Breaking the buzz

Austra’s Katie Stelmanis on critical acclaim, her classical roots and why she’s not a witch

Canadian New Wave band Austra were nominated for the 2011 Polaris Prize. Supplied

Since the release of Toronto-based trio Austra’s debut record, Feel It Break, back in May, the band has been lauded by the likes of NME and Pitchfork, and has been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize.

It gets difficult to keep in mind just how new this all is for everyone involved. Austra front woman Katie Stelmanis, who is joined in the band by Maya Postepski and Dorian Wolf, says that it wasn’t that long ago she was playing to 30 people a show as a solo artist.

“To be honest, 300 people doesn’t feel that intimate to us,” she says. “To play a show to 350, 400, 500 people feels like a massive crowd. So we’re still riding on the glory of that at the moment.”

The band’s co-nominees and Polaris winners, Arcade Fire, have been selling out large venues for years now and Stelmanis says that the two bands could share a prestigious shortlist really speaks to an authentic musical philosophy for the award.

“There’s a lot of musical integrity that goes along with the Polaris Prize. The list of recipients are very impressive,” she says. “To be nominated for that was a huge honour for us. It was a big deal.”

Speaking with Stelmanis, it quickly becomes clear how Austra got to where it is now.

The classically trained pianist and opera singer credits her musical upbringing with not only the way she makes music, but the way she and the other members operate as a band.

“It’s where I came from,” Stelmanis says. “It’s how I learned music and how I learned to understand music. It also really affects the way I write music.

“It also just affects the way we work as a band,” she says. “We’re really diligent about practicing and we’re really diligent about working.”

To play a show to 350, 400, 500 people feels like a massive crowd. So we’re still riding on the glory of that at the moment.

Katie Stelmanis, Austra

And for all those electronic music fans out there, here’s a hint of how close a call it really was.

Stelmanis originally wanted to write orchestral music, and found the easiest way was to use electronic samples and a MIDI controller. Keep in mind she had never listened to electronic or dance music in any serious way before this.

“I kind of just naturally fell into that world just by getting really accustomed to the samples I was using and falling in love with the synthetic sound,” Stelmanis says.

Skip forward several years and the synthesized orchestrations of Lose It and Beat and the Pulse take on a whole new meaning.

However, there’s another aspect of the music that has also been getting a lot of attention.

The words “gothic” and “witches” appear repeatedly in reviews of Feel It Break. Stelmanis acknowledges the darker side of her music, but questions the manner critics use to express it.

“Calling us witches is kind of offensive,” says Stelmanis. “I know a lot of female artists get called witches now and it’s becoming overly trending and it has a bad connotation, in a way.”

But then Stelmanis is wary of reviews in general.

“We just try not to pay attention to anything that anybody is saying. I think it can have a really dangerous effect.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 23, 2011)

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