SAFIA share the ins & outs of their stunningly cinematic second record with us

It’s a tough thing to follow up a successful debut record. Canberra trio SAFIA know all about that. In 2016, fresh-faced, they shared their debut record Internal with the world. Peaking at number 2 on the ARIA Charts, the record saw them share their highly intentional fusion of indie-pop, melding infectious hooks with singer Ben Woolner‘s beautifully cascading vocal across a variety of different moods and sonic palettes.

The trio return today with their highly-anticipated follow-up record, Story’s Start or End that marks a totally new era for the group. They’ve spent the better part of the last few years taking their incredibly sought after live show all around the world, so getting to take a break and really buckle down to write this record was something that was important to them.

They headed back to their hometown of Canberra to dig deep and go back to their instinctive roots to write the new record, and aptly so. When you’re comfortable with a place, there’s really no place like home.

Story’s Start Or End sees them continue that same SAFIA edge explored in Internal, but there’s a maturity and confidence about the record that rings true throughout each track. Whether it be the dulcet, airy tones of the record’s opener ‘Ivory Lullaby’ or the psych-influenced, breathy ‘Cellophane Rainbow’ or the wonky, powerful performance displayed in ‘Animal At Most’, every sound has been attacked with confidence and grace, making for a diverse record that never repeats itself.

There’s a lot of surprised embedded into the record, with the band’s attention to detail being the most defining feature of the release.

In order to get to know SAFIA and their time between records, we sat down with Ben to chat the record, writer’s block and translating these new tracks into a live setting.

Your second record Story’s Start Or End is out today! Your debut record, Internal, felt incredibly cinematic already, but the sound design on this new record is on another level. What have you done this time around to take things to the next level?

There’s a lot more attention to detail from front to back. Our work on the record is a simulation of all of our work. We had more knowledge and experience and working with close friends of ours in the final stages to make sure that everything from front to back had as much depth as possible, was great because I think that with these songs, we wanted to paint landscapes and really transport the listener. Especially when you’re doing that, with music that is not fitting in the box, we obviously recorded the parts, you kind of craft a bit more of a collage and bringing all of these different elements together, it takes a lot of time to really make sure that that landscape is authentic and still makes you feel and it still transports you, visually.

I think with the kind of wealth of knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the past few years, I think we’ve got more of a confidence in ourselves and what we do and I hope that’s translated into the music. Obviously we want to keep getting better and make something for the time period, and the stuff we went with is the most honest thing we could do with our experience at this point in time. I think it’s now setting us up for the music in the future to go even further, which is exciting.

Did you feel like you guys had pressure going into this record?

Yes and no. We’re often very naive as to how our music is perceived. It’s one of the main factors of why we love living in Canberra, because you come home and it’s normal, with family and friends. It’s a smaller, tight knit community where you’re not surrounded by big industry or things that can sometimes break your ego. We’re often quite naive to how some of the songs are perceived until we physically go out and play it live, you know, thinking why the hell are these people here? It’s pretty cool.

It was more because we had time to reflect and think about it. I think the first [record] was pure instinct, which maybe we weren’t thinking about at the time. We were so busy, on the edge and in the deep end with basically no experience in the music industry. It’s funny I think as we went along and had a great time doing it, we’d been touring so much that in that time, we’d just come and write something and wouldn’t think about it. We put this record together, that first one, and it somehow seemed to work, seemed to come together as a whole which was pretty lucky. With this one, we had for the first time, that best sort of time and we really looked back, reflected and thought about what we wanted to say as artists and what we wanted to do and how we wanted to make music and in that, we definitely can get to the point of overthinking things and sometimes taking for granted that level of pure instinct that makes for a great song.

We had big ambitious ideas when we first began this record. I think that because in this whole process of doing it we learnt so much about ourselves and our writing styles, by the time we came full circle, we’d written so many songs. At the time, in the back half of actually finishing this record, everything that was learnt and that we wanted to do converged with that same level of instinct from the first record, but with a bit more insight and a bit more awareness of exactly what we were doing and trying to achieve.

