Blessed with an utterly mesmeric, immaculately controlled voice and in possession of a seemingly infinite creativity, Becki Whitton is as compelling an artist as one is likely to find. Through her first solo project, Aphir, she appeared on Volume. 1 of our Beautiful Songwriting series, her debut EP, Invirtue, and its follow-up, Abandon, both making full use of her vocal and imaginative talents to introduce a wonderfully contemporary flavour to choral music. I recently caught up with Becki, who spoke of what Aphir means to her, ill-advised dancing and the potential difficulties of having an Australian accent. I make no apologies for saying that she appeared a truly kindred spirit and was an absolute delight to talk with.
... you could say it’s a bit of a dumping ground for all my more sad emotions. I think it’s a gentler version of me than I generally put into music.
Becki: Yeah, I’ve been doing musical stuff in dribs-and-drabs throughout my whole life, really. I started writing songs when I was in high-school, and I was in this horribly cheesy little band that was like, me and three of my girlfriends, but none of us really knew how to make music that well, so everything took a long time. But we had cool ideas, I feel. [laughs]
When I started to get more serious about writing songs and making music that people would really want to listen to, I was in my first year at uni, and I was in a band called Kitchenvalient, which was with Sam, who I still work with on a bunch of different projects, and a couple of other girls who I was friends with. Out of Kitchenvalient grew Crmwll, which was my first gigging band – this is a very convoluted history [laughs] – and we didn’t really know exactly what we wanted to be. Sam had this post-funk idea, and I thought we were just a twee-folk kind-of band, so it took us a while to find our feet. But yeah, that was my first really real band, I think.
Becki: I’d been listening to heaps of choral music – old Catholic choral music, like William Byrd, [Sergei] Rachmaninoff and that kind of thing. And I also was really motivated to be able to make music by myself, because I knew I was going to move interstate away from Sam, and I wanted to be able do this thing that I really loved without having to rely on him.
Becki: I guess it’s an outlet for certain feelings that I wouldn’t want to burden other projects that I work on with. There have been a lot of personal songs that I put into Aphir that maybe a more post-funk or electro-poppy sound wouldn’t accommodate as well. So, I guess it means independence and it means self-expression.
Becki: This is a tricky one. I guess, Aphir… there’s kind-of a negative way of portraying it, in that you could say it’s a bit of a dumping ground for all my more sad emotions. I think it’s a gentler version of me than I generally put into music. I have a lot of kinda mean songs and a lot of kinda sexy songs that go into other bands, and this isn’t that, really, it’s like my mellow, sad side, I guess.
Becki: Hmm, what is intentional about Aphir? Sweetness is kinda inevitable, I mean, my voice isn’t tough, or that’s not what I’ve wanted to cultivate about my voice. Particularly when I play live, I try to give it a stronger inflection. I think the assuredness… well, I’m interested in you saying assuredness, because that’s not necessarily a way that I’ve thought about my music, but I kinda like that you thought about it that way.
Becki: I definitely feel that way about my second EP. With Invirtue, the naivety is definitely there – it’s obviously not that well produced. You can tell that I had good ideas, but I didn’t exactly know how to make them come out as well as they could. Maybe we can talk about it as being a cultivated naivety, because what I try and do is make my music purely by ear, and in doing that I can come up with better results than doing it in a really structured, instrument-based kind-of way. And it means that I can write things that really fit my instrument, my voice. So, I guess that’s a conscious choice. It wasn’t initially. My music came from a place of me not knowing how to play an instrument and not knowing how to chart music in a traditional way. But now I’ve learnt a bit more about that, and I can make music on GarageBand, and it can be a bit more structured, but for Aphir, that’s not what I want to do because it’s really about my voice.
