On the road promoting Austra’s second album Olympia, singer Katie Stelmanis is glad to return to the country that gave her ‘summer camp with bands’. “The Laneway Festival was a fun show,” she says of her 2012 visit. “There aren’t any festivals in the world like it, except in Australia. Usually you’re just in and out of a place really quickly so it was very cool to travel with other bands and make friends.”
That world tour saw Stelmanis begin the partly collaborative process of writing Olympia. “I don’t actually work that well with other people,” she laughs. “When it comes to actually coming up with ideas, I come up with them myself then I work with other people to shape them.”
While still putting her distinctive, operatic voice front and centre, Stelmanis is currently inspired by the unprocessed and raw sounds of 1980s house music. Putting her band through a bold reimagining of the sounds of that era, her sonic ideas dictate the album’s pallet. “I had just begun to get into dance music at that time and I was influenced by a lot of producers from the UK. I was really inspired by that sound; before they had the quantise button and a lot of it was performed live on drum machines, which doesn’t happen so much anymore. It’s so easy to sound perfect and perfect isn’t interesting. Electronic music is so easy and accessible, we have to find ways to factor in the human aspect.” Stelmanis and fellow member Maya Postepski both have classical training, a background that she believes hinders as much as it helps.
“So many innovative musicians have no background in music at all,” she continues freely. “I recall seeing a talk by Brian Eno where he said that the best musicians are often the ones out of art school who see music conceptually rather than a technical thing. They’re trying to find ways to do something different, seeing music as an art, and so many people with classical training get stuck in their habits and unlearning those was a very important process for me.”
Having earned critical praise and a sizable international fanbase with their first album Feel It Break, the band had their choice of potential collaborators with whom to explore this sound. “For me, it was just about the vocals. I was obsessed with getting a particular vocal sound,” Stelmanis explains. “With Olympia, we mixed with Tom Elmhirst [Adele and Amy Winehouse], which was a…contradiction with what we were going for,” she laughs. “I wanted my voice to sound like Adele’s. On previous recordings, it sounded strangled; he mixes the biggest female voices and they all sound amazing. I led that Idea,” she reflects thoughtfully. “I don’t know if Maya would have chosen him, but for me it was all about my voice.”
Translating this live has presented a series of challenges that Stelmanis has countered with imaginative programming and instrumentation, and a smaller band. “We tour so much that we constantly find new ways of playing live. It’s a weird process. Most times with bands you’ll write lots of songs in the studio then you’ll start to play them live and you think ‘oh man I wish I had a chance to put it down on record’,” she laughs. “That’s true for us.”