In 2011, Toronto synthpop outfit Austra made major waves with its debut, Feel It Break, a gothic, operatic stunner featuring the haunting, otherworldly vocals of Katie Stelmanis -- a classically trained opera singer-turned-indie band frontwoman.
Shortlisted for the Polaris Prize and nominated for a Juno, the album boasted inky, blurry soundscapes crafted from a MIDI arsenal, Stelmanis's icy voice coating them like a blanket of hoar frost. For Canadian critics burned out on beardy folk rock and earnest, glockenspiel-riddled indie pop, it was an exciting new sound.
But it wasn't the sound Stelmanis was after, and this year's followup, Olympia, sees Austra quite literally find its groove. Released in June via Paper Bag Records, Olympia is a sweaty, propulsive hip-shaker that leaves it all out on the dance floor. Even the album's cover features Stelmanis in a flamingo-hued pantsuit posing against a jewel-toned, vaguely tropical mural. Austra hasn't "lightened up," exactly, but the frozen cockles of its black heart have been thawed, thanks to an intentional move toward warmer, analogue sounds.
"That was definitely part of the vision," Stelmanis says, on the line from a tour stop in New York City. "We decided we wanted to do that because of how our music changed in the live show. The songs from Feel It Break developed so much during the tours and we wanted to recreate that sound."
Indeed, Olympia beats with a decidedly human pulse.
"I was really influenced by house music and early techno music, from a time when that music was played live," Stelmanis says. "There were mistakes and rhythmic imbalances. We wanted to make dance music with that humanness attached." (Think staccato piano lines, percussive vocals, live instruments, loping beats.)
The emphasis is on "we"; Olympia is easily Austra's most collaborative effort yet, with Stelmanis's bandmates Maya Postepski and Dorion Wolf -- along with touring members Ryan Wonsiak and backing vocalists Sari and Romy Lightman of Tasseomancy -- taking a more hands-on approach. Their contributions helped crystallize Stelmanis's vision.
"Hurt Me Now is one of my favourite songs on the album, but I remember when I wrote it, I didn't think it was anything special," she recalls by way of example. "I sent it to Maya and she added a slow drum beat. She heard it in a completely different way."
Sharing unfinished sketches of songs with other ears was a big deal for the usually private Stelmanis.
"Normally, I wouldn't show people music until I felt good about it, which usually meant it was done or almost done. This time, I had to let people hear demos in a state I normally wouldn't let anyone hear them in."
Lyrically, Olympia has a confessional directness about it, which is also new terrain for Stelmanis. "You know that it hurts me when you don't come home at night," she sings on Home. Her pain is plainly communicated, and it hits square in the heart.
"That was an intention," she says. "Personally, I was listening to a lot of Perfume Genius and Cat Power, who write really raw, personal lyrics. Having never written lyrics like that myself, I collaborated with Sari.
"It's interesting because I never put weight on lyrics before -- it was something that came second," she adds, which is a point true of many singers who use their voices as an instrument. "It was a good experience, but I don't know if I'd collaborate on lyrics again, to be honest. You lose some ownership over the songs."
That said, the songs sound like personal compositions. A more straightforward songwriting approach has allowed Stelmanis, who identifies as queer and feminist, to introduce her politics to her music. The most powerful song on the album is just over a minute long and is called I Don't Care (I'm a Man). "The quiet indoor fighting/the whimper in her sigh/the soft, the brutalizing/but I don't care I'm a man."
She's noticed more young women are identifying as feminists of late, something she finds encouraging.
"To be honest, I think we're turning over a new leaf in terms of feminism being an F-word," she says. "Five or six years ago, many of my peers wouldn't identify as feminists, but plainly speaking, I think it's becoming cool to be a feminist again." She thinks that might be owed to a few factors, one being Internet and the other being pop culture's current obsession with all things '90s. "Bikini Kill is reissuing its catalogue and (former BK singer) Kathleen Hanna's making music again. I think it's a subject people are revisiting, and a lot more bands are voicing their feminism."
After abandoning her formal opera training at 20, Stelmanis's introduction to the Toronto indie scene was via Galaxy, a noisy post-riot grrl act she formed with Austra's Postepski and a singer/songwriter named Emma McKenna.
"I didn't know a lot about feminism or riot grrl music," Stelmanis says. "I learned everything from Emma, who was and still is a vocal feminist, at a time when a lot of people in Toronto were afraid to say it."
As Austra's profile continues to rise, Stelmanis is reminded just how tough a gig it is to be a woman in music. She told Spin in a recent profile, "I feel more marginalized as a female artist than I do as a queer artist." It's not enough to be talented; female musicians are also expected to be sexy. And if you're a savvy sartorialist like Stelmanis, the fashion magazines come knocking. "Musician as model" is a concept she struggles with.
"That's something I'm still trying to figure out," she says. "There's so much pressure to do those fashion shoots and present yourself in a certain way. You feel like you have to do them. But I'm starting to realize that actually, no I don't have to and I do have the power to say no. (Doing fashion shoots) is just not who I am. But it's so easy to slip into as a woman. And that's the thing; I love fashion. But I also think that, being a woman in the music industry, so much of your career is weighted on physical appearance, which is frustrating."
Still, Stelmanis is in the driver's seat -- of her career and her music. Olympia is proof.
"I used to get frustrated when something wouldn't sound how I wanted it to, and I didn't know why," she says. "Now, having more lived experience in the studio, this is the first record that sounds how I wanted it to sound."