When Katie Stelmanis, the singer-songwriter and producer behind Austra, started writing her third studio album, the aftermath of the presidential election was still a mystery. The president-elect was just a candidate and a pervasive sense of dystopia felt more fictional than real. Since then, our political climate has dramatically shifted and continues to devolve. In a time where the next leader of the free world is a reality-TV star and books like Parable of the Sower and The Handmaid's Tale feel more prophetic than cautionary, Austra's music offers hope for a better tomorrow.
Set to drop on Inauguration Day, Future Politics highlights our need for political paradigms that fall outside of the mainstream and the value of imagining new possibilities for our culture. Through the perceptive boldness of "Future Politics" and the lilting melody of "Utopia," Austra's follow-up to Olympia is more than just a meditation on the downsides of capitalism in the digital age. It's a call to arms.
A week after the election, I spoke with Katie over the phone about her band's new album, the political power of music, and how creatives can help shape the future.
Dianca Potts: Austra started off as a solo project. How did making the switch from working alone to collaborating with others shape your creative process?
Katie Stelmanis: To be honest, it's something that's continuously evolving. Feel It Break was primarily written alone, Olympia was a collaborative record, and this new record was primarily written alone as well. I think that a band is this interesting concept where people are pressured to make music together for the rest of their lives, and I don't know if that's totally natural. We were all living in different cities and doing different things, so it really felt like something that I was doing alone for the most part.
DP: You grew up listening to opera and classical music. How did those genres influence your songwriting?
KS: I didn't seriously start writing lyrics by myself until this record, but it definitely shaped my songwriting in that I feel like everything I write is somehow based on a Puccini opera. Everything is so dramatic, so it's definitely more of a struggle for me to write music that's toned down because opera is what I was raised on.
DP: Between rhythm, lyricism, and instrumentation, which aspect of the songwriting process are you most attracted to?
KS: For me, it's always been about instrumentation and building melodies. That's where I started off as a songwriter and where I feel most confident, and it's the same when I'm listening to music. If I'm listening to a song and the vocals and the melody are pretty, I love it, but delving into the world of writing lyrics in tandem with writing music and writing the melodies was new for me, so it was definitely an exploration.
DP: Since the very beginning, you've challenged intolerance through your music, which for me at least is a great example of how creativity can be radical. What about music as a medium makes political ideas easier to understand?
KS: I started writing this record after I saw Massive Attack play at a festival. It was one of the best shows I've seen in my life. Throughout their set, they had these news lines on the LED screen behind them. It was such an effective way to convey a political message because rather than just reading something on the Internet or having someone talk at you, you're reading these headlines in tandem with listening to this beautiful music, so you're more emotionally open and able to absorb what they're saying, and you're able to absorb the information more compassionately. It makes it easier.
On a second note, I've been thinking a lot about the hippie movements of the '60s and '70s, and at the time those messages were very subversive, and what they were fighting for at the time was written off as a youth movement, but those ideas strongly infiltrated mainstream culture and mainstream government, and now those ideas of freedom and progress are pillars of Americanism. Those ideas came from music and art, so I think that it's extremely important for culture creators to disseminate the ideas that we need for the future.
DP: When you publicly announced the LP, you said that it wasn't just about "being political" but that "it's about reaching beyond boundaries." What are these boundaries, and how do we overcome them?
KS: I'm talking about our culture's mainstream discussions about what our next government will look like and what the future will look like. Right now they're dictated by people in power. They're defining what the future is allowed to look like, what those boundaries are. As people who aren't in power it's important for us to recognize that those boundaries are completely fabricated. There's no reason why gas and diesel cars can't be illegal by 2025. There's no reason why we can't have carbon-neutral high-speed transit across America by 2030. The only reason that can't happen is because it disrupts the capitalist empire of America. There's so many different ways to reimagine and rethink these basic paradigms of our existence, and rethinking them is crucial if we're going to literally avoid an apocalypse.
DP: I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi and dystopian narratives, so the first time I heard "Utopia," those genres immediately came to mind, and even more so after I watched the music video. It perfectly captures what it means to be autonomous and authentic in a postmodern metropolis. What was the impetus behind this track?
KS: I wrote that song when I was in Mexico City. I was feeling really sad about my hometown of Toronto, which is being taken over by this bland, financialized condo culture, which I think is something that most people feel about their homes if they're living in a big city. Traveling in Mexico made me realize what Toronto has become.
DP: Jana Hunter's remix heightens the dissonance of "Utopia" in such an interesting way, especially between the vocals and the backbeats. It's very arresting. Did Jana's rendition reveal anything new for you?
KS: I've been a huge fan of hers for almost ten years. We're only friends on Facebook, but I just feel like we're very aligned in a lot of ways, politically and otherwise. I can tell that even though we haven't hung out properly that she's somebody that I'd really get along with. I work with a lot of the same people as her, so they were like, "Let's get Jana to make a remix," and it's always great to get remixes from people who aren't really known for making dance music or techno. I love what she did with the vocal samples, how she made it a lot weirder.
DP: Your tour starts later this month, so you'll be pretty busy until the spring. How will you find time for creativity with such a packed schedule?
KS: That's something that I struggle with just as much as anyone else, but I find inspiration by forcing myself to make stuff. I sit down and start writing music even if it feels like it's going nowhere and even if I don't have any ideas. I think that getting past that point always leads to something better. You might have hours or days of feeling like you suck, but eventually you have to get through that in order to reach that creative bliss on the other side.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.