Austra: Beat and the pulse

By Dan Trevarthen

There’s a lot of darkness in Austra’s music, but it’s somehow fitting that the group shares a name with a Latvian goddess of light. While their debut record Feel It Break is a minor key affair, the siren voice of frontwoman Katie Stelmanis is pretty near mythical.

'I can't really write music in a major key - happy music just doesn't really work for me' - Katie Stelmanis. Photo / Supplied
'I can't really write music in a major key - happy music just doesn't really work for me' - Katie Stelmanis. Photo / Supplied

Before finding indie rock acclaim with Austra, Katie Stelmanis had a childhood start in choir and opera. Although she's adapted her style, her training still shines through.

"I started singing in choirs and I've been performing since I was 10 years old, so I've been singing pretty consistently since that age," the Canadian vocalist says. "I did choir, then I studied opera privately for my later teenage years, and I guess that kind of influenced the way I sing now a lot."

Her voice is the first thing you notice, soaring wraith-like over bubbling synthesiser lines. Sounding something like a more conventional Björk singing along to B-sides from The Knife, there's a gothic, stately quality to Austra's music. While Stelmanis' voice has retained a lot of its cultured nature, to get to this point she had to stir in some other ingredients. Discovering punk at age 18, she initially rebelled against her roots with current Austra drummer Maya Postepski in the Riot Grrrl-influenced act Galaxy.

"It took a long time to find a voice that wasn't an opera singing voice for me. I think that Galaxy was a really good transition because it was the complete opposite of what I was doing, and it forced me to learn how to sing in a different way that wasn't opera. I think that through just playing shows, I eventually developed a style that was my own."

Then there was the matter of learning new instruments. Initially she set herself up with a computer and MIDI controller to write orchestral music. Soon she started learning different set of instruments, a steep learning curve for someone from her background.

"I wanted to be able to trigger violins and pianos, but eventually got more into the synthetic instruments, and started using drums and bass instead of violins and cellos and stuff like that. At the time when I was making MIDI music I wasn't listening to any electronic music at all, so I didn't really have any influences. I think that's why it took me a long time to learn how to use bass and drums. I was using a lot of synthesisers, but it didn't have much bottom-end. My biggest influences at that time though were Nine Inch Nails - I loved that harsh distorted industrial stuff - and Björk was a big influence."

Discovered at South by Southwest in 2010 when Domino Records "accidentally" saw them play, they found themselves signed four months later, enjoying the fruits of some label muscle.

"I think it helps so much to put out a record and have a push from a label like Domino. It was crazy - we'd play shows in January, February, March, and some of the shows we played were to 50 people, and then we put the record out and suddenly we were selling out 600-seat arenas."

And while things are looking bright for her band, Austra's songs will continue to walk in the shadows for now.

"I pretty much only write in minor keys. Not even just minor keys; I just never write in major keys, I don't know why. I can't really write music in a major key - happy music just doesn't really work for me. I guess it's just the music that I always listened to. I listened to a lot of Puccini and a lot of Debussy, and all of his music was in weird key signatures and he has really weird chords. I'm much more interested in that than writing basic B-major happy music."

*Austra play St Jerome's Laneway Festival on Monday 30 January at Silo Park, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland with Anna Calvi, Feist, The Horrors, Gotye, Laura Marling, Pajama Club, SBTRKT Live, Shayne P. Carter, Washed Out, Twin Shadow, M83, Cults, Girls, EMA, Yuck, Toro Y Moi, Wu Lyf, Glasser, Opossom, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Austra, Transistors and more.

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