SAFIA: Existential Beats From The Bush Capital

EVERYONE in Canberra knows each other. In the bush capital even a trip to the supermarket means running into at least one person you once played soccer against, or worked alongside, or dated, or bonded with in a nightclub bathroom sometime in a hazy past life.

The rest of the world might be connected by six degrees of separation but in the ACT, it’s down to one. SAFIA – the part-electronic, part-pop band comprised of Ben Woolner-Kirkham, Michael Bell and Harry Sayers – are from Canberra. I am, too. Which means, of course, that we are already connected through a sticky web of mutual friends and run-ins at house parties.

All three of them went to school with my brother. Lead singer Woolner-Kirkham lives two streets over from parents. And so on. If SAFIA were any other band, these social connections might make it easy to dig up the dirt on the chart-climbers. Only with SAFIA, there really isn’t any to be found.

“We're wholesome. We're the least rock star band in the world.”

Over their career, the trio have earned a reputation as some of the nicest guys in music: they aren’t wild party animals, or media provocateurs, just hard-workers who happen to be really, really talented.

As Ben will later tell me with a slight grin: “We’re wholesome. We’re the least rock star band in the world.” So it makes sense the story of SAFIA’s success isn’t down to cunning marketing, savvy management or ‘brand building’ – it’s just a matter of good music cutting through.

•••

IN 2012, the trio started uploading music to triple j Unearthed and in 2013, they posted a song called ‘Listen To Soul, Listen To Blues’.

It blew up and their career quickly fell into place. Now, in 2019, they’re returning with their second album, Story’s Start or End (their debut, Internal, hit #2 on the ARIA Charts in 2016).

When I arrive to meet the band at Sydney’s Studios 301, they’re a couple days out from the release and while the major label machine around them might be whirring, the trio aren’t phased.

Harry is serenely playing a grand piano in the lobby of the recording studio, Michael’s transferring some files off his computer onto a hard drive, Ben’s fresh from the airport, dumping his bags in the corner and saying hi everyone around him.

Tonight, they’ll launch the album with a listening party in Sydney; later this month, they’ll tour the record around the country. When they greet me, it’s with the casual, “Oh, hey” nod of people who know they know each other but don’t really remember how. Because Canberra.

SAFIA at Harry's parents' house, where the band rehearsed in their early years.

But for all their success, unhurried is pretty much how the band have spent the last few years. Story’s Start or End was made after the whirlwind of Hottest 100s, international tours and big collaborations had settled down. The period spent making the album marked the first bit of breathing space they’d had since SAFIA took off.

“For the first time in three or four years we had big stints of time to sit down and go, ‘Okay, what are we going to write next?’” Ben tells me between sips of tea in a quiet corner of the studio.

That time off ended up causing them to examine more than just their music. “It forced us to try and find an identity beyond music, and what we wanted to do, and what we wanted to say,” the frontman says.

“I went through a serious existential crisis, trying to figure out where I was going in life, what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be,” Michael adds. “I’d always be referred to as ‘SAFIA’, and probably you guys as well,” he says, looking over at his bandmates.

“SAFIA Michael, SAFIA Ben…” Harry nods.

“Yeah, and I found it hard sometimes to separate that from myself. I was deriving my worth solely from SAFIA and nothing else mattered. I had to find a way to cut that tie and find something I was worth as Michael.”

It was a quarter life crisis heightened by their hometown.

“In a small town like Canberra, it’s accentuated,” Ben adds. “It’s exciting when you come from a small place and there’s not many other bands. It’s probably more normalised up here,” he says, gesturing around him at the big city below. In Canberra, he says, being the guy from SAFIA became his whole life.

“The overall message was this simple thing of understanding yourself.”

“Since I was a teenager I was doing music at all cost. I just put all my time into it. I missed events and family things. So I was just trying to step back from that and think, ‘Okay, if I don’t have music, if this finishes tomorrow, who am I and what do I want to do, and what do I want to be, and what’s important?’”

So did they figure it out? “No, but we always say, this is a journey,” Michael admits. “For me, it was about rediscovering things that like, enjoying them again and being present in those parts of life, whether it was family events, sport, or books I used to read.”

“Yeah, it’s just those little things,” Ben agrees.

As for what had been happening in Harry’s life the last few years, while his colleagues tumbled through the confusion of their mid-20s?

“Got a few dogs in that time,” he deadpans.

Canberra's Mount Ainslie lookout inspired some of the lyrics on 'Story's Start or End'.

•••

BUT for all their anxieties, SAFIA emerged with an album that’s overwhelming optimistic. Eventually, that is.

The band recorded “almost an album’s worth” of other songs, then decided the approach they’d taken was all wrong. They scrapped the first batch of tracks, went back to the studio and came away with a record about personal growth, letting go and being open to change.

