Katie Stelmanis: “My parents were like ‘You play too much!'”

26.06.09 Words by: Charlie Jones

The past six months has seen a glut of ‘quirky’ female solo artists be crowned – or-not-so-crowned – the next-big-thing: La Roux ’s androgynous electro, Marina & her Diamonds ’ and Florence & her Machine’s outrospection, and Little Boot ’s usurping of pop for pop’s sake. As if the ability for the female gender to present themselves musically was more of a trend that somehow, spuriously, sprouted out of the late noughties. It’s almost passé, right?

Existing outside of this short-termism is Torontonian ‘goth’ Katie Stelmanis. A classically-trained vocalist whose ability to present her playfulness and femininity transcends comparison – that training, the result of her participation in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus since the age of 10. Arias, anyone?

Previously a member of the now defunct post-riot grrrl act Galaxy and the harmonious Bruce Peninsula – both distractions from further (obsessive) operatic scholarly pursuit. Her debut solo album ‘Join Us’ was released earlier this year on Blocks Recording Club, to little attention outside of Canada. Not just a label, Blocks is an ‘Artist’s-owned Worker’s Co-operative’ based in Toronto which has released fellow contemporaries work such as Final Fantasy and Kids on TV. More akin to a ‘club’ than a definitive label-operation, then. Some may also have heard her voice on Fucked Up ’s Chemistry of Common Life , singing on the brilliantly messy Royal Swan.

Her relative anonymity is sure to change with her first UK offering released a week ago, a split VICE/LOOG release ‘Believe Me’ alongside a cover of Roy Orbison – a current predilection of Katie’s. Like the album, ‘Believe Me’ is an oracular exploration: testing the limits of her operatic training alongside a mêlée of classical structures and experimental noise. It all comes together in a haunting yet childlike manner. On tracks like ‘Join Us’, the choral eeriness contrasts with the joyful arpeggios to great effect. And the way she flits between different vocal ranges with great ease on ‘The Villian’ seems to almost reify the lyrical drama. Believe me? I most certainly do! I caught up with Katie amongst the antiquated furnishings of the Old Blue Last.

You were a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, how has the influenced the way you make music now?

I think the choir had the hugest influence out of anything in my whole life! Because, well, first of all, it was an opera choir, and so whenever the Canadian opera company would put on operas we were the kids that where in it. So I was in full-scale operas when I was like 10/11 years old. And I think that made me like it from a very early age; it’s an acquired taste, I would say. So, I was exposed to it really early & I became really obsessed by it. I think with the stuff I was doing first when I was making music that was the prime influence. I was like, “I want this song to be like an aria,” there are lots of other more popular influences, but for me, the singing. The way opera singers’ sing, I have the utmost respect for that out of any other form of singing in the world. And I’ve always just inspired to try and get the vocal effects whilst not actually singing opera – like the tone, its amazing!

Do you have to practice much to reach those notes?

Not at all! But its almost like it is for the best because I studied opera for 4 years, from about when I was 16, and I found that when I started playing in a rock band I didn’t know how to sing. It was just really awkward for, I guess, the first solid year – because I was too trained in one way that I couldn’t find the happy medium. So now I feel like I am in a groove where I feel comfortable, not that I think practising is bad but I wouldn’t want to study it again as I wouldn’t want to change that. I just want to work on what I am doing now.

It’s like a bastardised version of opera!

Yeah, I probably should be practicing more; because there are definitely certain things in my voice that I feel need working on.

Did you know from an early age you wanted to be involved in music, or did your parents force you into it?

I am pretty sure it was from an early age that I liked music, I wasn’t really pushed into music but I remember I had a toy piano when I was a kid and I was just obsessed with it. Plus I always used to sing and that’s why my parents were like “I guess we should put her in a choir” – I would sing all the time. So I’ve had a special affinity to music, but it was always just my choice to pursue it how I wanted to. I think I became a more belligerent studier of it than my parents ever wanted me to! I became obsessed with studying and practicing in my early years of high school & my parents were like “you play too much!”

Are you quite an obsessive person, then? I think there is a real obsessive element to your music…

Well it’s funny when it comes to everything else in life I am totally ADHD & can’t focus on anything – like I can’t sit through a movie and I hardly ever read books. But I guess I just get really obsessed with the music stuff – writing songs, as I do most of it on my computer at home and I find that’s the only thing that can keep me busy for hours without me being, like, “da di di da…”

What’s your other influences apart from Opera? You seem to have a predilection for emotive songwriting – even balladry – what with the covers of Roy Orbinson & Aretha Franklin, etc.?

