The buzz around Toronto’s Austra is as grand and alluring as their debut album, Feel it Break. Although words like opulent, lush, ethereal and theatrical have been used to describe the album –mixed by Damian Taylor (Bjork, The Prodigy, UNKLE) – classically trained singer Katie Stelmanis (vocals), Maya Postepski (drums) and Dorian Wolf (bass) create a resonating strain of electronic music that defies simplistic classification.
Tell me a bit about your musical background.
I loved singing as a kid. I think my parents finally realized after trying to put me into so many after school activities that the choir was the best idea, so I’m classically trained in vocals and piano from a pretty young age. It was a big part of my life. I studied opera for a long time, too.
And it was your choice to pursue opera?
Definitely. My parents put me in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus and we would perform in the full stage Canadian opera productions. That made me fall in love with opera and allowed me to be involved with it in a way that most people don’t get to. I started studying it and focusing on it from there.
And physically, you’d be a stronger singer because of it.
Oh yeah. I learned to sing using the proper technique from the age of about 16. I know to sing from my abdomen and use my whole body. That early learning will be with me forever.
How did you make the move to electronic music?
I originally started working with electronic music because I wanted to make orchestral music and I was using electronic, synthetic, orchestral sounds. It eventually just evolved.
Might you ever be tempted to revisit opera?
No, I don’t think so. You can’t just dabble in it. It’s all or nothing because it’s intensive. You have to strengthen and condition so many muscles in your body.
I’m curious how you describe Austra’s music.
I just describe it as dramatic electronic pop music. I mean, electronic is kind of an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different genres – which is good – because we definitely don’t fit into one specific genre.
Despite your light music, many songs suggest darkness: Darken Her Horse, The Choke, The Villain. Tell me about these contrasting elements.
I’m drawn toward darker themes in music and that comes from opera; it’s all about tragedies. I always listened to music when I was sad and that’s where it had its impact. I never felt like it was taking me into a darker place though; it was more like once I was there, it would make me feel better. So even though the themes of our songs can be quite dark, it’s darkness with optimism. It’s not simply sorrowful or depressing.
What was the recording process like?
I recorded most of the music in my bedroom and I recorded vocals all over [Toronto]. Then for mixing, I went to Damian Taylor’s brand new studio in Montreal and that was a really awesome experience. It took about a year to put it all together.
And now that it’s done, how are you feeling?
I’m just glad to have it out. We’ve been touring and recording for a really, really long time. Some of the songs on the record are over four years old and so it’s nice to finally have them out there in the world.
You’ve said that on your first recordings, you wrote gibberish, not lyrics. How has your songwriting evolved?
Being classically trained, I’m of the mindset that the voice is an instrument. It’s not about the lyrics, it’s about the way you shape your voice and in turn, how your voice shapes the words. It used to be that I’d put less effort into the things that weren’t necessarily the thing I like doing, like writing lyrics. Now, my songwriting is more refined. I have more of a concept of writing a cohesive song with ups and downs and a bridge.
What’s touring like for you?
I love being in a new city everyday. I love going out for dinner and enjoying the place we’re in. I think we’re really good at seeking out the interesting things about each city. We’re basically on tour until 2012 – in North America and in Europe – and we don’t let it get boring.
How does the band get along?
We have a really good dynamic together and we’re conscientious and supportive of one another. We all bring very different energies to the table… I’m optimistic about our future together.
The album is receiving rave reviews. Are you reading your press?
Kind of, but I really try not to. Even a good review can say something bad and it’s hard not to take it to heart. It can be dangerous and affect you in a way it shouldn’t. Press doesn’t define you as an artist… so I think I need to just focus on the immediate experience of our band – like our shows.