Austra’s Feel It Break roared into my life in May 2011, during what turned out to be a second moment of major transition in my adult life. Having crossed the three-year mark in my first romantic relationship and realizing that what I wanted from a partner had changed significantly during that time, I was now trying to get out. Although my partner at the time had talked me out of my first attempt to break up with her, we were continuing to fight about seemingly everything: our lacking sex life, how we tended to spend a disproportinate amount of time with her friends, and my desire for intimacy (emotional, but perhaps other kinds as well) outside of our relationship. In its describing and performing breaks of many kinds, Feel It Break would be my soundtrack in this moment. Feel It Break is itself an album of breaks, of 11 songs that break apart from one another—and break apart within the course of each song—only to come back together into configurations that, in a more normative framework, might not have seemed possible. I remember having “Beat and The Pulse” on repeat a lot that spring, its quick and repetitive drum machine duuummm-duuummm-dum-dum at the beginning of the song building up towards a chorus where Katie Stelmanis chants “Feel it break” over and over again. After 10 years of listening to almost exclusively indie rock, this album was calling to me, its affects gnawing at my body in ways I did not yet know how to articulate in words. I remember my ex and I fighting a lot that spring about whether or not this album was any good, with me thinking it was one of the most brilliant things I had heard in a long time and her countering that she thought it was a bunch of synthesized computer crap.
Of course, I knew that what we were really fighting about was the person who had introduced me to Austra, who I clearly had a crush on and was trying to figure out how to proceed with her while in a relationship that was in theory open but actually felt like more of a concession that my partner had made to me than something we had agreed on together. Feel It Break became our battleground for what it meant to be in a relationship. On the verge of us moving into a smaller apartment together the next month, I finally got the courage to end it. I moved into the 1br in Center City, Philadelphia alone, now around the block from one of my best friends from college. We sat around and listened to Feel It Break a lot that summer, as we were both figuring out how to be single again for the first time in years. We were so grateful to have one another so close (in so many senses) during that summer of personal transition and transformation. Sitting in her apartment, I made a pledge to never put someone I was dating or sleeping with above my friends ever again. With Austra as my soundtrack, that first relationship would, for better or worse, become something that I would perpetually define myself against, a reminder of how I had given up the sense of myself on the waves of falling in love (in a way that was really unhealthy for me). Spending so much time with this dear friend, who had been my track and field teammate, introduction to the queer world at Penn, and the second person to whom I had come out, that summer would be a needed reminder of how much love I already had in my life without even having a romantic relationship in play.
This reorientation would begin to beautifully manifest on a new level within two months, when my friend and I went to see Austra with a group of friends at Voyeur for their monthly Making Time queer dance party. Heading over early alone, I was excited to run into a new friend that I had made participating in Penn’s Take Back The Night that May as an alum and employee—and he and I proceeded to get drunk at the open bar as we chatted about music and politics before heading upstairs. Once the rest of our friends joined us, it was nothing short of enthralling to be in this space with a group of mostly queer women and straight or bi male allies. Known as an after hours sex club for gay men, to take over this space with so many queer women and trans or nonbinary people that night additionally felt otherworldly. I remember dancing like I had never danced before—and feeling especially hypnotized when the band did their song “Hate Crime.” As Stelmanis and singers Sari and Romy Lightman harmonized to sing “Who-o signed the consent forms?/ Who-o signed/ Oh, who-o si-igned?” around Maya Postepski’s drums, Dorian Wolf’s bass, and Ryan Wosniak’s keys, I felt transported to a different place. Yes, Austra was cleary a queer and feminist political project, but an undeniable aspect of the group’s politics was harnessing dance music culture’s call to the queer dancefloor. I remember feeling the happiest I had felt in a long time at that show—and happy in a way that, very significantly at that moment in time, did not include being romantically in love with someone. Within a few months, I would at last move to Brooklyn, throwing myself into new queer communities through hanging with my housemates, finding a friend group through going to see my friends The Shondes play around town, and joining a queer women/trans/femme cycling group. I would begin my time in Brooklyn—and Austin and New Orleans after that—in building queer community, in grounding myself in collectivity even if I was simultaneously pursuing something romantic, an approach that would be absolutely life-changing.
