There's nothing like a winter deep-freeze to endear you to harsh, icy keyboards playing fractured 80s new wave songs with an orchestral bent, with a slightly goth-y emotive female voice over top. Weather effects my impressions of music to a large degree, and Katie Stelmanis does not make summer campfire music.
Her debut album Join Us came out recently on Blocks Recording Club, and it's far removed from either the work she does as part of the choir in Bruce Peninsula or that she did as one third of Galaxy, a short-lived post-riot-grrrl band she formed when she was still a teenager. She was born in the same year that Kate Bush unleashed her Hounds of Love and Depeche Mode hosted a Black Celebration, and her love of lo-fi keyboards and occasionally harsh textures recalls some of the wide-eyed, earnest innocence of that period--which, of course, was often coupled with grandiose pretensions that haven't held up well.
It's easy to understand how unsettling Stelmanis's music might be to many for a variety of reasons; her operatic vocals are divisive, and when they're put to use on an underdeveloped, repetitive song they come off as more of an affectation. But while she's still very young as a songwriter, tracks like "Broken," "Heavens," "You'll Fall" (which first appeared on Friends in Bellwoods) and the haunting "Steady" find her revelling in inverted arpeggios, distorted percussion and captivating vocals. The lyrics--well, even she's a bit baffled by those, as we see below.
Her Toronto CD release at the Silver Dollar on January 11 was a packed affair, marking the debut of her full live band--which hits the road in the next week with shows in Waterloo (January 27) and Guelph (January 31). Watch out for the Roy Orbison cover, which does not appear on Join Us, and the Carole King cover, which does. This interview was conducted for a piece in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record which will run this weekend.
January 13, 2008
Locale: Rustic Cosmo Café, Queen @ Dufferin
There are no lyrics included here. Why?
A lot of the time I don’t have real lyrics. On this record especially, a lot of the lyrics don’t make any sense. I didn’t want to commit to anything. I wanted people to interpret it themselves. When I was writing these sorts of songs, I didn’t really care about writing lyrics. I thought I wasn’t very good at it and that was okay; but now I’m working harder on it. This album is all older stuff, obviously. A song like “Steady” or “Harder Now” have lyrics that don’t make any sense at all. When I listen to them now, it’s sometimes frustrating.
Do you feel like that lyric in your new song, “I risk nothing?” Do you feel that in writing lyrics that don’t make sense that there’s less element of risk, or exposing yourself emotionally? Because the vocal delivery itself is very emotive.
That’s definitely a part of it. The way I do it now, I always record the vocal lines first and improvise that. And later on I’ll turn the words into sentences. But on most of these tracks I just kept the first take. Now I focus on fixing them.
Whenever I hear music like this where it sounds very emotive, I pay closer attention to the lyrics because I want to be drawn in even closer. And whenever I’m unable to do that, it’s not that different from listening to non-English-speaking music, where you’re forced to accept the music purely for what it is, latch on to the emotion in the music.
That’s what it is for me. Because I never listen to lyrics, and I don’t know any to any songs. When people started commenting on the fact that I don’t have lyrics, it surprised me that anyone would care. I have a strong background in opera; I listened to it all through high school. And I never knew what it meant.
I never saw Galaxy, but in everything I’ve read about them all the discussion centres around identity politics. Did you write lyrics in that band?
I wrote some lyrics, but mine didn’t make any sense. But the other singer in that band is a really political feminist and was into all that, and we all went along with it. I mean, I’m a feminist too, but it’s not the focus of my music per se—where it really was for her. So she would make a point of raising those issues in all our interviews. Which is fine; I’m proud to have been part of a group that did that.
People come to that kind of music with all kinds of preconceptions, on both side: either they’re attracted to it before they even hear the music, or they’re put off before they even hear the music.
That wasn’t a purpose that music was meant to serve for me, having a message about how you should live your life. The words on this album are supposed to be about a moment, a feeling.
