Led by lesbian frontwoman Katie Stelmanis and with a healthy smattering of queers in its ranks, Canadian group Austra is part of a new wave of openly gay indie bands.
But unlike many of their gay peers, who are reluctant to make their sexuality the topic of interviews (even when it’s clearly one of the driving influences of their music), Stelmanis seems to have a refreshingly relaxed attitude toward the topic.
She told a writer for lesbian website AfterEllen earlier this year, “all I’d ever wanted was to be a gay band”.
“We have a very, very relaxed attitude to it, and we enjoy talking about it freely,” the softly spoken singer said down the line from Canada.
“Although the AfterEllen quote was a bit of a joke, because the interviewer was a friend of mine and she told me ‘I’ll make you [known as] a gay band’. Sure enough, it worked.
“I’d been making music for a long time and had never been identified as a ‘gay band’. I always wondered why. What was different about what I was doing?
“I think there are a lot of reasons why we weren’t automatically classified as a gay band.”
“I think people have a lot of predetermined ideas about what it means to be a gay band — particularly for lesbian singer-songwriters. There are a lot of stereotypes about that.
“That said, there are a lot of artists who are open about their sexuality who don’t fit any of those stereotypes, so I think we’re just in a time where people are becoming more comfortable about it.”
Indeed, the artists Stelmanis namechecks as fitting that description — openly queer acts like The XX, Tegan and Sara, Owen Pallett, and The Gossip — seem to have one thing in common, aside from their sexuality —
Their music is actually of far more interest than who they’re shagging.
The same can be said for Austra, with their atmospheric mix of Stelmanis’ classically trained vocals and the band’s icy synthscapes.
“That’s what we’re hoping for too. I would hope our music has enough integrity that our sexuality isn’t the most interesting thing about us. I think up until now we’ve been successful in not having that be the focus of everything.”
The release of Austra’s debut album Feel It Break is the culmination of a long musical journey for Stelmanis, who started out performing in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus at age 10.
Various solo and band projects followed, as she took her classical voice training and tentatively mixed it with modern musical elements.
“It was a long process. I stopped studying classical music when I was 20, and it was intended as a break. The break got longer and longer until it became clear I wasn’t going back,” she chuckled.
The classical training still informs Stelmanis’ music. See Austra’s breakthrough single Lose It, where she uses her voice in short, sharp, operatic bursts, almost like another beat.
Does she enjoy employing her voice as an additional instrument?
“Writing music is the funnest part. I feel like I could just add vocal layers forever, to the point where I have to remind myself to hold back. That’s where it’s really important [for the band members] to keep each other on track.
“I think all of us individually as musicians have a tendency to go too far in one direction — as a combination, we balance each other out.”
And with a debut Australian tour imminent, the band is already making waves thanks to the banned-by-YouTube video for their single Beat and the Pulse, featuring some of Stelmanis’ female friends in various states of undress. It goes some way to reclaiming the female form from all the male rappers and rock stars exploiting it in their music videos.
“We had a very low budget so we kind of threw it all together, and I think the greatest strength of that video wasn’t really intentional. When I watch it now, I realise it’s a really interesting depiction of female sexuality in a non-objectified way, which is very rare to see.
“It was just a bunch of friends, hanging out, drinking beer. Girls being natural and being themselves on camera without any male eye, which I don’t think happens very often.”
INFO: Austra play February’s Laneway Festival, plus Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club on Feb 2 and Sydney’s The Basement on Feb 9. www.austramusic.com