Katie Stelmanis of Austra Is Paving Her Own Political Path in Music

Katie Stelmanis of Austra Is Paving Her Own Political Path in Music

The Austra leader talks about the pulsating music of 'Future Politics' and her unique tactics to approaching politics.

The Austra leader talks about the pulsating music of 'Future Politics' and her unique tactics to approaching politics.

Text: Jake Viswanath

When Katie Stelmanis, lead singer, songwriter, and producer of Austra, released her album Future Politics on Inauguration Day, many thought of it as a political statement against Trump especially considering its title. The truth about that decision? “That was a total accident,” Stelmanis said. “The release date was set in August, way before he became the president. Nobody thought of it. Everybody at my label was like, ‘Wow! We're the smartest marketing team ever!’”

In any case, it was seen as a triumph for the electronic band. Future Politics, their third studio album, hears Stelmanis and company get political, but not in the vein one would think in the face of Trump. Rather than expand on the immense doom and gloom we’re all currently experiencing, the album explores themes of utopia and approaches both universal and under-explored topics from an optimistic state of mind. The pensive synths and pulsing beats that permeate the record give it a sense of urgency, fitting considering the topics at hand, but Stelmanis’s wondrous voice makes the whole affair retain a sense of calm and balance, allowing the listener to truly grasp the messages of the album.

The inspirations for the album came to the vocalist during a long break—something we could all use right now—after touring the band’s previous record Olympia. “After going off tour, I was just trying to focus my energies on a lot of things that I had let go to the wayside for a long time, and that including reading a lot and learning languages, and trying to exercise my brain in new ways,” she explained.

It was precisely her rediscovered love of reading that led her to write songs once again, with neoliberal themes that form the backbone of Future Politics. The title track, a catchy commentary on the capitalist stronghold on society, was inspired by the Acceleration Manifesto written by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek. “They think that if technology is allowed to progress without any hindrance, then eventually it will free us from the constraints of capitalism,” she said. “I really liked that whole concept.” Another bewildering track, “Gaia,” was fueled by New Pantheism, a little-known religion who worships the Earth as a miraculous physical being. “The lyrics ‘the physical world is the only world’ goes along with that,” she explains. “I think that a lot of religious people use this concept of heaven or hell to justify destroying the planet Earth, and so the song is just about worshipping the physical world and acknowledging the miraculousness of the physical world itself.”

The album also takes on a political stance outside of its lyrical themes, as every single production, mixing, and engineering credit on the record is attributed to a woman, a decision that was both natural and decidedly feminist. “Near to the completion of the album, I had this realization that I had made an album with entirely women,” Katie said. “And we had another opportunity to mix some of the tracks with somebody else [a man], and then I decided I didn't want to do it just because I just felt that person would get a lot of credit, and I just wanted to be true to the actual journey that went into the making of this album. And I thought it would just be bad-ass to say that it was all women in the production credits because I can't think of another album that has that.”

Despite its societal nature, Future Politics has moments where Katie looks inward rather than commenting on what surrounds her. The haunting “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” captures the all-too-common experience of loving someone with depression and not being able to heal them. “I'm sure that many of us have done that before,” she acknowledges. “It’s just a very difficult place to be because it's really hard to communicate that love and to make that person feel any sort of love.”

Making people feel loved and comfortable is also the primary mission at Austra’s live shows, a destination for curious liberal minds who feel jolted by recent events. “What I've always wanted to achieve through the environment that we create on stage is that we always want it to feel very inclusive and welcoming, and that's part of the reason why I've always been vocal about being queer because I just want people to know that it's a safe space,” she explains. “I wrote these emotional songs about shitty things that were happening in the world, and now people are identifying with that more than they're really done before. It's nice to have this feeling at our shows that people are healing.”

The band’s healing shows are a form of utopia in a sense, forming a community that accepts and comforts in spite of the hatred that surrounds them, culminating in the only real-life results of the themes explored on Future Politics. But despite the discouraging days ahead of us, Katie sees the concept of utopia as a reality, albeit a very distant one.

"I just think there needs to be more talk on what we want the future to look like rather than just resisting what we don't want it to look like … I think that has the power to really influence change,” she explains. She compares her optimistic hopes to the hippie movement of the '60s and '70s, when they fought for the freedom of love and liberation from constrictive family values. “That concept of freedom was totally co-opted to actually define America in a very mainstream way,” she explains. “I just think that these smaller movements are quite visionary in what they want the future to look like, and what they want to be happening, are actually a lot more influential than people think they are.”

But these beliefs that change is necessary doesn't mean that what we're currently doing isn't effective in its own right. "I think that protests are super important, but it's important to keep them really focused and specific on what you want. I also think that it's just one piece of the puzzle."

The next step for Katie and Austra, aside from putting on as many cathartic and healing shows as they can this year, is to take on the exact opposite creative process that dictated Future Politics: actually collaborating with people. “This record was done primarily by myself. I worked with a mixing engineer who happened to be my girlfriend at the time, so it was a very closed working experience,” she explains. “I feel very ready to collaborate again, and I think on the next project, I want to collaborate with as many people as possible.” The results of those collaborations could be anything, and that’s just fine with Katie. “I can't imagine conceptualizing anything ever again,” she says with a nervous laugh. “But I know I will. I can't imagine where I will go after this.”

Credits: Photos: Renata Raksha

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