SAFIA Have No Plans To Move Away From Canberra To An Industry Hub

7 August 2019 | 9:00 am | Cyclone Wehner

Ben Woolner of SAFIA speaks to Cyclone about how starting out and remaining in Canberra made them into the band they are today.


The Canberra electro-pop band SAFIA are finally following up 2016's acclaimed debut album, Internal. With songs about self-knowledge, release and living in the moment, Story's Start Or End is a panoramic disco opus. "There's definitely a lot of cosmic themes, that's for sure," frontman Ben Woolner quips.

SAFIA – Woolner is joined by guitarist/keyboardist Harry Sayers and drummer Michael Bell – have known each other since their school days at Radford College. They shared a passion for music, their collective backgrounds spanning classical, jazz and metal. The three gigged in rock outfits together before fusing acoustic instrumentation with electronics as SAFIA. While SAFIA are now associated with the dance music scene, Woolner feels they transcend genre, being both "songwriters" and "experimenters". "Because we have this mishmash of ideas and influences, it's just this big, weird, hybrid super thing," he says. "We just try our best to make it work somehow." 

Coming up in Canberra proved advantageous. "I don't think we'd be the band that we are today if we weren't living there," Woolner notes. Indeed, with minimal local competition, they emerged as the "go to" support for touring acts. "We had no idea what we were doing," Woolner admits. "We just learnt so much from all of these established bands." 

Significantly, SAFIA scored a triple j Unearthed slot at 2013's Groovin The Moo. But they broke out nationally with the single Listen To Soul, Listen To Blues. SAFIA cut auspicious collabs, including the mega Take Me Over with fellow Canberrans Peking Duk. The trio signed to Warner ahead of Internal, which reached #2 on the Australian charts. The album was created by "instinct", Woolner recalls. 

"We didn't have time to think. Everything was happening all at once. It was the first time we were doing anything. We were thrown right in the deep end and we were learning as we went and enjoying it. Things were working and we didn't need to think too much about what we were doing in a huge amount of depth."

Between projects, SAFIA performed solidly. They've also forged an international profile, discovering a buoyant audience in China. Nonetheless, SAFIA are still based in the ACT, resisting any urge, or pressure, to relocate to the industry hub of Sydney. 

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"We're all very introverted in nature," Woolner maintains. "For us, Canberra is a retreat. We like being separated from maybe the industry or the influences that come along with a bigger city – let's say Sydney or Melbourne. I think it helps us write music that's unconstrained, or that isn't influenced by maybe a larger music culture around us."

SAFIA travelled a long road in making Story's Start Or End, its glitchy, ambient first single, Cellophane Rainbow, airing in 2017. They "scrapped" two albums. Yet the process itself would be integral to their second album, which Woolner describes as "an album about growth and identity". 

He ponders, "It really is that journey from the last album up until the present moment. It's why there's a big focus on [the] 'journey’, and it's probably why it's got these big space odyssey themes and these overarching narratives." A neo-kosmische groove, Think We're Not Alone isn't referencing extraterrestrials. "It's really a song about anxiety and dealing with the anxiety that comes every night – during this period, especially – and dealing with these little voices in my head that would just creep in, creep out when they like."

Generally, SAFIA found themselves "reflecting" more when approaching album two. 

"You sit back and you go, 'Ok, what kind of album do we wanna do? And what kind of artists do we wanna be?' [But] it's very easy to overthink it and maybe stray far away from the authenticity that might have come before, when you were just doing things instinctively." 

Though Woolner had notions of tackling macro social issues with the album, he "wasn't ready". "It ended up being like, 'Ok, well, I can't really comment on the world around me with any level of insight if I don't deal with my biases and own shit first.'"

Ironically, he wrote about who he is besides a musician. "This album, in that sense, became very much that journey. It really follows that kind of inner dialogue, that inner struggle, until the end, where it's in a better place of gratitude and acceptance and hopefully compassion – and then it starts to be able to look outward beyond myself."