Becki: So, I grew up in a Christian family, and I was quite a devout Christian for many years of my life, particularly in high-school. Then, as I grew older, I guess I started to question that a bit more, as you do, and I did end up backsliding or whatever you want to say. I’m not a Christian anymore, but even as I moved away from Christianity, I was still really interested in the whole mythology of it, all the stories and all the symbolism and all the richness of that. I did my thesis when I was at university on C.S Lewis, and so I was really immersed in a lot of the intellectual and imaginative aspects of Christianity, so I guess that’s how it filtered through.
Becki: Well, I’ve written probably four albums worth of material this year, so probably a lot, I guess. I haven’t released all of it, obviously, but there are just things simmering beneath the surface all the time. I’ve been really lucky this year, because I have some government funding to work on my singing teaching – because that’s how I make money day-to-day – and my performance and writing as a business, so that’s given me a lot of time to write songs and not have to stress about doing a nine-to-five retail job or something like that, which is really great.
Becki: One-hundred-percent, yeah. Obviously you need time and head-space for these things, but, I mean… I get a bit scared about what’s going to happen next year, when I do end up taking on more work so I can make ends meet. I’ll have less time, but I think back on the past few years when I’ve been studying and working full-time, and I’ve always had a creative output, no matter how big my workload. I mean, it might not be four albums a year, if I’m working full-time, but I try and comfort myself with that.
Becki: It’s hard to differentiate between those two sections of time, because when I was studying and working, I found that… well, obviously at that point in time I was a less developed artist, and so it’s hard to tell whether I’ve been creating so much stuff this year, solely because I have the time, or whether part of it is just because I’ve gotten better at it. I hope that a big part of it is the latter thing, but I dare say it’s a combination of the two.
Becki: I don’t think so, specifically. I guess because there’s no one emotion that prompts songwriting for me, and it’s pretty rare that I’ll write an Aphir song in one sitting. If I’m writing a song over a beat that someone’s sent me, it’s like, just smash it out and do it all at once. [laughs] But yeah, I try and make myself write in any mood, really.
Becki: I’ve been trying to de-intellectualise my stuff lately. I mean, you’re right, a lot of the stuff I’ve read has been, I guess, a little bit older, or the language has been more archaic than you would expect from a pop song, and that kinda filtered into my songs. I guess I’ve been trying to streamline that a bit more, try and like, get rid of anything that’s a bit clumsy or forced sounding in terms of intellectual lyrics. Sometimes it fits, but other times not. [laughs]
Becki: I definitely get a lot of inspiration from stories. There are a lot of novels that I like – I studied English at uni, so there’s a bunch of things that stick in my mind from that, and I’ve wrote a song about Twin Peaks, so I guess I have to say that as well.
Becki: So many. My favourite composer of all time is probably Debussy. There’s this piece about the moon descending over a temple that he did for solo piano, and that’s the most incredibly beautiful piece that I’ve pretty much ever heard. I like other stuff in that older vein, like I talked about William Byrd before, but recently I’ve just been listening to stacks and stacks of female pop music, just because pop singers these days, and throughout history, I guess, but particularly these days… there’s this expectation that female vocalists will have these flawless voices. There’s just such great vocal control and power in the work of people like Miley Cyrus, Beyonce and Katy Perry – they’re all just so polished, and that’s kind-of what I want for my voice, so I try and channel that as much as I can.
Becki: Well, see, when I listen to these more popular people, I guess I’m not so much listening for the tone of their voices, as the technical side of things. So I can tell when they’re using really good airflow control, and I can tell when their pitch is good – all that sort of thing, so that’s what I take on board for my voice, but in terms of the character of my voice, the tone of it, that’s not ever going to turn into Miley Cyrus. [laughs] Only Miley can be Miley.
