Transcending Toxic Relationships in Rural Spain: Austra Tells the Story of ‘HiRUDiN’

Toronto’s Katie Austra Stelmanis, known mononymously as Austra, plays a strain of dark electro pop with a rich variety of charged, sonic signifiers that beg for comparison to legendary names, yet a dramatic immediacy all of her own, that takes new, whimsical paths to ever intriguing ends on each successive album. Stelmanis broke through with her 2011 debut, “Feel It Break,” which garnered her both a Juno Award nomination and a Polaris shortlisting. Her followup, 2013’s “Olympia,” drew influence simultaneously from the minimalism of early house music and the bombast of operatic stylings, while exploring themes of gender dynamics. 2017’s “Future Politics” was as overtly political as one might expect from its title, while shaped musically by the likes of electro cumbia, discovered during her time in Mexico. For Austra’s latest album, “HiRUDiN,” Stelmanis takes an unanticipated turn inward, and a bold new step forward. 

Toxic relationships have inspired art since long before anyone thought to refer to them in such terms. Something about their ability to activate, amplify, and channel the whole spectrum of human emotion makes for especially compelling works. On “HiRUDiN,” Stelmanis captures the triumph and tragedy of a vicious cycle, explores dangerous ideas, reaches profound realizations, and ultimately emerges transcendent. The songs present a unique mix of dark and light energy, with sounds that range from twee and frolicsome to edgy and provocative. For the new record, Stelmanis trekked to rural Spain, joined forces with a crew of improv musicians, and then crafted collages of the accumulated sounds, venturing into uncharted sonic territory to suit her newly introspective material. Stelmanis spoke with Entertainment Voice about her musical style, views and experiences, the core concept of the album, and the process of putting it together.

Your new album tells a story of growth, realization, and liberation from a toxic relationship. It’s name, “HiRUDiN,” refers to a peptide released by leeches that is the world’s most potent anticoagulant. Why did you choose this metaphor to express the idea of finding a silver lining in a struggle?

I kind of realized closer to the end of making the record that it was about toxic relationships and all, so I was just trying to think about the visuals and I was just drawn to this idea of leeches because I just love that in some ways they’re this parasitic creature, but on the other hand, they’ve been used in healing practices for thousands of years, and I can’t really think of any sort of organism in the world that really operates like that, and I was just really into that idea. I came across this word, “Hirudin,” and to be honest, I just really liked the word. I like the way it looks written down and everything. It just felt like this narrative that resonated with me as a context of the album. 

Your lead single, “Risk It,” expresses fear of losing a relationship, and the latest single, “Anywayz,” acknowledges the idea that if you did lose it, everything might actually still be fine. Which is ultimately a more unsettling thought?

(Laughs) Well, it depends, I think, what stage you are in the break up. “Risk It” is very much being aware that you’re in a bad relationship, but not being able to end it, or not really wanting to face up to that, and “Anywayz,” I think, is more of a direct acknowledgment that it’s over and going to be over. Really, the idea of continuing life without that person is kind of terrifying, but at the same time, I guess it’s optimistic in that you’ll be fine eventually things keep on moving. 

The music video for “Anywayz” ends with a striking image of you lying on the floor, your body buried in leaves. What does this scene represent, and what were you generally aiming to express in the video?

Well, in the video, we just wanted to express this inability to move on. I think that when you suffer a breakup or a loss of a relationship, you go through, definitely, a period of time, for a few months, of just being unable to accept that it’s over. I feel that this kind of represents that because the world is growing and thriving and moving on, but you’re not, and you’re becoming encapsulated by it. We wanted to capture that feeling of being stuck in a place and unwilling to move out of it. 

You recorded the new songs with improv musicians whom you had never met before. How much actual improvisation made its way into the final recording, and what are so some ways in which this method led to new sounds?

It’s kind of crazy because so much of the material that I recorded with the improv musicians made it on the record, but a lot that made it on the record is on songs I didn’t actually record it on. I think at the time I did that session, I had maybe seven or eight demos that I was working off of, and I think three of those made it on the record, but I still had this mountain of material that I was able to use, so really it was kind of a gathering of samples, in a way, that I still have now, am still using, and still have access to, this wealth of sound, which is really fun to work with as a producer. 

Yes, you took a collage-based approach to production this time, sampling and arranging the recorded parts. What led you to take this route? 

I think that it was more a result of just how I work, in a way. I’ve always been using Ableton, and music, for me, has always been a bit of a collage process with Ableton, and the thing that was different about this record was that I was using all of this recorded material that I had procured myself in the studio. So in this sense, the collage approach wasn’t really the new part. It was the using organic material that was the new part. 

