Katie Stelmanis comes by her flair for the dramatic honestly. As a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, she learned how to sing using the musical equivalent of a maelstrom (see: Puccini). Now in her 20s, the Torontonian has put her soaring voice and over-the-top tendencies to good use in Austra, the stylish synth-pop band that has peddled icy coolness since 2009.
Austra is often described as a goth band, and while the songs on Feel It Break, their lauded 2011 debut album, explored the shadowy corners of the human psyche, Stelmanis is a decidedly upbeat character-more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Twilight. In the past, she says, she cultivated an air of mystery onstage and in her songs-“I’d hide behind my hair!”-in part because she was terrified of the audience.
Over the past several years, Stelmanis and her bandmates have grown more comfortable as they’ve moved from modest club gigs to full-on spectacles, opening for electro-soul stars Gossip in stadiums across Europe. Their shows have shifted from sombre to celebratory, their music evolving in kind. “We were playing to people who wanted to dance,” says Stelmanis, “but we didn’t have any dance songs, so we started tailoring the music to the party crowd.”
The result is Olympia, Austra’s bracing new disc, which adds shades of Roxy Music, the Talking Heads and even Rihanna to the sextet’s core sound. That sonic shift is matched by a new-found openness. In the past, Stelmanis made a point of not writing personal lyrics, but now her songs orbit around a trio of distinct themes: betrayal, loss and tentative reconciliation. Though her subject matter may not be that far from the Sturm und Drang of Puccini, Stelmanis offers glimpses of a soft underbelly on nearly every track. It’s a counterintuitive impulse for an artist raised on opera and artifice, and it feels like a bold step forward. “Performing these songs has been cathartic,” she says. “For me, being honest and real was the most revolutionary thing I have ever done.”
Olympia comes out June 18.
(Photo: 2013 Paper Bag Records)