Austra would close that night at Voyeur with “Spellwork,” as they would do the next five times that I saw them as well: at the beginning of October 2011 at Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan with the person who first introduced me to them; at the end of October 2011 with a lot of the Voyeur gang plus my sister (who drove up from Baltimore) at the First Unitarian Church as my going away from Philly party; in September 2012 at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn with a girlfriend I loved very much; in June 2013 back at Music Hall of Williamsburg by myself and still very much heartbroken about the December breakup; in September 2013 at Webster Hall in Manhattan with my dear friend from Take Back The Night and my sister, who had recently moved back home to New Jersey. “Spellwork” begins with a witchy crescendo on the synth keys that repeats eight times before the drums and bass build up the sound for Stelmanis’s voice to enter at a little over one minute into the song. “You must be the call/ The evil at night/ Speaking words of grace/ While spellwork delights/ Feel my desire/ It burns like a fire/ Feel my desire/ It burns like a fire” Stelmanis sings before transitioning into a drop that I literally jump into the air for every time that I hear it while Austra are performing. Above all, experiencing Austra tour Feel It Break and then their next album, Olympia, six times over the course of two years laid the groundwork for me beginning to explore the many things that that “desire” might mean and be to/for me. When I listen to Feel It Break now nine years later, it is still the sound of both freedom and community, of freedom within community. Whenever I feel that things in my life are breaking in a way that seems unbearable, I go back to this album and remember all the wondrous possibilities that arise when we let ourselves unravel.
On April 1st, Katie Stelmanis debuted a new song, “All I Wanted,” from her parents’ basement in Toronto as a part of the Digital FORT festival. An ephemeral version of the digital version of the esteemed Fader FORT event from SXSW, Stelmanis used this opportunity to present a stripped down version of this otherwise synth-y track. A song pleading to a previous partner that “All I ever wanted was your love,” the song, like the first three singles “Risk It,” “Anyzwayz,” and “Mountain Baby,” seemed to suggest that the upcoming album, HiRuDiN, would not be as explicitly political as the early 2017 release, Future Politics. Deciding to move forward with May 1st release date (even as multiple fellow artists were choosing to postpone release dates into the future, in hopes of being able to (maybe) tour around them), Stelmanis did a pre-release live set on Facebook live on April 30th, answering fan questions afterward and on Instagram a few days later. “I mean, I still feel really into politics,” Stelmanis responded to a fan asking if HiRuDiN was a departure from her usual (queer and feminist) politics. As she would elaborate in a response to a different question a few minutes later, Stelmanis described her new album as being about “letting yourself experience pleasure as a kind of politics” and “asking for what makes you happy.” This politics, Stelmais expanded, began with the album title, HiRuDiN, which invoked an ancient kind of a leech as a metaphor for toxic relationships. Although written about particular romantic relationships that ultimately turned out to be unhealthy, Stelmanis said that HiRuDiN’s critique of toxic relationships and toxicity of all kinds could be heard as a response to her pre-Trump optimism on her previous album. It could also be heard as a turn towards one’s personal politics of pleasure during quarantine.
Sonically and vibrationally, HiRuDiN is both a return to Austra’s doom and gloom aesthetics so well encapsulated on debut Feel It Break while simultaneously unlike anything Stelmanis has ever done before. After three albums of working with Maya Postepski (drums and programming) and Dorian Wolf (bass), Stelmanis sought out new collaborators—and more live recording sessions—for her fourth album. The result is 33 minutes of synth-y pop that covers a lot terrain in a short time: from the industrial alt-synthpop of “Anywayz” to futuristic chamber pop on “Risk It” to a delightful mix of disco, deep house, funk, and 80s synthpop on standout track “I Am Not Waiting.” Taking cues from everything from Kate Bush’s 1980s output to FKA twigs’s experimentations with genre on 2019’s Magdalene, HiRuDiN is a dense yet timely album on sitting with, dancing through, and then returning to toxicity and trauma of all kinds. HiRuDiN arrives alongside a string of recent albums (Hayley William’s Petals For Armor and Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t) that actively call out toxic masculinity within a context of heteronormativity. Austra’s HiRuDiN brings a refreshing queer and feminist politics—and touchdown in electronic dance music—to this musical conversation. With “I Am Not Waiting” being the only song that recalls the deep house roots that power the entire Austra discography (and most especially on Future Politics), HiRuDiN uses new configurations of synths, drums, and voice to explore what vulnerability, intimacy, and love might look, sound, and feel like in an ever-changing world. And while this world is still filled with weird synth shit and off-kilter drum machine programming, there is a warmness hovering around the darkness.
