Katie Stelmanis is quiet in person, her sleepy Fassbinder heroine eyes belying the power that soars from her throat like a Valkyrie, even when she’s just laa-aa-ing a few notes in between takes for this shoot. The 28-year-old former opera singer fronts Austra, Toronto’s melancholy electro-pop sextet whose Juno-nominated first record, Feel It Break, was hailed as a top album of the year by New York magazine and the Toronto Star, and shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. Their highly anticipated second album, Olympia, is out June 18, and tracks that shimmer between dance-party playlist and intimate folk ballad intensify the signature happy/sad Austra high.
The band is also known for its sophisticated-grunge look—even if Stelmanis shies away from labels. “I don’t really ever like to be seen as stylish,” she says. “I believe in anti-fashion. I try to look like a weirdo.” (She calls her current style “psychedelic industrial.”) While Stelmanis made Feel It Break mostly solo, Olympia was born of collaboration; her bandmates—drummer Maya Postepski, bassist Dorian Wolf, keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak and twin vocalists Sari and Romy Lightman—transform simple melodies into haunting soundscapes. Stelmanis has more to say this time around, too. “Before this album, I didn’t really care about lyrics. But it suddenly became… a therapeutic process—I wrote the album while going through a pretty tough time.” In doing so, she gives new voice to age-old heartbreak.