Becki: I guess my accent has been kinda Aussie in some of the releases, so that’s probably the main thing. I don’t know about other subconscious things. I really love Nick Cave, and he was probably the first lyricist that I really, really loved, so if there is any influence that’s strongly Australian, I would hope it would be him. But he’d probably listen to my music and be like, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing of me in that.’ [laughs]
Becki: Initially, I massively tried to embrace it, particularly in some of the bands I was in before Aphir, and in the first EP I really embraced it too, but these days… I don’t want to sound un-Australian, so I’m not trying to actively cultivate an American accent or anything like that, but there are some quirks of Australian speech that don’t translate very well to singing. Like diphthongs, which are kinda changes in your vowel sounds that incorporate this tonal element. So, you actually flatten out your pitch when you’re making a diphthong, and you don’t want to do that when you’re singing a melody because that’s gonna put you out a bit and make you sound like you’re not singing in key, potentially. So, I guess I try and limit it these days, but I don’t want to not sound like me still, so it’s kind-of a trade-off.
Becki: Not at the moment, because of having so much time on my hands. I feel like I have a good balance at the moment in terms of how much teaching I do, how much songwriting I do myself and how much work I do on other projects – I work for a little label in Canberra. It’s a good trade-off at the moment, but as I said, I’m a bit worried about restrictions that might be placed on me next year.
I feel like expectations on artists, mostly relate to the way they market themselves – that’s been my experience. With Aphir, I consciously made a decision not to care about that as much. I feel it’s not a hugely marketable project – it’s choral music, and people are all about drums these days. They don’t wanna hear heaps of vocal melodies – it’s kind-of a niche thing. There are people like you who really enjoy it, and there are people like me who really enjoy making it, but as a general rule, it’s not the pop thing. Taking that on board, I was like, well, I can do more creative things, I can do creative releases and I can make things home-made – things don’t have to be perfect and glossy all the time. They’ll be a small group of people who really appreciate it, and to them it’ll be great! Hopefully the other people will keep to themselves and not bother about criticising something they’re not that interested in. [laughs]
Becki: Oh, look, I really do. I really enjoy Medulla, that’s the Bjork album that’s all vocals, and I’ve discovered there’s an Australian band that’s a cappella stuff – Aluka. They make stuff that’s a bit more sparse and a bit less electronic than mine. But yeah, if you’ve got a good voice and you can make beautiful harmonies, then I am a hundred-percent interested in what you’re making.
Becki: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I guess I just try and listen to a lot of different stuff so I can learn from all of it as much as I can. And it takes me ages to learn things, so I often feel like I’m getting stuck just listening to one album over and over again, so I have to consciously delete stuff from my iPhone.
Becki: So, I’ve been working on Gunwaif with two of my producer friends, who also run this label with me in Canberra. I guess that’s more electronic-pop stuff. I was working with Crmwll up until recently – we’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen with that now, but I’m still making music with Sam under the name Hex Bird. It’s kinda cool stuff and I really enjoyed making it, just because a lot of the vocals were a lot easier than some of the stuff I’ve been writing lately. That was kind-of refreshing.
I’m also working with my dear friend, Hannah de Feyter on a project called Cilt – it’s the Turkish word for ‘skin’. And that’s just my vocals – no lyrics – and Hannah’s ambient viola stuff, like ambient noise-drone. We just improvise for like forty minute to an hour stretches, and then look over our tracks and pull out whatever sounds the best – that sounds like someone’s actually going to want to listen to it – and then pop it up on Bandcamp. It’s just been really fun. It’s really relaxing to make music with Hannah in this really improvised kind of way, because I don’t have to plan and I don’t have to think, all I have to do is tech.
Becki: So, it’s totally eclectic. We’ve made the decision to house anyone who we think is good, but because there’s three of us, I guess there’s more of a screening process. It’s not just one person’s musical taste [Hey! Ed.]. So we try and be quite generous with it. We’ve signed a bunch of our students – because Sam teaches guitar, and he’s like a crazy genius, he teaches a heap of different instruments – onto the label when they started writing songs, then helped them get started on production and all that kind of stuff. And they’re so talented – it’s crazy what people can do if they’re just given the rope to try it and put together a release.
We’ve got anything from garage-rock to… there’s a girl who does these kind-of Gothic beats and chants, and then Hannah’s solo project ALPHAMALE, which is just like noise-drone viola stuff. So it’s really eclectic.
