Austra's Katie Stelmanis is happy to put feminism centre-stage

The doom-disco star on Mardi Gras, Marshall Jefferson and trying to be more than Lana Del Rey

In four years on the road with Austra, Katie Stelmanis has seen it all. She's played stadiums with Gossip, intimate venues with the xx, and rocked up in New Orleans during Mardi Gras expecting a joyous carnival only for someone to vomit on their tour van. "I'd always imagined Mardi Gras as a romantic place, all traditional parades and beautiful costumes," says Katie, "and it was just a disgusting drunkfest." In the UK, things weren't altogether better: at Austra's gig at the Tooting Tram & Social in 2009, one girl was so smashed that she did a poo on the floor of the ladies' loos.

Katie may be unfazed by such unpleasantness, but there's one aspect of fronting a band that she still can't get her head around. "I don't really like having my photograph taken," she confides. "I find it uncomfortable that there's so much expectation to be a fashion model as well as a musician. It's not my comfort zone, but it's part of being a woman in music."

Her massive green eyes suggest that the photo accompanying this article will be pretty fly, but our interview comes on the day that Claire Boucher AKA Grimes – Katie's old support act – posts on Tumblr about the difficulties of being a woman in the apparently liberal "alternative" sector of the music industry. "I'm tired of creeps on messageboards discussing whether or not they'd 'fuck' me," wrote Claire, a feeling that Katie more than understands. "Certain people at my label were forwarding photos of Lana Del Rey, as if to say, 'Use this example for your press shots', and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

One listen to Katie's haunting, chamber-choir vocals and the surging thunder of her piano-led instrumentals should be enough to instantly dispel any Lana comparisons, while Austra's new album Olympia is more of a house-influenced record, retaining the tormented vocal chants and sad lyrics of their debut, but offsetting them with funky, bass-driven mid-tempo dance beats. "I found a version on YouTube of Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body played entirely with real instruments," says Katie. "I really wanted to emulate that sound."

Olympia would seem to align Austra with Grimes, Blood Diamonds, Doldrums and the other alt-synth music currently coming out of Canada, but Katie prefers to see her band part of a new, international feminist movement alongside acts like the Knife, Planningtorock and Parisian duo CocoRosie. Far from diluting feminism to make it marketable, these musicians are open about their quest for sexual equality, and Katie's excited about what that means. "A lot of bands are becoming more political. For a long time people were afraid of that word. And now with the Knife album, which is very blatant about gender politics and feminism, it's starting to become cool again."

Olympia is out now on Domino


Sophie Wilkinson

The GuardianTramp

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