I wanted to find sounds that I could romanticise- that I can think of as being uniquely me and part of my story
Becki is a poet, songwriter, and fully-fledged audio engineer who performs under her project Aphir. I confessed to her that I found preparing to interview her challenging because there was just so much I wanted to dissect in her music. We met up at Nigel and talked about James Turrell, stubborn music, and the poetry of synthesis
Listening to your music, it feels like you’re such a master of your craft, and you have a HUGE catalog of music- you even have music you mentioned on your Instagram which isn’t on Spotify so I can only imagine how much music you’ve actually got!
There’s a fair bit! There’s an album ready to go at the moment…
Already! Another one!
Yeah! Well I basically spent two years prior to this year working on a record, and then at the start of this year I reflected on the whole process and listened back on it and I realised that I actually didn’t love the record at all? And I ended up just scrapping most of it. With this new record I made, I guess after having realised that I had spent two years on a record that I really didn’t believe in, it just kind of came very quickly just making this new thing- I guess I felt inspired? I knew that I didn’t want to do that other thing, I really absolutely know what I do want to do
That makes total sense to me, I feel like I’ve had similar experiences where for some reason you hold on to these songs that you don’t really like, partly because you’ve invested so much time into it. It’s kind of like if you own a really expensive piece of clothing that you know doesn’t fit or you don’t like it, but for some reason it’s still in your cupboard and every time you look at it you feel guilty – oh I spent soo much money on this thing I can’t throw it out. But once you give it away, or once you decide that you’re in control, it’s like a bit of a dam wall breaks and you can feel creative again, or you feel less burdened by it. Did it feel relieving to make the decision to put that project away?
One hundred percent! I think part of it was that I had actually made a few demos that were sitting in a different music world before I was ready to tell the world that this other album I was working on was not a go. So I felt confident, I had a direction for the new project so I wasn’t like ‘I’ve scrapped this one thing and now I’m lost!’
That’s so good!
Yeah, and I guess the songs on the new record all kind of inspire each other, I have a sense of knowing how to approach the production in a way that’s satisfying, which also came from having experimented with ideas on the other EP’s. It was definitely a big relief
The fact that you can cut this album, and still feel a sense of creativity speaks to your ability as a creator. I think sometimes we can hold onto songs we aren’t really proud of almost out of fear that that was the last bit of your creativity left, I have to keep this in case I can’t make music anymore!
I’ve definitely experienced that feeling, especially when I first started making music when I lived in Canberra, and it was like every song was the best song ever! It’s all you know of yourself so far. I guess the more you make, then the more faith you have in yourself
You can trust yourself as a writer. After listening to your music, it feels like you trust the music itself too. Obviously, there’s a huge sense of sonic awareness in your songs, you’ve got incredible synth prowess which is great! With the progression of the songs, nothing feels forced- it feels eclectic and wild in some ways, but it doesn’t feel like it’s out of your control
Cool! Well that’s what I aim for – harnessing a lot of different sounds and bringing them into the same harmonious world
The sounds that you’re using in all your tracks are all quite different, but I feel like you’re able to bring out the special qualities in those sound choices for each song, rather than bombarding it with a million different sounds. I can almost imagine you finding a sound you like, and bringing out the best qualities in that sound with the other instruments around it
It’s definitely this process of emotionally bonding with sound because I have such a big library of samples, and so many ways to manipulate them, and so many ways with my voice to create new sounds as well. A lot of the time it’s just about tweaking a sound with plugins until it feels like it becomes something with its own little life- it’s own voice. It’s a fun way of doing it, but there are drawbacks to that approach of course- I think sometimes you have to kind of let go of having every part of a song have its own voice, and instead you need to prioritise a voice and make other parts of a song have less character so that the main character can stand out. That’s something I’ve gradually learnt over time.
