Depressed at the state of the world, Canadian vocalist and producer Katie Stelmanis dove into Naomi Klein, Star Trek, cyborgs and Latin American dance music to find inspiration for new album Future Politics. Fittingly, it’s due on the day Donald Trump becomes US president
IT’S A CHILLY December day in New York and the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art is full of future visions from the past century. There are combinations of the technological and the human that range from Oskar Schlemmer’s vibrant, simple Triadic Ballet to Bruce Conner’s horrifically beautiful Crossroads, which sets footage of a 1940s atomic explosion to a sumptuous Terry Riley composition.
Katie Stelmanis, the Canadian vocalist and producer who records as Austra, drinks in the exhibit’s floor-to-ceiling video projections and immersive exhibits; her third album, the stunning Future Politics, could very well have been included. A broadside against the technologically dictated future, one that finds strength in its belief in a better world, Future Politics combines Stelmanis’s voice, which balances strength and weightlessness as it skips through octaves, with thumping beats and lyrics that outline disconnection and the wish for something more.
“I started writing while I was living in Montreal,” Stelmanis says over lunch in the reclaimed biscuit factory now known as Chelsea Market. “I was by myself most of the time, and I had just gotten done with touring and I had this idea I wanted to live out of the centre and in a quiet neighbourhood, and I ended up isolating myself in this neighbourhood where everything closed at 7pm. And during the winter it was dark and freezing. It was very depressing.
“I was experiencing this collective depression at the same time, which I think that kind of a lot of us can relate to,” she continues. “You’re processing this information that you’re reading in the news, or reading about the environment — having really emotional responses to it. That infiltrated the songwriting, just as somebody would have an emotional response to breaking up with their girlfriend or whatever. I think it’s only valid to have these emotional responses to the tragedies of the world.”
As a sort of tonic against the cold and solitude, Stelmanis dove into scenarios of what could be — from Naomi Klein’s 2014 examination of climate change, This Changes Everything, to the “postwar, post-money, post-scarcity, perfect human civilisation” offered by Star Trek: The Next Generation. “At first I started reading all these writers who were writing about potential futures, and post-capitalism,” she says. “Then it evolved into eventually getting into sci-fi and futurist books, TV shows and movies. Just getting into sci-fi in general. It started academic, and went totally into the realm of cyborgs by the end. I remember finding The #ACCELERATE Manifesto, and reading it, and immediately writing the song ‘Future Politics’.”
That song juxtaposes defiant optimism against chilly synths, Stelmanis singing about leaving a world behind and “looking for something to rise up above”. Futuristic visions often revel in the dystopian and the dreary, but even at its most sonically reserved, Future Politics is shot through with hope and humanity, a gauntlet of crystalline electric pianos and infectious hooks.
While writing the album, Stelmanis decided to escape Montreal’s frozen landscape and relocate to Mexico City, which further energised her songwriting — she discovered electro cumbia, which combines the pan-Latin American dance music with electronics. “It’s just straight-up cumbia reproduced so it works in a club,” she says. “It’s really slow and really sexy. I didn’t copy the beats, but I got really into writing slower music.”
Future Politics is Austra’s first full-length album since 2013’s Olympia, and it reaches back to the chilly synths and grand sounds that marked the project’s 2011 debut Feel It Break, while also having more of a sonic openness to it. Stelmanis not only wrote all of Future Politics‘ songs, but produced and engineered the record as well. “This record has been a real learning process, and I think that’s why it took so long to make,” she says. “I’d been touring so long that I hadn’t spent a lot of time actually working on music — I had to remember how to do it again. I mixed the record with Alice [Wilder], my girlfriend at the time, who was also our live engineer. She had never mixed a record before, but I wanted her to do it, because she does a really good job mixing us live.”
The hands-on approach and live feel only add to Future Politics being suffused with romance — not just the hearts-and-flowers type of bodice-ripping novels, but the type of thinking that envisions the best of all possible worlds. ‘I Love You More Than You Love Yourself’ shines a light on its addressee’s soul, its reflected beauty indicated by sparkling synths. The visions of freedom outlined on ‘Freepower’ are rendered more enticing by the track’s claustrophobic beats. Beyond a Mortal brings to mind the gradual rousing of a cyborg, with disconnected synth and static blasts blossoming into a minimalist saunter over which Stelmanis murmurs in a gentle ecstasy. That’s followed by the brief instrumental Deep Thought, a digital harp solo that was originally called Computers Have Feelings Too.
Fusing the human with the digital animates Stelmanis’s visions of the future. In the video for ‘Utopia’, a solitary Stelmanis is drawn into the orbit of a smart home device, singing to it and eventually being subsumed by its light. (The device is emblazoned with the logo “Rainforest”, a winking nod to Amazon’s series of voice-activated Echo devices. “People were like: ‘You sold out! Product placement!’ It’s like … think a little harder,” she says.)
“It’s so boring, the way all these technological advancements are used specifically to bring capitalism,” Stelmanis says. “Can you imagine if they were put toward cool or exciting things — how amazing and psychedelic our world could be if everything wasn’t just about making some businessman money somewhere?
“And sci-fi kind of really helps inform what we choose to invent,” she notes. “These concepts in sci-fi kind of always just become reality — in the 60s and 70s, there’d always be a screen where you’re talking to someone, a real person in real life. That seemed so crazy, and now we do that every day all the time. That’s why sci-fi is so important; I feel it’s the most creative people thinking about these possibilities, how we could use technology.”
Future Politics comes out on the day Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. The gentle agitation of the album — particularly the title track — feels more urgent with each tweet from the president-elect, with each day on the calendar crossed off. “It’s super weird,” Stelmanis says. “I did not in any way write the album about a Trump presidency, or consider it to be about a Trump presidency. Now it’s coming out the same day as Trump takes office, which is such an insane coincidence.”
But that chance timing has also helped the defiantly optimistic ideas put forth by Stelmanis on Future Politics arrive at the precisely correct moment.
“When I was writing it, I was feeling like some of these ideas were a little bit leftfield,” she says. “I didn’t know people would connect with them, but now, people are starting to talk.”
© Maura Johnston, The Guardian, 5 January 2017