Katie Stelmanis was supposed to be an opera singer. Classically trained since she was a kid, she joined the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus and obsessively listened to Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Mozart's Magic Fantasy tapes on repeat. “They made these children stories out of operas and classical pieces—I used to be so in love with those tapes that I listened to them all the time,” she recalls.
“I really liked music when I was a kid, and classical music is just what you put your kid to if they like music, so I did piano lessons, and I did choir, and I was automatically thrown into the classical-music world.”
But while she loved singing opera, she says, when it came time to commit to the lifestyle, she knew something wasn't right. “I didn't feel very comfortable or at home in the opera world. I would have really had to take the next step up and move [to a different city]. I couldn't really identify with it and wanted to do my own thing, so I decided to take a break, and just never went back.
“It was a pretty transitional point in my life,” she says.
After buying a computer and a MIDI controller, she started making her own orchestral music with the intention of scoring movies and commercials. She experimented with classically informed electronica, triggering shitty samples—whatever came with the program built into her computer—and piling on the distortion to mask the cheap tools she was working with.
“I was writing weird, orchestral-based music that was all distorted,” she says, “and not very easy to listen to.”
Her turn to electronic music was, in some ways, a rejection of the discipline required for classical success. It was also a search for community.
“I definitely felt like I wasn't coming from a particular musical community that had other musicians that I really identified with in Toronto,” she says. “There wasn't anyone making electronic anything when my first record came out, and because of that, I didn't have anyone to learn from. It wasn't until I started touring that I started to get a bit of a wider sense of what electronic music was capable of.”
First, Stelmanis joined a riot grrl-indebted punk band called Galaxy; she learned about feminism and composition from her bandmate Emma McKenna. “It took me a while to realize how important it was to work with her and be exposed to a different way of making music,” she says. “I was always 'music first, everything else second,' and [McKenna] always has a message before the music.”
After leaving the band in 2008, she released her own debut album, Join Us, via the Blocks Recording Club collective and the single “Believe Me” on Loog/Vice; she also sang on Fucked Up's record The Chemistry of Common Life.
Now, Stelmanis makes Goth-tinged, big-beat-backed synth-pop as Austra—the goddess of light in Latvian mythology and Stelmanis' middle name—with Maya Postepski (from Galaxy) and Dorian Wolf, with twin backup singers Sari and Romy Lightman of Tasseomancy and Ryan Wosniak of Ze and the Boyfriends joining the band on tour.
Austra's debut album, Feel It Break for Domino, is not the fucked-up classical music she says first envisioned; it's beautiful, and it has the creeping, cinematic sound reminiscent of Witching Hour-era Ladytron nailed down, with Stelmanis' Kate Bush-like icy, high-pitched deadpan delivery taking center stage.
“It was a gradual process of finding the right place to sing from,” she says. “It may not have even been so much trying to figure out how to sing, but not singing opera. I kind of lost a lot of my training, which might've helped here.”
When Austra perform live, Stelmanis sings and sways as is if she's conjuring spells. Flanked by her backup singers, they synchronize harmonies with almost robotic precision, a full rhythm section adding extra weight to the sound. With smoke, glitter, outlandish costumes and heavy makeup, the whole production is spellbinding.
“I like the idea of adding theatrics to performance and music, and taking inspiration from supernatural things adds to that,” she says. “I'm intrigued by the element of fantasy and surrealism—it just makes everything more exciting.”
These days, she's happy with her decision to leave opera behind. “For the first four or five years after I stopped doing it, I thought a lot about it, and I often felt like I regretted it—I missed it for sure,” she says. “But I feel pretty good about it all now.”
This article appeared in print as “Electro Feel: After ditching her classical training, Austra's Katie Stelmanis raises her BPM on her electro-Goth debut.”