Tell me a bit about how production started for you
When I started making beats, before I’d learned to program drums or anything, I was literally just layering vocals in the iPad version of Garageband and fitting as many tracks of harmonies as possible onto like 8 actual channels. I felt like I wanted to add drums, like I wanted that energy, so I started teaching myself and asking friends how to do all that stuff. I guess when you start out it’s so overwhelming because there’s so much sick music out there that you can listen to and compare yourself to, so I needed a way to separate myself from all of that, the way I approached that- I guess I started to romanticise the process of making a beat, I was pretty new to Melbourne so I was romaniticising the way I lived in Melbourne like yeah it’s cool that I live in Preston! That and then playing all these pieces of electronic equipment, and I would sort of romanticise them too like I would borrow an SP404 off a friend like this is what Grimes uses! So cool! The sounds kind of fit into that, I wanted to find sounds that I could romanticise- that I can think of as being uniquely me and part of my story, rather than prioritising a lead vocal, or a chord progression
Music can really become this window in who you were at that time, it’s a powerful medium that we have that we can express who we are through sound
I like that time capsule effect, and it’s funny because when you go back and revisit those things, it can evoke different emotions to what it would have at the time, but it also evokes the sense of nostalgia at the time of writing it too. I guess gradually over time I shifted my focus more on prioritising my lead vocals, and creating a production style that’s going to support telling my story more. Lyrics have always been super important to me, I read heaps of poetry and I sort of started making music because I was like ‘I want to write poems, but I can’t make money writing poems…’
Yeah, so making a lyrically beautiful and dense world has always been important to me, but I felt a bit nervous about how my vocal sounds so I’ve always buried it in production in the past, but this year I worked so hard at improving at singing so I could get every little nuance of emotion out of the lead vocal, so everything has kind of come together in this way that I feel really proud of.
I think poetic sensitivity definitely comes to mind when I listen to your music
I’m so glad people are listening out for that, it’s a super nerdy dream of mine that people will be trying to figure out what my songs mean, and putting in that effort.
Your songs seem to have a lot of intention and beauty from every angle, which is something that’s hard to do and is powerful when it’s pulled off
Thank you, I think having the engineering side of things helps with that because- well coming from that poetry background my lyrics were always very intentional, and because I know how a production style will turn out in a mix- even as I make a beat I sort of know what the end product will sound like- I put a lot of thought into elements of the arrangement that are going to work in different roles in a mix, and I try to not do this in too much of a nerdy and detached way- it’s still going to have the emotion, and it’s still going to be supported by that lead vocal, but I think in terms of knowing which little bits need to go where, and at what moments there needs to be maybe a high frequency sound or a low frequency sound, having the mixing and mastering strand of my practice helps to refine it.
I think your writing can change when you learn even a small amount of the mixing process, and how important balance in the frequency range is and can influence the way that you write, and the way a song is built. Like you were saying about prioritising certain sounds over others, do you find it hard to decide what’s more important in a mix?
I think that’s something I’ve come to know better from experience. I listened to some songs off my second record ‘Twin Earth’, and it’s funny because there’s this one particular song ‘Deeper In’ which has this instrumental section, and when I play it live now I have this really specific part that’s way louder than everything else- it’s the main hook, but in the recording when I go back and listen to it I think this is chaos! Everything was kind of the same level, and I didn’t know what was being prioritised. But just through listening more to other artists, and reflecting back on my own old stuff, I guess I realised that there are certain parts that are gonna stand out as the ‘lead’ voice at any given time, it’s about balancing what indicates order and what indicates chaos!
Yeah and having a sense of control over that- letting the music be chaotic when that’s appropriate, but also pulling it back when it needs to
I want to talk about lyrics, do you find the production world influences what you write about?
If I compare my song writing process to other writers, I find it’s pretty similar- usually lyrics and the melody will come first. I definitely know that there are other approaches, but I’m not usually making a beat before doing any of the song writing 99% of the time. I guess that because I’m not trained in playing keys or the guitar, or any kind of ‘traditional’ instruments other than voice, the way that I have to put the chords in place is simply through getting that conglomerate of sounds, and because the way I started writing out music was by layering up vocals, and thinking in terms of individual lines of melody- I always had a sense of harmony that was pretty strong, but it was about how every singular voices fit in that chord, rather than thinking about the chord as a whole.
Building a chord from the ground up
Yeah, and I guess that lends itself to a more production-skewed outlook. But yeah I will often write lyrics first, and mostly when I write lyrics and a melody together- well A) those songs tend to be more poppy, when that melody impresses itself onto me so strongly it’s like okay I know this is a catchy structured vibe, but also B) there will be chords in my head- sort of embedded somewhere. I think that I’m quite traditional in some ways, but it probably doesn’t come across when it gets to the production point.
That might just partly be because what you’re doing in the production feels quite unique to the kind of writing that you’re doing. I don’t know if there are too many artists who are poets in this digital, heavy electronic, gothic sort of world that your music kind of sits in. It feels quite romantic, a lot of your lyrics are so poetic and ethereal, kind of archaic
That’s definitely the vibe, kind of harking back to a world that’s maybe not super modern. I feel like all the modern vibes of my songs come from elements of the production and if I can create a lyrical world that’s not particularly futuristic, that’s so fine with me. That’s exactly what I want to do. I think my imaginative life is definitely more clicked into the past, and poets and writers from the early 1900’s are probably my favourite writers mostly so that’s where my head is at.
