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AUGUSTUS WELBY interviews Austra frontwoman Katie Stelmanis about her band’s latest album, growing up as an artist, and Canada’s own renter-unfriendly ‘boomtown’, Toronto. Austra perform as part of PIAF, on Monday, February 17, at Chevron Festival Gardens.   

In June this year Canadian darkwave electro outfit Austra released their second album, Olympia. The pulsating record demonstrates a group rich in confidence thanks to the global pervasion of 2011 debut LP Feel It Break.

The cleverly immediate and dance-heavy record is a considerable progression from frontwoman Katie Stelmanis’ instigating recording experiments.

“When I first started making music as a solo artist I really would sing gibberish. I was okay with that because those were songs that I was writing for myself in my bedroom,” she reveals.

Indeed, Austra has long stretched beyond its humble origins in Stelmanis’ Toronto bedroom, but the city’s influence still remains. “I feel like I shaped my identity, my formative musical years, in Toronto,” explains Stelmanis.

Over the past few decades Toronto has fostered the pop-music innovation of artists such as Broken Social Scene, Peaches and Feist. Stelmanis describes how artistically inspiring the city has been for her.

“I spent my early 20s in Toronto and it was a pretty exciting time for the city. Blocks Recording Club was putting out artists like Fucked Up and Owen Pallett and a lot of other really experimental music. It was a totally DIY artist-run collective that was actually pretty successful. I feel lucky to have grown up in this really vibrant scene.”

Unfortunately, like many other artist-metropolises (eg Manhattan, San Francisco), Stelmanis reports that big business has begun to besmirch Toronto’s bohemian core. “It’s kind of sad when I go home now because it feels like Toronto’s changed a lot. Toronto’s had the biggest condo boom in all of North America. It’s made rent skyrocket. It used to be this cheap place to live where lots of artists lived, now you really have to work three jobs to have an apartment in Toronto.”

However, this increasing gentrification has not quelled Stelmanis’ creative motivation. Austra expanded into a six-piece band to perform Feel It Break live and the group quickly developed a lively chemistry. Olympia is a collaborative effort, which widely incorporates the band’s onstage energy.

“The live show had become something so different than [what] the album was. [It] had become this really high energy dance party and the album is a lot more introspective and a lot darker. We wanted to put this energy into the new record and into the new songs. So now we have a balance of the old, more ethereal material and the new songs, which I think are a little bit more direct,” says Stelmanis.

Olympia’s dance-focused uplift is paired with emotionally driven lyrics, looking at themes such as relationship decay and social adversity. Placing personal revelations in front of an extroverted musical backdrop is a duality Stelmanis was interested in exploring.

“We made a conscious effort to make this album a lot lighter musically; it’s a lot more rhythm based rather than big dramatic sweeping vocals and harmonies. The lyrics on this album deal with some pretty dark subject matter and it’s a very personal record,” she says.

The extended Feel It Break touring cycle saw Austra progress from playing small clubs to being festival drawcards and selling out theatres. Stelmanis says that Austra’s updated habitat encouraged her to write more immediately affecting lyrics.

“I had an intention to make lyrics that were very direct and narrative and cohesive and would have obvious interpretations. I’m writing it for a live stage; I want to write songs that will translate on a live stage.”

Upon the release of Olympia, Austra downsized to a four-piece, parting ways with their two backing vocalists, Romy and Sari Lightman (who are working on their own project Tasseomancy). Austra will make their anticipated return to Australia next February and, despite the reduced personnel, Stelmanis indicates the live show still provides plenty of stimulation.

“It’s cool with less people onstage because we’ve also been able to expand in other ways. We have a DIY light show now that somebody made for us, which adds a different element. Then of course we can also bring [in] other musicians. We’ve been touring for a while with a trombone player and we had a flute player at a couple of shows. It’s nice to have flexibility.”

Austra play Monday Chevron Festival Gardens, February 17.  

Get your tickets here.

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