Turntable Interview: Austra
Austra’s debut album Feel It Break was filled with synth-pop beats paired with theatrical vocals. The result was incredibly well received, making top ten and year-end lists across the blogosphere and setting the bar high for any follow-up albums. On Olympia, their second LP, which is in stores now, Austra’s songwriter-in-chief, Katie Stelmanis, made it all much more personal, setting songs that play like diary entries to club-busting beats that shimmer and shake. It calls to mind both Cat Power and the Knife while clearly breaking new ground and adding another truly great record to the world. Stelmanis stopped by Turntable.fm to chat with us about what it’s like to follow up a critically acclaimed debut, get to the bottom of how many people are in the band right now, and to spin some Enya tracks.
AUSTRA started playing “Lost” by Autechre
AUSTRA: Whoa I just played a song? That was an accident but cool
STEREOGUM: Hahaha, you’ll get the hang of it soon. How are you?
STEREOGUM: How has your tour been going?
AUSTRA: Great! Tour has been good!
STEREOGUM: And congratulations since your second album just came out this week
AUSTRA: Ah thank you, crazy week
STEREOGUM: I bet! Has it been less overwhelming with a second album? Or pretty much the same as the first?
AUSTRA: I guess it feels a bit different – its strange not being a “new” artist anymore so people approach the listening experience a bit differently
STEREOGUM: Do you feel more pressure? Your first album was SO well received.
AUSTRA: Well I didn’t really feel any pressure when we were making the record cause I knew everything I wanted to change about the first and was sure i knew how to make it better, but now that the response is coming in I’m realizing it’s a bit scary !
STEREOGUM: What did you want to change about the first?
AUSTRA: Mostly production stuff. I didn’t want to make another midi record I wanted to make a real-band record
STEREOGUM: Are there seven people in your band now?
AUSTRA: Haha no…The core band is still the three of us. Me, Maya and Dorian And we’ve been collaborating with the Tasseomancy twins. Ryan plays with us live.
STEREOGUM: Ah, so there are six of you. I didn’t realize it wasn’t an official band growth spurt.
Melissa Locker started playing “Day & Night” by Diamond Rings
AUSTRA: Well I think we were confused about what it was too. We were touring as a 6 piece for so long.
STEREOGUM: Are you still touring with 6?
AUSTRA: Yeah and we still will be, sometimes. Our lineup is becoming an ever changing thing
STEREOGUM: That’s a nice element of surprise for fans! It must keep you on your toes, too
AUSTRA: Basically we realized the only thing that is consistent about our project is the collab between me Maya and Dorian. Everything else is a bonus! Ha ya
STEREOGUM: Pretty good bonus! Did you still write the majority of the songs on the album?
AUSTRA: Totally. Ya I wrote them but I didn’t finish them on my own
STEREOGUM: What’s your songwriting process like generally?
AUSTRA: I wrote a bunch of rough demos and let the other guys fill them in
STEREOGUM: So the result is very collaborative
AUSTRA: Ya its been very collaborative.
STEREOGUM: You started out as an opera singer right?
AUSTRA: When I was in high school I studied opera ya
AUSTRA started playing “Always” by Erasure
AUSTRA: Oh cool my song just comes on next. I get it. This is very easy!
STEREOGUM: Yeah! It’s like magic and I love Erasure
AUSTRA: ME TOO.
STEREOGUM: I drove everyone in my house crazy listening to this over and over again as a kid
AUSTRA: Haha nice. I’m sad to say I discovered this song from that robot unicorn iPhone game, but then I became obsessed. The video is AMAZING
STEREOGUM: Haha really? Robot unicorn huh?
AUSTRA: Ya man its a good game
STEREOGUM: I guess you have to do something to keep yourself entertained when you’re on the road
AUSTRA: Haha but only cause of the song I think. So anyways now I’m a real Erasure fan. Ya… I really like games
STEREOGUM: Yeah I wish they would get back together or play a show. I saw OMD and almost died
AUSTRA: Oh man they broke up?? Saaaad. I will never get to see them
STEREOGUM: I don’t know if they broke up, but they definitely don’t seem to play shows. I mean, OMD, New Order Depeche Mode are all still playing so Erasure should
AUSTRA: Ha right? I feel like they played like 5 years ago or something
STEREOGUM: But they should play now!
AUSTRA: Yes! Did you get to chose your avatar?
STEREOGUM: Yes, but I had to earn it. What other games do you play?
AUSTRA: I like old skool ones like snood and tetris
STEREOGUM: What is Snood?
Melissa Locker started playing “Whirring” by the Joy Formidable
AUSTRA: Some game from the 80s… or 90s I dunno I used to play it when I was a kid
STEREOGUM: I am going to Google it. Oh! I did not know that was called Snood
AUSTRA: Ha ya its a classic
STEREOGUM: It’s like an old Apple IIe game
STEREOGUM: That and Oregon Trail
AUSTRA: Oh I don’t know that one. I’ll have to check it out
STEREOGUM: You have pioneers and try to make them survive the journey across country
AUSTRA: Whoa that sounds more complicated than snood
STEREOGUM: It is. The pioneers frequently all die.
STEREOGUM: Very historically accurate.
AUSTRA: I’ll check it out! Totes
STEREOGUM: So do you have a favorite song on the album?