They tried to capture the feeling of transformation in Ben’s lyrics and their swirling, cinematic production. Even the album’s title is a reference to not knowing exactly where on their journey they are.

“I was exploring all these big ideas – social, cultural, philosophical – but I think at the time, I definitely wasn’t ready to say any of them,” Ben explains. He describes some of those early tracks as “dark and brooding”, his attempt to respond to the “crazy place” the world around them seemed to have become.

PHOTO: WILK

The track that changed everything was ‘Starlight’. Ben recorded the vocals to the song late at night, by himself, on a trip down the coast. He’d been trying to write something just “for fun” and accidentally wound up with the album’s second single.

“That song just came very naturally and wasn’t trying to be anything,” he says. “I could hear the neighbours next door, so I couldn’t sing very loud. I just did a lazy ad lib into the Auto-Tune but completely intended to re-record it properly again later without the Auto-Tune.”

They never did. The vocals you hear on the album are the same ones he recorded that night at a volume that wouldn’t disturb the folks next door.

“As a quick disclaimer, Ben doesn’t always use Auto-Tune,” Michael laughs.

‘Starlight’ allowed Ben to step away from the grand statements he was trying to make tap into something more relatable and optimistic. “The overall message was this simple thing of understanding yourself and truly trying to better yourself. And only once you’ve done that are you able to enact some positive change in the community around you…

“When I started writing,” he continues, “I definitely wasn’t ready to say any of those things. Because how can you criticise the bigger picture around you if you haven’t dealt with your own biases and hypocrisies first?”

After ‘Starlight’, Ben says, “the floodgates opened”. They scrapped everything they’d done before it and started again. “It was like, let’s stop worrying about what this is trying to say and just write again. And from there, the songs just started pouring out”.

Getting into meditation and mindfulness also helped him approach ideas in a more measured, calm way: “You get to those points of clarity way faster,” Ben says.

SAFIA also say they increased their attention to detail on album number two, adopting a militant approach to perfecting each song. “I think we did 20 masters of some individual songs,” Ben says. “We kept [the production team] very close-knit and everyone who worked on it put everything into it to get it just right.”

“Sometimes I was just like, ‘Do I really need to listen to this bloody master? There’ll be another one tomorrow’,” Michael laughs.

•••

IT was at Radford College where the boys first met (fate had placed them in the same tutor group in year six).

They bonded over music and their shared ski-jump haircuts (de rigueur in 2004, apparently), played on the same soccer team, and messed around on the guitar together after school.

“We kind of just grew up playing music together through school,” Harry says. In a nod to their shared history, they even recruited their old drama teacher to act in the film clip for their track ‘Counting Sheep’.

Another Canberra connection helped SAFIA on their way when Ben lent vocals to Peking Duk’s 2015 hit ‘Take Me Over’, a collaboration that came out of a chance meeting at a house party in the Canberra ‘burbs.

But aside from those networking opportunities, Ben also credits the city for allowing SAFIA the freedom to develop their own ideas without external influences. Without a dominant ‘scene’ ruling the city, artists can go their own way.

“If we were in Sydney we’d probably be influenced by the bands around us. But in Canberra we’re completely isolated and I think that isolation means you get a lot of interesting stuff coming out of here.

Genesis Owusu is incredible and a perfect example. I don’t think there’s a lot of stuff in Australia that sounds like what he’s doing right now. And he’s a massive advocate of Canberra for that reason.

“All the bands that you’ve probably heard of from here – from Hands Like Houses to Moaning Lisa to Peking Duk – not one of them sound the same. I think that diversity of sound speaks to people being in a space where they feel free to do whatever they want to do, without worrying if it’s cool or not.”

What SAFIA cherish most about home, though, is the chance to feel regular, even when the weight of an existential crisis is bearing down.

“We’ve got to tour and do all these amazing things with all of these amazing people. I think part of the reason we like Canberra is because we can step away from all that, go back and take stock of the important things,” Ben reflects.

He pauses, then shrugs. “It’s kind of nice just going back to normal life.”

"I went through a serious existential crisis, trying to figure out where I was going in life, what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be."

Story’s Start or End was an album, the boys say, they only could have made in Canberra. It was recorded at the ANU School of Music, where Ben studied; at Infidel Studios across the border in Queanbeyan; and in each of their homes.

“We write the best stuff when we’re relaxed,” Ben says. “And we’re relaxed in Canberra”.

“Our management would always send us away to go and write an album. And as soon we got into the room we’d just be like, ‘uhhh’,” Michael jokes.

“We’d never do it,” Ben adds.

“We’d go in late and be like, can we go now?” says Harry.

“You feel forced. And at any stage of our life, if we were forced to do anything, whether it was at school or whatever, we’d just never do it. We’re very much delinquents in that way,” Michael says, laughing.

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