Emma McKenna: To start, I want to congratulate you and your band on your recent record Future Politics, out now from Domino Records, and also be clear that this interview is extremely biased because I consider myself one of your biggest fans, and we are old friends.
That said, every time you produce new music I feel like it can’t get any more beautiful, and then another record appears that eclipses the beauty of the one before it. Because this record is your most explicitly political album to date, I am interested in hearing from you how politics have played a role in the creation of this album, from the intimate to the public levels of its production.
How do you see your music—both the recent launch of Future Politics and your performances—as challenging some of the norms or limitations of the music industry?
Katie Stelmanis, Austra: I don’t necessarily feel like I’m challenging the music industry with anything I do. I do feel outside of it, and sometimes I feel that I don’t really have a place within it to grow, but I tend to see it more as the music industry challenging me, rather than the other way around.
I’m pretty femme in my “public” image, and so I don’t really see myself challenging gender identities personally in what I do. I do feel some degree of pressure to maintain that femme identity, I don’t really know why! I guess maybe because when I started out some manager dude told me I didn’t have enough hetero-sex appeal to be famous, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence I got my record deal when I grew my hair out…
EM: You’ve have been vocal throughout your career as a musician about identifying as both feminist and queer. How has your feminism changed as you have developed as an artist?
KS: I learned about feminism from you! When we were doing Galaxy I feel like no one else in the music scene wanted to be associated with the word, but your politics were super influential for me and I’m really thankful I was introduced to them while starting out. At that time we were talking about how few women were included in the gig lineups, and how hard it was for women to receive the same recognition as the dudes in the scene for doing the same thing. Those issues are still relevant to me today, even more than they were then. But I’ve also learned to make my way of practicing feminism more inclusive by always factoring race and class into the conversations.
EM: This album seems to be following a necessary trajectory of your independence growing from your previous records with Austra. This record is so clear and cohesive, with your opening vocals on We Were Alive drawing the listener in to what feels like one long uninterrupted exhale.
Everything about Future Politics suggests you are more at ease with your position as the central driving force behind this project, in terms of the sound, the production, the album art, and your representation in the music videos. Can you speak to the development of your confidence in making these decisions, and how you have become more visible in all of these areas of the project?
KS: When I started making music I was only concerned with the music itself, probably because of the way I had grown up with it as a kid listening primarily to classical music. I didn’t really idolize bands and therefore things like image and lyrics weren’t important to me at all. Putting out records as Austra for a few years has made me realize how important those things are for people to better understand what you’re doing, and I’ve also come to appreciate the words, the story, and the art on a whole new level. At first, I chose to dismiss my abilities in those fields because they were things I didn’t have experience with or even necessarily enjoyed, but I’ve since come to learn that putting real effort into it is generally all it takes to pull off something new.
EM: Threats to the environment and personal and public space seem to play a big part of the theme and the content of this record, for instance in “Utopia,” “Future Politics,” “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself,” and “Gaia.” What sort of impact have environmental concerns, particularly the NoDAPL movement being led by Indigenous groups, had in your thinking of what counts as intimacy while writing Future Politics?
KS: The assault on our environment by capitalism was probably the first subject that got me into this stuff in general. I was feeling a very real and deep sadness about its destruction, not unlike a sadness one might feel through a more personal loss or heartbreak. And so I wrote songs channeling these emotions, and so although the content is quite specific, the songs still feel universal, because the emotions themselves are common.
EM: Your lyrics from “Utopia” state, “I can picture a place/ Where everybody feels it too.” Future Politics feels like an expansive concept that is neither exclusive nor elitist. What effects have recent social movements, like Black Lives Matter, trans-rights struggles, mental health awareness, and anti-capitalism struggles, had on the development of the record? How does Future Politics attempt to speak back to capital P politics?
KS: All of these movements inspired Future Politics, because they indicate the need for a complete replacement of our current system… I believe that we need to overhaul all the ways in which we organize ourselves as humans! Capitalism works for some people, and it terrorizes others. It encourages a violent, survival-of-the-fittest environment where a few people are able to start the race miles ahead of everyone else and therefore keep winning. Our traditional ideas around marriage and gender need to be re-thought. I could go on for a while, but I’ll just add that Future Politics was never meant to address capital P politics—I wanted to completely look beyond it because I don’t think any major change starts in government—government will always be the last to catch up.
EM: One of the most radical moves the album makes comes through in “Utopia,” which I interpret as a critique of how late-stage capitalism as a kind of utopia for some—the global economic elite—results in a painful, and even violent, dystopia for its marginalized others. Your lyrics “I’m not a coward like them, I’ve got my money/I’m not a coward like them, I don’t need more money” directly challenge an ethos visible not only in the music industry but under capitalism in general. What kind of risk does it take to be critical of capitalism in your industry? And how do your class experiences inform your critique?