AUSTRA: That changes frequently but at the moment… hurt me now! It’s really fun to play live
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah that’s great. Although the title sounds …painful
AUSTRA: Hah, Well I guess it should have been called “don’t hurt me now” ha
STEREOGUM: Ha! Do you put a lot of thought into song titles?
AUSTRA: No not really… Most songs have funny working titles and I get so attached to them I just keep them Like Painful Like, “What We Done” was called Drunk for a long time. We almost kept that title
AUSTRA: “Reconcile” was Lesbians. We almost kept that too
STEREOGUM: Really? Hahaha, why?
AUSTRA: I don’t know! I guess I was thinking about lesbians when I started writing it. Lesbian drama. Hahaha
AUSTRA: I was afraid “Lesbians” would be too distracting though
STEREOGUM: When you write the songs are you usually thinking about something specific or starting with a melody?
AUSTRA: It’s always different… A lot of songs on this album came through expressing a particular sentiment.. but usually i just start with a bass line or a keyboard riff and sing on top of it
STEREOGUM: So is this album more emotionally-driven than the last one?
AUSTRA: Yes the songs are about real things… on the last record they were a lot more obscure
AUSTRA started playing “Orinoco Flow” by Enya
STEREOGUM: omg Enya
AUSTRA: The best
STEREOGUM: Sail away Enya sail away!
AUSTRA: Ya this played last night at the venue and I remembered I love it. I think it was from my ipod ha
STEREOGUM: Ha! This just reminds me of mall shopping. What else is on your iPod?
AUSTRA: A lot of 90s woman and song and a lot of berlin techno. That’s it pretty much
STEREOGUM: Wow. That shouldn’t be a surprise, I guess as in some ways Austra sounds like a cross between those genres.
AUSTRA: I think so!
STEREOGUM: But what counts as 90s woman? Sarah Maclachlan?
AUSTRA: Enya, Alanis, PJ
STEREOGUM: Oh I am adding PJ to my queue right now
AUSTRA: Sarah is also awesome but she is not on my ipod
Melissa Locker started playing “Kiss Them For Me” by Siouxsie And The Banshees
AUSTRA: Nice one
STEREOGUM: Did you hear Alanis’ new album?
AUSTRA: No! I haven’t really listened to anything since jagged little pill
STEREOGUM: I don’t think anyone has
STEREOGUM: What do you think is the weirdest thing on your ipod
AUSTRA: Hmmm, probably some weird takes from my old band galaxy. I have a recording from like 10 years ago of maya doing this insane monologue…That’s most deffo the weirdest thing
STEREOGUM: What is the subject of the monologue?
AUSTRA started playing “Kaltes Klares Wasser” by Malaria
AUSTRA: She adopted an Alter Ego called “Sharon” and talks in this weird accent about shit that makes no sense
AUSTRA: Maybe one day I’ll release it on vinyl
STEREOGUM: Wow. Record Store Day release!
STEREOGUM: How long have you two known each other?
AUSTRA: 10 years just about! She was like 17 and 27 now, so ya.
STEREOGUM: That’s a long time! Do you think your collaborations are improving with age?
AUSTRA: Yes! Well we had never really properly collaborated until this album. It was long overdue. We’ve been playing together for so long now though our brains are musically connected
STEREOGUM: So you have your own code now?
Melissa Locker started playing “Down By The Water” by PJ Harvey
AUSTRA: Ya basically
STEREOGUM: How long are you going out on tour?
AUSTRA: We work really differently.. .
STEREOGUM: Is that a good thing?
AUSTRA: She goes more for immediate satisfaction and i take a lot longer to write, but it’s fun to work off each other. I’ll work on a song for a month and she’ll come in a spend 3 hours making a drum beat.
STEREOGUM: How long did it take you to write this album?
AUSTRA: The whole writing and recording process took about a year
STEREOGUM: Were you able to include everything that you wanted?
AUSTRA started playing “Fiction” by the XX
AUSTRA: For the most part!We had so many songs by the end it was hard to chose what to put on the record
STEREOGUM: So do you have enough for another album? Or would you start over for the next one?
AUSTRA: Definitely start over. I think every album should be a different process and a different experience
STEREOGUM: So what happens to all the “extra” songs?
AUSTRA: B-sides I guess.
They all seem to see the light at some point. There are some that won’t, I suppose, which is hard, but I think its for the best
STEREOGUM: I think every artist has to go through that process.
AUSTRA: Ya definitely.
STEREOGUM: How long are you out touring for this album?
AUSTRA: A long time! At least until 2014
Melissa Locker started playing “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” by Arcade Fire
STEREOGUM: Wow! Do you get homesick?
AUSTRA: Oh I haven’t listened to this in a while. Naw… my home is basically my suitcase now. I have an apartment but I don’t really care about it.
STEREOGUM: Do you miss anything about Canada when you’re gone?
AUSTRA: Well I miss my friends I suppose.. I never think about missing Canada but I’m always happy when I’m back there. Feels comfortable
STEREOGUM: Well, that’s all the time we have. Thanks so much for talking with me. I really love the new album.
AUSTRA: Oh thank you! Fun interview
STEREOGUM: Yeah! Thanks so much.
AUSTRA: See ya later!
Olympia is out now via Domino.