The thing that really struck me about this record is the maturity of the sound. I think from start to finish, you take us on a journey not only through your newer sound, but also revisiting some of your older concepts and putting them in this newer SAFIA context. Meditative was a word that sprung to mind. Would you say that’s how this creative process felt for you guys?

Yeah, for a lot of this process, there was for the first time, self-doubt and various things creeping in which we hadn’t really experienced before because we were just so busy and riding on that feeling of having a great time. And everything just worked up until that point.

Obviously the music industry works at a fast changing pace. You can’t just sit on your hands and do the same thing over and over again, so it’s just kind of adapting and changing and I think also purely in the timeframe that we’ve written this record, now in our mid-twenties, I’d say letting go of complacency and arrogance and ego and trying to take stock of what’s most important to you in life and growing as a human, I think that’s a very big part of this record. For me, meditation was very helpful. Also that’s made me aware of how much it’s not a magic wand. It’s made me aware of what’s really important to me and what I love about music. We had this new reignited passion halfway through the process where we knew what we wanted to do and not taking for granted writing together. I think the songs in that sense are probably why they’re a bit more mature, and there’s elements of us really enjoying the opportunity to be able to do this, rather than just trying to fit it in in a really busy schedule and just keep ticking along.

You guys returned to Canberra to write and record the record. How do you think your sense of place contributed to the record?

I think it’s so important. I think we create and write our best stuff when we’re relaxed and when we lose any sense of expectation and when we’re inspired. There’s a weird pattern sometimes in the music industry where you start writing and then you get put in different rooms with different writers and these people try and create. By putting these two people together or putting someone in a place, maybe sending them to a friend’s studio one night, assuming that that would create a spark. You know, it does with some people and sometimes that works. For us, I think we write our best music when we’re relaxed and there’s no expectations and we’re just doing it for the love of it and doing it because we love writing music together. In that kind of mindset, that’s where the moments of inspiration are more likely to come like that.
When we’re here, we’re with family, we’re catching up with friends and we still try and treat writing very much like how we started early on. Especially with Michael and I, I used to go around to his house and we’d hang out, we’d play computer games and we’d write some music for fun. Those were early days, and that’s how it came together, with no expectations. We didn’t really take it seriously until triple j started playing the songs, and we were like, oh there must be something here. We always try and approach writing with that mindset. As soon as it starts to become work, it starts to become formulaic and it loses the thing that really speaks to people. So we just try and think about how to maintain that.

Is it crazy now looking back on those moments where you first started making music together?

Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s great to take stock, but to also not get too nostalgic in the past. It’s always good to take stock of where you are at any one moment. I think just not taking it for granted is very important.

You experienced writers block for the first time with this record. How did you overcome that?

I think with what I was saying before, with the time to reflect and the big ambitious ideas, there was also this insecurity after the first record that happens where there seems to be almost a level of resentment where you want your music to be seen in a certain light. Particularly after the first record, we really wanted us to be seen in this artistic light and almost kind of too much so, and in doing that in the early stages of this, I had these big, bold ambitious ideas that I don’t think I was ready to deliver properly or earnestly. I was in this conflict of working out and stepping back, I think there was a level of ego and insecurity and stepping back from that when things weren’t working and delivering these big ambitious ideas that I’d placed expectation on, didn’t seem to be clicking with myself and other people, you’ve got to ask yourself, how did I write those things in the first place? It’s just about really stepping away from everything for a little bit and standing outside of music. It wasn’t until this moment in particular where we stepped away for a few weeks and I went down the coast and was like, I’m just going to hang out and not do music. It was in that setting where after a few days, I wanted to write for fun, with no thoughts, no expectation on what I was going to write about or how I was going to put it together. That song and the initial start of it, just kind of flowed out. All of the lyrics were ad lib’ed, but it was in that stream of consciousness that provided that level of confidence again to be like oh no, there’s something still very honest in doing things. It’s about finding that balance.

