Having featured on the first of our Oneiric Escapism compilations in February, and having previously discussed her work with A Lonely Ghost Burning last August, Aphir, solo project of the enormously talented and equally lovely Becki Whitton, kindly set aside some time to chat again, this time with a focus on her debut album, Holodreem (released Jan 2015). Reflecting on both the creative process and final work, she articulated the reasons for her changing perception of the project, where the record's fragility comes from and the importance of being a self-sufficient artist.
... Aphir's obviously not designed to be everyone's kind of music, but I want it to be the best thing that it can be for the people who are into it.
Becki: It feels pretty good. I definitely feel proud of myself, and I guess I feel like it’s a step in the right direction… Do you want me to elaborate on that? [laughs]
Maybe I should think about it more… It feels good, but at the same time there’s so much work involved in promoting an album and making sure that it reaches the right ears, and as many ears as possible, that it’s difficult to just bask in the glow. But, there is a bit of a glow.
Becki: Yeah, it actually really has. I’ve been thinking about that a bit, lately. I guess, up until the album was in the home stretch of being finished, I’d always thought of Aphir as maybe a secondary project for me. I’ve been involved in a bunch of different bands with friends, and I guess I find working with other people to be a lot more fun than just working by myself on something. I mean, it’s great to have full creative control and everything, but in terms of just having people to bounce ideas off, and having people to make jokes with and all that kind of thing, it’s great to have band members. So, I was always thinking, like, “We’ll work on these bands as a main moneymaker, and Aphir will just be this thing that I do to keep improving myself and keep showing myself that I can make music on my own.” But then, when I was close to putting this album together – and I guess I was receiving a lot of feedback from people which fed into this too – I realised that this project has the potential to be more than I initially thought it would be, in terms of the interest that it will generate and the longevity of the project. Aphir’s not necessarily ‘super hip’ music, but there are a lot of people out there telling me that it’s going to last with them, and that’s what I want to make. I want to make stuff that’s going to last with people.
Becki: Yeah, maybe. I didn’t think that Aphir would be a project that ever included features from other people, but while I was in Canberra over the summer – which is my hometown – I met this girl, Denni, who’s this amazing woman, and she makes kinda folky music and has this really distinctive, powerful voice. So, I was like, “Ah, maybe she could sing on one of these tracks,” and she did the feature in Blaze, and it just worked really well, so there’s definitely scope for including some other musicians. I just need to think about it really carefully, because I’m not sure how precious I’m going to be about Aphir being strictly a vocal project. That’s obviously how it started out, and now I have a whole albums worth of that kind of material. Some people have been coming up to me like, “Are you gonna add drums?” I dunno. Am I? I’m not sure.
Becki: Well, I’ve been working really hard over the last month trying to improve my skills at midi programming and being able to, not necessarily make it into my main thing, but have it there if the mood takes me. So, I’ve been working really hard on that, and I’ve almost finished producing one song, which I really like, but I’m just not sure that my level of… Okay, let me put it like this – I’m surrounded by all these producers who make these insanely lush, beautiful, nuanced beats, and when I listen to my own midi stuff, I’m like, “Yeah, so this is like, [attempts to vocalise beats before quickly succumbing to laughter]…” It’s kinda not up to their standards, but it’s a good song, so I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I would release it as Aphir, even, so there’s obviously a lot of confusion about what the next stage is going to be, but there are a lot of options too, and this year I’m mostly focusing on touring, so I have time to figure out what I’m going to do.
Becki: Generally, when I write songs, it’s pretty natural. I don’t really sit down and plan so much, like, this is gonna be the core theme of this album. I want to get into doing that a bit more. It’s something that I’ve noticed a lot in artists that I really love, like, close-to-home, Alphamale does it lots, and on the grand scale of things, Bjork always has these little themes that all link either her music or her lyrics, and that appeals to me, but in terms of Holodreem, no, I didn’t really sit down and decide on a core theme.
