As Austra, Katie Austra Stelmanis has built a world of blissful dramatic hymns with the help of ceremonial synth riffs, unbridled harmonies, and an honest approach to music throughout her career. HiRUDiN, Austra’s fourth album, is an achievement in growth, both personally and musically. “On HiRUDiN I am not only singing about one relationship — but a few different ones, both romantic and creative,” Stelmanis shares. The electronic artist has created a path to her most personal experiences, nodding to darker times without dwelling in them while putting her foot forward and marking her entrance with a combustive statement. HiRUDiN is not about heartbreak, or various heartbreaks, it’s about a journey that overflows with a variety of senses. “To be honest I don’t feel like heartbreak is a dominant theme on the record — to me, toxic relationships, and specifically the ones I was singing about here, are less about heartbreak and more about letting go of people that are not impacting you in a positive way. I didn’t feel heartbroken when I ended these relationships — I felt relieved. Singing about them also felt liberating because in some ways I was celebrating my new found freedom,” tells Stelmanis.
The title of the album alludes to leaving toxic relationships behind. “I like to think that leeches are a good metaphor for toxic relationships because although they are predatory creatures, they’re also used in healing practices because they secrete a very powerful blood thinner into your body while they suck your blood: hirudin. In turn, toxic relationships help you build a foundation of resilience as you find the strength to leave them.” For example, the hauntingly cathartic “Your Family” works as a breaking moment in the album, as a moment where Katie allowed herself to let the mood of the whole take over in sound. “And when your family comes back to town/Do you know what you will say/When they ask about me?,” sings Stelmanis, while her voice shivers with emotion. “I wasn’t thinking when I sang the words, but after listening back I was quite taken by the intensity of what I had said. Meeting the parents can be difficult and very high pressure in any relationship, but for queer people especially it has even more weight because you have to deal with families that are not accepting, or were previously not accepting, and the lack of confidence and [in]security that can instill in both people in the relationship when this is the case. I dated someone for 5 years whose parents had only recently started to accept that she was gay, and I was the first partner she ever brought home,” she explains. Even when she sings in “Risk It” that I wouldn’t risk it, it’s hard to not feel empowered rather than torn, when being hugged by a bright megaphonic world of high-pitched vocals. “It’s Amazing” starts as a moving and glittery bang, approached by a soulful bassline, and it’s not like Austra has confined herself to the structure of pop-songs but it’s impossible to not listen to this track and transport yourself to a specific space and transformative moment in one’s life.
Although Austra has shown us different synth-pop oriented worlds already in Future Politics or Feel It Break, HiRUDiN takes those electronic efforts and allows Stelmanis to come forward as a courageous performer with limitless capabilities. I mean, listen to “I Am Not Waiting”, the dance break track saluting those early tracks in Feel It Break — you can’t help but follow the choreographed groove while she sings “I’m over you, I’m over you, I’m over you.” All this, while leaving destructive behaviors and experiences behind, Austra is hopeful for future connections. “For me this album was all about connecting with other people through music,” she explains, “for a long time making music had been a very solitary practice for me, and sharing it with other people for this album has been hugely rewarding and inspiring.”
HiRUDiN is the first album where she worked with outside producers while emphasizing collaboration as “one of the key motivators for creativity.” She adds,”I really wanted to reach beyond the insular music communities I’d been living in in Toronto for years and connect with new people, and so I booked a 3 day session with all people and groups I’d never met before. The instrumentalists for the most part specialized in improvisation and laid down hours worth of material having only heard the songs a few times. These improv sessions happened really early on in the recording process and resulted in forming the sonic bedrock of the album. I used the material for future songs I hadn’t yet written and was able to create a huge sample library that I’m still playing with today.”
Now in self-isolation and quarantine and “writing in my studio, and recovering after another break up,” the artist hopes “that we as a society learn from this experience and talk more seriously about creating a Universal Basic Income that exists beyond the pandemic so that forever, artists don’t have to worry about how they’re going to eat while working towards creative goals.”