!! OMG, a Q&A with Austra !!

Austra by Photo by Virginie Khateeb

Photo by Virginie Khateeb

Like many other artists, Austra’s Katie Stelmanis was forced to cancel a tour in support of her last album, HiRUDiN.

Upon its release in 2020, the album was tethered to a particularly catastrophic and unforeseen break-up. Without a tour to process and perform the songs, and amidst the seclusion brought on by the pandemic, the singer, now four records into her bands catalogue, was forced to confront her loss head on.

This Thursday, Austra is premiering a 24-hour live stream of “I Feel You Everywhere,” a film of an intense solo performance of her most recent songs at Roy Thomson Hall, an esteemed venue in her hometown of Toronto. After taking the year to process her heartbreak, the event has Stelmanis once again seated in those painful memories.


I’ve known Katie for years, having been “gay-raised” in Toronto’s lesbian-leaning art and music scene in the early 2000s. In this very personal interview, Stelmanis opens up about the intricacies of lesbian romance, how to operate as an artist amidst a patriarchy that is still thriving, and even processed a brief rift between us caused by a rather unfortunate contribution on my part to scene drama!

Read the full Q&A after the jump!

Hey Katie! So in a world where everything is weird, how weird is it for you to be promoting songs from an album that came out a year ago?

I mean, obviously usually you make a record and then you tour it for at least a year, which I didn’t do. So I haven’t listened or even given any time to those songs in like six months or something, you know? I actually recorded the live show at Roy Thomson Hall last July!

So you recorded it basically when you had to cancel the tour?

Basically, I was supposed to start a tour for a year starting in May when the album was released… I’ll just get into it, because there’s no way I can not talk about it, because obviously I went through a big breakup at the beginning of 2020. In actuality my record was not about that… It was actually about a breakup from three years earlier.

Oh my god! What an unhappy accident!

I know. So much lesbian drama. So basically I got dumped a week before I was supposed to start promoting HiRUDiN. I mean, there are some happy songs on the record, and those ones are about my most recent ex, but then all the spiteful, breakup songs were about a previous ex.

Can we talk about the line on “All I Wanted” where you confess to going through your ex’s phone? I had a similar experience, and I’m really conflicted about how the person who checks the phone becomes the criminal, not the liar or cheater themselves! So I wonder if you had any reservations fessing up to that in a song?

I mean, I personally have no guilt about checking the phone. I absolutely think it was the right thing to do. I checked it because I suspected something was going on and then I was right.

It was a crazy situation, because near to the end of a relationship, as often happens, we were like, “let’s be open” — we agreed that if we wanted to go on a date with someone we will talk about it and it will all be permissive and respectful but then she still managed to find a way to lie about it

I was like, I literally gave you permission to do this and you still continue to do it without telling me, or involve me in it.

I had a similar experience and my ex said it was the lying about it that was the exciting part.

That’s fucked. That’s their own problem. That means that they need to find excitement out elsewhere because they can’t find it within themselves. I’ve gone through a lot of therapy by the way since my last breakup! I went so deep into therapy land.

I love that. Are there things that you talk about on the record that you’ve not talked about to the person who the song refers to? Do you use a record to provide this safe space for things you can’t confess in person?

Not really? I mean that song is the most literal, transparent example of that type of story, and I’m telling everybody! I did send it to my ex and she was obviously a little uncomfortable with it, but I think at the same time was probably just flattered that I wrote a song about her.

Can you remind me, is the lesbian cliché that they’re friends with their exes, or that they hate them?

I’m pretty sure the lesbian cliché is that they’re friends with them, but maybe it’s one or the other, I don’t know. I’m friends with every single one of my exes except for my last ex; we’re not friends yet.

You had a professional relationship as well. How does that work with having a professional relationship with someone you hate?

Well, she helped me make the record, but we broke up when the record was finished. So like a week before I started promoting the record, the week before the first track came out and everything was in place, the videos were done, the record was done. That’s when I got dumped!

Since the record was about a previous experience that mirrored an unexpected experience, did that shift you into “listener” roll? A listener can take songs and transpose them on any memory, which is the purpose of a record, but can the writer of songs apply their own work in that way?

