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Austra Talks 'Future Politics' and Daring to Reject Our Dystopian Fate

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Beyond the dancefloor beat and pulse of Austra's electronic grooves and the operatic siren calls vocalist Katie Stelmanis guides them with, Future Politics has something to say.

For the project's third LP, released the same day Donald Trump took the oath of office, Stelmanis decamped first to Montreal and then Mexico, filling the isolation that solitude paired with a language barrier creates with radical literature like Alex Williams and Nick Srnice's #AccelerateManifesto, which asserts the possibility of globalization and technology ushering in a paradise so advanced that society no longer requires labor or capital at all.

It's no coincidence then that Stelmanis felt compelled to pen tracks like "Utopia" and the album's eponymous single, stunning manifestos of her own, uniquely distilling self-aware disillusionment in MIDI keyboard and impeccable production. Adjacent to songs dealing the with the more traditional themes of love and depression, Austra seamlessly blends the vulnerable and personal with a daring big picture - for Stelmanis there is little need to discern between the dystopias of internal demons or societal ills, and Future Politics bravely aims to, if not remedy, at least acknowledge both with a hopeful catharsis.

Transverso spoke with Stelmanis about her inspirations for Future Politics as well as the relationships between the organic and synthetic, art and politics, and more.

TRANSVERSO: So you began with what was essentially a solo effort on your debut Feel It Break (2011), transitioned into more of a collaborative band dynamic for Olympia (2013), and now it seems you’re back to doing most everything yourself again on Future Politics. Was this a sort of full circle for you?

KATIE STELMANIS: I don’t necessarily see it as a circle, it’s more of a constant process and development. I don’t think I’ll ever make a record in the same way twice, and this record by circumstance, where we all were geographically, and also I suppose spending five years on the road with my band and collaborating with people, I kind of felt like I needed a break and needed to be independent again. I also needed to force myself to relearn and become a better producer and songwriter, which meant doing a lot more of it myself.

Your live show has also evolved from a sort of dance party to more of a band performance, and you've said you experimented with trying to create background music for this record. What purpose do you see your art taking on, ultimately?

I feel like I wasn’t really able to define its purpose. It's sort of defined itself through the climate in which I’ve put out this record and the way people are responding to the way it feels at our shows. I think that I essentially wrote songs about feeling sad and disenfranchised with the world around us and the record came out at a moment where kind of everybody is feeling like that, so the shows have ended up being almost this cathartic experience. At least for me and maybe for some people in the audience as well, just because we're able to kind of bring people together, and I think in this collective sadness people are able to feel that they are not alone. But the show itself, we do a lot of new stuff, but then we also like remix a lot of old stuff, so we have a nice variation of some more emo moments and some full on rave moments, and I like to perform both of those things. I like to have dance parties as well, still. [Laughs]

One track that really stands out to me is “Deep Thought." I admit it fooled me at first - it’s a harp instrumental that's actually made entirely through a MIDI keyboard, right? I'm intrigued by the relationship between the synthetic and organic in your work.

Yeah, the original title of the track was "Computers Have Feelings Too," and I'm kind of mad that I ended up changing the name! [Laughs] But whatever, it is what it is. I’ve always kind of had this relationship with technology because I started making music in a climate in Canada where nobody was making electronic music at all. I was literally the only one that I knew doing it, and the Canadian music scene at the time was all about Arcade Fire and sort of indie rock and folk music, and it still is for the most part, but I was constantly being told that I would sound better with acoustic instruments or I should be using real violins or real pianos. And for me it was just so confusing, 'cause I was having the same emotional response to the synthesized instruments, and it was like why does it have to be an acoustic instrument in order for it to be real? As long as it elicits an emotional response then it shouldn't really matter where it's coming from.

Future Politics juxtaposes this overarching theme of a utopia brought about by technological advancements with a track about "Gaia" and returning to natural roots. On a broader scale, what is your perspective of the relationship between technology and nature?

I think that technology really has the potential to really complement nature and work alongside nature if its being used in the right way, but unfortunately I don’t think right now the power of technology is being harnessed in the best way at all. We’re wasting all our energy for small short term gain because everything is just based on finance, but I think that if that weren’t the case the potential for technology could be pretty amazing, and so that's really what I’m excited about. I’m excited about the ideas of where we could be technologically if money were no object.

What is the music industry like in this futuristic, utopian society that has moved beyond capitalism?

I don’t know, that's a good question. I just think music would be extremely cool and exciting 'cause now I find the music industry can kind of hinder artists because you ultimately just have to sell something. But if there's no need to sell anything then I think you can be a lot more creative. They say that streaming culture has allowed artists to become more experimental because it's less about having a single on the radio and selling records.

In the "Utopia" music video there is what seems to be some sort of Amazon Echo parody called Rainforest that has a sort of power over the character and environment depicted. What can you tell us about that?

Yeah, pretty much. Originally we wanted to create a scene in the future that, to me, is where we are probably headed. At least in Toronto, for example, there are more condos built per capita in the last 10 years than in any other city in North America. It's like Toronto is being taken over by this bland wash of glass and tall buildings, and it just feels very impersonal and lonely and sad. So we wanted to try to create a universe that is the future but at the same time we wanted to address the fact that its also what we’re kind of living in now, which is why we wanted to use both familiar and unfamiliar technology. And it's interesting, when talking about what future technology would look like you often resort to what future technology looked like to people in the '60s or '70s, you know? They’d always be talking to people on TV screens or they’d have these monitors or computers that they would talk to and it's like we have all that now. So it's just really interesting how with the technology that gets imagined in the sci-fi world becomes the technology that actually exists like 30 years later.

