Interview: Art-Pop Recording Artist Austra

Exploring the new genre-defying fourth album, "HiRUDiN," with the producer, songwriter and vocalist

Expressive, experimental and energized by the impressively elastic vocals of Austra (aka Katie Austra Stelmanis), the album HiRUDiN released to the world today, 1 May. Theatrical in nature—sometimes operatic, soaring on Stelamanis’ mighty voice; other times collaborative, drawing additional meaning from the dialogue between sound collisions—it’s the fourth LP in the catalog from the singer-songwriter and recording engineer. The album draws its name from an anticoagulant produced by leeches and Stelmanis has shared that vulnerability and toxic relationships factored into its inspiration. All of that is evident in the 11 tracks; beauty grown from risk-taking. For 24 hours on Bandcamp all proceeds of sales go directly to artists—and HiRUDiN can be found there as a digital album and on vinyl. In advance of the release, we spoke with Stelmanis to learn more about what went into it all.

How did your sound develop between Future Politics and HiRUDiN?

I wrote Future Politics completely by myself and produced it entirely in the box, often in make-shift studios in various places around the world. It was a really insular experience and was even mixed by my sound engineer/girlfriend at the time who I was traveling with. So it really felt like at times it was difficult to keep perspective while making that record. With HiRUDiN, I knew I wanted to make a record completely differently, so from the beginning I began collaborating with producers, instrumentalists, and spent a lot more time recording people in the studio.

What was this the result of—what sonic paths did you go down? What were you drawn to in this creative/developmental period?

One of the first sessions I booked for HiRUDiN was a few days in Toronto with improv musicians I’d never met before. I had a handful of tracks and they would listen to them, usually only once, and just begin playing. The session was a definitely a risk—it could have gone really wrong—but I ended up getting mountains of material out of it that I was able to sample and edit and use across the whole record, even songs I hadn’t written yet. So that early session really became the sonic bedrock of the record.

You mentioned on Twitter that the album is about toxic relationships. How did you channel this subject matter and what are your hopes for it?

I didn’t intentionally write an album about toxic relationships, but after I had written most of the songs I thought would go on the record, the theme kind of emerged. Prior to beginning to write I ended a few creative and romantic partnerships that I felt had in some ways been draining me for years, and I guess I had a lot to get off my chest that made it on this album.

With so many thoughtful layers and impeccable production, can you tell me how “Mountain Baby” came together?

“Mountain Baby” is definitely the most collaborative song on the record. It started as an instrumental track, and I knew quite early on I wanted the verses to be sung with a kid’s choir. Luckily my mom is a teacher and I was able to invite some students into the studio with the help from the music teacher at her school. For a while the song had an instrumental chorus which I liked, but I was curious to see if anyone else could sing a chorus that felt meaningful because I didn’t feel like I was able to. I sent the track to my friend Cecile Believe, who sent it back within a few hours and it was immediately obvious that her chorus was “the one.” The final stage of collaboration came when I was working with the producer Rodaidh McDonald in LA, who pushed me to write my own verses and helped a lot with the arrangement.

Do any other art forms influence the music you make?

I am influenced by other artists and communities all the time. I love hearing about how my creative friends work in their industries and comparing notes… I always joke that when you’re a fine artist you’re trying to appeal to old rich people and when you’re a musician you’re trying to appeal to teenagers. Haha.

Can you share with us your thoughts on the role of touring for musicians today—just before the pause and perhaps after it’s come to its end.

I have a love-hate relationship with touring. I love traveling and I love playing shows but touring is also incredibly exhausting, especially getting a bit older. One interesting thing about the pandemic is it’s kind of made me realize I don’t have to tour as much as I have in the past—life goes on, I can keep making music and I can keep trying to “sell” records. It may make me re-think how I do things in the future and put a bit more focus on mental and physical health over trying to play as many cities as can fit in a calendar month.

Images courtesy of Virginie Khateeb