Austra frontwoman Katie Stelmanis ditched a childhood of classical music training and opera choir singing to become first a solo artist and then the leader of the three-piece Austra (her middle name).
Austra released its official debut, the new wave/goth/pop "Feel It Break," earlier this year. On the eve of the group's first North American headlining tour, which comes to Rock & Roll Hotel Thursday night, Stelmanis got on the phone from her hometown of Toronto to give us the rundown on the new disc, and her new(ish) life.
This is your first big North American headlining tour. What's it feel like?
I feel really excited. I thought because we've done so much touring this year that I'd be exhausted. But we're going to some really fun, exciting cities, so all of us are pretty excited to get back on the road.
When you started out, did you imagine that you'd get to this point?
I guess it's hard to say, because I technically feel like I started a really long time ago. When I first started writing songs and being in bands, I guess I thought that I would be propelled to stardom instantly. I think over the years all of us became very realistic, and this year it feels like the gradual progression that we're supposed to be making.
In retrospect, aren’t you glad that it happened this way?
Oh, yeah. I'm so happy. I'm so surprised by bands that are 19, 20 years old that do become instantly successful. It'd be so terrifying in a way. We've played shows for 4 people, 15 people, 20 people, so that now, even when there's 150 people in the room it feels like we've sold out Wembley stadium.
You started out as a classical [artist]. Do you see a straight line between what you did then and what you're doing now?
Not entirely. I think that I did so much classical music when I was a kid, being in choirs and piano lessons, I learned to have a high degree of discipline. Everyone in my band, we're all very diligent and take it really seriously, and a lot of it comes from the way we practiced it when we were kids. We have a rehearsal space in Toronto that we rent from this large rehearsal factory, and at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., that place is a ghost town [except for us]. There's always wine bottles at our rehearsal space, but that's not the way we practice….There's definitely, definitely drinking in the band, just not at our 9 a.m. practices.
Some of the new songs on this album you've been working on for four years.
I actually have. Some of these songs, "The Villian" for example, I wrote before my first solo record came out in 2007, 2008. We've changed it a lot. There's a lot of songs that we've just had in our repertoire but they haven't gotten a proper release. So even though it sounds weird, to release something that's so old, I really wanted to get the songs out there because nobody had really heard them yet.
You must be dying to do a new album.
Yeah, kind of. It's gonna be interesting because this record, I was writing music for four years, there was a huge body of material, and I know for the next record, in between the touring schedule it'll be like, "Write a record in two months." But I'm excited about it.
You're getting a lot of comparisons to the Knife. Do you hear that at all?
Yeah, I definitely hear it. The Knife was always a big influence for us. I think that we use similar instrumentation…She's one of the most famous women making electronic music, and people don't have a lot [else] to compare us to.…For me the Knife was the first electronic band I listened to, and in my opinion it's kind of like a bridging band for a lot of the indie kids, [even if they] were only into guitar bands, they would always have Knife records. They would be the bridge between indie rock and the electronic dance world.
You push the envelope in terms of sexuality a lot more than they do. Even your press release says you explore the "sleazier" side of new wave. Do you ever get pressured to [tone it down], to be a nice girl who behaves?
I don't know if there's pressure, but I think for us we kind of want the listening experience, especially the live show experience, we just want it to be a really physical and sensual experience….It's not like overtly sexual, we don’t wear bikinis onstage, it's just about being really open with your sensuality and comfortable with it…Typically in the indie rock world, it's such an asexual community, there's not a lot of room for exploration…I think we bring a strong sense of sexuality to indie rock. And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.