By Jeff McAllister
The Polaris Prize holds more integrity than any other music award in Canada. Like the guiding star from which it takes its name, the annual award is the final destination—the ultimate end-goal for any Canadian musician. Such was the case for Toronto-based goth-dance group Austra. According to frontwoman Katie Stelmanis, the possibility of the award persisted in the back of her mind throughout the four-year process of writing, label shopping and recording Feel it Break. Lofty goals for a band’s first international release, yet, based on the endless buzz following the album’s May release on Domino Records, it’s safe to say that the ambition has paid off.
I caught up with the band as they crossed the California border, Costa Mesa the next stop in a string of sold out shows on the horizon. We spoke about the success of Feel it Break, the band’s seemingly endless tour schedule and the nature of the chase . . .
Do you have any theories on what made this such a big year for Austra?
I think the biggest thing for us is that we put out our first release on an international indie label. Previously, we’d never put out a release outside of Canada. We’ve done a lot of touring but it’s been very, very DIY. Just having support from a label that has a presence in so many places in the world increases your level of exposure. People would check us out because people are interested in Domino Records. That turned us into this band that people wanted to listen to.
How do you feel about the reception to Feel it Break?
I haven’t read any reviews that I’ve totally hated or felt were completely outlandish. We’ve had a lot of really positive reviews, but we’ve definitely had critical reviews as well—particularly around the sounds we were using and the general quality of the record. I don’t like to listen to reviews, but I definitely agree that there are things on the album that I would change. I think it’s a great record, but I think there will be some improvement we’ll make on the second one.
I’ve found there are substantial differences in the way reviewers describe the mood of the album. Some are hung up on the darker stuff; others describe it as very dancey. Was there a certain mood you were trying to evoke?
Not really. The music I’ve always written has been pretty dark. Or, more so, dramatic. I always write in minor keys. I’m not into major keys. I’m not into happy music. I’ve always listened to and loved that kind of music. I guess it kind of happens naturally.
Stelmanis grew up in Toronto where she was classically trained in piano and opera. It’s the melodramatic thrust of the latter to which she attributes her obsession with tragedy, the force that’s governed her music her entire life—since age 10, her sole life goal has been to perform.
Although Stelmanis’s work with Austra is her most accessible to date—her intention from the get-go was to produce an album that would translate as well through headphones as it does on a dance floor—she’s not afraid to admit that there’s still a lot to learn.
Aside from the obvious differences in delivery, how does a DJ set differ from a live one?
One thing about being a DJ is that you get to play certain songs you love and watch other people get equally excited about them. There’s this communal experience of listening to songs together and experiencing them together.
Has composing DJ sets changed your perspective on songwriting?
I haven’t written a song lately, but I think it will. DJ-ing is interesting because you become really aware of what people are listening for—what gets people excited and what people like to hear when they’re in the dance environment. I think it’s nice to pick up on those things and then bring them into your own music because it makes things more effective. Listening to music in your bedroom is so different from listening to it at a live show.
Speaking of your live show, when you were in Victoria this summer, you played two versions of ‘Lose It’—one during the main set and one during the encore.
What happened is we play to a backing computer track and we forgot to plug in our computer so it cut out midway through ‘Lose It.’ We ended up playing an acoustic version while one of my band members went backstage to recharge and restart the computer. I just felt that if you were coming to see an Austra show, ‘Lose It’ is kind of a bad one for us to do a completely different version of.
What’s your favourite Austra song?
It changes. Playing live, my favourite one is ‘The Beat and The Pulse’ [despite being the first single off the album, Stelmanis claims it was the last song to make the cut]. I feel that it fits really well with our band right now and it translates well [to the stage]. The audience gets excited and we get excited.
Proof that hard work pays off, on June 16—a month after the album’s release—Feel it Break was named to the Polaris Prize long list. I was subsequently shortlisted on July 6. Although the award eventually went to Arcade Fire, Stelmanis was thrilled to find her album among the top 10 Canadian releases.
After all that work, did the shortlist come as a surprise? Or once the album was done, did you feel that Feel it Break it could really turn heads?
I felt that we were going to be on the long list at least. The short list is kind of a surprise, but it felt natural. We worked really, really hard, and it felt like we had worked our way onto the list through years of writing and touring.
Jeff McAllister is a regular contributor to Renegade Radio. For more McAllister, check out: www.wearemosaic.ca