The project of Canadian singer/songwriter, producer, and composer Katie Stelmanis, Austra combines her classical training and passion for electronic music into imaginative, emotive art-pop. Stelmanis' operatic vocals and the conceptual nature of her songwriting have helped her music evolve over the years. On the shadowy grooves of 2011's Feel It Break, Austra seemed to be a purveyor of dark electro-pop along the lines of Fever Ray, but 2014's confessional Olympia proved there was a lighter, softer side to Stelmanis' music. From there, the eerily prescient dystopian musings of 2017's Future Politics and the daring sounds and liberated mood of 2020's Hirudin revealed Austra's increasingly inventive ways of combining ambition and emotion. A classically trained vocalist and pianist who joined the Canadian Children's Opera at age ten, Stelmanis intended to pursue a career in classical music before falling in love with punk, industrial, and electronic music. In the mid-2000s, she played in the Toronto band Galaxy with drummer Maya Postepski and worked on her own electronic compositions, including music for performance artist Zeesy Powers. Thanks to Powers' encouragement to make music on her own, Stelmanis released her 2008 solo debut, Join Us, on the Blocks Recording Club label. After adding Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf (a former member of Spiral Beach), Stelmanis renamed her project. As Private Life, the group played the 2010 South by Southwest Festival and caught the attention of Domino Records, with whom Stelmanis signed a deal. When she learned of another band called Private Life, Stelmanis renamed the project again. This time, she settled on Austra, her middle name as well as the name of the Latvian goddess of light. Austra's debut single, Beat and the Pulse, arrived in early 2011, and their full-length debut, Feel It Break (most of which was recorded in Stelmanis' home studio and mixed by Damian Taylor), arrived that May. The album's dark, propulsive sound won critical acclaim that included a place on the 2011 Polaris Music Prize shortlist and a nomination for Best Electronic Album at the 2012 Juno Awards. Feel It Break also fared well commercially, reaching number 22 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Austra spent the better part of two years touring in support of Feel It Break. During that time, the remix EP Sparkle appeared, while Stelmanis began writing Austra's second album. Opting for a more collaborative musical approach and an organic sound inspired by early house music and Portishead's Third, Stelmanis and company -- which at this point included keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak and backing vocalists Romy and Sari Lightman -- recorded the album at Michigan's Key Club studio, and tracked vocals in Montreal with Taylor. Released in June 2013, Olympia charted in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S., where it hit number nine on Billboard's Heatseekers chart and number 14 on the Top Dance/Electronic albums chart. It was also a longlisted nominee for 2014's Polaris Music Prize. Austra returned in January 2017 with Future Politics, an album informed by Stelmanis' time in Montreal and Mexico City, her studies of philosophy and economics, and European club culture and electro-Cumbia. Recorded with the core lineup of Stelmanis, Postepski, and Wolf, the album was Austra's highest charting to date, reaching number 29 on the U.K. Independent Albums chart and number seven on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. For Austra's fourth album, Stelmanis took a different tack and worked with an entirely new set of collaborators. These included co-producers Rodaidh McDonald and Joseph Shabason, classical improv group c_RL, and the cellist and kamanche duo Kamancello. Named after the powerful anticoagulant secreted by leeches, Hirudin -- a reflective yet danceable exploration of toxic relationships -- appeared in May 2020.
© Heather Phares /TiVo
© Heather Phares /TiVo
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Electronic - Released June 17, 2013 | Domino Recording Co
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During the lengthy Feel It Break tour, Austra expanded from a trio to a six-piece, which allowed for more interplay among the band. This expansiveness helps Katie Stelmanis and crew find more creative and nuanced ways to explore the contrast between their chilly synth-pop and her huge, passionate voice on Olympia. Though the album's much fuller, smoother sound might be the first things listeners notice, Stelmanis' more personal lyrics are a close second; both shine on the single "Home," where she cries "you know that it hurts me when you don't come home at night" over pianos that switch from flowing balladry to rhythmic pop stabs. It's as though having a bigger crew around her allowed Stelmanis to dig deeper into her feelings than she did on Feel It Break. While she'd sound compelling singing almost anything, the tremulousness of her voice, coupled with Olympia's direct pleas and accusations, give Austra a new level of emotional impact. Stelmanis revealed that she listened to early Cat Power while writing these songs, and there's a similar heart-on-sleeve quality to her singing and words; it doesn't get much more naked than song titles like "You Changed My Life" and "Hurt Me Now," and her voice stretches up heartrendingly on "What We Done?" and "Reconcile." As Stelmanis gets more vulnerable and approachable, the rest of Austra becomes more refined and elaborate on Olympia. It's arguably a more sonically beautiful album than the the band's debut, with more organic elements mixed into their dramatic electro-pop, either blending like the marimbas on "Fire" or creating bold juxtapositions like the strings and dubstep-like bass on "Forgive Me." There aren't as many obvious singles like "The Beat and the Pulse" and "Lose It" here, though standouts like "Painful Like" and "Annie (Oh Muse, You)" are among the most danceable tracks here. Instead, Austra opts for a more balanced and poised version of the sound they set forth on Feel It Break; even though that album's rough edges and raw nerves were a large part of what made it so potent, Olympia feels like the beginning of a more sustainable, and versatile, direction for the band. © Heather Phares /TiVo