Listening to HiRuDiN for the first time on a Friday morning during quarantine, it is nevertheless “I Am Not Waiting” that makes me hit repeat over and over again. With its house synths and disco-influenced brass flourishes; collection of drops, drop outs and soars; and smooth transitions and production, it is a perfect pop song made even more glorious by Stelmanis’s stunning vocals. The song begins with a scant drum beat, layering in a funky bass line and then Stelmanis’s (for the moment) subdued vocals. Slowly, a steel drum patch synth chord weaves into the mix. After her voice starts picking up in operatic pitch in the pre-chorus, the instrumentation drops out in time for Stelmanis to deliver the line “A sweetness I’ve been craving.” From here, the song moves into its first transition, exploding into a mixture of high hat clashes, drawn out synth chords, and soaring vocals. After Stelmanis delivers the line, “I’m over you,” the next transition takes place, sending the chorus into a looping of “I’m over you” over and over again another twelve times. Each time that she delivers the line, the delivery blurs more and more into the instrumentation, a figurative letting go that is actualized by her letting her vocal meld into pure sound. With another transition, the song moves to the second verse, following the same sonic structure of the first, minus the pre-chorus. After running through the chorus and both of its transitions again, everything except a light drum pattern and Stelmanis’s low vocals drop out of the mix. A classic deep house move, both her voice and the instrumentation slowly build up in volume again until they quickly drop and then soar up as the synths and bass come back in with the next transition. Singing “I’m so tired of listening to you,” Stelmanis sends the song into one more transition and eventual fadeout. The song wraps up with Stelmanis’s pristine vocals glossing over an increasingly faint bass line and steel drum patch synth chords. Even after moments of pause along the way, Stelmanis ultimately keeps on moving to what’s next.
“I Am Not Waiting” and its sonics resonate for me in terms of both my intentions for the year and how quarantine has necessarily required some creative adjustment to them. At the start of the year and the new decade, I made a conscious decision to emotionally start to let go of a collection of ex-girlfriends, lovers, and/or romantic friends for whom it felt like I was leaving a candle burning in the window. With the help of my first tarot deck (and constantly drawing the Three of Swords), I made a commitment to centering myself in an inner peace grounded in a deepened commitment to self-love—and then moving out to my relationships (both platonic and/or romantic) from that place. Although I was sleeping with someone at the time, there was a lot of distance organically built into the situation, which allowed me the space to reconnect with this part of myself. For the first time in a long time in my sexual/romantic life, I felt that I was living in the calm and consistent rhythm of the verses of “I Am Not Waiting.” But then, those first and second chorus drops—and explosions—happened: someone to whom I felt very drawn reappeared in New Orleans and someone whom I had not spoken to since last summer in New York responded to my checking in/coronavirus text. What does “I am not waiting” mean in a moment of flux and crisis, when seemingly all of life is on pause or at least delayed? In weekly phone calls with my handful of closest friends and biweekly therapy sessions, I keep saying (or keep needing to hear again), “We have to be extra generous with both ourselves and others at this moment.” This couldn’t be more true. At the same time, I find that this moment makes it easier for me to let go of idealized versions of who I thought or wanted people to be, beginning with myself. More than anything, I am not waiting for a magical fix on myself anymore—or for the uncertainties of my (career/life) future to suddenly dissipate into the air. Instead, I am choosing to sit in the uncomfortable uncertainties this moment brings.