Many have misinterpreted the device's presence to be product placement. Did you anticipate that confusion?

Yeah, we definitely thought it would happen, and at first when we made the video the label kind of freaked out and was like 'What are doing? You can’t have that in the video!' or whatever, but I definitely think it doesn’t take too much effort to think about it a little bit harder and figure it out. [Laughs]

In the "Future Politics" music video I noticed there are several characters struck by nosebleeds, which reminded me of the scene in "Lose It" in which you get a nosebleed as well, and "Utopia" even begins with drops of blood on some stairs. Is there a certain significance to this ailment?

To be honest, no, not at all. [Laughs] For the blood in "Lose It" thats entirely from the brain of M Blash, the director, and I would say the same for the "Future Politics" video, that's entirely from the brain of Allie Avital. So I don’t know if somehow the music that I make has inspired blood dripping visually so directors always want to do that in my videos, but there's definitely not some greater connection that I am aware of. Maybe somebody else will analyze it and figure it out.

So Future Politics came out on Inauguration Day, thrusting its release amongst often contentious debate about what obligation, if any, artists have to address social issues. What are your thoughts on this?

I would say in desperate times, which I believe we’re in now, I think it's very important for artists to at least contribute to the conversation someway, being in a position of power. To be in a position of power and not have some sort of opinion or statement or some sort of responsibility for your power, I think it's kind of not okay. But it's also just [about] what is your significance as an artist? If you’re not sort of commenting on the world that you live in when people look back on the art that happened in 2017 are they going to be thinking about the new pop single about lipstick or are they going to be thinking about the artists who were commenting on the political climate? It's sort of about where you fit in history and your role in helping to document that history.

There is also a sort of parallel discussion of how a Trump administration may or may not spur on a generation of great art. What do you make of that?

I don’t think its a positive argument to make, that Trump will result in great art, because it just kind of discredits all the tragedy that a Trump presidency is going to cause for so many people, so I don’t necessarily want to say that. I made a record that, to me, a lot of the songs weren’t any different from any love song or any song about a breakup, I was writing music in response to how I was feeling about things I was reading about or things I was experiencing in the world. And the things that I were reading about are problems in society itself, and so I think because the songs were sort of approached from this very personal and emotional perspective that people are able to respond to it and relate to it in a context of the current Trump presidency. Playing "Future Politics" would absolutely not have the same significance in the US three months ago at all, but it's ended up being quite cathartic to play that song here and especially this week because it means something a lot bigger than it was ever intended to.

You’ve said in the past that you think musically first and that lyrics are usually an afterthought or serve only to sound melodic vocally, but you also seem to have a lot of meaning condensed into these tracks. How do you grapple with having so much to say and fitting it into the confines of a composition?

It's kind of always different. With a lot of the songs on the record the lyrics came really really quickly and they came right at the start and they helped shape the song itself. I would say that about a song like "Gaia," for example; I think I may have written the lyrics for that song first. And then other songs I'll sing them but I'll have like one long line that when I’m just sort of jamming out the lyrics or jamming out the vocal melody I'll just say something that I kind of stick to, and then that’ll shape the entire song. That would’ve been a track like "We Were Alive." I probably said 'We were alive' when I was singing it and decided to use it, to just put it in a different context. There was a lot more emphasis on the lyric writing on this record for sure than there ever has been before, but I guess sometimes it's a very difficult process, and sometimes it happens really quickly, but it's never really the same twice.

In regards to your vocals does your classical training and operatic style have any unique effect either positive or negative on being in a contemporary touring band?

Well definitely my job is much less intensive than it would be if I were still singing opera. I can sing the type of music that I do and I’ve kind of managed to lock myself in a groove of being able to do that, but the amount of endurance to since opera is just a completely different reality to what I’m doing now. I don’t warm up at all, I don't really even try, I just get up there and sing, and I think that I’m just lucky in that I know how to sing in such a way that it doesn’t damage my voice, so I’ve never had any major problems on the road. I guess I kind of learned how to ride a bike the correct way, you know? I developed these good habits when I was young such that I’ve been able to somehow translate them into what I’m doing now. I’m sure one day my voice will be shot, but I’ve been lucky so far, so I should knock on wood. [Laughs]

I read that there were some internal struggles regarding your choice of cover art for Olympia. For Future Politics you have a really striking image of Luis Barragán’s architecture in Mexico. Was this more of unanimous decision?

To be honest there was alternate art for Future Politics that I wanted to use but nobody was super stoked on it so they offered to fund another photo shoot. So I was like okay, we’ll take the photos and decide what we like better, and the Luis Barragán photos ended up being a million times better, so that was an easy decision. But even in the original art I had this idea of wanting to put a character on the front cover. I decided that the character's name was Revolution Rhonda, and she was going to be sent from the future to save us from our dystopian fate.

Future Politics is out now via Domino. You can buy it here, stream it here, and see tour dates here.