Do you find it’s mostly poets that inspire you lyrically, or people who more identify as songwriters that you resonate with?
I definitely love a lot of song writers whose work overlaps with poetry pretty strongly- like recently I’ve been really getting into Fiona Apple, she’s super wild, her vocal style is really intense and her vocal performances are so emotional, dripping with blood, red raw. Her lyrics are really thought out though, she’s written kernels of poetry that she’s worked into a song format, and then brought to life the emotion that she felt around them so perfectly. Nick Cave does a similar thing with his work, I also love a lot of Leonard Cohen songs. A newer writer I’ve been loving lately- there’s this super new artist, she used to be the least singer of Totally Mild, but her solo project is just called Elizabeth, and her song ‘Parties’ is so good! She reminds me of this other girl Pixx– they both have these really chorused guitars and melancholy lyrical aesthetic. A bit of sass as well! They’ve both got a sense of humor. Songwriters in that kind of world- that indie world where you can be poetic, but also be funny. You can be self-critical. I really enjoy that
I wanna talk a bit about Can’t Comfort, I kept coming back to the lyric,
All the honest prayers I spoke seemed hollowed out and broken
But I guess I’m glad I woke up
Really gorgeous, like a lot of your lyrics in your songs. This song has a lot of self-love and kindness, but from a place that is kind of broken? Those moments when you decide to look after yourself first are some really hard moments that can come from someone who is quite broken- it takes a lot of courage to make that step
This song is left somewhat intentionally vague, I wrote this at a time where I- I’m a bit of an emotional labour junkie, when I see an opportunity to do emotional labour I’m like okay I’m there! But I was also thinking a lot about the religious upbringing that I had, when I wrote this song and was feeling particularly troubled by it I guess because it’s something that I’ve moved away from. There are so many things in the way that we be human that can be viewed in a spiritual light. We can engage imaginatively with poetry and art, and can fill this spiritual craving, and I’ve definitely met people who don’t experience that craving- maybe because they haven’t had any religious context or background, but it’s a craving that I experience pretty strongly, and I don’t know how to make it go away, so I fulfill that part of my personality through art and literature. I think that in a lot of churches there are a lot of issues, and there’s definitely a sense of alienation that I felt even while I was in the church and a part of that community. This song was a moment where I took a step back from investing in another person’s problems and thought wow I’ve got some shit deal with myself!
Maybe I should deal with that!
Or maybe just write a song about it! But yeah that’s where that came from
The electronic production world is enormous, and if you don’t know what you’re getting into you can be overwhelmed by the options, so what inspires you from the production perspective?
I think for me just coming back to starting a beat by making a vocal harmonic chord is just a clear way for me to like what I make every time. For a long time when I was learning how to make beats, I felt like I needed to not do that, because I thought I needed to focus on being better at programming synths or better at making a drum beat before anything else, but for this new record, I knew I’d just write better chords if I sang them, and so that’s been my approach. I guess just playing to your strengths, I think you do need to embrace being overwhelmed for a little while maybe, an incentive to sample different sounds that are available and find what suits you. Once you’ve found a few things that seem to be your strength and seem to be working, you can come back to them each time and make the process faster
I’m sure a lot of people who produce their own music can at times feel constrained by gear- balancing feeling like there’s not enough gear or too much gear and too much choice, how do you navigate that?
I think it all depends on context, as a producer the way I navigate it is starting with vocals, and all the gear I need is what’s going to make the vocals sound the way I want them to sound. I guess experience as well, I’ll go into a production session having a vision for what I want to make already so I kind of know what plugins I can use to make the sounds that I want to make. In engineering, I guess just researching which preamps are going to be really sick for what vocal. I think that often I’ve been somewhat constrained by studios that I’ve worked from. I used to work in a studio where there were literally two mics, an SM7B and a Manly Gold Reference mic, which is just the most amazing microphone so it was a good constraint! When I moved to a bigger studio I had more choice, so the first few session I would do I would test out a bunch of mics on my voice and sort of extrapolate from that how mics would sound on different voice types- that practical research helped me understand what I needed.
Do you find you’ll play with a new piece of gear and that inspires a direction for a song, or is it mostly vocals that inspires the direction?
It’s hard to say… If it does, it’s quite organic. My instinct is to say no, but on reflection- recently my friend showed me this free plugin, it’s like a bit-crusher, Krush with a K. It’s very flexible, it has a lot more texture than a base plugin. I’ve used it a lot on this new record. It’s hard to say to what extent those sounds have shaped the direction- I’d probably say my overall direction probably comes from what I can imagine, and having access to different plugins and gear is like a way of expanding what I can imagine, and what I can practically achieve.
