Katie Stelmanis, cult-beloved leader of the band Austra, used to be a nice Canadian girl with thick brown bangs, grandma sweaters and an acoustic guitar. She's probably still a nice girl, and we don't think she's revoked her citizenship, but now her long hair glows with bleach and her look's all black and glam and she can play the holy hell out a synthesizer. Everyone from Austin to Australia is talking about Austra. Say that five times fast. Then Vimeo it.
Austra—set to play the Dazed Live showcase on April 9th—is netherworldly electronic pop. Comparisons to Zola Jesus and The Knife come easy, but there's something sweeter, more deadly, about Stelmanis. Behind her keening synth and ear-bending, bone-cracking voice is a solid band: drummer Maya Postepski, bassist Dorian Wolf, and some dancing twins. (If you're in a band and you don't have dancing twins, you're doing it wrong.) Austra is her middle name, and the band “a continuation,” she says, of her solo work. And though that work has always been dark, and is now just the kind of dark you can dance in, Austra—in Latvian—means “light.” Certainly, it's Stelmanis' time to shine.
Dazed Digital: The video for “Believe Me,” the single you did as a solo artist in 2009, has you and your friends in witch costumes running around the woods. This was a whole year before “witch house” and teen-goth vibes got big. Are you accidentally trending? Or—worse—do you feel responsible?
Katie Stelmanis: [laughs] No, I'm not responsible. That concept for that video was Jesi's concept—Jesi the Elder [http://jesi.ca], the artist. She was on the witch train long before everybody else! But I've been considered gothy by critics for a long time. I don't really understand. I've always had a leaning toward sad, dark music. I was always drawn to darker aesthetics. Goth is so trendy, not even music, just in art and fashion. Not only are a lot of bands doing it, but also, journalists are calling anyone with a slightly dark aesthetic “goth.
DD: There's also a big difference between “goth” and “gothic,” which people don't seem to get. Would you say you're more gothic?
Katie Stelmanis: I think so, for sure. Gothic is a classic thing, as opposed to dark dark makeup and white face and all that.
DD: What did you listen to as a kid? You were classically trained and began singing with a childrens' opera group when you were ten, but who were some of the pop artists you liked?
Katie Stelmanis: When I was a kid, I was obsessed with classical music. I was exposed to a very limited amount of popular stuff, and I didn't think anything could be better than classical. So I didn't really start listening to bands until my teens. Then I found Nina Simone and Kate Bush, who I really loved when I turned eighteen, and The Organ, and a lot of riot girl bands like Sleater Kinney. Ultimately my main influences were Bjork and Nine Inch Nails and The Knife.
DD: You get The Knife comparison a lot. How do you feel about it?
Katie Stelmanis: I'm definitely influenced by The Knife, and I'm happy to be compared to something I love, but it's a narrow comparison. There's tonnes and tonnes of people making dance music with a similar aesthetic, but because I'm a girl, people are quicker to make the connection. I'm only ever compared, in media, to other female artists. People obviously don't look much beyond the voice and who's singing.
DD: Why is it important for female artists to call themselves feminist, as you do?
Katie Stelmanis: I think that feminism has a lot of stigmas. People have assumptions or stereotypes about what it means. To me it's a no-brainer. Why wouldn't you support women in the world? There are obvious statistics that women are underpaid, overworked. It blows my mind when people don't call themselves feminists—especially when you work in an industry that discriminates against women.
DD: Would you say that's true of the music industry?
Katie Stelmanis: Yeah, for sure, and particularly behind the scenes. I can think of maybe one record label in the world that's run by a woman. It's definitely predominantly a male-run industry. Being a woman in music is hard because you have to fight against a lot of things. People review women differently, talk about women differently, judge them differently. With us, a lot of reviews focus on our look, or the comments online will say “those girls are hot,” or “those girls are not hot.” It's like, really?
DD: How do you deal with it?
Katie Stelmanis: You really just have to not think about it and do what you do. We love fashion and we love clothes and we enjoy it and have fun with it, I always wanna make it fun.
DD: Rumour is you might play Glastonbury. Confirm or deny?
Katie Stelmanis: [laughs] I can't say.
DD: Okay, so if you did play Glastonbury, what would you wear?
Katie Stelmanis: I wouldn't know what I would wear until the day before. I have a rotation of show outfits, but I can't predict what I'll feel like, unfortunately.
DD: Where do you shop for show looks? If you don't mind giving away your secrets, tell me where to thrift...
Katie Stelmanis: Value Villages and thrift shops, mostly. One day maybe I'll be able to buy cool designers, but for now, it's DIY and thrift.The best Value Villages are when you're on tour driving across Europe and America, and you stop in the small towns along the way. The band and I make such a point of doing it. You find the best stuff in the least expected places. I have a favourite vintage store in every city.
DD: So what's your favourite shop in London, then?
Katie Stelmanis: It's this one, not on Brick Lane, it's off Brick Lane. It's really big. I think it's called “Beyond Retro".
DD: How excited are you to be playing in the Dazed Live showcase?
Katie Stelmanis: Definitely excited. I've always liked Dazed, it's a cool magazine.
DD: Are you secretly more excited to be going home? What's the first thing you're going to do when you get back to Toronto?
Katie Stelmanis: Go on tour again. I feel so lost when I get home. I never know what to do with myself. Even right now, I'm in Milan for two days, and it's like, okay, what now? I haven't gotten sick of touring. None of us do.
DD: I've never heard anyone in a band say that.
Katie Stelmanis: We're totally weird, right?
Austra is playing Dazed Live on Saturday April 9, 2011. The festival takes place at several locations in and around Shoreditch and is presented in partnership with Levi's and Absolut Vodka. Find out more about the Dazed Live HERE and buy your tickets HERE