What artists are you drawn to where you get that same thing from, where it’s more about delivery and sound rather than particular words?
All the artists I could mention are just the bigwigs of music: Bjork and Radiohead. That’s what I listened to all through high school. But Nina Simone is also a big one, as is Queen. Otherwise, I don’t listen to that much music now. I did in my late teens, but I haven’t bought a CD in a long time.
With the operatic background, I’m wondering if Diamanda Galas was an influence too, as someone with a very technical background who is very conscious about how she uses and abuses her vocals, how she flirts and fucks with it.
She’s amazing. I hadn’t heard of her until Blocks [Recording Club] wrote a one-sheet about me that mentioned her—and other people they were comparing me too that I hadn’t heard of. But when I heard her stuff, I was totally blown away and was totally flattered.
Was Galaxy your first band?
Yes, in 2004.
And both of them are in your current band?
No, just the drummer, Maya. The other guitarist in that band, Emma McKenna, opened the [CD release] show with her solo stuff.
With a band like that, are you all better off once you break up?
I think so. We all started really young. We were teenagers. It was good for us to learn how to be a band. We didn’t really figure that out until after we broke up. The ensemble that we had was only capable of going so far in making the kind of music we wanted to make. After a while, I personally got bored of it. There’s only so much you can do with two guitars and a drum kit. We were all less eager to play the same shows over and over and get bored.
What direction did Emma go in?
She plays electric guitar and sings, and it’s more singer/songwriter-y—though not folkie. It’s more like old Cat Power and early PJ Harvey. It’s amazing, and I’m a huge fan. They’re way better songs than Galaxy ever had! Galaxy songs were too all over the place. We just wanted to be good guitar players, so there were a million riffs thrown in there that didn’t make any sense.
Obviously piano is in your background.
What struck me live was the texture of the keyboards, which was very abrasive. The tonality was really piercing—not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Why are you drawn to those?
Obviously the sound at the Silver Dollar isn’t the best thing, so it might have been particularly piercing. But I’m always drawn to things that aren’t very pretty. I like to keep people at the edge of their seats. Part of the reason for that is that it’s so easy for me to do the pretty thing: a pretty voice! A pretty piano! I’ve been singing classical music for years, so that’s old for me. I’m also a big fan of loud rock music, so when I first started playing with my MIDI samples, I’d throw distortion on everything. And I still do. When I distort it, it sounds better than a regular MIDI violin would, it sounds more full.
I imagine part of the reason you’re working with these sounds are related to personnel and finances; I’m guessing you made this by yourself and added members later.
If you had full financial resource, would you orchestrate the music the same way?
It’s difficult to say. I definitely am partial to the “not real” sounds. But I could invest in better samples. I’d be interested in toying with the idea of how strings would sound, but the idea of bringing in a bassoon player and a French horn player is a huge thing. I have a bit of leeway in that I can make things sound real and passionate just with my singing voice. I have a well-trained voice so I know how to work that, and I don’t have to have real instruments to make it sound moving. I don’t like the way I sound in front of a real string quartet. It’s too easy for me.
The voice isn’t treated with many effects…
No, it’s pretty straight up.
And so the human warmth is very much there, creating a contrast with the icy background.
That’s why I was drawn to the distorted stuff. I never want to be a pretty voice on top of pretty instruments.
You sang in choirs before, but did you write vocal pieces before? Because there are some really interesting vocal arrangements here.
I didn’t start writing songs until I was 18, and that was just guitar stuff. When I got my computer I realized I could layer voices. But being in choirs puts that into your head naturally. It’s easy for me to orchestrate stuff, because I’m used to hearing where all the voices go. I also played viola for ten years, and played in orchestras and string ensembles, and so that helps too.
I’m curious about the contrast between your own music and your role in Bruce Peninsula, because on some level they seem like polar opposites. One is very personal and lots of synthesized sounds, and the other is very communal and more hands-in-the-earth. Is that what you enjoy about it?