Well, it was like a joke to me! I was like, “I cannot believe that I’m like touring a breakup record while going through a breakup!” It felt so unfair and just so cliche and so lesbian! It was crazy. A couple of weeks after it happened, obviously, I was a complete insane person, just like crying at random times of the day and all that, and then I had to go on tour. I had to do a press tour.

I had to fly to Germany and do interviews all day about this record, while texting my ex from the bathroom being like, “I’m so mad right now!” It was the worst.

How do you provide safety for yourself emotionally, but still be able to perform these types of songs from a position of honesty for the listener?

It’s something I thought a lot about. And it’s interesting because I was happy when the tours got canceled. I didn’t want to have to play these songs. When I recorded this performance, I was still really in denial about the breakup, I still really thought we were going to get back together, almost as if I would win her back with it.

Everything was going to be beautiful, but then I like saw the performance and I was like, “I look insane!”

Austra by Virginie Khateeb

Photo by Virginie Khateeb

Well, here is an unfeminist moment where I ask a woman about her looks, but I am a gay man at the end of the day. I love knowing about a look when its linked to a piece of art. You’re right. The look you have going in your “I Feel You Everywhere” performance is sort of insane, but I was really feeling it. Can you talk about that interplay?

I think it was quite subconscious. I had this vision in mind where I wanted to do Mozart-style makeup, with big red hair mixed with ’80s Cocteau Twins vibes. I had this whole vision in mind, but I didn’t process what it would actually look like. So when it was finished and I  saw myself sitting there, I was like… “I can’t believe I thought I would win back my ex with this.”

I was actually crying throughout the show, and I subconsciously created this dramatic insane alter ego.

Was that some sort of defense tactic?

Probably. Wearing everyday clothes wasn’t really an option for me.

“I Feel You Everywhere” is recorded in a massive empty room, and that vacancy becomes such a part of the narrative of this performance. Obviously when performing breakup songs that get pretty symbolic and intense. Were all these signifiers intentional?

I think to some extent, yes and to some extent, no. When I recorded it, I did quite a bit of talking between the songs and I ended up editing all out because it just brought it to this casual level. I just need to maintain this other-worldliness to it.

The result isn’t at all what I imagined, In terms of the intensity of the way the whole thing turned out wasn’t planned at all. Even the intro monologue was me speaking from a place of grieving, so to put that out now, honestly, it feels like humiliating. It’s so scary.

Does editing out information you don’t relate to anymore make something more sincere or less sincere?

To me it feels very sincere, because I really leaned into this intensity of it. I’ve talked about it a lot in therapy that like, I’m genuinely, almost repulsed by the idea of releasing it. It’s like I have shame about releasing this in a way.

Do you mean shame in a way that you’ve done so much work on yourself that revisiting this place puts you back in that traumatic vulnerable place?

Its just very scary to be vulnerable. I personally have always really struggled with being vulnerable in my relationships. I really struggled to communicate in my relationships and I created a shield for myself throughout my adult life whereby I was shielded by working and by my accomplishments.

Any time that I wasn’t doing well to me felt like shameful. So to release this document of a time when I wasn’t doing well is really scary. People want to feel good right now and I feel this burden to give them this negativity at this time.

That’s sort of your job,  though, to help carry people’s emotions. They need that, too! Do you think it’s okay to still hate your ex? There’s this idea that you’re supposed to “get over it with time” but like, time for what? Maybe this is just the time where you are allowed to hate your ex.

Yes. I’ve talked a lot with my therapist about this!

Can you simultaneously resent somebody and move on or is resentment the opposite of moving on?

I definitely have felt resentment for sure, but don’t I feel resentful anymore. That said, I still feel too raw to actually be friends. And I think that they probably feel the same way.

Lesbian cliché #300. That friendship with your ex, and the processing involved with getting to that place, that lack of lesbian closure becomes an extension of the relationship. When is it okay to be in a relationship with the ghost of your relationship?

