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How Taking A Leap Of Faith Took Austra's 'HiRUDiN' To The Next Level

30 April 2020 | 12:41 pm | Austra

Austra, aka Katie Austra Stelmanis, took a completely different approach with her fourth album, ‘HiRUDiN’, seeking out all-new collaborators to produce an album that explores bold new soundscapes. The Canadian singer-songwriter shares insight with us ahead of the album’s release this Friday (May 1).

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When I set out to make HiRUDiN I knew I wanted to do things differently, and for me, that meant collaborating with other people. Making music had previously always been a very insular process for me and I’d grown weary of working alone. And so, from the beginning, I had to figure out how and who to collaborate with which was a process in itself.

One of the first sessions I booked was at a studio in Toronto. I didn’t have a manager at the time but being Canadian I had some Canadian grant funding, so I decided to spend it on a few days of working with improv musicians I’d never met before. If I did have a manager they probably would have advised me against it as studio time is expensive and gambling your time on a bunch of people you don’t really know certainly sounds a bit risky - however, those few days in Toronto ending up being some of the most inspiring moments I’ve had in the studio.

In terms of finding people to work with, I was already in a community of musicians in Toronto that I’ve known for years and who are great, but Toronto is a big city, and I knew there were people doing interesting things outside of this insular group and I wanted to find them. So, I went deep diving online, and ended up making contact with some very exciting instrumentalists.

The first was an all-girl Filipino gong punk band called Pantayo. They play traditional Filipino gongs and meld them with electronic music and make some of the craziest music I’ve ever heard. They came in one day and we had so much fun together I brought them in again on the last day to play on a few more tracks. I also met a duo called Kamancello made up of Raphael Weintroth-Brown, a cellist from the Glen Gould school who also plays in a lot of metal bands, and Shahriyar Jamshidi who plays the Kurdish kamancheh. Upon hearing a song for the first time ever they began playing along to it and with each other and all of us in the control room started crying because it was so beautiful! 

The third group was called c_RL - an improvisational noise group, usually a trio but only two were available. They’re made up of Alison Cameron, a noise artist who uses lots of tiny electronics to make insane noises, and Germaine Lu, a noise percussionist and sound designer who can make the most unreal sounds from playing whatever is lying around in a room. Their work is on almost every single track on the record.

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I also invited Raul Refree, who is a guitar player from Barcelona, I came across from his work with Rosaliía. I wanted him to play flamenco guitar and he confessed to me he wasn’t a “real” flamenco guitar player but he could play acoustic guitar, and so our collaboration was born. And finally, I had a kids choir in, that was made up of students from my mom’s school. The choir was 12 girls who had never been in a music studio before and it just so happened the day when we recorded we were all women in the control room. I didn’t even notice but one of the parents pointed out how cool it was for her daughter to be introduced to the recording industry in this context. 

This session was only a few days but provided the bedrock of material I was able to work with throughout the following year of working on the album. I was able to sample out sounds from all the players and apply them to new songs that hadn’t yet been written, and I still have this huge bank of material I haven’t had a chance to even look at yet. 

Coming out of this relatively chaotic approach to music-making I needed some help to bring things together, which is where the producer Rodaidh McDonald came in. He’s great at bringing ideas together and helping songs “gel” in such a way that they’re computable for normal people’s brains. I worked with a second co-producer, and that was Joseph Shabason, who is a saxophone/synth player from Toronto. He makes beautiful ambient records under his own name that feel heavy and warm and textured and I wanted that tonal quality to exist across my tracks. So in this way, Rodaidh was the kind of producer who sits on a couch at the back of the room and spouts out ideas, whereas Joseph is very hands-on, actually playing a lot of the parts. They both brought an invaluable contribution. 

Throughout these collaborative sessions, I also worked a lot by myself. In fact, they usually occurred one after the other: I’d collaborate, and then work alone with the material I’d amassed from that session, and so on. Although I love collaborating, I still find I need to be alone to come up with a lot of my own ideas, and that newfound balance between independence and community is one I hope to explore further in the future.