I have a huge thing for voices: Nina Simone, Roy Orbinson, Bjork. All big singers – anyone who has a really powerful voice, I’ll automatically like them. But it’s hard to say as I feel like I’ve been through stages of whom I’ve been influenced by; when I first started I was obsessed with Nine Inch Nails and the early stuff I was doing was really industrial & I think I got pinned as ‘gothy’ at an early stage & I was like “really?” More recently, I’ve been into The Knife – they’re one of my favourite bands & influence me hugely. Also bands like Final Fantasy and Grizzly Bear, who’re making music right now from a classical background like I do but use it differently. They’re amazing – obviously.

Your two videos are pretty special; they have a real childlike quality to them that fits with the almost unaffected nature of the music.

The first two videos are definitely childlike! I didn’t really have any say in how the videos turned out. Obviously it went by me & I liked it, but the artist that produced it, Jesi the Elder, I knew from Toronto and she had a crazy MySpace page with all these videos on it that were all kinda insane; so I asked her to do the video for me and I didn’t really know what to expect. The videos that she produced are incredible – we had no budget – I love her interpretation of ‘Join Us’ as the sound is totally dinky sounding & I liked the angle she took on it: Sesame Steet.

Is the second video about the belief in witchcraft, then?

Her concept was that I am saying “believe me, they’re witches” or whatever. But I think the reason why she chose that concept was because I had been penned as gothy and there are all these youtube videos with me being interviewed as gothy plus the reviews from the first album were also like “its gothy, its gothy!” And so it was this joke that I was gothy, therefore Jesi wanted to go all the way with that but in a kitschy way. Like a funny play, because you wouldn’t call that video “gothy” it’s just kinda a funny play on it as I had been categorised in this really dark way.

Really? I find that strange; I almost think it’s the complete opposite! I mean, it’s melodramatic and, at times, ethereal, for sure… Where do you think that comes from?

I mean a lot of the stuff on the first album is really gothy, not like ‘Join Us’. Well, not gothy, I guess, just dark. But I don’t know why but people just listen to it and say “that’s goth!” I have this one song called ‘You’ll Fall’ where there is this really loud noise, like an industrial crash cymbal sound…

How is the UK tour going – you’re doing the length and breadth of the country nearly?

Actually we haven’t done much of the country yet, we’ve been in London for pretty much a month and we’ve done 7 or 8 shows in London in that time. So far we’ve had one-off shows in Birmingham, Nottingham & Bath but in July we’re doing like a solid 2 weeks where we’re going up North to do Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and all around those areas.

How does it compare to Canada, then?

Well the music scene and industry here [in the UK] is way different to Canada. Like I know right now it seems like there are so many bands from Canada becoming famous – for example, Fucked Up, Final Fantasy, Arcade Fire and Crystal Castles – but I don’t think of any of those bands as being part of the “Canadian music scene.” Canadian music is primarily folk rock and really mainstream indie rock & if you want to get anywhere there is one radio station called CBC which is the equivalent of BBC radio, and if you want to get anywhere in Canada they have to love you as that’s the only exposure you’ll get. They only play like folky, rocky stuff – so it’s actually like all the bands that are famous from Canada get famous outside of there and come back. Also, there’s zero electronic scene there. None – or maybe a tiny one in Toronto that’s just starting (other than the cheesy club scene) but there’s not really a market for electronic music. It’s funny with me because the CBC sort of likes me – “she’s got such a pretty voice” but then it’s like “her songs are so weird…”

So you don’t think they “get you” as much in Canada?

Well, I mean, I did get a good response in Canada, it just didn’t spread or go anywhere when I released the record! But then I find that elsewhere it’s moving much faster – we’re getting bigger opportunities outside of Canada, ones we’d never have gotten in Canada – from hardly ever being somewhere. Bigger cities like London and New York – and even the Vice release here is a pretty big deal for us, from coming from releasing through no one in Canada!

But don’t you release through Blocks Recording Collective there? How does that work then it seems quite punky like with Fucked Up and such?

Well Blocks Recording Club wasn’t started by Fucked Up but they definitely have shaped its identity in a lot of ways. Basically, it was just a bunch of friends who were like “let’s help each other release records” – I don’t know if we put the money together to start but we release records together, split the money & then release more records, and it just grew. Until then, there was no recording collective in Toronto. It still does all the Final Fantasy records plus the Fucked Up release and a few other moderately big acts in Canada like Kids on TV & the Creeping Nobodies. So they’re all pretty good bands, but I mean it is not a record label, and they don’t actually do anything for you – more a network of friends.

I assume that’s how you got involved in the Fucked Up record?

Yeah, basically. Whenever someone joins Blocks everyone hears the entire record. And then Fucked Up heard it they and they were like “oh, we like her,” so they put me on the record & that’s how we became friends.

