Renata Raksha

Austra Imagine A Future You Can Dance To

How a move to Mexico honed the personal and political for the Canadian act

In the suburbs of Mexico City, the candy-colored buildings of Cuadra San Cristóbal stick out like a mirage. The seven-acre-plus equestrian estate, designed by renowned architect Luis Barragán in 1968, is crafted out of stand-alone concrete walls that are assembled like a theater, with wide-open spaces, partitions that double as frames, and a vivid color palette of pink, yellow, and red that clashes with the clay of the desert. Cuadra San Cristóbal is the backdrop for Katie Stelmanis on the cover of last month's Future Politics, the third album from her Toronto-based electronic group Austra. Featuring Stelmanis standing beside a horse and sporting a face-concealing, wide-brimmed red hat and flowing robes, the cover transfigures Cuadra San Cristóbal into a representation of the through line that drives the album: a vision of a viable utopia in which sustainability eclipses growth, technology is a tool for community building, and oppression — in all its insidious, contemporary forms — has been stamped out.

That notion is broken down with more specificity across Future Politics, released fortuitously on Inauguration Day. On the title track, relentless techno beats guide anticapitalist missives: “The system won’t help you when / Your money runs out … I’m looking for something / To rise up above.” Later, on the anthemic, pop-leaning “Gaia,” Stelmanis underlines conservationist fears in her classically trained soprano voice: “The physical world is the only world / If you kill the ground you walk on / Nobody will take you anyway.” Stelmanis makes it clear: what she deems future politics is very much rooted in the present.

In the green room above Brooklyn venue Warsaw the afternoon before Austra's headlining show, Stelmanis tells me the album's title reflects both personal and global issues. “It’s more about changing the way people think,” she explains. “I suppose I would just really love to be able to move away from this idea of individualism versus collectivism.” One example, Stelmanis notes, is the way some news networks place accountability on those in poverty for their circumstances. “If you watch Fox News for five minutes, they’re blaming homeless people for being homeless," she says. "That’s a sentiment that didn’t just come out of nowhere. That’s a sentiment that’s been very intentionally planted in people’s brains. I want people to be able to realize the bigger picture.”

Embedding her music with politics isn’t necessarily new ground for Stelmanis. As a high schooler in Toronto in the mid-2000s, she was in post–riot grrrl band Galaxy with current bandmate Maya Postepski and singer-songwriter Emma McKenna. Years later, on Austra’s 2013 album, Olympia, the loaded interlude “I Don’t Care (I’m a Man)” took dual shots at mankind’s capacity for destruction and patriarchal systems in general.

Future Politics, then, feels like a continuation. The album streamlines the band’s house, techno, and pop instincts into a dance-floor-ready set of 11 songs that doubles as a conceptual entreaty for a more magnanimous, technological utopia. Following the path laid out by albums like The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual and Anohni’s Hopelessness, Future Politics conveys its political ideas — inspired in part by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s 2013 technosocial essay “Accelerate Manifesto” — through forward-thinking, idiosyncratic electronic music. The Massive Attack–inspired opener, “We Were Alive,” uses a propulsive two-chord structure to ask one of the album’s more cynical questions: “Doctor, what’s the cure for apathy?” Meanwhile, “Beyond a Mortal,” with its frosty inverted synths and murmured vocals, recalls Björk’s lush electronic experimentation circa Vespertine. And the instrumental, minute-long “Deep Thought,” originally titled “Computers Have Feelings Too,” uses a MIDI keyboard that convincingly imitates a harp to blur the line between analog and digital composition.

What influenced Stelmanis most, however, was relocating to Mexico City in January 2015 to complete the album after an isolating winter spent in Montreal. “Mexico City, on a basic sensory level, is the complete opposite [of Montreal],” she says. “It’s warm and colorful and there’s constantly things happening. There’s so much action all the time. I feed off of stimulation.” The move inspired her to visually capture the country on the album cover, and it also led Stelmanis to learn more about Mexico’s music. She became enamored with electro cumbia in particular, a mash-up of old and new Latin American music that influenced Future Politics’s more downtempo tracks.

Stelmanis happened to arrive in Mexico at a turbulent time, following the mass kidnapping of 43 college students in the city of Iguala the previous year. “The place I would go for breakfast every day was this little tamales place that had the 43 portraits on the walls,” she says. “It was everywhere, and it was something that people were constantly talking about.” Stelmanis threaded the incident into “43,” the album’s downtempo final song. “I felt like I needed to include that in order to paint an accurate picture of Mexico,” she says. “The theme of the song, to me, also really related to a lot of the cases of police brutality in the States and Canada — it’s really just about not having any faith in the authorities and law enforcement.”

Corruption, oppressive systems of authority, and the indomitable flow of capitalism seem like linchpins of our current political climate — even Barrágan’s ranch is currently on the market with Christie’s for $13 million. But Stelmanis appears hopeful, and Future Politics feels like it could be its own kind of self-fulfilling utopian prophecy. “I think there’s a real lack of really progressive and radical ideas or plans or blueprints for the future,” she tells me. “I became obsessed with looking for that everywhere I could.” As for how music can play a role in changing things? “When you find [music] that’s really inspiring and can actually inspire you ... that’s a very good feeling,” she says. “It’s important to look for music that can catalyze ideas.”