An interview with Katie Stelmanis of Austra

 
 

AE: Amazing! Had you already started making music before you came out?

KS:
I’ve been playing music my whole life. I studied piano, viola and voice growing up, sang in choirs and played in lots of orchestras. I started writing my own music about the same time I started coming out. Before that, I was convinced that I was going to pursue a career in opera. I think part of the reason I didn’t is because its a super hetero world and I just didn’t feel comfortable. I wanted to be able to control my performances, and with opera your always singing someone else’s music under someone else’s vision.

Once I had picked up the guitar and started writing songs, I formed a band called Galaxy with Maya and a girl named Emma McKenna. Emma was fully out as a lesbian when we met and she played a big part in my coming out process — namely yelling “You’re gay” to me, as I would bike by her on the streets of Toronto at night.

AE: Wow, well that is one way of outing someone! Why do you think it took her doing that? What was keeping you in the closet? Were you just unaware of your sexuality or were you afraid of it?

KS:
I think it was just all part of the natural process. Some people know from birth and for some people it takes a bit of time to figure it out. I hadn’t really thought about it at all until I was a bit older — late-teens — and before then I wasn’t really interested in dating anyone. I think I needed to meet other gay people to realize my gayness, and then of course I had to try to get to know them, which can be quite daunting from an outside perspective.

AE: You have a song called “Young and Gay” — what are the lyrics? When did you write it? How does a band have a song called young and gay and not be considered a gay band?

KS:
I am really bad at remembering lyrics to my own songs. Lyrics have never really been important to me as a musician, and so I never really focus on them. Sometimes we will throw a song in a set list and I’ll realize as soon as I start performing it that I have no idea what the words are and I just make them up. I’m pretty good at doing this so actually people never really seem to catch on. “Young and Gay” happens to be one of those songs, even though it is one song where the lyrics are actually important to me.

I originally wrote it as a tribute to an activist and artist named Will Munro from Toronto who died of brain cancer last year. He started a party in Toronto called Vazaleen over a decade ago that was one of the first queer gatherings to take place outside of the gay district. It was also one of the first where everyone was welcome, and everyone attended. Gays, lesbians, trans people, straight people, punks, clubbers etc. all enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere of his events. He also happened to be one of the sweetest people you’d ever meet and knew everyone he crossed paths with by their first name. His influence and his parties completely changed the queer landscape of Toronto. It made a place for the freaks, and in a lot of ways un-segregated gay culture. It was a major tragedy to so many people in Toronto and bands from all over the world when he died.

The song is called “Young and Gay” because I truly believe as a young queer coming out in Toronto he provided the space for me to feel welcome.

AE: So you just finished a tour of the West Coast and NYC and your new record is coming out in May on one of the coolest indie labels around. It seems like things are going really well! What is next for you and Austra?

KS:
Well my band and I are super excited to have support from Domino. We also know that signing to a label doesn’t mean much if you don’t keep trying to work as hard as you can, so our plan is to stay on the road for the next little while and keep putting out lots of videos and lots of music. Its gonna be easier to get our stuff heard now so we will take that as an incentive to keep on creating more and more new material. We are all looking forward to the future and we all feel super lucky that this is our job, even if it doesn’t pay that well — or anything.

AE: Speaking of videos, the most recent one for beat and pulse is really great! Who came up with the treatment and can you explain it to us? Also, how do you feel about YouTube censoring it?

KS:
The director that I worked with, Claire Edmondson, came up with the treatment. We were passing lots of images back and forth for a few weeks and it was kind of built on that. Pretty much everyone in the video is a close friend of mine, and funnily enough it wasn’t the intention to be only women.

I think that just says a lot about my friends. Part of the reason its different then a regular video with women in their underwear is because it was conceived, shot, and directed by a women, so there was really no male energy which often prevails when someone is trying to depict female sexuality. In fact, most of the girls in the video said they would have never done it if it were for a band of men, which I think says a lot about the result.

The YouTube censorship was totally lame, but also totally expected. It’s crazy what North America deems to be inappropriate. There is so much intensely violent and hateful s–t on the internet its hard to understand why a boob is so offensive. Europe is much more relaxed when it comes to nudity so Domino France posted the uncensored version on DailyMotion.com.

Austra’s Feel it Break comes out on May 16.

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