Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Katie Stelmanis, Pride Toronto & the politics of outsidership

Musicians set to play Pride were itching to act out

Katie Stelmanis is a stormy, operatic indie rocker. She says musicians who oppose censorship, like herself, were caught between a rock and a hard place when Pride Toronto banned the term "Israeli apartheid" from the parade in May. Credit: David Hawe

“It’s a very difficult position to be in.”

Musician Katie Stelmanis pauses, her voice troubled.

“To be asked to play Pride is so exciting.  There’s few gigs as fun as playing Toronto Pride. But it’s been so upsetting,” she says. “The whole experience is tarnished by the corporation of Pride making such a terrible mistake.”

Stelmanis is considering Pride’s now-overturned decision to ban the term “Israeli apartheid” from this year’s march, which would have ousted the political group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). The ban was lifted at the 11th hour on June 23.

Stelmanis is billed to close out the Alterna-Queer Stage (as Private Life) on the day of the parade.

The opera-turned-pop singer has found herself becoming increasingly political as her career has progressed.

“Just being in music, I get more and more political every year. I find I have a lot to say about women in music and being queer in music… and I want that political voice. As a musician, I’m given this opportunity to embrace it.”

Based in Toronto, Stelmanis found her musical roots in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus at age 10. While her first pop endeavour, Galaxy, earned her a feminist cult following across Canada, Stelmanis’s solo project has seen her career branch out into more mainstream pop success.

Since the dissolution of Galaxy three years ago, she has released a solo album (Join Us), toured Canada, the US and Europe, opened for Tegan and Sara, and released a 7-inch on Vice in the UK. Vice will release a second record, a 12-inch, in August — and she’s working on a full album with them.

It seems like a lot but, Stelmanis laughs, “We’re just getting started!”

“The highlights keep changing along the way. Initially we did everything ourselves, connecting with communities and booking our own gigs. But we’re still working so hard! We’ve done so much touring, but we don’t yet have a following. Are we living the dream? Not yet.”

Stelmanis is a musician who once heard is not easily forgotten. Her arsenal is simple: piano and MIDI noise percolations shape simple songs that subtly grow into breathtaking, cathartic moments. Stelmanis’s lush, dark pop songs confound critics; she writes less for lyrics and meaning than she does for the musicality and rhythm of words. 

Stelmanis’s videos, in particular, have captured attention. The powerful yearning ballad “Believe Me” explores the occult, with witches in a choreographed dance on a riverbank.

Stelmanis’s cover of Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman” became an unexpected success. The video, which explores transgenderism, was produced by a group of Danish high school students for a school project.

“I was so blown away. After we played a show in Denmark, one of the girls at the show made a video for her high school project. It’s such a beautiful video and an amazing concept. People in Denmark are so socially aware at such a young age. It ended up showing at a few festivals, like Inside Out. It’s actually done really well.”

With its exploration of gender, the bold Franklin classic may well be one of the songs sung by Stelmanis at Pride Toronto. But Stelmanis is thinking carefully about her performance. She planned to make her feelings known on the matter of censorship at Pride Toronto.

Stelmanis went so far as to meet with fellow musicians to discuss the censorship and boycott possibilities.

“I looked at the lineup and realized I knew everyone. I trusted everyone would feel the same way I do. So we discussed what we could do as performers, because it’s important for us to connect and voice our opinions.”

That may have changed with Pride’s decision to get out of the censorship business. But her anger over Pride Toronto’s initial decision is evident.

“I feel it’s pretty disgusting what Pride has done. They made a terrible decision in caving to pressure from rich people and corporations. Their decision doesn’t reflect the spirit of Pride. It’s a step back and I feel it’s really dangerous. But the backlash has been beautiful. The community is really coming together.”