Now that you’ve finished the writing and recording process, are you feeling more self-confidence?

Yeah, for sure. Any intensely stressful process, you often forget about this until you’re at the end. I think now being able to step back from the record after a few months of having it done and going back and listening to it for the first time a few weeks ago and going wow, okay, and hearing it from that perspective. It’s really cool. Just knowing that obviously you’re going to go through ups and downs with confidence, but it’s also a confidence in knowing that even during those waves of ups and downs, you still seem to get something together in the end, which is really cool and how you keep going and write better stuff.

You’ve also been readying your live show. How has it been integrating some of your newer works into your set?

It’s been really exciting. It’s funny because I think we’re at a point now as a band, after maybe six years, where we feel like we’re just finding our feet now, especially when we’ve always had this big fun live show, but I think that level of confidence on stage is starting to show.

After not playing some shows, I can just feel that when we’re all playing on stage, we all want to be there and we’re enjoying the fact that we get to play music for people with our best friends. I think there’s this level of playing these new songs, there’s something really fun about them. Maybe a bit more maturity in the writing made us able to kind of express a bit more feeling freely. But more so, we’ve all kind of been practicing and going back to our core, rudimentary skillset.
Technically, as a band now, I think we’re a different kind of band, but it’s just going to be really awesome to play these shows again because in a way, I feel like we’re a different band live, so it’s going to be good to see how that translates.

Have you guys got anything special planned for this new era of the live show?

We’re putting a lot of time into it and I think we’re building on the theatrical edge that we had in our show previously, but because the songs are very visual, we want to bring out the world of those songs in the performance and keep it very dynamic and engaging.
After playing in a bunch of different bands over the years, it’s been about picking up what really works and what doesn’t. It’s been really helpful to us and I think our main focus is to make this almost like a theatre thing to really encourage people to get lost in the music and make it more than just a band playing their songs in a set, just kind of showing that it has a start, middle and finish and a narrative within it. That’s what we’re kind of putting together at the moment. There’s a lot of cool ideas, we’re just trying to converge them and get the best out of each idea.

Now that you’re well into your second record, you guys probably have the resources to do what you would like to do now instead of compromising.

We were still getting a team together that we trusted. For us, it’s a new world getting the technical side of things working perfectly. We now don’t walk on stage with that little thought in the back of your head that something might go wrong. We had that for sure with the first tour, you know, like is everything going to crash this show? [laughs]. It was terrifying, but now we’ve got an amazing crew who have been working with us for the last three years and are as much a part of the band as we are. I always picture the band as a nine-piece. Even though there may only be three of us on the stage, they’re all so invested and they’re all building the show with us at the same time.
With all of those elements coming together, it feels like a family. It’s not until we had that kind of framework and that group of people that we could even think about the ideas that we want to do now. We’re very much lucky to have that crew so we’re able to do that.

If there’s one thing that you want people to take from this record, what would that be?

That we tried our best. It’s hard because for this next period until it comes out, the record is still ours in a way. Once it’s in the world, it kind of ceases to become ours and it becomes everybody else’s and everyone else’s interpretation of the music holds as much solidity as the original ideas of the songs do, which is the coolest thing about music. If you derive meaning from something, it doesn’t have any less meaning than it initially did, because that’s where the meaning exists.

It’s pretty daunting and it’s really hard to not place expectations on it, and that can be really dangerous. I know I do it all of the time. It’s really hard not to. But I think even if the music only reaches a small group of people, at the end of the day, that’s pretty amazing. We’ll just have to wait and see how people respond to it. I hope that people recognise the amount of time and passion that we’ve put into it.

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No idea where she’ll be in 10 years, but as long as she has a good record and a glass of white wine, she’ll be sweet.