Austra’s Katie Stelmanis chats to DIVA about navigating the music industry as a queer woman
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGE BY VIRGINIE KHATEEB
Austra is the Canadian synth pop composer making what she calls “unpopular pop music,” but here at DIVA we can’t say we agree with the “unpopular” part.
Ever since rising to recognition in the early 2010s, along with other Canadian artists popularising chromatic synthpop like Crystal Castles and Diamond Rings, Austra has been anchored by Katie’s near-operatic voice and drawn in nearly half a million monthly listeners on Spotify.
On her latest album, HiRUDiN, she’s utilising her powerful vocals to sing about the importance of healing the self, letting go of harmful influences and finding the power to rebuild through your innermost desires.
Ahead her new release on 1 May, we caught up with Katie to find out what we can expect of album number four.
DIVA: When did you start to pursue music?
AUSTRA: I’ve been playing music my whole life, but I started doing music professionally, whereby it was my only job, when I was around 25 years old. I started a few different instruments at the age of 10. That’s when I started singing in choirs and taking piano lessons and playing viola. I went from playing nothing to playing a whole bunch of instruments.
Who has had an influence on your sound?
It’s difficult to just name one or two people, because I’ve been making music for so long that the influences are constantly changing. When I first started, I was really influenced by Nine Inch Nails. Throughout the period of making music I’ve gotten a lot more into dance music. Recently on this latest record, I was listening to a lot more jazz and a lot of 1960s piano music.
Can you tell us a little about the new album?
The album is called HiRUDiN. I wrote it over the past three years. It’s about toxic relationships and it’s the first record that I made collaboratively working with outside producers.
What’s the meaning behind the album title?
HiRUDiN is basically a peptide that leeches to creep into your body and sucks your blood. The theme of my record is toxic relationships, so I was thinking about what I could use to represent that visually or metaphorically, and I was really into the idea of leeches. They’re this parasitic animal that literally sucks your blood, but at the same time they’ve been used in healing practices for the past few thousand years. That dichotomy I found really interesting and to me and a good metaphor for toxic relationships. I think even though you could see them as being parasitic and taking something from you, they’re also a really important learning experience and they shed a lot of insight into your own self and your own insecurities.
Is there a situation or person who inspired the album?
It was actually a number of different situations. I wrote the record at a time when I had parted ways with a lot of different people in my life that I had been working with for quite a long time. I parted ways with some of my creative collaborators and with romantic partners. When I first set out to make this record, I really felt like I was completely alone in what I was doing, which is a scary territory to be in. But at the same time, making this record ended up being revitalising, because I had to fill that space with other people and new collaborations which ended up being really inspiring and rewarding.
Do you think the album will take on a new meaning under the current circumstances in the world?
I finished the record a year ago and it’s already changed. It felt like a narrative to me while I was writing it, where it was about being in a toxic relationship, getting out of it, and then coming alive again on the other side. Since the record came out, I’ve actually gone through another breakup that wasn’t a part of the record, and it made me realise that the record is not linear. Already the record, just on a personal level, has such a different meaning even for me. It’s interesting how songs can just keep changing.
What message do you want listeners to take away from your music?
Its message will probably change all the time, but I think, in this moment, the most important thing with this record is that I just want people to feel connected. People are constantly looking for connections and something to hold on to and something to give them hope. I just hope that this record is able to give people that.
What is the music industry like for a queer woman?
It’s interesting because in some ways queer women have never been more visible in music than they are now. It’s almost hard to find a musician that doesn’t identify on the queer spectrum in some way. But at the same time, all of the behind the scenes, upper management money positions are still just white men. That’s something that permeates the industry in a way that hasn’t changed yet. It’s disheartening that as a queer woman, you have to have these men supporting you. I personally feel like that’s not who I make music for.
Would you say you have a big queer fanbase?
I don’t feel like my music is that outwardly queer and I don’t even really look that queer. But for some reason, a huge portion of my fan base just happens to be queer. I’m so grateful for that, I just feel like the people that like the band, or like what I do, are in it for the long haul.
Why do you think the LGBTQI community connects to your music?
Firstly, when I first started, I wanted everybody to know that I’m gay because I wanted queer people to come to my show. In all press and interviews I just always wanted to talk about being gay. This was 10 years ago, and at the time, not a lot of people were comfortable doing that.
I feel like I somehow fit into this kind of diva category that gay men love. Even though I’m the anti-pop diva, I still have quite a big gay male following which is pretty fun.
The theme of the next issue of DIVA is visibility – what makes you feel visible as a queer woman?
I’ve always felt that I don’t necessarily look super queer, because I have long hair. I’ve only just started to realise this isn’t true. I spent a lot of my life having all this anxiety about not being pretty enough and not being feminine or glamorous enough. I’ve just recently started to embrace this real queerness that I do have. That’s been a new way of perceiving myself that has actually been really positive. I’m not like, “I’m not like a supermodel like these people are,” I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m a weird queer looking person and I’m okay with that”.
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