And so, once again, Austra’s music is bringing me to question the entirety of how I structure my life, both due to quarantine and the additional time for self-reflection (a privileged statement, I know) that it’s allotted me. In many ways, it is not surprising to me that this moment is amplifying a school year in which I had already been exploring polyamory with a greater intentionality than previously. As my best friend from UT and I talk about whenever we do our weekly(-ish) phone call, our 6-8 years in the South/at UT has inspired a queerness that’s grown along desiring, fucking, and (sometimes even) loving within and across time zones and geographic boundaries, a situational poly-ness grounded in an openness to letting ourselves move with connections as they emerge. These past six years have taught me so much about the beauty and power of connecting with people through intellectual stimulation, physical intimacy, and shared experiences. And that, to me, is a space that queerness has always granted me. At the same time, the public health realities of the current moment have me reconsidering the ways I was flowing between sexual partners in the fall and how much I’ve generally relied on romantic and sexual connections in different cities and states during my time in the South. In another weekly phone call with my best friend from UT/NYU, we’ve been thinking together about how to best make time for and give space to lovers and friends, never mind ourselves, during a global pandemic that we hardly expect to let up anytime soon. As critical theory/performance studies nerds, we keep landing back on the need to change how we’re imagining desire, pleasure, and intimacy in this moment—and how we might need to conceptualize an entirely new politics of pleasure for the indefinite future.
In this unquestionably transformational spring, I’m grateful to have new music from Katie Stelmanis in yet another moment of personal transition. While conceptually an album about toxic relationships, its songs, for me, are a calling to reimagine how we come together as both individuals and collectivities. In this way, it is not so dissimilar from what Feel It Break first prompted me to do back in May 2011.
The last time that I saw Austra perform was at Mohawk in Austin in February 2017. Although it was winter and the show was outside, it was warm enough that I could go in my favorite concert outfit of Docs, skinny jeans, tshirt, and a hoodie. As I watched the band take the stage from my spot of front row and center, I noticed that the band had been paired back down to just Stelmanis, Postepski, Wolf, and Wosniak. Stelmanis was dressed in a flowy yellow pant suit that night, visually popping out against the mix of blue and purple lights. Having met her after the First Unitarian Church show back in 2011 (where we bonded over how much we love Sleater-Kinney), it felt comforting to be back in her presence that night. February 2017 was a weird time for me, as I was nearing the end of a eight-month dry spell (an usually long amount of time of me going without having sex with someone since moving south) and, by force, re-evaluating my relationship to desire and pleasure. And then I got lost in the music I first had nearly six years ago back at Voyeur, where pleasure had been about riding out the waves of sound, affect, and vibration out to a satisfactory completion. After the show, I stuck around to see if I could catch anyone from the band. When I spotted Postepski hanging around the stage, I went to introduce myself to her. “I remember you,” she said. “You’ve been at a lot of our shows before, standing up in the front and dancing.” We then proceeded to talk about our love of house and techno, and she gave me recommendations of stuff to listen to that was coming out of Berlin, where I was hoping to go the next (and then the next and then the next…) summer. We soon hugged goodbye—and I said I would see her soon, either in Berlin or out on the road with Austra again, taking it for granted that one would happen.
I am especially feeling the loss of seeing Austra live—and live music in general—this month. This May, I was supposed to go home to NYC and see three of my favorite bands: U.S. Girls, Austra, and Land of Talk. While the U.S. Girls show has been cancelled, the Austra one has been tentatively rescheduled for early October while the Land of Talk one has been postponed indefinitely. With Stelmanis working with different collaborators this time, I won’t see Maya on this tour—and I might only get to see Katie from a distance, if the concert even still happens. As with Holly Miranda, it’s weird to think about having gone so long without seeing them live at this point. As music fans, lovers, and writers, our relationship to the music we love and the artists that make it is a beautifully nuanced one. Although I’ve only talked with these artists just a little bit, my relationship to Austra’s music—and the relationships in my life that I’ve been able to grow around it—makes it all feel very personal to me. I think when I mourn the current loss of live music, it’s these moments of connectivity over which I feel the most grief. I feel the loss of just being present in the music—and of seeing who I move towards when the drum beat stops and the synth chords let up for the night. But, perhaps, our relationships to the pleasures of (political) music is what must also change in this moment, along with our politics of pleasure.
This is the second in a series of three posts about contemporary artists whose music has deeply moved me. You can read the first post about Holly Miranda here and the third post about Land of Talk here.