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Austra's Katie Stelmanis: 5 songs that changed my life

Melody Lau

As the cliché goes, music is the soundtrack of our lives. But how does that play out for musicians, who put everything they have into actually creating the music we all know and love? In this series, CBC Music speaks with influential musicians and asks them to pick just five songs that changed their lives completely. A soundtrack to their professional life, as written by them.

Tracing Katie Stelmanis’s musical tastes is an easy way to track the trajectory of her band Austra’s evolution. When asked about the songs that had the biggest impact on her life, Stelmanis often made note of the fact that these songs have all inspired her, in one way or another, to tackle different recording techniques, tempos and writing styles.

From her days singing opera to her personal discovery of house, dance and techno — the latter of which largely influenced the songs on Austra's latest album Future Politics — Stelmanis’s musical journey is a fascinating blueprint for fans to get an insight into her influences and sonic shifts. Below are five songs that changed Stelmanis’s life.

Stream Austra's Future Politics now on CBC Music.

Nine Inch Nails, 'Just Like You Imagined'

“My very first roommate introduced me to Nine Inch Nails. I was a classical music kid who didn’t really listen to anything else and she was like, ‘Oh, you’d like Nine Inch Nails, it has pianos!’ So she played it for me a few times and I was like, 'I don’t know what you’re talking about.' But then, one day, it just clicked and I became obsessed with this song, so much so that all the music I proceeded to make for the next three years was me trying to imitate Trent Reznor. I put so much distortion on everything. My stuff sounded so bad, but I was addicted to distortion for a long time because of that.”

Puccini, 'Che Gelida Manina'

“When I was a kid, I was in this choir that would perform with the Canadian Opera Company and I was in a production of La bohème. I feel like I have all these revelations where I hear music a lot and then one day I just totally get it, and it often takes me a lot longer than it takes other people. But I just remember being backstage for that song at what was then the Hummingbird Centre and that particular song, ‘Che Gelida Manina,’ was just the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my entire life. I went on to get Puccini’s greatest hits CD and would just listen to it on my discman every single night before I went to bed for probably all of high school.”

Massive Attack, 'Unfinished Symphony'

“I played a show in Belgium a few years ago and it was this really small festival with only one stage. We played a couple of bands before Massive Attack and I stuck around and watched them play. I had never heard about them or cared about them, but it ended up being one of the best shows I had ever seen in my entire life. It just sounded so epic and the production they had was really, really good. It was super political. They posted newspaper headlines in the background the entire time. I bought their entire collection after I saw that show and ‘Unfinished Symphony’ is my favourite song and it kind of inspired my new record a lot.”

Steve 'Silk' Hurley, 'Jack Your Body'

“That song got me into dance music, which was a monumental moment in my life. I think that Hercules and Love Affair album that Antony [Hegarty] was on crossed this barrier between indie music and house music and club music in this way that made me realize I liked club music. This song, ‘Jack Your Body,’ is an '80s club song that just made me obsessed with dance music and house music. I’m more into techno now but at the time I got really into DJing and I would DJ that song. I went down this wormhole, obsessed with finding dance music. Dance music is such an interesting world because it’s just all these random producers all over the world, just existing on their own and making this super weird music, and I just love finding the weirdest productions. It’s really fun to DJ them because it feels like you wrote the song even though you didn’t! It’s the same satisfaction.”

Chancha Via Circuito feat. Lido Pimienta, 'Jardines'

“I spent a bunch of time in Mexico with this recent record and I had never heard of the musical genre electro cumbia. I remember being in an Uber with my friends that lived there and one of them put on Chancha Via Circuito and I was just like, ‘What are we listening to?’ It sounded like old-school cumbia from the '60s but then I did research and I realized that he’s a producer now. He samples a lot of old-school cumbia, especially Indigenous folk music and Peruvian folk music, and just turns them into Latin club music. It’s a huge trend all over Latin America and it’s amazing. I can’t believe that I had never experienced it before. I hadn’t felt that in a really long time, just being completely floored by something new, to me.”

More to explore

First Play: Austra, Future Politics

How science fiction helped Austra's Katie Stelmanis craft Future Politics

Brendan Canning: 5 songs that changed my life