In her latest songs, it shows more than ever that Katie Stelmanis is both romantic and pragmatic. You can hear it in every track of Olympia, which is as baroque and fantastical as ever in its musical composition, completely unconstrained by genre boundaries – yet disarmingly direct in both its infectious hooks and its lyrics which deal with the minutiae of friendship, love and everyday life with all the seriousness they deserve. Full of questions and advice directed boldly at her real-life friends, it's a reminder to us all that the people around us are as important as any high-falutin principles or fantastical visions. The ordinary is romantic.
None of this is contrived, though – though this album is her most collaborative to date, its sounds and themes are just a natural expression of who Katie is and how her experiences have affected her. Her whole life long she's pursued a very individual creative mission and followed her passions, which has led to her unique musical approach. From early childhood on, her interest was in classical music: without any pressure from her parents she threw herself into learning instruments, and even more so into opera and choral singing – she performed with the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus from the age of ten. “I never even went to a rock show until I was eighteen or nineteen,” she says “and I never had any interest in whatever pop culture was around. I was just focused on what I was doing.”
The closest, in fact, that she came to pop in her teens was an interest in the compositional rigour of Radiohead – but then came a rush of new influences. At seventeen her close friend and fellow classical musician Maya Postepski – now percussionist / programmer for Austra – would blast house and techno in the car, which Katie was fascinated by. When she did finally attend a rock show, she “realised what it was really about, how the volume and physical power worked with the performance”, but it was artists with an electronic edge that properly caught her attention, with Nine Inch Nails and Björk her firm favourites as she started to form her ideas of how her own music should sound.
Maya and Katie would join the band Galaxy together, then in 2009, together with bassist Dorian Wolf, they formed Austra. Initially conceived of as a solo project for Katie, Austra was, she says, “always a work in progress.” Their 2011 debut album Feel it Break was, literally, an experimental record: not in that it was difficult – it was warmly received and won critics' awards, particularly at home in Canada – but that “we had no idea how to realise the sounds I had in my head, so we were working out the processes all the way along.” No wonder, then, that despite the record's success, by the time the whole cycle of producing it, promoting it and touring was over, Katie felt ready to drop. “I had,” she says, “not exactly a breakdown, but this period of a few months where I was lost, I just had no idea what to do with myself.”
Where lesser musicians could have become self-indulgent or stuck in a rut at this point, Katie went the opposite way. Using all the discipline she had applied to classical music as a kid, she reviewed and renewed her working methods, learning from everything that had gone before – and Olympia is the result. It's the sound of a 27-year-old who has never stopped learning, and who is more open than ever to new ideas. “This record,” she says, “has more of Maya and Dorian in it than ever – the process of playing with them, especially with Maya just putting down riffs, has been absolutely vital to it. I'd never let people in before, but this time I was ready... A lot of the lyrics, as well, were written by our backing vocalist Sari [Lightman]. Sari helps me create ideas, add important lines, fill in the blanks – and lyrically this is the strongest thing we've ever done!”
There's the paradoxes again right there. By being brutally honest with herself, assessing her life and embracing others' strengths, Katie has created a more complete realisation of her own vision. Through hard work and pragmatism she's made a more emotionally powerful and complete record: whatever the process of writing, the direct pleas of “I hope you understand” in 'Reconcile' or “don't hurt me now” in the eponymous song are sung from Katie's heart to real people. That's not to say there aren't magical, impressionistic themes running through the record too: “we make fire, we are fire” ('Fire') is just as representative as “you know that it hurts me when you don't come home at night” ('Home'). But this is unquestionably an album about reality, and especially about that period that so many people reach in their late twenties when, as Katie puts it, “you start to think about what your friends are doing, and you realise who is just partying for the sake of partying and has lost touch with what's really important in their lives.”
Katie has certainly stayed in touch with what's important to her, not least musically. Throughout this album you can hear her classical songwriting sense of drama, and all the electronic groove that Maya first introduced to her back in their teens. In fact, she says of the album “it's a record played on acoustic instruments, but all we were listening to while we made it was dance music.” Whether it's the haunting downtempo songs like the miniature 'I Don't Care (I'm a Man)' and album opener 'What we Done?' or the addictive electropop of 'Painful Like' and 'We Become', you can hear that electronic pulse throughout. And this time Katie's ready for the crash that can come after the album cycle: “I just want to make dance music now!” she laughs. “I can make instrumental music where it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, that's my next outlet, and that's what I'm doing now the album's finished.” Still as focused as ever, still as methodical yet driven as the schoolgirl trying out new instruments that she once was, she's still navigating the spaces of what it means to be a musician in the 21st century with aplomb, mature good sense and – yes – that intense romanticism that has sustained her all along.