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Toronto trio Austra offer otherworldly sounds

Singer Katie Stelmanis and her ethereal electronica visit Prague

Posted: September 7, 2011

By Andrew Fenwick - Staff Writer | Comments (1) | Post comment

Toronto trio Austra offer otherworldly sounds

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Stelmanis, front, wants "to create a physical reaction in the listener."

Ever since Florence and the Machine planted their flag into the limp corpse of the alternative music scene, über-lunged songstresses with a penchant for channeling the vagaries of life into quasi-mystical tales of redemption seem to be all the rage. On initial inspection, Toronto trio Austra seems to fit the same mould.

Helmed by talismanic frontwoman Katie Stelmanis, the group is simultaneously celebratory and melancholic, with their gothic-tinged electronica oozing a certain theatrical intensity. Dig deeper, however, and you discover that the band actually practices what they preach.

"I want our music to reach out and create a physical reaction in the listener," Stelmanis tells The Prague Post. "I want people to be able to dance and completely lose themselves in the noise that we're making."

Mixing classical and alternative influences to create an experimental sound pitched somewhere between Bauhaus and Bat for Lashes, the foundations of Austra can be traced back to Stelmanis joining the Canadian Opera Company at the grand old age of 10. It was there that she learned to "make sounds with my mouth that I never thought were physically possible," perfecting the rough-edged neo-operatic style that would come to define the band.

When: Sept. 10 at 8:30
Where: MeetFactory
Tickets: 290 Kč, available through Ticketpro

Although offered a chance to study in Montreal, a week before the start of college, the singer decided she'd be better off forging her own path through the musical wilderness.

"I was obsessed with the music scene in Toronto at the time," Stelmanis says. "I decided that I'd rather stick around and try and become a part of it. I wanted to make a record that was really fucked up."

Produced by long-time Björk collaborator Damian Taylor, Austra's debut album, Feel It Break, is certainly that, serving up a densely layered collection of songs obsessed with dark forces and twilight rituals. Although overly austere in places, for the most part it's a work of shimmering abandon, bolstered by the irrepressible bass lines of Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski's codified beats.

Offering the kind of groove-driven, incantatious sound best experienced with a pile of uppers and a bottle of bourbon, opener "Darken Her Horse" is an otherworldly statement of intent with its organ-driven melody and angelic vocals, while album highlights "Hate Crime" and "The Choke" are heavier affairs that find abrasive synths recalling the sleazier side of British New Wave.

If there's a consistent theme in the record, it's that of sexual identity, and - more specifically - how it is interpreted. Stelmanis herself is openly gay, but it's clear she still has a hard time expressing herself.

"I'm a relatively naive Canadian," she says. "We talk about sex and relationships casually, yet whenever I'm in North America, for example, I feel a lot more repressed."

It's not just her personal life that's been affected, however. The promo video to Austra's latest single, "Beat and the Pulse," was recently censored by YouTube within hours of being uploaded.

"I wasn't very surprised when they took it down," Stelmanis says. "I think it shows where the power lies and just how reserved some people are. There's so much horrible stuff on the Internet, yet they ban a bit of artistic nudity. It seems odd to me."

Despite this, Stelmanis has remained fiercely creative, embarking on six self-funded tours in the past three years - including one with CocoRosie - while trying to make ends meet in a musical landscape that's yet to latch onto her band's ethereal electronica.

"I've always been independently minded," she says. "I was watching bands in Toronto that reached some level of success, and they were booking their own tours, so I just thought, 'Why can't I do something like this?' "

So far, Stelmanis's DIY tendencies have paid off for Austra.

"We've gone about things in a bit of an unconventional way, but most of the shows have been amazing," she says. "Getting people to dance is the goal; if I can emotionally stimulate the mind and the body through music, I'll feel like I've accomplished something."

Andrew Fenwick can be reached at

Tags: austra, meetfactory, Katie Stelmanis.

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