Q&A: Austra On New Album Olympia And Avoiding The Sophomore Slump
Back in 2011 Austra released Feel It Break — a wonderful bit of gothy electro-pop weirdness that would ultimately become one of that year’s most beloved releases (especially for those with a particular penchant for glitchy art pop and operatic vocals). Now, some two years and many, many tour dates later, the band returns with Olympia, which is slated for release early next month. According to vocalist Katie Stelmanis, Olympia is not only a much more collaborative effort, it’s also a much more personal one as well. I sat down with Stelmanis to discuss how over two years of constant touring — not to mention a little bit of heartbreak and a long hiatus — helped steer the band in a new direction.
STEREOGUM: I’ve only seen you play live once before — in Copenhagen at a festival. It was me and a bunch of really gothy Scandinavian teenagers.
STELMANIS: Oh, I remember that show! That was weird for us because I remember we flew to Copenhagen, basically hadn’t slept, played a show, and then we had to get on the next flight at 3 AM or something? We were taking some crappy Ryanair flight to Belgium where we were going to pick up a van and drive it to Paris and then we were going to play a festival in Paris so there was zero sleep factored into that whole traveling thing. I just remember those 24 hours as being like, hell. I remember sleeping in the Copenhagen airport and being surrounded by beautiful Danish people and then me and one of my bandmates, Maya, were just sprawled out looking like rags.
STEREOGUM: (laughs) Well, the show I saw was good. You guys basically toured for the better part of three years for Feel It Break, right?
STELMANIS: Yeah, we toured … we never really stopped, essentially. I mean, I was on tour in February, and that was I guess technically the last tour of Feel It Break, so that marks over two years of touring.
STEREOGUM: Did your show change radically over that time? You must have become a super tight live act by the end of that.
STELMANIS: I think it did. I mean, throughout the touring cycle we got more and more off of the backing track and into live instrumentation. When we first started, it was a lot more smoke and mirrors. We were using kind of shitty gear, nothing really sounded good, and we had a backing track. By the end of it we were able to buy a little bit better gear so we could buy some nicer sounding instruments and we were actually playing more stuff and Dorian, my bass player, got really into Ableton so he was able to make a lot of weird midi mapping things. It just got more … what’s the word. Interactive. We were actually doing things, we were actually playing instruments. It got a lot more fun.
STEREOGUM: Were you dying to make another record? That’s a long time to be out playing the same batch of songs.
STELMANIS: Yeah! Well actually it was weird, I started writing this record I guess, a year ago. Just over a year ago I started writing it and we had literally just come off of two years of touring where I probably wasn’t in the same place longer than three weeks in those two years. It was a crazy, crazy touring schedule and suddenly it was time to write a new record so I was just thrown into it and I had a really hard time making that transition. I ended up spending a few months in Seattle and I didn’t have a phone and I was in an apartment that didn’t have any internet and I also didn’t have any friends there. I was dating someone there so they would go to work and I’d just be alone … and I don’t think I made anything that awesome during my time in Seattle, but it was just crucial to just get into that zone — to just slow down and get into the writing mode. It was really hard to get back into it. But once I was in it, it was easy. Once I got a flow it was no problem. I was writing lots of songs just to get back into that mental space. It was a weird transition.
STEREOGUM: How do you usually work? Do you write on a specific instrument?
STELMANIS: I usually write in the computer. I have a midi controller and sometimes it starts with a melody or sometimes I’ll do a bassline or chords or something. I mean, with this record instead of finishing the songs myself in my bedroom — which is what I used to do–I would probably do one third of the work. I left them very bare so when I brought them to my band we were able to flesh it out together, and we were able to flesh it out with real instruments … which, previously, I didn’t use at all.
STEREOGUM: That must be a much different feeling, obviously.
STELMANIS: Yeah, it’s something that I was kind of craving. I feel like when you hear a solo record from someone you can kind of always tell that it’s a solo record. Like, if literally one person did everything on the record it’s like you’re following their train of thought. Everything is predictable and fits into this certain box. It’s one person’s idea, and I was very aware of that, and I wanted to create something that’s a little more dynamic. And so doing that I wanted to bring in more ideas and bring in other people and it made it more interesting for me because I was able to bounce ideas off of other people and just co-writing with people was pretty new and fun.
