On Her Band’s New Album, Austra’s Katie Stelmanis Is Fighting For The Future
After this year’s vicious election, it’s hard to have a positive outlook on the future of our politics (among other things). But for Katie Stelmanis, the creative force behind Canadian synth-pop band Austra, imagining a better tomorrow is the only way to deal. The group’s third full-length album, Future Politics, draws on themes of love and resistance in a post-truth world, an impressionistic how-to guide for surviving Trump’s America. It’s as catchy as it is affecting, driven by Stelmanis’ crystalline vocals and intricate synth work. We caught up with her to discuss the power of sci-fi, combating repressive governments, and what her own brand of future politics is.
The first single off of the album is called “Utopia,” and you posted a picture of Thomas More’s philosophical tract Utopia as well. What attracted you to that phrase and concept?
I’ve been reading a lot about the future in many different forms—in an economic, post-capitalism form. I’ve been reading a lot of sci-fi, and I guess I was attracted to this idea of the future because I feel like it is something that has kind of lost its relevance in some ways. Like in the ‘60s and ’70s, the idea of the future was this huge concept that everyone wanted to imagine what it would be like, and that kind of sentiment about it doesn’t really exist so much anymore. I would very much like to bring it back. I think what is really interesting about those kinds of books, like ones by Octavia Butler, is there’s an ambiguity about the future. There’s positives but also severe negatives. I definitely don’t think there’s such a thing as an actual, 100 percent utopia in any form. I think that I just like the concept of utopia, as kind of being this goal that you’ll maybe never reach, but as you get closer to it, you kind of get better.
When you announced the album, you said that "each person’s fantasy of the future is valid and possible and one should never feel like their imaginations can’t become the truth." How would you characterize your personal vision of the future?
I could probably talk about lots of weird little things that I think would be cool, but to generalize it, the ideal future for me is essentially a world free of depression and a world based on sustainability rather than growth. I think that should be the constant goal. I just think that the limitations of technology are stunted right now because it’s all based on who can make money the fastest as opposed to thinking up these crazy, grand ideas that benefit everybody.
When you were writing the album, how did that inform your songwriting process?
The album for me was definitely a process, and it was a process to even get to this concept of the future at all. I think it began in a darker place of coming off of years of touring, living in Montreal, being alone a lot of the time, and feeling this deep loneliness. I think that many of us are dealing with this collective sadness. The Great Barrier Reef might be dead in 20 years. These kinds of things are so terrifying that nobody knows how to deal with them, and I think that people become very personally affected by it. So we kind of started from that place, from a feeling of sadness and a feeling of true hopelessness, really. I guess I was able to pull myself out of it because I started reading a lot and trying essentially to find a way out. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel through this concept of imagining a future.
The album comes out at a time when our actual future politics seem so bleak.
I definitely think it is a crazy coincidence that it is literally coming out the day Donald Trump goes into power. I wasn’t anticipating any of this when I was writing it, but I think I did recognize that the world, in general, is pretty fucked. Although it was shocking, I’m not actually that surprised that it happened because part of what I had read about is that there hasn’t been, for a long time, an alternative plan presented to us in our lifetime. I just think that we’re so desperate for a new way of living, and, unfortunately, Donald Trump harnessed that desperation before anyone else got the chance. It’s not to say that nobody else could do it.
I noticed on your Facebook that you posted a photo from Moscow talking about LGBT rights. Do you feel it’s important to tour in countries where those liberties are restricted as a way of bringing about awareness?
Yeah, for sure. That kind of was the situation in Moscow. It is definitely dangerous to be explicitly gay in the street. When we announced a show there, a lot of people on the internet were giving us shade about it. They were like, “Why are you going to Moscow? You shouldn’t be playing there because of the gay rights stuff.” But I’m like, "That, to me, is the perfect reason to play there." Sure enough, it was one of the most fun shows we ever played because people are desperate for some kind of release or some kind of safe space. That’s something I’ve been trying to do with Austra since the very beginning. There’s a reason why I’ve always been like, “Hey, we’re queer,” because that is some indication that queers can come out and feel welcome and included.
If you could do anything around this album, like making an art installation, doing a rally, having the weirdest show, what would your dream representation of Future Politics be?
I’m actually in the process of working on this production with some of my friends in Canada that we’re getting a grant for. We’re basically taking the themes of future politics and turning it into a performance that combines live music, dance, and an art installation. We’re going to tour it across Canada if we get the grant. I guess I’ve been into the idea of having a participatory performance or rave or something like that, where the spectators are dancing as well as watching a performance, which I guess just sounds like a normal rock show, but I just see it being more integrated and feeling more participatory in some way. Maybe by not doing it in a regular venue with a stage, but it could be like everyone is on the same level or something. I just like people to feel unified and engaged.