Katie Stelmanis is the lead singer of Austra, a band from Toronto. Austra, which also includes members Maya Postepski and Dorian Wolf, makes electronic music that can excite a dance floor and soothe the ears. They have a new record call Feel It Break coming out on Domino records in May, and will be playing a whole batch of shows at SXSW this year, with European and American dates to follow. Katie and bandmate Maya both identify as queer.
AfterEllen.com: When I asked you to do this interview you said, “All I ever wanted was to be a gay band.” What does being a “gay band” mean to you?
Katie Stelmanis: I’d like to say being a “gay band” means being gay and being in a band, but most of my band mates are gay and we’ve never really had that classification. I’m not sure if it’s based on the type of music we make or the community we come from, but I’ve always wondered why we seem to be exempt from the label. It probably has to do with the fact there are a lot of stereotypes of what a gay band — particularly lesbian-identified band — should sound like, and we don’t really fit in with those stereotypes, which is confusing.
All photos by Lindsey Byrnes
AE: What is the confusing part? What are the stereotypes, do you think?
KS: It’s confusing because I have always been careful to separate my sexuality from my music and have always made it clear in interviews that they are two very different things. I am a musician first, and a lesbian second. But I think in doing this I’ve sort of discredited the fact that being gay is a huge part of who I am and definitely effects the music I make. I’d like to be recognized as someone who makes interesting, experimental music and also identifies as queer, especially because I really believe there needs to be a wider variety of queer representation in music.
AE: What are some of the bands that you think have actually been able to do this well?
KS: I was thinking of the Gossip and Tegan and Sara, specifically, while I was answering the last question. Also Antony, Hercules and Love Affair, Owen Pallett and the xx come to mind. These bands have managed to redefine what it means to be a queer musician, because they are completely true to themselves and their art and aren’t afraid to be vocal about their sexuality.
It’s nice to see that there are more and more bands being vocal about queerness, I just wish there was more emphasis on the fact they are queer in the media.
AE: I love bringing up the Canada vs. USA equality thing into my interviews with Canadian bands because it’s mind boggling that queer Americans still don’t have the equal rights. What are your feelings on this? As a gay Canadian when you come to the US can you actually feel the oppression?
KS: I don’t even remember when gay marriage became legal in Canada because
I was so young. Growing up in Toronto, I really felt like homophobia
didn’t exist and having the right to marry just made sense to me.
After high school I started seeing things differently and, of course, I actually came out as a lesbian. Despite the fact it’s legal for gays to get married [in Canada], I still feel a lot of homophobia, especially in the smaller towns. Big cities like Toronto and Vancouver that have thriving gay scenes are not really a good indication for the sentiment of a whole country.
I feel as though it’s the same in the USA. There are lots of very gay-positive cities, but it’s when you move away from the metropolitan centers things become more dangerous. Now that I’ve done so much traveling, I feel extremely lucky that marriage is legal where I’m from, and it blows my mind its been so hard for our neighbors down south to achieve the same rights. Part of it has to do with the fact we had a very liberal prime minister for a long time, who I think made it easier for gay marriage to happen. Now, with our conservative PM, I can’t imagine such a thing would have ever happened under his leadership.
AE: So let’s talk about your coming out — what was that like? Can you give us the story?
KS: In my last year of high school I switched to an alternative school in Toronto, which is a school that’s much smaller in size than a regular high school and uses alternative methods of teaching. They tend to attract a lot of kids who don’t really fit in with the regular secondary school crowds – i.e. gay ones. It was here I met openly gay lesbians for the first time, and was introduced to the idea of queer culture.
Though it would take me a while to feel comfortable with my gay identity — I was just figuring it out at this point — I was kind of thrown out of the closet in an unfortunate event that involved me kissing one of these openly gay lesbians drunkenly at a party, and everyone that I’ve ever known finding out about it within 24 hours. From that point on I was “a gay,” despite the fact I wasn’t quite ready to go so far and say it about myself. Apparently it wasn’t too hard for people to come to that conclusion.
Once I had actually accepted the fact that I’m gay, I didn’t have to really “come out” to anyone because they all already knew. Even my mom.