INTERVIEW: SAFIA

Establishing themselves as one of Australia’s best live acts, SAFIA have come a long way since they were first introduced to listeners. Continually growing and expanding their live show, this dynamic three piece have created a strong bond with their fanbase who have loyally followed them on their distinct rise. 

Their sophomore studio album ‘Story’s Start Or End’ is an experimental collection of tracks that continues the formation of SAFIA’s artistry in it’s authentic and collaborative nature. It’s a record that doesn’t hold back and dives into full experimentation mode which is a risk that has always paid off for them. The songs are built around an array of moods that creates a unique atmosphere that intertwines with the dreamy production. 

To celebrate the release of this album, the band have just kicked off their massive national tour in Canberra with a show that boasts their biggest production yet. With a huge lighting show, a brand new setlist and big LED screens, there is no expense spared. 

I recently chatted to lead vocalist Ben Woolner from SAFIA about the experimental layers that make up the foundations of ‘Story’s Start Or End’, the universe they want their music to represent and the evolution of their live show which has seen them being dubbed as one of Australia’s best live acts. Check out the chat HERE;

TB: There are a lot of experimental layers that make up the foundations of ‘Story’s Start Or End’. So when you guys sat down as a band to really figure out the direction you wanted to go in and how you wanted to execute it, how did that discussion differ from the ones you’ve had in the past? 

BW: I think we had a stronger focus on outlining and defining who we wanted to be as artists and what we wanted say. For the first record we really wanted to prove a point. We were writing songs that were considered radio friendly and interesting pop-dance fusions and we felt like that we had more to offer so we went away and explored how we could showcase our repertoire and writing even more. 

Initially in doing that we fell into the trap of trying too hard and overthinking it. It’s a common thread with a lot of other artists who are clearly really talented artists but want to be acknowledged, so they go down the path of desperately trying to be a distant kind of artist instead of allow it to happen naturally.

I think we fell into that trap for a bit, but halfway through we were able to catch ourselves and realise that we were doing it. From that we were able to channel into our instincts a bit more and let the music unfold naturally. It ended up coming from a very honest place. We just had to trust ourselves and that was the biggest thing we learnt through this record. 

TB: Your storylines have always had a dreamy side to them, layered with emotions. So what would you say is the most vulnerable moment for you as a songwriter on this record? 

BW: I feel like there are a lot of vulnerable moments on this record as it really reflects on our personal vices. I was initially making an effort to make broader comments about the world around me and be apart of that conversation through songwriting but it started coming from a place of cynicism. So I stripped it all back and went back to honesty and being true to myself. 

From then the songs started coming into a space of acceptance and honesty but I guess there was a lot more self doubt and anxieties in the process so it was about getting through that and learning how to reflect on that artistically. 

I love the idea of different art forms inspiring you, and the concept of film layering human connection has always stood out to me. The sort of films that myself and Michael like in particular are really expansive, almost escapism with sci-fi and imaginative concepts that on surface level can seem really escapist, but they talk about human experiences in a really profound way. Exploring the depths of the imagination and still coming back to this core human story is what we love and I feel like it bleeds into a lot our music and our storytelling. 

TB: ’White Lies’ is an atmospheric song that has a gradual build in production that is so captivating and is then highlighted with an epic guitar solo. So do you mind if we jump into the creative process of this track because I would love to hear how it came about?

BW: That’s actually one of our favourites too! It was one of the first songs we wrote at the start of this process. I think every song on the record is one that came about really naturally… *pauses* Actually ‘Ivory Lullaby’ was one that we knew something was good but it just wasn’t working so we had to place with the process for a bit. But ‘White Lies’ was a very natural song. And even looking back at it now, that surprises me because some of the chord progressions and structuring isn’t the normal thing to do but it just felt so right to us. 

The initial ideas of the song kinda reminded me of chords from a Justin Timberlake song or something similar to that. We knew we wanted to build from that more and we came up with these weird verses that  kinda symbolise a ball of energy. The verses build and explode into this big chorus.

And reflecting on it now, the guitar solo was a very natural thing for us. I guess we were also thinking from a live perspective and thought that a soaring 80’s solo would be cool *laughs*, and I guess it worked. 

But this album actually saw us having a lot of restraint because we usually like to go all out and dive into the epic and we wanted to tackle the songs in a different way. But I think that song definitely called for it. 

TB: You’ve described in the past that you wanted to create a world for SAFIA within this new album, so why was this fulfilling concept something you wanted to dive into?

