‘The archetype has changed’

Aus­tra on how the­mu­sic in­dus­try has evolved forwomen

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

The sign of a tal­ented mu­si­cian isn’t only in­no­va­tion or de­tail; pro­gres­sion is the dead­li­est giveaway of all. That’s ev­i­dent with Katie Stel­ma­nis, the driv­ing force be­hind Aus­tra, who’s evolved from elec­tro-goth, as found in de­but Feel It Break, to in­ci­sive so­cial com­men­tary, with cur­rent al­bum Fu­ture Pol­i­tics.

Earn­ing Po­laris Mu­sic Prize nom­i­na­tions and crit­i­cal ac­claim along the way, the Cana­dian group’s in­ter­est in weight­ier is­sues comes at ex­actly the right time. The al­bum – still blend­ing Stel­ma­nis’s frag­ile, op­er­atic voice with glitzy beats, but with more elab­o­rate lay­ers – was re­leased on the day of Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, and of­fered a more op­ti­mistic ap­proach to the re­it­er­ated idea that the sys­tem is break­ing.

“When we first started tour­ing it, Trump had just been elected and peo­ple re­ally didn’t know what to do or think,” she says. “The gigs were pos­si­bly the first time peo­ple might have been in a public space af­ter the elec­tion so they be­came about bring­ing peo­ple to­gether.

“In fact, the al­bum was writ­ten be­fore any of the stuff we’re go­ing through had come to a head, but it was ob­vi­ous peo­ple were hun­gry and des­per­ate for a dif­fer­ent way of or­gan­is­ing. It’s dis­ap­point­ing that it’s since ended up com­ing in the form of right-wing na­tion­al­ism, but it still could change.”

Her in­ter­est in so­ci­etal pol­i­tics stemmed from a con­cern about the en­vi­ron­ment, which led to read­ing about cap­i­tal­ism, and, in turn, fu­ture out­comes, with tomes such as A Brief Histo

ry of Ne­olib­er­al­ism by David Har­vey and the fem­i­nist sci-fi clas­sic

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy on the read­ing list.

“The in­spi­ra­tion of the al­bum was the idea of the fu­ture, and the power of imag­i­na­tion of what it could be,” she ex­plains. “Op­pres­sive regimes al­ways try to in­hibit imag­i­na­tion be­cause it’s re­ally pow­er­ful and can lead to con­crete ac­tions. The al­bum tries to en­cour­age peo­ple to think about what the op­tions for the fu­ture could be.

“A lot of peo­ple in my age group, mil­len­ni­als, had a pretty com­fort­able up­bring­ing and a con­fi­dence we could move through the world if we worked hard. The cold re­al­ity is that this se­cu­rity doesn’t ex­ist for us.

“Our se­cu­rity is mainly based a lot by the de­ci­sions our par­ents made in the 1980s. So there’s a lot of dis­con­nect for young peo­ple.”

Crit­i­cally – es­pe­cially for those ex­pect­ing much-needed es­capism at Body & Soul, where Aus­tra plays the main stage at 6.15pm on Sun­day – “it’s not a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage as much as an emo­tional re­sponse to the whole thing”.

A case in point is Utopia, a shoul­der-shim­my­ing track with the cho­rus: “I can pic­ture a place where ev­ery­body feels it too/It might be fic­tion but I see it ahead/There’s noth­ing I

Since we started, the archetype of what is pos­si­ble as a fe­male mu­si­cian has changed; be­cause there’s been a ton of press about be­ing a fe­male pro­ducer, it’s now pos­si­ble to re­ceive recog­ni­tion

wouldn’t do.” It’s far from the trea­tise one might ex­pect given the song and al­bum ti­tles.

“Our fes­ti­val set will be a good bal­ance be­tween the new stuff and the old stuff,” she says, speak­ing on be­half of the rest of the band, Maya Postep­ski, Dorian Wolf and Ryan Won­siak. “We’ve remixed some of the old stuff to make it a bit dancier; there’s a nice bal­ance be­tween in­tro­spec­tive mo­ments and some odder mo­ments. I’m look­ing for­ward to play­ing the fes­ti­val again; I’m sure it will be like every show we’ve played in Ire­land, the best fun ever.”

Op­er­atic ori­gins

Aus­tra have vis­ited Ire­land fre­quently since their first in­ter­na­tional tour in 2011, but Stel­ma­nis’s mu­si­cal ca­reer stretches back much fur­ther. Aged 10 she joined the Cana­dian Chil­dren’s Opera Cho­rus and played or fronted var­i­ous projects un­til she found her foot­ing with solo work, also in­volv­ing Maya Postep­ski.

She changed the act’s ti­tle from her own name to Aus­tra, so peo­ple wouldn’t as­sume she was a folk artist. Their 2011 de­but

Feel It Break ben­e­fited from both rev­er­ence (it was New York magazine’s al­bum of the year) and the absence of fast-burn­ing hype, al­low­ing the group to de­velop at their own pace.

That al­lowed the afore­men­tioned pro­gres­sion: over the years, their lyrics have be­come more mean­ing­ful; live in­stru­men­ta­tion has re­placed pro­grammed beats; and they’ve out­run the usual com­par­isons that typ­i­cally hound fe­male-fronted acts.

“I gave peo­ple so much to write about that they didn’t have to do the com­par­i­son thing,” says Stel­ma­nis, laugh­ing. “I think it’s just a symp­tom of be­ing a new fe­male artist on the scene. You’re al­ways go­ing to be com­pared to one of five artists like PJ Har­vey, Kate Bush, Björk, depend­ing on the type of mu­sic you make.

“But since we started, the archetype of what is pos­si­ble as a fe­male mu­si­cian has changed; be­cause there’s been a ton of press about be­ing a fe­male pro­ducer, it’s now pos­si­ble to re­ceive recog­ni­tion. When I put out my first record as Aus­tra, I was never ever writ­ten about as be­ing a pro­ducer, and now it’s in every ar­ti­cle. It wasn’t that I was speak­ing about it dif­fer­ently – I think peo­ple now un­der­stand the idea of a fe­male pro­ducer.”

It’s not only the gen­der dy­nam­ics that have im­proved in this short time­frame. Be­ing gay, she also ap­pre­ci­ates that col­lec­tive open­ness and ac­cep­tance has moved the con­cept of a queer mu­si­cian from a sub-genre to a non-genre.

“I re­mem­ber when we first started, I knew mu­si­cians who were tour­ing and putting out records that were gay, but no­body was talk­ing about it. And now, al­most all of them are out.

“Peo­ple were al­ways afraid that their mu­sic would be judged in the wrong way, and that’s def­i­nitely changed – it’s now pos­si­ble to be gay but not be pi­geon­holed as a gay mu­si­cian,” she pauses, lis­ten­ing to her words. “Which is nice.” Aus­tra play the Body & Soul main stage at 6.15pm on Sun­day

Katie Stel­ma­nis “The cold re­al­ity is that this se­cu­rity doesn’t ex­ist for us”

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