I feel like this is specifically in some ways like lesbian problem, because I feel like straight people break up all the time and there’s never expectation to be friends, but as lesbians, there’s so much expectation to be friends that it feels like something’s wrong when you’re not.

I think it’s also just weird dealing with it during a pandemic! When you go through a big breakup, you’re supposed to be able go to the gym and hang out with your friends, or excel in your career!

But during a pandemic its like you’re stuck in a perpetual breakup. You can’t access the stuff you need to process it. It feels great to be able to pause and take time to work on yourself but then flash forward to a year later and like… “oh my god.”

It’s processing purgatory. That’s the deepest layer of lesbian hell!

Exactly. I’ve actually been dating somebody for the past seven months or something like that, and I’m lucky that they also have lesbian processing skills. I process my breakup with them all the time.

How is dating somebody new when your art surrounds the trauma of your ex?

I’m often in a position of writing about an ex while I’m in a relationship with someone new. It’s always uncomfortable and a bit awkward, but I also just have to be like, “I can’t help it!”

So when a record is based around a concept, do you feel the responsibility to have a happy ending or some sort of catharsis?

I like a happy ending in a way. Yeah.

The combination of the solo performance, and the acoustic piano renditions of the songs are so aggressively one on one — were you trying to take the songs to an even harsher place with that?

When we recorded it, I thought we would just be handed the audio and it would be done, but then i ended up doing a lot of work in post on the audio. I mixed it and added a lot of effects. It just sounded too present, like a radio show.

I want to ask you about the patriarchy, because a part of our story is my having been a contributor to the patriarchy — and I learned a lot from that. Can we talk about what was happening there and how it applies to your work now?

Yeah there was a Fifth Column tribute show that my band Galaxy was asked to play and you called us “Lezbo Posers” or something on some web forum.

I’m so sorry for that. Thats fucking shameful. I do not remember saying that or why I would in the first place.

Well, it’s fine because I think it was rooted in this idea that only cis women could play in the show, and in a way you were just mad you couldn’t take part in it. I definitely wasn’t wrong, because all we did was play the show, but it was wrong that only cis women can play the show, which is where we agree.

When you’re really young everything feels so militant and important. So much scene drama! It was great because you told me off in the most brilliant way when you came up to me at a show and told me to “get a skill!”. It actually did help me re-evaluate my role in contributing to the scene in a more productive way.

It’s funny because you’re so conscious of everything when you’re young and you think that everything is so important that everything matters so much, but as you get older… Nothing matters. It’s also funny that i don’t remember saying that! The things that stick with us are so different.

When we met, Toronto was a deeply lesbian city, and because we were lucky to be so far into that queer bubble in a way that a lot of the conversations we’re having about trans rights now were being tangled out at that time.

Exactly, so it was right to think that was problematic, but we just didn’t have the language for it yet. We didn’t understand yet.

How is it going for you with the patriarchy? Given that you’re on your fourth record, have you been able to establish a working process where you can avoid that?

I definitely make a conscious effort to prioritize working with women, queer, trans and non-binary people, but I was also raised in this lesbian community. I basically have no relationships with straight people. So it’s really weird that my job is in the music industry and its basically all straight white men.

So, I do end up working with straight white men but at the end of the day its me that’s doing the work.

Do you write music in these weird secluded times?

I’ve personally always found it really hard to write about something while you’re in it. Basically a month after I recorded this live show I found out that my ex had a new girlfriend.

So that was when it really hit me, and I was officially grieving this relationship. I didn’t play a single note of music for like six months after that. I think that part of it was because we were so closely connected through music, so playing anything became too triggering.

Do you feel guilty when people ask if you’re making new music and you haven’t been?

Not anymore. I used to. I used to have this need to be working all the time, but now I’m totally over it. I’m one hundred percent fine with the fact that I haven’t written a single song in one year and I don’t care. Like, who cares? I’m just sitting here and finally having a great time!

— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@theekevinhegge)

Pay What You Feel tickets for Austra’s performance,  “I Feel You Everywhere,” are available online now.

HiRUDiNis available for purchase and streaming now. Watch the short film The Shape of You I Know Completely, which explores the thoughts and feelings behind the album, here.

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