Did you feel like it took you a while to find the sound you wanted or has it always evolved?
Yeah, I feel like this new record is finally the sound that I want, and everything else I’ve been doing has been part of the search for that sound. I remember when I first started making these choral songs, and a few people who I knew in the music industry were like ‘wow this is visionary!’ and it was nice to hear that but at the same time I didn’t feel the same way. When I sat back and reflected on the mixes, it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. Recently I listened again to my very first album-
Is that Invirtue that you’re talking about?
I have revisited that and had a similar vibe, but ‘Holodreem’ was the one that I think of the most as my first record just because it was a full album. I guess at the time it felt more like it was fulfilling the vision that I had, but I was still so frustrated at the end of it and I realised that the reason I had felt like that was because I had heard other stuff in my head just vaguely, and I wasn’t able to program it in or sing it in because at the time of composing it was like the limits of how I could think about what I was doing was defined by this sense of what else should be going on. I was hearing these other parts in there and the parts I recorded were triggering enough of a sense of that that I was like okay it’s done, but actually for the common listener those parts weren’t there, it wasn’t finished
It’s like you’re translating something and you know both languages but the reader only knows one language, and you’re like ‘oh that’s implied’ but the reader doesn’t know because it’s been lost
That’s exactly it. I definitely feel now like I was thinking of other stuff, and at the time it was all just there amorphously in my head, and it just wasn’t on the record!
So for this new record how do you know for yourself that you’ve gotten across what you wanted to communicate?
I think experience is a big part- I feel like I’ve said that a lot but there’s just a lot of things that you can only learn about sound by just listening to lots of sound! And that applies to mixing, and production, and definitely to mastering. Every year I get better at mastering just because I’ve listened more. In this record, I feel like I’ve had enough experience mixing and producing and hearing other people’s production, and then also showing the work to other people who are into the same sorts of styles of production- people into like Kate Bush or Bjork, that kind of world of music making- and they really vibe it and see it as being on that similar kind of level, I feel like I can be like okay it’s translated, the record is done!
What is the ideal fictional place for your music to be listened in?
I used to think about setting up my perfect performance space, have you ever seen any of James Turrell’s artwork? There’s this one in Canberra at the National Gallery there called ‘Sky Space’, and it’s kind of like this dome with a hole at the top and you can see a section of the sky
Yes! A real dome right?
Yeah, it’s so beautiful, and I would love for my music to be played in that kind of space, I’d love to play live in a space like that
With ‘Twin Earth’, what did you hope to communicate as a consistent message, or do you feel like the message is changing depending on the track?
‘Twin Earth’ was kind of when I felt very torn between two worlds, I was really syncing into a Melbourne life that seemed more based around my involvement in the music industry working as a mixing and mastering engineer, but then I had this connection to Canberra still- I guess that tension between feeling like I had to work really hard and think in this really scientific way that mixing and mastering requires, but then how to reconcile that with the creative side of my artistic work. The message is really pulling in two directions throughout. If there’s any overriding message it comes I the song ‘Meteors’ where I was like,
when you work so hard how can my heart stay soft
How can I still be a good person and a sensitive person when I’m trying so hard to be better at everything, and focusing on that so much. Is there some part of me that’s being sacrificed? I was really scared, terrified that I would maybe stop being creative or stop being nice.
I think that really extends into life generally, when we can go through hard moments and you want to be better for them, but you don’t want to lose your sense of sensitivity and kindness as a compromise. You want to come out of hard experiences not as a hardened person
I really like Cotillion, that’s the last song right?
Yeah, I feel proud of it. A Cotillion is like a coming out party, like a debutante thing. That was kind of what I wanted to do with this record. I felt a lot of pressure to make certain kinds of music, and I ended up rejecting a lot of that pressure through making this record that was not like anything anyone was telling me to make. Cotillion is like I will choose the best way for me! I will be my own weird debutante self
Do you feel like there’s a stand out moment for yourself lyrically or production wise that you’re really proud of?
A lot of things on the new record! There’s been so many things on this new record where I’ve expected to lose my interest in it, or lose faith in it, or have it stop making me cry when I listen to it. But it just still hasn’t stopped being that for me. My favourite song on it is the third last song which is called ‘Equinox’, and I- It’s hard to say! It’s weird to describe a song that no one has listened to yet. If you like really intense things then that song will probably be for you
You can find Aphir on her socials below