Becki: It’s always been important to me to, I guess, represent the philosophy I have for my teaching in my own music. What I try and teach people to do when they start learning to sing is get them to move through their whole range with ease, but then use the technical skills that they develop with me, to give their music their own character and personality without harming their vocal apparatus in doing so. That’s the master-plan.
Becki: Probably too much. [laughs] I’m kind-of a workaholic.
Becki: I one-hundred-percent prefer working with other people, because it’s lonely on your own, and it’s much more nerve-racking playing live by yourself, because there’s no-one to blame if things go wrong. [laughs]
Becki: I have spent a long time trying to work out a rig that lets me get around the difficulties, and so, it has been a difficult process to get to the place that I’m at, but now I think I’ve got my set to the point where I’m happy with the level of technology that I’m using and the level of audience engagement that I can get. I mean, there’s a little bit of tweaking – I could probably be more engaged with the audience, because I’m not fully comfortable with the use of my technology yet. I’m using an RC505 loop station, so I put samples into the different tracks and then kind-of loop them and overlay them and use some of the effects on there. Plus I use a bunch of pedals to add layers of harmony and delay and all that kind of thing. At a recent gig, I performed with a choir. It’s four of my students just singing with me, so that’s been really good too. It’s nice, because it looks a bit better on stage and gives it more of that human feel.
Becki: I kind-of really like having smaller audiences who actually listen. I’ve played one-or-two larger venues, or smaller venues with bigger crowds, and yeah… I just want the atmosphere to be really chilled, because obviously my music isn’t something that you can really dance to. I have tried to dance to some of it and it’s like, ‘Hmm? Becky, no.’ [laughs] There’s a bit of an awkward Taylor Swift moment. Have you seen that video clip? My awkward isn’t even charmingly cultivated awkward.
I guess my ideal venue is one where the sound is really good, and there are not heaps of people, but the people who are there are interested.
Becki: The biggest thing is that I’ve got a lot better at production and mixing, but I think everything sounds tighter, because instead of struggling to push my range down to its very depth, I’ve been focussing more on detuning the lower parts based on higher parts that I’ve written so they sound a bit less sloppy. Like I think I said before, I’ve been trying to streamline my songs more so that they’re not as wordy, so I’ve been trying to use lyrics that really match the feel of a melody quite perfectly. All of the songs that I wrote for Abandon, I wrote the lyrics and the melody at the same time, whereas on Invirtue there were a couple where I wrote some lyrics and then tried to squish them into a melody, which I don’t think is as effective as a songwriting style.
Becki: I wouldn’t really listen to the first record again. I mean, I play Long Shadow live, but I don’t really play any of the others, just because I listen to the recordings and I’m like, ‘That is not good…’ [laughs] And because I’m using my recordings to make my loops and stuff… I could put in the effort and do new ones, but because I’ve written so much new stuff that I like better, it’s hard to motivate myself to re-record old things.
Becki: So, Abandon I’m really considering to be half of an album, and I’ve started working on the second half, which is actually going to be called ‘Halved’. So that’s my next thing. My hope is… Hannah is in New York at the moment, working to promote other bands, book gigs and that sort of thing, and I really hope that I can go over again with her – she’ll come back in the Australian summer and then I’m hoping we’ll head over again mid next year. So, I guess playing some Aphir shows, and some Cilt shows over there is a huge goal. But I’m thinking at the moment… well, initially I thought I’d do Aphir and it’d be all vocals for a little while, but then I’d bring in beats and all that kind of thing, but now that I have so many other outlets for that kind of music, I kinda want to keep Aphir what it is now. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see if I get sick of it. I don’t think I will. It’s nice to have something that I do by myself.
Becki: Yeah, for sure. I don’t see any reason to close off that creative avenue.
Becki: I’m glad you’re pleased about that. [laughs]
The debut EP from Aphir, Invirtue, as well as follow-up, Abandon, are both available for purchase over on Bandcamp - if you are at all interested in creative vocal work, I'd suggest you head over there asap!
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