Becki: I think this kinda taps into thinking about what the album represents about me as a person. I think, basically, with Aphir, it’s quite fragile – the songs are quite fragile, or sung from a fragile voice, and I think the process of writing Holodreem was like writing the fragility out of myself, because obviously… Aphir’s not a doormat, like, you can imagine she’s a little bit sassy, but she is, I guess, pretty preoccupied with relationships and being sad, and I have work to do, so I can’t just think about that all the time. So yeah, writing Holodreem was kind of like making a fragile person in an album, and being a tougher person in real life.
Becki: Yeah, so Invirtue was kind of like just a bunch of disconnected songs. Well, there was a thread in there. It was quite a personal EP because that’s all I had to work with at that stage – it was kinda like I needed to draw on this really personal fuel to drive myself to finish the songs. So yeah, there was just a bunch of songs about particular things in my life, and I didn’t know how to produce, really – I didn’t know what a frequency was – [laughs] – so in terms of the leap of production, that’s definitely there as well. But, in terms of emotion, I guess, I see Holodreem as being more coherent than Invirtue.
Becki: I don’t think it was different, but I think it was an improvement on what I’d been doing before. I recorded it all myself, so I wrote it as I recorded it, basically, and just put down scratch recordings to begin with, and then, when I went back over and wasn’t happy with elements of pitch or execution, I just redid those sections. I mixed it and mastered it all myself as well. With Abandon, I had someone else master that for me, so I guess that element of the creative process was different. I was trying to get a hold of that part of the process myself, which, you know – mastering, you’re not good at unless you’re like fifty years old and have a bunch of sweet analog gear, right? [laughs] But yeah, it was just a challenge that I wanted to set myself. So, I guess it was more streamlined than it had been previously, but doing the same tasks.
Becki: Oh, look, I am a terrible self-critic… or a great self-critic – you could look at it that way. [laughs] There are still songs on there where I can hear things that I can improve on, but when I released it, it was like, this is the best form of what I know to do now. But I’m studying audio production at university at the moment, and just getting better at that side of things all the time. And, I’m constantly working on my voice – I try and work it every day. So, there are always little bits where I’m like, “I could do better at this, or I could do better at that.” Probably, in terms of quality, I’m still a bit iffy about Fantasieges. It’s maybe a song that would’ve benefited from a little bit of midi, perhaps, like some drums or bass.
Becki: [laughs] I’m glad you do. I like it in the form it’s in as well, it’s just, I guess, once you start producing and once you start working on digital interfaces where you can actually program the notes in and use different instruments and stuff, there are just unlimited options for how you could produce any song, so that’s in my mind a bit as I make Aphir stuff. And now that I can kinda do midi better, I’m like, “Oh, maybe this isn’t a song that should be in Aphir, maybe this is just a song that I should make a beat for and give to someone else.” So, I guess there are slight feelings of that with Fantasieges, but I’m glad it’s on the album. It fits with the album. And also, The Strongest Stance – I love that song – it’s probably one of my favourite songs on the album – but, I sometimes feel like I could’ve somehow lifted the production of it a bit more, maybe with the help of instruments that aren’t vocals. So, I’m not saying that the versions on the album are the be all and end all of everything. I think there is scope for me to maybe remix them or do something different one of these days. But, I’ll just see what other projects are also up on my radar. There’s only so much time. [laughs]
Becki: I guess, always in the back of my mind – I mean, I don’t want to dictate what people are visualising when they listen to this album, but I think it’s safe to say this because a lot of people have expressed to me that they do visualise something along these lines – there’s kind of like a dreamy, spacey landscape that most people seem to be transported to, and I try and be in that zone when I’m listening to my own stuff. When I perform, I wanna be in that zone. It’s just tricky when you’re mixing and trying to forensically pull apart everything that’s wrong with a track and improve the bits that can be improved, to really space out over it.