KS: I’ve never really considered the risk of criticizing capitalism in the music industry, though I have run into some barriers—for example, wanting to give my album away for free on Inauguration day was not met with enthusiasm on the part of my label who (like all other indie labels) are struggling to keep people understanding music as something that should be paid for. I totally get where they are coming from, and of course I want people to see music as valuable, it just sucks that in our current system, value only seems to exists if something is monetized.
I come from a middle class family and was offered everything I needed as a kid, plus given certain luxuries such as multiple music lessons. My dad supported us alone till I was a teenager while my mom finished school. He doesn’t have a retirement plan because he is a self-employed painter, but my mom eventually became a teacher, which has great benefits. I’ve always been conscious of the financial well-being of my parents and have never wanted to put them in precarious positions by paying for my university or otherwise, which is part of the reason I decided not to go to university at all. This is a long-winded answer to say that I wish my parents didn’t have to work so hard, and in my dad’s case, work until he physically can’t anymore. The current system that forces them to do this has probably helped inform my criticisms of capitalism.
EM: I personally really relate to your lyrics “My work is valid, I can’t prove it but I know.” Given the way in which “work” for many, particularly artists, is both a kind of production of the most intimate self but also contributes a commodity to the public market, how do you wrestle with this duality in your work? Can you describe the process by which you carve out a realm of private space for your self in the many stages of the production of your music?
KS: It’s really an unfortunate duality that artists have had to deal with since the beginning of capitalism: someone has to be willing to buy or patronize your work. That often means making it somewhat more palatable than you otherwise would. When I started actually selling records and concert tickets, my music became a lot more normal and easier to listen to. I also think it got better. And so I think there is always this fine line we walk where we learn from and grow based on public perception of our art, but if we become too affected by it, the quality of the work suffers.
EM: I have noticed in other interviews that you are reluctant to describe your writing as either lyrical or poetic. I would strongly disagree! This album is deeply poetic, and even polemic. How has your relationship to your lyrics changed throughout your career?
KS: Thanks! This is the first record where I tried to write actual real lyrics and I find it so difficult. Because I’d never really appreciated or listened to them, I’ve never considered myself to be a very good critic of lyrics in general, and am therefore completely unable to criticize my own work. So as a general cop-out, I just tell people that I don’t really know what I’m doing—then any sort of positive reinforcement towards me becoming a “real poet” ends up being a happy accident. I think once you decide you are good at something the pressure to keep being good at it becomes pretty intense, whereas if I just always tell myself I suck, I will maintain a casual and low-pressure relationship with lyric writing—which is where I want to be.
EM: Your vocals on this record are gorgeous, and you demonstrate your range and capacity in unique ways on each song, from the operatic “I Am A Monster” to the sensual urgency of “Angel in Your Eye.” How have you used your voice differently on this record than in previous albums?
KS: I recorded my vocals myself on this record, which was really important for the production of it in that I was able to try a million different ways of singing, without having to worry about pissing off a studio engineer or getting charged thousands of dollars. I had a lot of fun experimenting with mic placement, with singing in different voices and trying to achieve different moods and effects. It was really fun and for me, probably the defining thing that differentiates this album from other ones.
EM: Moments in Future Politics feel evocative of both Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and Tori Amos, particularly the production on To Venus and Back (1999). What musicians are you listening to now, and do you like the new NIN album?
KS: Ha! I haven’t heard the new NIN album, so probably not really. I will always be a NIN fan but my loyalty tends to lie with the early stuff. I listen to so much music all the time, it’s hard to pinpoint what specifically I am inspired by. When I started writing, I was really into Massive Attack, which isn’t too much of a departure from the Portishead records that inspired Olympia. For the past few years I’ve been really into dance music and weird techno, and then in Mexico I got really into electrocumbia and also the goldstar lesbian ranchera singer Chavela Vargas.
EM: As a musician who started out in Toronto when you were a teenager, what kinds of struggles or supports have you experienced with the local or international media?
KS: I have generally found the local media to be supportive of what I do. I did, of course, receive a lot more local recognition after signing to a bigger international label; it’s hard to break through in a small music scene when you’re doing something different than everyone else. In the beginning a lot of Canadian media wasn’t overly receptive to electronic bedroom-produced music, now, of course, that is no longer the case.
I have issues with how the media writes about women in music in general. When my band first played SXSW we got our first Pitchfork live review and the entire thing was only about our outfits. We were all so traumatized by it we threw our clothes out and became paranoid and obsessed about looking a certain way on stage for the next few years. None of the other bands that were reviewed received a criticism like that.
EM: You donated the proceeds from the digital downloads of the first day of record sales to Planned Parenthood. What prompted this decision and how did it go over with fans and your label, DOMINO Records?
KS: I wanted to do it because through writing this album I had achieved some kind of personal optimism surrounding our current bleak world order, and I wanted everyone with any interest to have access to that. Given the content of the record, I felt like I had a real chance to help people to realize they are not alone, and that there are many of us suffering because of our current political climate. Donating to PP just felt like a necessary gesture especially considering the main message of the album is generally anti-capitalist.