Bruce Peninsula is really fun, and I love hanging out with everyone and belting it out on stage. We’ve had lots of great shows. I don’t have much creative input in that band. I just show up and sing. Most of the singers are like that, except Misha, who does some songwriting as well. My own stuff will always be a priority, obviously. And Bruce Peninsula is also different because there are so many people that touring just seems impossible. Thinking about it just blows our minds.
When I interviewed them back in August, they were saying that the band formed and grew, but now they were realizing that with all the talent in the band they were trying to figure out a way to better use everyone’s talents—they mentioned your keyboard skills specifically. Do you think that would work with everyone’s time commitments, or is the current division of labour ideal for that band?
Personally, I like that. With my backup band, I have all the parts either recorded or written out for them, they learn it on their own, and we get together and play. All my players are replaceable—though I don’t want to replace them, because I can’t imagine who else I would get. But I can tour under any circumstances. Whereas with Bruce Peninsula, you can’t assume everyone wants to drive for six days out to BC, play a few gigs and spend $300 in gas. It’s not something everybody wants to do. Instead of making it bigger, I think Bruce Peninsula should focus on making it feasible, making it something they can do. They have big ideas and big ambitions—which is awesome—but they have to think about how they can do that.
Last Friday was the first time I’d seen you perform your solo material. How do you approach it differently when it is just you and backing tracks? Is it more daunting or do you embrace it and run with it?
Having a band is a forward progression for me. I started off with the backing tracks, and then I started playing with Maya from Galaxy, doing glock stuff. Then I brought in Carmen Elle, who started doing electronic stuff. Then I realized that if I had another keyboard player, I’d be able to cover all the bases. That was the first show we’d all played together. It was terrifying, because I didn’t realize there would be such a big turnout.
Who is the other keyboard player?
Allie Hughes. She is into musical theatre, so she has a powerful singing voice. She teaches two days a week, and otherwise she’s totally committed to music—making her the ideal band member. It’s awesome. I’m very lucky to have her.
I was really struck by Maya’s drumming—even just the fact that she stands up, which I wish more drummers would do. I don’t know what she was like in Galaxy, but her orchestral background is very apparent in the way she approaches your material.
In Galaxy she played drum kit, which she loved doing. She also plays with Emm Gryner and toured with The Organ for a summer. I think my band is a nice combination between the two for her, and she’s challenged by it because she has to do so many things at once. She just got this new thing called a xylo-synth. It’s a digital marimba, with real wooden keys that are very sensitive, but you can program any sound into it. That will be great with the band, and being able to replicate the sounds from the CD. We were going to use it for the show, but we weren’t going to have it ready.
The Carole King cover here—“You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”—I’m assuming you learned that for the tribute to Tapestry at the Tranzac sometime last year?
While the melody is faithful, your version doesn’t seem to have any of the same chords as the original. Is it remotely close?
Remotely, yeah. Carole King’s rendition of it is so classically 60s and 70s, the chords are all diminished and dominant sevenths. There aren’t any straight-up major or minor chords. I stripped everything down to the bare bones and made everything a bit more minor-y.
Considerably more minor-y, I’d say.
Why that song? What appeals to you about that song? How important is Tapestry to you?
Tapestry is an album I’ve always listened to ever since I was in high school. I was never a die-hard fan of it, because I’m not really into that style of piano. My main draw to Carole King was her lyrics—which is weird for me to say. As a singer, they are the most fun songs in the world to sing. They’re so rewarding, everything about them. They’re so dramatic, and there’s so much you can do with it. I’ve been singing “Natural Woman” for so long, and when I heard about the tribute night, I claimed that song immediately.
The album is called Join Us. Join who?
I don’t know! I came up with that album title the day before it was printed. I like it because it’s funny that it’s just me by myself. And it just sounds nice, trying to draw people into it.
It will probably look great on posters, too. “Tonight, Katie Stelmanis…”