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.