When The XX arrives in Tulsa for a sold-out show at Cain's Ballroom this Friday night, fans of the band would be wise to make sure and arrive early to catch opening act Austra, an electronic trio that turned heads with its 2011 debut and is preparing to release its follow-up this summer.
Although the trio's signature lies in layered, post-New Wave synth pop and electronica, that's not where singer and primary songwriter Katie Stelmanis started out. With a background in classical and opera, she studied viola and piano and sang with the Children's Opera Chorus in her formative years, planning to pursue a career in opera.
When plans changed, Stelmanis set off on a path that would eventually lead her in a very different direction. When asked how she transitioned from classical music to electronic pop, Stelmanis said, "It happened slowly. When I was 18 or 19, I wanted to make music for films and I had friends doing plays and theatre. The only access I had to do that was via electronic instruments and keyboards, where I could program it and use midi controllers."
"Instead of pursuing that, though, I ended up getting into electronic music and programming," she added.
From there, the transition into electronic pop all flowed naturally for Stelmanis, who played with the electronic band Galaxy for three years before setting off to work on her own music.
"When I started out, the music was a lot different," Stelmanis said. "I didn't have any one particular influence and I wrote music with a lot of high end, really piercing sounds. I slowly learned to write and produce better and that came from the live show, where the high end stuff doesn't go over so well. When you play live, that's where the bass and beats are so important."
Although Stelmanis originally set out to work on a solo album, Austra came together out of a need to adapt that music for the live realm. When asked if she still considers Austra a solo project or a band, Stelmanis said, "At this point, it's definitely a band. The first record was more my vision and written by me, but the new record is much more collaborative. We spent weeks writing together and it definitely affects the songs. That happens when its coming from three brains instead of one, especially when it's three people with distinctly different styles and tastes in music -- you just end up covering a more diverse range of sounds."
Even so, the new material won't depart too far from Austra's full-length debut, Feel It Break. Written and recorded primarily by Stelmanis in her bedroom and mixed by Damian Taylor (who has worked on albums by Bjork and The Prodigy), that album explored electronic beats and synth pop, yet incorporated Stelmanis' classical and opera background with layered, crescendo-ing vocals.
The album strikes a unique balance between old and new, recalling the early '80s synth pop and electronic of Level 42 and Soft Cell, yet fitting in next to current bands like Bat for Lashes and The Knife.
The pairing of Austra with The XX, which is riding high on the release of the band's sophomore album, Coexist, makes for an intriguing and complementary partnership. When asked how the tour came together, Stelmanis said, "We toured with The Gossip last year and played a couple of shows in Europe with them [The XX]. We got along really well and they invited us to go out on tour with them this year. It was an offer we couldn't pass up. They're a really good band and it creates such a spotlight for us."
Stelmanis did admit, "I was a little nervous how the audience would respond. The XX is more minimal in their approach, whereas I think we're a little more ethereal and layered in everything, including our vocals, but the response has been amazing."
The current tour with The XX has provided a great platform for Austra to gain additional exposure before the release of its sophomore album, which is completed and waiting on release. "There's no release date yet, but I expect we'll get it out by the summer," Stelmanis said.
The timing for the new album and the exposure from the current tour couldn't have come at a better time as the new release will see Stelmanis turn over more control to her label and management than ever before. By starting out as an independent artist, Stelmanis has gradually been transitioning from a distinctly DIY approach.
When discussing how she feels turning over the reins to management after doing everything independently in the past, Stelmanis said, "I just kind of did everything myself in the past. We didn't have a manager with the first record and finally worked one in. Because I had done everything myself for so long, if we had a manager, I had to feel like they could do it better than we had done for ourselves, so we've carefully selected who we work with over the years."
"This is the first time to put something out with a proper team in place," she added. "So I don't really want to think about it that way [turning over control]. This is the first time we've been able to produce it and make it sound how I want it to. Usually, there are so many complications, but this time I had a very clear vision and we were able to record the way we wanted to. This is exactly what we need right now."
With a new album completed and waiting for release this summer, Stelmanis and her band mates (drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf) roll into Tulsa this weekend with a world of opportunities ahead of them. The band opens for The XX on Friday night, Feb. 15, performing in front of a sold-out crowd in hopes of winning over even more fans with Stelmanis' signature blend of layered vocals and electronic pop. If you're lucky enough to have tickets in hand, make sure to arrive early to catch the band looking to create the next big buzz on the pop scene.
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