Becki: I’m always listening to other artists. I’ve had some really inspirational friends who have impressed upon me the necessity of doing that in order to get better at my own music. So, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff along the lines of Jai Paul and J Dilla – more hip-hop stuff. Lots of trip-hop kind of things – stuff with lots of reverb [laughs]. Singers like MØ, I listened to lots of her while I was making this. I distinctly remember this moment when I was producing Blaze and I’d been listening to Jai Paul, like, constantly, and I was like, “I’m gonna do volume automation for this little chunk of the song. I’m gonna be like Jai Paul and do volume automation!” Obviously it sounds nothing like Jai Paul, but you know, it was a little bit inspired by that.
I try to read a lot as well and keep my mind for language pretty sharp, because I guess that’s kind of what you need to write good lyrics… This is really terrible, because I honestly cannot remember all the stuff I read and listened to while I was preparing Holodreem… I obviously watched a lot of Star Trek.
Becki: Yeah, very much so. [laughs]
Becki: Everything I do with Aphir – and I think we actually even talked about this the last time I chatted to you – is like a challenge to myself to make music independently, and to just actually be able to craft my own stuff; to have the freedom of not feeling like I need to veto the emotional content, because when I work with other people… I guess, working with producers, it’s more dancey beats, or R&B kinda beats, and writing these really gratuitously melancholy songs probably doesn’t fit with a “Doo Do Doo” (I tried – Ed.) kind of popping dance beat.
So yeah, I guess there’s a.) the emotional outlet side of things, and b.) independence, confidence, developing my skills – which overlaps. And as an artist, I guess, you’re always looking for greater recognition… Maybe not even widespread recognition, but for the people who actually are listening to go, “Yeah, this is something that is worth listening to. This is something that is worth talking about.” You know, because Aphir’s obviously not designed to be everyone’s kind of music, but I want it to be the best thing that it can be for the people who are into it.
Becki: Hmm, this is a hard one to answer without going against my politeness programming, you know? [laughs] Because, what I want to say is, like, “I hope that people think I’m awesome!” [laughs]
But no, I want Holodreem to show that I’m dedicated to my craft, and I want it to show that I’m versatile enough, and up for a challenge enough, to take over responsibility for all the different stages of making that artwork. So, writing the lyrics, obviously, writing the music that’s going to accompany those lyrics – so, vocal melody and, like, a full spectrum of sound as well – and then, that I can also produce, in terms of texture and structure, the music that I’ve laid down and even mix and master that myself. I guess, I just want it to show that I’m quite independent when it comes to my art. And capable, I suppose, as well.
Becki: I guess I didn’t want it to reveal stuff about me. Like I mentioned earlier, writing the fragility out of myself – I guess I wanted to make myself a tougher person by just sloughing off all those fragile parts. I do still think that there’s a toughness in Aphir, as I said, but I guess I just wanted the sorts of preoccupations that are present in Aphir songs to not be preoccupations in my own life.
Becki: Well, I guess they’re obviously not going to be ecstatically happy. [laughs] It’s a pretty melancholy album. So yeah, there’s that kinda sad mood that people could be in to listen to it, but also I’ve heard that a lot of people like to listen to it when they just want to relax or space out.