BW: We are all very hands on with music. we all write and produce and sometimes that can be a double edged sword because when it comes to listening to music it’s hard to not be analytical and it actually takes away a lot of the magic away from music for us. 

But the music we all love is stuff that you listen to and you’re so impressed about how well crafted it is and it therefore transports you to somewhere else. So we really wanted to try get into that more with this record and build a unique atmosphere and build something very visual. We wanted to make a world through the music that made the listener feel something and visualise every moment. Whether we did that, that’s not up to us to say, it’s up to our listeners to feel that but that was one of the main goals we tried to achieve with the record. 

TB: You guys have just kicked off your national headlining tour which sees you playing some of the biggest shows of your career. So how did you approach the creative process of this tour to make sure it was the right representation of the album, took the crowd into that world and elevated what you’ve done in the past? 

BW: Yeah, that was the big task at hand as we were really trying to figure out how to represent the record in the best way. I think as a collective, we are stronger than we’ve ever been but it was hard figuring out this live show because we were thinking really carefully of how we wanted to highlight the moods of the songs and also have them in the right order on the setlist that it flows naturally. We worked very closely with our crew which have really become apart of the band because our live show is so important to us. I think of SAFIA not as a three piece but more like a ten piece with everyone we work with on the live show. 

We’ve just been making sure that every visual moment, every lighting moment, and that every moment between songs is thought out. If it’s there, it is to highlight something from the song or the lighting moments are there to bring down to the more dynamic and intimate parts of the set. It’s really about using light and shade to get that balance right. 

The show we’ve put together is something we are all really proud of and we are really excited to see how it grows over this tour. 

TB: Following the first show in Canberra, what was the biggest take away you took from that show, that is in the forefront of your mind ahead of the remaining dates of the tour?

BW: It’s always hard when you’re playing a new show and with this show in particular, I think there are a lot of people coming along and not realising the level of show we are delivering. Its a lot to take in initially. 

You always feel like the show does find it’s feet by the end of the tour and that’s how it will also be because you can rehearse a show and think about it in your head so much, but it’s not until you’re in front of people and feel that energy that you can see what works and what doesn’t work and then start tweaking and adjusting things to build the “perfect” show. 

But the Canberra show felt really good. We got a really great response from the crowd and there seemed to a really good response to the new music, so I guess we will keep playing it and refining the show. 

TB: You played a lot of festivals early into your career, so how do you think this helped shaped how you’re live show has evolved over the years?

BW: Yeah, we fell into the festival world really early on in our career and that has helped us figure out what works and what doesn’t work in terms of the live show. With festivals, you are sometimes feeding off the vibe of a festival. There is already an energy in the crowd and you have to learn how to navigate that. We are lucky because we’ve been able to create that right energy in our live show with our fanbase but a lot of that came from reading people at the festival shows.  

You will find that in a festival set of any act, it is always a condensed down version of everything that works into a 45 minute slot. For us, our full length live show continues that dynamic but it also allows us to play songs and do some things that wouldn’t work well in the festival format because we have a crowd that trusts us and are there to experience a SAFIA show. 

TB: Let’s play a little game of rapid fire questions where I’m going to ask you some questions that you just need to answer with the first thing that comes to mind…

BW: I’m so bad at these! But, let’s do it!

TB: Our pre-show pump up song is…

BW: At the moment I’ve been listening to a lot of The Killers and Gang Of Youths before  going on stage. Stadium rock is always a good pump up!

TB: The emoji that best describe our new album ‘Story’s Start Or End’ is…

BW: A rocket! 

TB: Pineapple on pizza is… 

BW: A Yes! I love the mix of sweet and salty!

TB: Some times I wish I could…

BW: Talk to animals!

TB: One song I wish I had written is…

BW: ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, or any song from The Beatles.

SAFIA’s sophomore album ‘Story’s Start Or End’ is out now 

SAFIA Australian Tour

Thursday 29 August – HQ, Adelaide

Friday 30 August – Metropolis, Fremantle

Friday 6 September – The Goods Shed, Hobart

Saturday 7 September – The Forum, Melbourne *SOLD OUT*

Sunday 8 September – The Forum, Melbourne

Friday 13 September – Wollongong Uni Hall, Wollongong

Saturday 14 September – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Friday 20 September – Beach Hotel, Byron Bay

Saturday 21 September – The Tivoli, Brisbane *SOLD OUT*

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