“At first it was in some ways almost frustrating,” Austra’s Katie Stelmanis tells me over the phone, talking about her accidental role as a political voice. On latest album Future Politics, Stelmanis plays the character Revolutionary Rhonda, who works against the album’s dystopian universe – a scenario that became more relevant by the time of its release in January, leading to a deluge of press questioning about Trump.
“I never really intended to talk about politics with a capital “P”.. American politics or British politics,” she says. “It just became so tied into what I was doing that it was impossible to avoid.”
It proved to be an unexpected boon in terms of crowd engagement though. “Playing in the US the week that Trump was inaugurated in, I don’t think the songs would translated as well if it hadn’t been the political scenario that it was. People really connected with the songs.”
We’re talking a couple of weeks since Austra finished their European tour, and Stelmanis is just home in Toronto after some time in LA. “I feel like I’m only surfacing now, it was a couple of weeks of not talking to anybody, it was great,” she laughs.
Stelmanis grew up in Toronto and there she honed a core part of the Austra sound – her classically-trained voice. As a kid she was “obsessed” with classical music and at age 10 she joined the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus.
“I really thought that was the only music that mattered,” she says. “In high school, the only band I listened to was Radiohead, but that was it. I guess I just had some sort of awakening when I turned 18 or 19.” Touring the world has meant these awakenings just keep coming, she says. In Europe, she learned lots about electronic music: “There really wasn’t very much of a scene for it in Toronto. There is one now, but it’s still like nothing compared to Berlin.”
For Stelmanis there inevitably came a rebellion against classical, which transpired in her music. “Before the first Austra record I made some pretty weird sounding music that was very unpalatable,” she laughs. “I had this intention of making music that would like, hurt people’s ears.”
Making such a late transition from the world of classical to pop, it wouldn’t be hard to blame Stelmanis if she was initially unsure of her musical decisions – but that wasn’t a problem, she says. “I was super naive and I think when you’re naive you have unlimited confidence. As I’ve gotten older even though I’ve learned a lot more and been exposed to so many things I probably have less confidence now than when I did when I was like 21.”
That’s odd to hear, as she wrote Future Politics by herself. “Writing music by myself was something that I kind of needed to do again,” she says. “I needed to remember how to do that and go deep into the songs in a way that I hadn’t really done previously. Future Politics turned out to be like the epitome of a DIY project in a way.”
Stelmanis mixed the album with her then-girlfriend – “an extremely intimate process,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it again. I definitely don’t think it’s a good idea to work with one person that closely for a long period of time because you really kind of lose perspective.”
Stelmanis ended up only working with women on Future Politics, which she’s proud of. “There’s been a lot of publicity recently about the lack of women on festival bills performing but I don’t think anybody really talks about the lack of women behind the scenes. To me that’s even more dire in a way.”
It leads to a subconscious distrust of female engineers, Stelmanis says, something which she hopes the representation given on Future Politics can help change. The talk turns to Bjork’s fight to be recognised as the producer of her own work, something that “shocked” Bjork superfan Stelmanis. “It was so interesting that she had to come out like 20 years into her career and be like by the way, I am the mastermind.”
Part of Stelmanis’ desire to write alone came from suffering from burnout after touring previous record Olympia – but they’re taking steps to combat it this cycle. “This is the first album that we’ve toured on a bus, which makes a big difference.. even though it means you make way less money, or like, no money at all, I find that it’s worth it, to keep your sanity.”
They should be well looked after on those fronts for their next Irish appearance – headlining Body & Soul festival. “We love Body & Soul festival so much, we’re so excited about it,” Stelmanis says. “We’re doing two shows in the month of June and one of them is Body & Soul so we’ll be like, not tired at all. We’re super stoked.”
So will the set be one for the body or for the soul? “Both!” she laughs. “I think that our sets are always intended for both in that we like to connect with people on an emotional level but we also like to have people move around. Definitely both.”