"People have always been good at imagining the end of the world," wrote Rebecca Solnit, "which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end."
The future won't look like the past: dystopian dread takes this for granted, but utopian imagination is just as valid. Future Politics, Austra's third, and most ambitious album to date, calls for radical hope: "a commitment to replace the approaching dystopia," says Katie Stelmanis, who leads Austra with the support of Maya Postepski (Princess Century, TR/ST), Dorian Wolf, and Ryan Wonsiak. "Not just hope in the future, but the idea that everyone is required to help write it, and the boundaries of what it can look like are both fascinating and endless. It's not about 'being political,' it's about reaching beyond boundaries, in every single field."
Future Politics, a collection of urgent, but disciplined anthems for dancefloor and headphones, asks each of us to remember that apocalypse is not an inevitability, but the product of human decision-making. It aims for a world without borders, where human compassion and curiosity drive technological innovation rather than profit, where the necessity of labor is replaced with time for creativity and personal growth, and the terror and destruction wrought by colonialism and white supremacy is recognized as a dark age in human history. The album is radicalism distilled: to galvanic beats, gorgeous, kinetic melodies, and the vulnerable majesty of Stelmanis's voice. "Future Politics," with its steady, propulsive beat and siren-like synth hook, is both anthem and ultimatum: we have a duty to imagine better, and to imagine big.
Stelmanis, wrote, produced and engineered the album, with Maya Postepski adding production on half the tracks. It was mixed by Alice Wilder, the band's live engineer, and mastered by Heba Kadry in New York. But its haunting first single, "Utopia," is heart-filling, irresistible pop that feels pulled from the air. "Freepower" deals with the paradox of a physical world in peril while our collective consciousness evolves—there is no denying our reliance on each other and the systems we invent. "To solve the problems of global capitalism," Stelmanis says, "you need to think on the level that global capitalists are thinking."
Making Future Politics was a process of starting from zero. Austra's debut, 2011's Feel It Break, and 2013's critically celebrated Olympia, were followed with five years of non-stop touring, and half a decade without a fixed address. Katie settled in Montreal, where she found herself alone, facing both a language barrier and the dissolution of a few faith-sustaining relationships, romantically and within the band. "I knew writing this record would have nothing to do with music at first," Stelmanis says. "It needed to have a purpose other than just my own ego." The album's center suite, "I'm a Monster" through "Angel in Your Eye," is about the intersection of personal depression and collective despair.
Despair can be paralyzing, but it can act as a compass—the less you can ignore, the more you have to act. "I had a process of overcoming my own cynicism," Stelmanis says. "I came to a whole bunch of philosophers and economists who were writing about real possibilities for reinventing society." Texts that took a realistic approach to climate change and economic disaster, while offering real alternatives: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams; Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything; David Harvey's Rebel Cities. The album's opener, "We Were Alive," is about "overcoming apathy—becoming more political, and more earnest."
In 2015, Stelmanis moved to Mexico City, where the album was completed. (The cover art was photographed at the Cuadra San Cristóbal, Mexican architect Luis Barragán's famous equestrian estate.) "It was an invigorating, and creatively liberating time—I was entirely immersed in the culture, and in the magic realism of Mexico's rich and violent history," Stelmanis says. "Economic disparity is a huge topic of conversation every day in Mexico, as is colonialism and neoliberalism, and how NAFTA fucked over Latin America. Reading about this history and contrasting it with the white capitalist theory I had learned in school made the issues I was reading about in Montreal feel more global, and feel bigger." The album's final track, "43," is about the 43 students disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero in 2014, written from the perspective of a mother who is searching for her son.
In Mexico, Stelmanis was introduced "to a whole generation of Latin American producers who are mixing traditional folk music with techno beats. It's an underground revolution rooted in the preservation and celebration of Latin American indigenous cultures, and also Latin American independence from the USA—very similar to what A Tribe Called Red is doing in Canada." Inspiration also came from European club culture—Objekt, Peter Van Hoesen, Lena Willikens, and '90s legends like Massive Attack; in all, artists who understand the dancefloor as a source of radical ideas and radical joy.
Stelmanis's music has always had a political charge—after high school she performed in the riot grrrl band Galaxy, with Postepski and Emma McKenna—but this "has become more important as I've gotten older. I've experienced more sexism in my industry, I've witnessed the downfall of the middle class, I've lived through George W. Bush and Stephen Harper." (Her latest album credits only women as producers, mixing and mastering engineers.) This is a reversal of the cliché that radicals get more conservative with age. If you're old enough to have seen both the nightmarish and the fantastical become ordinary, but young enough to imagine the rest of your life, the more radicalism seems like common sense.
Change, Solnit writes, comes from "writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media"—also "artists, club scenes, parties, teenagers, ghettoes," says Stelmanis. "Every single person's idea about the future is valid and relevant, especially the freaks and the queers and the outsiders." This is DIY on a global scale: the ethos of a self-made, self-determining culture, but with global imperatives. "To change the cultural landscape—which is what we do as artists—is to essentially change the mainstream."