STEREOGUM: You’d also just spent the better part of three years with those people, which must change the dynamic in a lot of ways.
STELMANIS: Yeah, I mean, it wouldn’t work to just write with anybody. I have a really strong musical relationship, particularly with Maya. We’ve been playing together for years and years and we kind of have developed a similar aesthetic even though we’re very different. Like, anything I write Maya has to like it or understand it and vice versa. We just really respect each other’s music and we work very well together. We kind of work differently. She’s more into riffing and beats whereas I am more into song structures … and so putting those together I find to be really effective. So, and then yeah, Dorian covers the whole world of sound/sonic technology that brought in a lot as well.
STEREOGUM: It’s really an amazingly engineered record. It sounds great.
STELMANIS: We were so focused on sounds for this record. I think previously, with Feel It Break, I didn’t really think about sounds so much. I was interested in writing songs and creating a vibe, but I didn’t put any attention into the actual quality of sound. And on this record, every single song that’s on the record was hand-picked in a very thoughtful way. Instead of layering 50 shitty sounding midi tracks, I wanted to have three really awesome sounding tracks and just work with that instead.
STEREOGUM: How long was the process?
STELMANIS: I guess the writing happened over a period of about a year, and the recording — we recorded in a studio in Michigan for a total of 4-5 weeks, something like that? And yeah, then I recorded vocals in Montreal with Damian and we sent it to be mixed with Tom. The whole album took a year to be written, recorded, everything.
STEREOGUM: I feel like that’s a healthy amount of time.
STELMANIS: Yeah, it didn’t sound like it would be fast, but it did feel fast. When the record was actually done I couldn’t believe that we had written all of those songs.
STEREOGUM: Did all that touring influence your singing?
STELMANIS: Not really, I might be crazy, but I feel like my voice has gotten older. So I mean, the last record, I wrote it and recorded a few years ago and I feel like my voice is a little bit more toned-down now. Sometimes when I’m touring, singing “Lose It” is a struggle. We considered making it lower. If I’m a little bit sick…
STEREOGUM: Which everybody always is on tour….
STELMANIS: Right! If I’m not like, top-notch, that song is really brutal to sing. To have your voice cracking on that is not nice.
STEREOGUM: When Feel It Break came out, I got the sense that a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it.
STELMANIS: Yeah, I feel like that record was really easy for people to weirdly pigeonhole, like people who didn’t spend much time with it could be like, “Oh yeah, it’s like another…” Whatever that genre’s called…What’s it called? Witch-house? It’s another witch-house album or whatever. But I think people who spent a lot of time with it realized that yeah, aesthetically; it was made during that time. It was made during a time where people were really interested in this goth aspect of dance music and — I don’t think it necessarily fit in that genre entirely, though parts of it did.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. Well, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
STELMANIS: Yeah, I see it as a time and a place. We made a record during that time, and that’s how it happened. And now, we’re making a record during this time, and it reflects the time that we’re in right now.
STEREOGUM: I love that idea of albums being like a document of a specific time and place. We got together for a few weeks in 2012, this is what happened … the end.
STELMANIS: Yeah, I mean, it makes sense. Any band in the history of the world has the same experience. Bands in the ‘60s or ‘70s or ‘80s have a certain aesthetic of a certain place in time and I don’t know why that happens, but it definitely happens.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s cool. I mean, I understand the desire for perfection and the desire to make something that will hopefully be kind of timeless … but I also appreciate bands not being so insanely precious about it.
STELMANIS: Absolutely. Exactly. That’s one of the things I learned while making this record, because I think with Feel It Break, for me, being on Domino and having a professional release with all of these things was such a huge deal that I was so conscious of everything that was happening and therefore kind of nervous about it and not totally confident about it. And I think just touring for years and realizing that one thing that you release doesn’t shape your whole career necessarily … it just really helped me to chill out with this record.
STEREOGUM: It’s a lot of pressure.
