The centrepiece of Austra’s third album Future Politics is “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself”. It’s a synth pop anthem that feels so airy and weightless that it would almost be euphoric if it weren’t for the sadness of its lyrics: “There’s nothing in your soul tonight / I only see darkness.” As Austra’s Katie Stelmanis explains, the song explores the uphill battle of loving somebody with depression who’s unable to find happiness themselves. “It’s a very personal song,” she says over the phone from Massachusetts during some downtime from touring. “It’s really about loving somebody who suffers from depression. It’s quite hard to go into that more without getting into specifics.”
For the song’s new music video, directed by M-Blash, Stelmanis was inspired by the story of Lisa Nowak, the former NASA astronaut who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006 but, just a year later, suffered a breakdown and was charged with attempted kidnapping, burglary, and battery. Nowak’s story became a media sensation, with TV news stations and tabloid newspapers dissecting and ridiculing her personal life (“Diaper-wearing astronaut jailed in love triangle plot,” read one headline at the time). Austra’s video, which sees Stelmanis play Nowak, attempts to reclaim the narrative while examining the private and public nature of mental health.
Future Politics was inspired by books like Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s fascinating and unexpectedly influential Inventing the Future, which offers a blueprint for a world beyond capitalism and outlines how a radical, progressive, and future-focused leftwing politics can create that world. Released, coincidentally, on the day that Donald Trump took office, its utopian message of open borders and human innovation couldn’t be more timely. We spoke to Stelmanis about the album, how her new video ties into the album’s concept, and the difficulties of making a political statement in 2017.
The video is based on NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. What drew you to her story?
Austra: I was kind of upset with the way her story has been portrayed. There’s a photo of her in her NASA spacesuit, looking very wholesome and happy. I found it so insensitive that there was no regard for the fact that she was a NASA scientist who went to space before the age of 30. She’s a total genius! Lisa had a breakdown, and I don’t think there was any compassion for mental health at all in her story and in the (media) narrative (surrounding it), so we wanted to try, in some ways, to give her a bit of justice.
You also play Nowak in the video – what was it like taking on that role?
Austra: That was the craziest video I’ve ever made. It took two 12-hour days of shooting – it was the most intensive shoot I’ve ever done – and the whole thing was done with a secret camera, taking it into places we weren’t allowed to and just shooting there until we got kicked out. I didn’t really have to do much acting because the situation itself was so weird and uncomfortable, going to these strip malls wearing a NASA spacesuit. Being a non-actor, it’s more effective to put me in a difficult situation and have that much more easily capture the tension of what it must have felt like when she was actually doing it.
“There’s a major disconnect between what we need to thrive as humans and what we put a monetary value to” – Katie Stelmanis, Austra
What does Future Politics mean to you?
Austra: Future Politics is speaking of your own personal politics, rather than politics in general. It’s really about breaking down barriers in the way that people think. I think that if we can really get into the minds of people, then that’s the only way we can experience greater change in society. It’s encouraging people to think differently, to realise that there are a lot of the boundaries surrounding us, and encouraging this discussion about what things would look like if they weren’t there.
Does the video tie into the general theme of the album?
Austra: Originally the song didn’t really tie into it, but I don’t think it’s too farfetched, because when I start to think about politics and what it looks like for me, a part of that is this idea of connecting the mind, body, and spirit. I think that, when talking about politics, mental health is (rarely included in the picture). There’s a major disconnect between what we need to thrive as humans and what we put a monetary value to.
Do you feel that music serves any real political purpose in times of crisis?
Austra: Yeah, absolutely. Music can be very therapeutic to listen to and to play, and that’s something that’ll be necessary for people right now and in the coming years. Aside from that, I think that music brings people together, and bringing people together in a room is something that’s also crucial right now. We’re quite isolated, given our relationship with technology and how cities operate, and how we’re often interacting with companies and corporations more than interacting with real people. So I think it’s valuable to have these spaces where people can come together.
On a third, important note, I think that being a cultural creator is incredibly important because you have so much influence to disseminate ideas. When I think of the hippy movements in the 60s or 70s, the fundamental ideals of the movement at the time seemed very subversive. They were created by artists, writers, and poets, and they became the foundation for what America is, in a way. And so the leftist movement (in 2017) has the power to really seep into the mainstream and actually change the way that people think. In that way, I think it’s very important for artists and cultural creators in general to see themselves as having power to actually spread ideas.
“The leftist movement (in 2017) has the power to really seep into the mainstream and actually change the way that people think” – Katie Stelmanis, Austra
How did you bring ideas of the future into your own music?
Austra: I never really consider myself much of a writer or a poet, so I don’t think that the strength of these ideas is necessarily found in my lyrics. For me, the (most important) experience of releasing this record has been the conversations surrounding it. I’ve really enjoyed talking about it, I’ve had so many amazing interviews, and I’ve talked to so many amazing people about it. Just reading how people perceive and grab onto it has been extremely rewarding. I feel like that’s something I’m more comfortable with, rather than actually being specific with lyrics on the record.
What about outside of the lyrics? How did you conceptualise the future in terms of the music itself?
Austra: This record can essentially be considered a bedroom project, which is kind of a statement in itself. It was made using soft synths – I carried a microphone around the world with me and a preamp, but otherwise almost all of it was done on the computer. It was mostly mixed in-the-box, often at home or in a variety of makeshift studios. I think there’s something significant about that. When I was writing (my previous album) Olympia, I had this idea that I wanted everything to be analogue, not digital, but with this record, I was the complete opposite – I just wanted to embrace the tools that exist right now and embrace the opportunities that have been invented for musicians.
The album came out the day Donald Trump took office, and for that day it was available pay-what-you-want, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. Do you think it’s important for artists to explicitly align themselves with existing progressive organisations?
Austra: I think that it’s important, but I also think there’s so much more of a risk, because musicians are for the most part funded by companies and corporations now. Musicians often make money through syncs and endorsements and commercials. Musicians don’t really make money off record deals. It’s like one wrong move or one controversial thing and no company wants to work with you. It’s such a sad, unfortunate place to be, because nobody wants to be at the mercy of some stupid corporation, but it’s all part of making money. I think there is a lot of political sentiment in music, but it’s in (areas) that are less successful (financially). Obviously I’m a small indie band, I’m not worried about my Coca-Cola endorsement or anything like that. Also, I’m Canadian, and I get grants (from the Canadian government) as well.
Yeah, the US and UK don’t have the same level of arts funding as somewhere like a Scandinavian country for example.
Austra: Even ANOHNI was talking about how she accepted money from Apple to do the ‘Drone Bomb Me’ video. I got a grant to make my videos from the Canadian government – I’m really lucky that I had that opportunity – but even someone like ANOHNI, who made one of the most political albums of 2016, is still having to accept money from a corporation in order to get her art out. I think that puts artists in a really difficult position.
You started writing Future Politics before all of the big political earthquakes of 2016. Had you started today, how do you think it’d be different?
Austra: I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it, to be honest. Right now everything is so overwhelming and all-consuming that I almost can’t collect my thoughts around it. Three years ago, I was just starting to collect this information and just reading about things that were brewing – the problems that were coming ahead, even just identifying the major problems that exist right now – but they all came to a head just before the record came out. At the time it was somewhat manageable, whereas now it just feels like total chaos.
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