You were previously in ‘Galaxy’ – how was the transition from something inherently feminist-orientated to something that’s all about you?

We started Galaxy when I was 18, my drummer, 16, and our guitar player who was 19, and we pretty much just did whatever she said. She was way cooler than us at the time – like she was totally gay and we both wanted to be gay & she helped us be gay! She was a huge feminist and knew everything about the riot grrrl scene, so the music was pretty much her outlet for extreme feminism. Like we were so serious about it for the first few years we were in it. We would practice all the time and I remember I was so serious about it because I just wanted to get famous in a band, I’d be like “guys we need to practice more!” Eventually it just filtered out as I was working on the solo stuff at the same time but I hadn’t actually performed it before, as I didn’t think it was possible. Then slowly I started doing it and I found it actually worked – then Galaxy fizzled out with no hard feelings, it was like “I think we’re done.”

I always found the idea of narrowly defining yourself in that way so constricting, almost unconstructive or something?

We totally idolised everything riot grrrl: “it’s so cool, it’s so amazing…” The riot grrrl singers at the time like Corin Tucker and Sleater-Kinney – we loved that. Yeah, we just didn’t know how to be in a band. We would play all the time in Toronto; we’d sit down and think, “Why isn’t anyone writing about us!” We didn’t realise you had to seek people out and then we’d wonder why we hadn’t been approached by record labels yet! I remember one time before we’d even finalised a drummer, Emma & I made a demo of our songs and put on midi-drums that didn’t even fit, sent it to Kill Rock Stars and thought, “we’re going to get signed.” It wasn’t even like we hoped this would happen, it was more “they’re going to listen to us and they’re going to sign us.” We’d question why we hadn’t heard from them yet, having no concept about how anything worked at all! I eventually learned more about being in a band through friends who were more progressed with their bands plus Blocks helped a lot too.

So you think you didn’t achieve much then?

Maybe. We had our own market just being overtly feminist; fans that just loved the lyrics and such. For me, in interviews, it was music first, feminism second, whilst Emma was like it’s politics first, music second. I just wanted to be myself and make the music that reflected that – she always had a “message”. Now it’s different, I’m still feminist and think its great, but I’ll hear interviews with Bjork and her take on it is just to do what she does – and that’s feminism in itself. I think that’s the reason why Bjork & Kate Bush became famous; they didn’t define themselves as feminist or “a woman”. And at the same time no one else did, because I think that their music and their whole persona was so crazy that it wasn’t like “that’s a woman” more “that’s a freak” or “those women are crazy”. It was alien.

Being a female musician in a band set-up everywhere we go we get tagged as “girl band, girl guitar players”. We get asked how we work the amp; it is neverending – when I was in Galaxy my drummer who did a 4-year degree in percussion got asked if she needed help tuning her drums! It happens all the time – you get categorised as a “woman” musician. It’s not about you categorising yourself but others narrowly defining you. So Bjork and Kate Bush avoided that through their inability to be categorised, they couldn’t be related to anything else at anytime.

Is that what you’d like to achieve – your music to be non-relational, completely nuanced and ‘out there’?

That’s what I’ve always wanted, to do something that was indefinable. I never wanted to be attached to a political message but find it impossible not too!

You said earlier that Canada lacked scenes, for me most alt-Canadian music seems to be revolved in some way around collectives and what not?

Not really. There’s Toronto & Montreal, which are the two main cities, and within them there is a lot of stuff going on. I mean there’s Broken Social Scene, but that’s one band that is a generation older than most of the younger people making music. It is actually just 15 people that are just friends – I guess 10 years ago they were just a bunch of people in a scene making music together. Toronto is pretty divided versus the rest of Canada were folk-rock prevails but it has pockets of scenes like noise and art-rock – like the Sick Lipstick. It’s more experimental and a bit “too cool for school…” The Montreal and Toronto scenes are pretty fluid with one another – although Quebec has its own Francophone music culture in itself. Chanson!

Any recommendations from your travels?

I feel like we’ve played with so many good bands lately and I can’t think of any of them now! I’m excited about playing with Telepathe plus there are a lot of bands from Toronto I like. But my favourite bands in music right now, as I said before, are Final Fantasy & Grizzly Bear. Oh, and Fever Ray, I’m going to see her at the Shepherds Bush Empire gig on 16 July and I’m really excited about it! I read a blog that Beth Ditto did where she said, “Fever Ray is the best live band I’ve ever seen” – so if she thinks so, I think that’s probably pretty good!

Katie’s Debut UK single Believe Me came out a week ago on Vice/LOOG. Buy buy buy!

Katie Stelmanis’ myspace

Katie is kind of in a category of one, but we interviewed Antony Hegarty a few months ago, which is worth reading.

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