STELMANIS: Yeah, and on tour I was getting sick all the time. Not because of being on tour, but because of stress. I was having major dealings — we didn’t have a tour manager, we didn’t have a manager for a long time — I was doing everything and it kind of made me crazy. Again, when I was in Seattle writing, cut off from the Internet, it was the time that I needed to just decompress and relax. And then again, it feels much more effortless this time around. And I want it to stay like that. I don’t want to reach that level of stress again. I just want to be confident with what we’re doing and present it and if people like it, then great, if they don’t, then … well, I like it, so it doesn’t matter.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s the important thing. It seems like such an obvious statement, but it really is true. A friend of mine is going through this with a book cover. He loved the cover he came up with; everyone was pressuring him to change it to something more sellable …. .
STELMANIS: (whispers) I am having the exact same thing is happening right now. Exactly.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it will exist forever. Once it’s out in the world, you can’t take it back. You don’t want to look at it for the rest of your life and just be like, “Oh I wish I had stuck up for what I wanted. I hate that cover, I’m gonna hate it forever.” It’s not the kind of — it seems like a trivial thing, but as a creative person, the kind of regret you want to live with, you know?
STELMANIS: Yeah, I have the exact same problem. There’s a huge debate between my band and my label and lots of other people about this album cover that we have because we did this photo shoot and it’s very psychedelic and it’s not cool. And we didn’t want to do something that was cool, we wanted to do something that was weird, but people are just really freaked out that it’s going to draw attention away from the music itself so … I don’t know what’s going to happen, we’ll see.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, and when it comes to making those kinds of decisions, ultimately, it comes back to you, whether you want it or not. It’s a hard one.
STELMANIS: Yeah, it’s definitely a hard one. And I see the image and … it’s weird. I’m not entirely confident with it as I am with the album, but at the same time I’m like, “This is what we have, this is what we made. It would feel weird at this point to throw it away because we felt scared to put it out.” I don’t know. It’s weird.
STEREOGUM: I mean, for better or for worse, at a time when people buy most of their music digitally, it’s not like someone’s gonna see it in a store and think: “I don’t know about buying this” Because of the cover. I don’t think…I think you should do what you want. That’s my two cents. I can’t imagine someone saying, “I really love that new Austra song, but this album art is too psychedelic…forget it!”
STEREOGUM: You see how the dreaded “sophomore slump” really can do people in. You have all these decisions to make, you don’t want to repeat yourself, and it’s easy to overthink everything.
STELMANIS: Yeah, I guess I don’t feel that much pressure that way because I don’t think we’re the kind of band that’s going to be dependent on one album or a certain trend or anything. I don’t think we received the kind of press — we didn’t receive the hype press — over our last record. It’s not like we were really hyped up in this way that could damage us.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, the other record had a nice, steady build…it was a grower.
STELMANIS: Yeah, I think the people who like our record and come to our shows are there because they’re actually really into the music and I feel confident that they’ll keep on being really into the music. I don’t think they were there for a certain aesthetic, I think they were there because musically they were into it. If I could make like, 50 records, and have the ability to play them to a small amount of people for the rest of my life, I’m very happy to do that.
STEREOGUM: That’s a cool way to think about it. I mean, it’s interesting, you say that the making of these songs has been much more of a collaborative process, because it also feels way more personal than Feel It Break.
STELMANIS: Yeah, it is. I think that ultimately the theme of this record was just being real, and being transparent essentially. With the instrumentation we wanted to use mostly real instruments, we were very conscious of the sounds that we used and lyrically…well, previously, I never cared about lyrics, I never listened to lyrics, but for some reason in the past year, year in a half, I’ve started being really into bands and albums that communicate a specific story. Like, for example, I started listening to older Cat Power records, and listening to them in a different way, cause I never really listened to her lyrics before, but actually listening to what she was saying, I wanted to communicate something to that effect. And I really think that previously my hesitation towards lyrics was also that I just didn’t really want to tell people what I was thinking I didn’t feel the desire to communicate what I was thinking. I didn’t want people to know when I was feeling sad about something so I just kind of conjured up lyrics that didn’t really make sense. Whereas, this time around, I actually feel like… I feel good about it. It’s a significant thing to be able to talk about personal things. It’s a type of communication that…well, I’m loving it. It feels good.
STEREOGUM: It’s also interesting to think about that in relationship to how you’re going to have to go out and sing these songs over and over. That adds another layer to it.
