“There are moments you go a bit crazy. You have to take precautions to safeguard your sanity. If you can find a way to do that, it’s wonderful. I am definitely addicted to life on the road.”
She acknowledges a downside. Since Austra, an electro outfit from Canada, broke big in 2009, Stelmanis has lived out of a suitcase. This has taken a toll on her personal life. Romantic relationships have been jeopardised; she almost lost contact with loved ones. She articulates the excitement and the confusion on Austra’s second album, Olympia. It is a concept record about what happens when your world is thrown into sudden turmoil and you don’t want it to end.
“It is a challenge to stay in touch,” says the Toronto singer. “I’m not just talking about distance. You are living completely different lives. I was away so often I felt I wasn’t giving enough value to the relationship, whether that be with partners or family. I took advantage a little, I suppose. Relied on their good will and understanding.”
The hardest part was returning home after a stint away. Readjusting to normality was a struggle. Stelmanis isn’t sure if she’s any good at it. She would get back to her apartment and sit there in silence, uncertain as to what she was supposed to be doing.
“It is definitely a weird feeling,” she says. “You have the sense you don’t really live anywhere any more. No place feels like home. It is hard to stay grounded. You depend on the people around you to pull you through. It can be a struggle.”
Stelmanis is gay. This became a subject of media fascination early in Austra’s career. Every interview seemed to be about her orientation. She is completely comfortable in her sexuality. But the exposure — coupled with the pressure of having to go out and perform every night — extracted a price. By nature an introvert, coming to terms with the spotlight was difficult. She turned acutely self conscious.
“When we started playing shows regularly I was very much aware of it,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily shy — but a lot more reserved than I am now. I hid behind my hair, hid behind the way I dressed. Now I’m communicating a lot more directly. It is very freeing. I had to grow into it.”
Classically trained, for Stelmanis, rock’n’roll is still a learning game. She studied for eight years at the Canadian Children’s Opera Company in Toronto and was about to undertake a postgraduate course in Montreal when she had an epiphany: rock music excited her more than classical. So she dropped out and immersed herself in Toronto’s vibrant art scene. Since then she hasn’t looked back, though she feels her classical background informs everything she does.
“I have this habit of looking into the sky when I’m singing,” she laughs. “At music school I was taught to pick a point at the back of the wall and ‘sing’ to it. So I always look like I’m singing to heaven or something. It is weird. I definitely have those elements that come from my classical training.”
Initially, Austra was a glorified solo project (‘Austra’ is Stelmanis’ middle name). Touring her first record, 2011’s Feel It Break, Stelmanis became more open to the idea of collaboration. Coming from the cloistered world of classical music, she was surprised to discover she enjoyed performing with others. Maybe she would like writing with them too.
“The first record was pretty much all me. However, we toured as a six piece and we all collaborated to one degree or another on the second LP. I wouldn’t say it was quite like a weight lifting off my shoulders. On the other hand it is fantastic that you can bounce ideas off others. I had never done that before. Artistically speaking, it was tremendously liberating.”
Feel It Break was well reviewed and Austra picked up some choice support slots.
They played with The Gossip in Europe and in America with the xx. The experience of performing in arena-scale venues was extremely educational.
“I got used to playing these big rooms,” says Stelmanis.
“You learn that everything you do needs to be magnified. Those habits have stuck with me. I feel so much stronger now, every time I walk out to do a show. It’s made me stronger.”
It was while touring Let It Break that Austra had the strange experience of being eclipsed by the support. They had booked the Montreal electro singer Grimes as their opening act. But by the time the gigs came around, she was already the toast of fashionistas everywhere. People would come to the shows, watch Grimes, and leave.
“That was a strange moment. She blew up in the middle of a tour. Suddenly she became a pop star. It was weird when it was happening, for sure.
“Beforehand, some of my bandmates said, ‘she is gonna be huge’. I was like, ‘nah’. Shows what I know.”
Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, created headlines recently when she decried the music industry for being institutionally sexist.
From what she’s experiences, Stelmanis is inclined to agree.
“Grimes and I have had very different experiences. However, I know that it is really hard to be a female musician and avoid being sexualised. It is almost impossible, actually.
“If you went into it for completely different reasons that can be very difficult to deal with.”