One particularly striking set of lyrics is, “You called me a whore as if it were a bad thing” from “I Am Not Waiting.” Expand on the meaning of this line.

Well, I was talking about someone who called me a “whore,” (laughs), and I guess I just wanted to throw in that line because I am ultimately a very sex worker-positive person. I don’t think that being a whore is at all a bad thing, so I just wanted to make that clear. 

You mention mountains in four of the nine songs on “HiRUDiN.” Why mountains? What is the particular significance and meaning of mountains on the album?

Well, it sounds really basic, but I wrote a lot of the record just working on this mountain in Spain, (laughs), because my partner at the time was from London, and started up a kind of music residency in Spain, kind of in the middle of nowhere. It was this weird sort of bunker on a mountain, and it was like a live-work studio space, so I spent a bunch of time there writing, and it’s impossible to not be really inspired by your surroundings because it’s rural Spain. We kept joking, it kind of looks like L.A., but minus the city, as if L.A. was just the Hollywood Hills. So there’s definitely a lot of mountain reference. I think it just crept in there subconsciously.

What was it like recording in Spain?

Working in rural Spain was crazy because I never imagined that’s somewhere I would ever be or spend time, but somehow I just ended up in this situation where I was there a lot, (laughs), and it was just the perfect place to write because it just moves so slowly. They’re closed for three to four hours in the middle of the day. If you want anything done, it takes weeks. It’s really cheap. It’s really just so chill, so it’s just a good place to be, to feel very, very disconnected.

Your singular style of singing can be almost operatic, has a theatricality that recalls Kate Bush, and inflections that seem to nod to ‘80s synth pop. Whom do you hear in your own voice, and are there any particular singers that you ever modeled yourself after?

Hmm, not really, that’s kind of a hard question because I feel like, for me, as a teenager, I was obsessed with opera. I would go all the time to the dress rehearsals, and I was able to take singing lessons for a few years with this intense opera singer who studied at Teatro alla Scala. I didn’t come close to being a real opera singer, by any means, because I quit when I was eighteen or something. I loved that style of singing, but also found, when I started doing not opera, that I had to unlearn a lot of what I had learned, and so I feel like the way that I sing is this kind of technique that I’ve sort of come upon on my own over time, where I try and unlearn certain things from my classical background, but I still know how to breathe, and I know where to sing from, and I have all these kinds of tools, so I just have sort of created my own weird way of doing it, I guess. 

But the weird thing about how I sing is that I sing in an English accent, and I definitely do not have an English accent, and when I was doing sessions with these British producers, they’re like, (laughs), “Why do you sing like that?” and I honestly cannot answer this question, but I’m just thinking now that that’s probably kind of why I sound like a lot of those ‘80s synth pops, because they were always from England (laughs). That’s totally why. I think that singing in a Canadian accent sounds I don’t like the way it sounds (laughs). 

You begin the album suggesting that all things just pass on “Anywayz,” and end it moderating expectations, reminding, “I’m not the Messiah” on “Messiah.” Such cold realism is decidedly unromantic, yet your music still manages to always sound dreamy and ethereal. How do you do it?

Well, I kind of think that “Messiah” is like the most romantic song I’ve ever written, in a way, because it’s describing, to me, the ideal relationship. I feel like in the beginning, when you’re really into somebody, you hold them up on this pedestal, in some way, and I find that that can be really difficult, because it’s, a lot of the time, impossible to live up to that pedestal, so that’s kind of what I’m talking about, but also, in the second half of the song, I’m describing what I think is the ideal relationship, which is one where there are two people that are really kind of in balance, and really walking together, more than one leading the other, so in a sense, no one person is elevated, but that’s about as romantic as I’ll get (laughs).

Your penultimate album, 2017’s “Future Politics,” drew inspiration from such works as Nick Srnicek’s “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.” With many people out of work due to Covid-19, people are suddenly reconsidering their economic ideologies. What are your thoughts on the themes of that album, as they relate to the current situation?

Well, I still am just a huge proprietor of universal basic income, and it’s something that I talked a lot about in the context of “Future Politics,” and it’s also something that I think a lot of people are talking about right now. It’s an extremely relevant conversation. I’m in Canada, and we literally are receiving universal basic income right now, so it’ll just be really interesting to see how many of these social infrastructures actually stay after this happens, because I just feel so lucky to be Canadian, and all my peers, we’re just getting, no questions asked, $2000 a month in our bank accounts, throughout this whole process. As an artist, to just have that security is just unreal, and it’s something that I think needs to continue beyond this crisis because a lot of people could definitely use $2000 a month beyond just a worldwide pandemic. 

HiRUDiN” is available May 1 on Apple Music.