STELMANIS: Yeah, well I’ve always loved covering songs that have a real story, like a real emotional push. Like for example, Roy Orbison “Crying.” Or Carol King’s “Natural Woman” are songs that I’ve covered and I love singing because I feel like I’m singing about something and it feels so good. This is the first time that I’ve written songs where I actually sort of have a similar feeling. It’s like, I’m singing about something when I sing these songs because I have a story. It just feels more honest. Previously I wanted to keep it up in the air. I didn’t want to tell everything.
STEREOGUM: That first record is still certainly a very emotional record. I mean, you’re still communicating a feeling, even if the lyrics are mysterious.
STELMANIS: Exactly, I felt like I didn’t need to have obvious lyrics because I was being so emotive and expressive. I also think I’ve learned in songwriting to be much more restrained, and much more subtle with the way I write songs and I think that lends itself to actually be able to be more expressive with words. I feel like some stuff on Feel It Break or stuff that I had done previously, if I had as direct lyrics then it might have been a bit too over the top. I think this album that was really a focus on bringing in words and scaling back the melodrama and just trying to create a more subtle idea.
STEREOGUM: You mention being sort-of rootless for three years, is that a big part of what you think this record is about?
STELMANIS: Um, I don’t know if it’s based on not having a home, necessarily, but it was definitely based on a very emotional and mental transition that I had, that came from touring and being exhausted from touring and then dealing with that feeling and then getting to a place like what we were talking about, not so precious. And… yeah that time in my life big things happened in my personal life and just these big changes and big transitions, everything about it just…made me relax, I think.
STEREOGUM: Have you seen your fanbase change radically since you first started?
STELMANIS: I don’t think it really…I don’t know, our fanbase is really all over the map. Sometimes there are a lot of moms and dads there and people over the age of 50, there’s a lot of those at my shows. All kinds of different people. I really feel like, I really can’t classify the audience of any of our shows. It’s very mix and match it doesn’t feel like a very hipster audience, it feels like it’s very… there’s some weirdos at our shows too, which is cool. We always have the token full-on goth face makeup at our shows, which I like.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited about going on tour again?
STELMANIS: I’m actually really excited about going on tour again. I’m mostly just excited to play all of our new songs. I think they’re a lot more fun to play because we have more to do on stage.
STEREOGUM: There are six of you, altogether?
STELMANIS: Yeah, there are six of us. Yeah we’re interacting with each other more, we’re listening to each other more as a band and it’s just more about this band experience rather than before, we were listening to the backing track on the monitor, and it’s nice, now I’m focusing on my end and just creating a vibe with them, and it’s much more enjoyable as a musician.
STEREOGUM: So, where do you live now?
STELMANIS: I have an apartment in Toronto that I just got in December. I hadn’t had an apartment in two years. I don’t know how much time I’m going to spend there but it’s nice to have a place to come home to
STEREOGUM: It’s nice to know that it exists even if you don’t go there.
STELMANIS: Except I kind of think I treat my apartment like a hotel room. I’m kind of gross—I was there with my girlfriend who also does sound for the band, she was with us on tour, and we get home and I just throw my suitcase on the floor, my clothes are all over the apartment, I never make the bed, it’s like…I live in it like it’s disposable.
STEREOGUM: So many musicians I know live that way. The apartment as a hotel room — the scenario of never really living there long enough to give it the love it deserves by actually decorating it or buying, like, pots and pans. So there might be a really expensive couch and nothing else. And also the weird psychology of being on tour all of the time, it’s that weird catch 22. When you’re on tour you can’t wait to be home and when you’re home…
STELMANIS: Can’t wait to be on tour! It’s also I think in order to tour non-stop you kind of can’t let yourself slip into the home life again because as soon as you actually love doing nothing and being at home and you love your apartment, then you’re never going to leave. I think there’s some importance to having your home be halfway there, halfway space of my own. I bought a couch, a bed, and a table, and I’m like, done! That’s it. It’s that weird musician life you have where when you’re traveling and you’re on tour everyone treats you like a princess and then you get home and you live in a weird shitty apartment. I don’t mind, though.
Olympia is out 6/18 on Domino.