Becki: How manipulative do you think I am…? [laughs]
Look, I really don’t know, exactly. I ordered the songs quite precisely, but not because I thought that I could play on each individual person’s heartstrings. It was more of a personal choice – where I liked each song sonically and emotionally. Blaze being at the end was the main choice I made about the order of the album insofar as influencing broadly all my listeners in a similar way, because Blaze is kinda about appreciating the elements of yourself…
Well, okay, here’s a little insight into Blaze that’s a bit more in-depth. Blaze came from me feeling anxious to the point of feeling sick and like I couldn’t function. Last year was a pretty anxious year for me, because of financial reasons and because of trying to set up my own business and all of this different stuff. I guess, sometimes, when anxiety overwhelms you, you just feel totally detached from the real world. You feel as if going through the basic motions, day-to-day, should chill you out, should put you back in that mindset where you can just get stuff done, but, sometimes, it just doesn’t – you just feel crazy. I guess a lot of my writing has come from those feelings of anxiety. I know that lots of artists work that way – it’s an anxious profession, being an artist, I guess. There are so many hurdles to overcome, and financial hurdles in particular, but I wrote Blaze because there’s this incentive to fight against anxiety and depression and that kind of spectrum of emotions. I think that sometimes there’s a place for fighting against that kind of stuff, but as an artist, I’ve found that I just have to kind of sit back and be like, “I just feel crazy now, and that’s what’s gonna happen.” Some really good pieces of art that I’m proud of have come from that, so maybe there’s a place to accept those feelings…
I hope none of this is sounding corny or whatever. It’s just really difficult to talk about things like anxiety.
Becki: Well, I think with Blaze it’s important, because my choice to put that at the end of the album was quite deliberate. I didn’t want to leave the album with this sound of, like, “Oh, it’s just a sad girl being sad.” I want there to be some kind of determined conclusion, but I didn’t want it to be like, “We live to fight another day!” or something like that. I wanted it to appreciate feelings that are a bit more real than just hollow inspirational stuff.
Becki: There was some degree of chronological ordering – Hyding was the first song I wrote for the album, and I had always thought of it as having this kind of like ‘opening’ feel to it. So, Abandon and Halved, the two EPs that make up the album, have their own distinct feel to me. Abandon is lighter and more anticipatory, then Halved, I always thought of as being the more messed up half, I suppose. So there was definitely going to be some sort of ordering based on those EPs coming one after the other, and then, within that, I guess a lot of the ordering was making sure that no clump of the album came across as just being a big complaint. I know that there are a lot of sad songs in there, and I didn’t want it to be emotionally monotonous at any point.
Becki: Yeah, I am. I think in the future there are things that I would do differently for any records that I make. I was quite impatient with this one, in releasing Abandon before the rest, and that was just because I wasn’t quite ready to release a whole album when I wrote those songs. I knew that they fit really well with the second batch of songs that I wrote, so I wanted to release it as an album, but I just needed that initial release to keep up the momentum that I had in terms of inspiration and drive to work on Aphir stuff. I needed to see Abandon as a whole finished product at that point in time, and because I’m not signed to a label for these releases – I’ve worked with Early Music Australia for Abandon and for Holodreem a bit, but I’m not bound to produce an album a year or anything like that – I have the independence to just release when I want to. So, I was just like, “Why not?”
I think in the future I would try and be more patient, I would try and have a bit more faith early on in my initial compositions and just stew on it a bit more. I think it’d be easier to do, because I’ve come a long way as an artist from the early days, and the stuff that I’m creating I’ll be less unsure about or initially disappointed with. ‘Unsure’ is the main thing, like, I don’t think I’ve had any releases that I’ve been out-and-out disappointed with yet, but I’ve always been able to see what could improve and where the weakest points of the releases are.
Becki: [laughs] Look, I’m never going to be totally happy with anything that I make, I don’t think, because I just wanna keep learning how to make things better. So, once I do that, I’m, like, “Oh, I can see how all that learning could apply to that thing that I’ve just made.” But, even though there are things that I would always improve on, I’m proud of the product, and for me that’s the most important thing. I want every work that I make to be of higher and higher standard, but I wanna be able to feel proud of myself in terms of my creative process, and for seeing it through to the end, I guess, too.
Becki: Thanks, Jamie. Thanks so much.
Becki: In one word? [laughs] I don’t wanna prescribe. I don’t want to set out what I think about it in concrete enough terms that other people might catch that from me and not be able to have their own thing. I think with any piece of art, there are limits on how wildly you can construe it to be whatever you want to construe it to be, but at the same time, you don’t want the artist kinda sitting there being like, “This song is about this particular event, and woe betide you if you don’t think it’s about that thing.” [laughs]
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