don’t really exist anymore.”
To write her most recent album, HiRUDiN, Stelmanis did something unorthodox. She threw her own party. She hired a number of improvisational musicians and set them up and pressed record. Unlike many, Stelmanis loves working in the minutia, the fine details. She took the hours and hours of tracks recorded from the improv artists and took it abroad to Spain where she spent months chopping it up, picking parts she liked and using those for the inspirations and foundations of the new record. She sifted through the tracks like a DJ would shift through a shop’s record crates.
The production process for HiRUDiN was new in many ways, too. At the time of its commencement, Stelmanis had felt in a rut, uninspired. A “toxic” relationship was also breaking down and ending. Through the course of making the new album, another relationship came to a close. A healing process she thought would have a linear, upward trajectory instead started over. Healing, she concluded, is cyclical. Stelmanis dove back into the album, this time working with as many people as possible, absorbing as many voices as she could.
“I had made three records in a row in a really similar way,” she says. “And going into this record, my fourth, I knew for sure I wanted to do it differently. I knew the one thing I had never really done is collaborate with other musicians and other producers. I wanted to work with other people to make this record. So, in the beginning, it was a bit like speed dating. I booked as many sessions as I could to see what worked and who fit.”
The result is a dynamic, satisfying, at times-dramatic record. At times, the music is celestial, cloud-like, or helium-like, pulling the entire room upwards gently and steadily. Stelmanis’ prowess as a composer shines, whether piano, percussion, strings, bells or guitar is the prominent actor in a given song. Most of all, Stelmanis’ big voice centers the music. It’s operatic and theatrical on the opening song, “Anywayz” and confident, passionate on “It’s Amazing.” It would be well suited among the company on tour with Les Misérables.
Stelmanis, who came to electronic music essentially by accident after a music store employee sold her an audio interface Mbox, has come to master the form. But, like many musicians, Stelmanis won’t be able to showcase her talents this year at summer festivals or on tour for the new release because of the deadly Coronavirus. While this was devastating, it was also, in some ways, welcomed personal news for the oft-overworked musician. The break comes after the production of a diverse work that boasts a range of talents.
“What is the perspective of a musician existing?” Stelmanis muses. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of vulnerability and how important it is to make music so people can connect with it emotionally and, in some ways, connect to their own humanity. With this record, I wanted to make something really vulnerable because I wanted it to serve people.”