Over Zoom, NME’s speaking to Becki Whitton, the Melbourne-based producer and engineer who’s best known for her mixing and mastering work on hundreds of records for Australian pop and electronic artists like G Flip, Allday, Tash Sultana (and, full disclosure, this writer’s own band ELLE).
But we’re discussing Whitton’s more formidable art pop alter ego Aphir, and her third album ‘Republic Of Paradise’, released late in September. Conceived at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a concept record about staring down her deepest fears – and resolving to take action. Aphir blends her signature choral vocals with beautiful, freaky synths and distorted drums, into one of the most sonically ambitious – and emotionally earnest – albums to emerge from Australia this year.
In conversation, Whitton is gentle, soft-spoken, with a deep-rooted confidence about her craft that’s offset by the odd chirp of self-deprecating laughter. In a first for her, she live-streamed much of the creation of ‘Republic Of Paradise’ on Twitch, recording oft-intense music in a relaxed setting.
“Ever since I started making music, it’s always been compared to FKA twigs. To some extent, that’s extremely flattering, because she’s an incredible musician,” she says. “But there’s also an element of tension there, because she is very graceful and deadpan in her presentation. And I am a dag! I make ridiculous jokes, and Twitch stream my worst Ableton moments. It’s all out there.”
Whitton grew up in Canberra, where she sang in choirs at a young age. But she had surprisingly little formal training, for someone whose music feels so orchestrated in nature. She sang in acts across Canberra’s small scene of house parties and bars, playing everything from indie-folk to ambient electronic and glitch pop.
It wasn’t until 2013 that she started Aphir, her solo project, to truly find her voice as a singer and producer. She moved to Melbourne and studied audio engineering at the SAE Institute – at first to improve her own craft, but it gradually led to her day job mixing and mastering for other artists.
Still, Aphir’s earliest work is vivid and accomplished – including her entirely choral debut album, 2015’s ‘Holodreem,’ and 2017’s more ambitious ‘Twin Earth’. But she really honed her sound on a pair of EPs in 2018 and 19, ‘Dyscircadian’ and ‘Ceci n’est pas une Pop,’ grappling with both the avant-garde and more melodic sides of her sound.
The truth is, ‘Republic Of Paradise’ wasn’t supposed to happen. At the start of 2019, Whitton looked at ‘Inarcadia,’ the album she’d already spent two years making, and decided she hated it. “I was trying to make… not commercial pop, but it was more poppy. But I was just feeling angry and miserable. I was literally trying to cram myself into a style that didn’t suit me. So the production was just a mess.”
She scrapped ‘Inarcadia’ and started another album she grew to love, ‘Pomegranate Tree,’ which felt like the culmination of the Aphir sound to date. “They’re still my favourite songs that I’ve ever written. And they’re not all happy – they’re like a really sweet catharsis. It’s like finding out about yourself, and the bad parts as well, but being okay with them.”
“I am a dag! I make ridiculous jokes, and Twitch stream my worst Ableton moments”
By early 2020, that record was finished… but outside, Australia was burning, and the reality of the pandemic had just set in. “I’d never felt so scared in my life,” Whitton says. “My brain latched onto the idea that that was my way to go. My brain was like, ‘You will die of COVID’.” She’s relieved that she can now laugh about it. “Maybe the same part of my mind that allows me to create mythologies that my songs live in, is also primed to create stupid, superstitious mythologies around what’s going to happen to me.”
Facing a bleak future, with fears both unfounded and all too real, she shelved her second album in a row, for release at a later date – and so ‘Republic Of Paradise’ was born. “I was starting to see the brutal reality of 2020. At the start of the pandemic, I was seeing heaps of escapist music promoted, like ambient playlists to tune out of the situation. I wanted to embrace that, but I was like, I can’t escape from this – I just have to hit it head-on.”
It all comes together on the lead single ‘Give You One’. Her voice once pure and choral, Whitton (backed by fellow Melbourne artist Sandy Hsu) now chants rituals to banish her fear: “Directionless you need from me / Some new problem to circle round / Some new problem to feed upon / I try not to give you one!” It’s a bizarrely catchy pop song – even as the cavernous sound design builds to a symphony of noise.
On ‘The Harpies’ and ‘I Might Be The Angel Of Death’, Aphir takes her vocal manipulation techniques even further, sounding like Macbeth’s witches on helium while waving glow sticks at a rave. When she sings “I think I might be the angel of death / It’s my unthinking touch that drains, leaves nothing left”, it’s as if she’s embodying fear itself. Where her productions used to float, dreamlike, above the clouds, they’ve now “levelled down into the pits of hell”. She laughs as she says that – but without a hint of irony.
A user on her Twitch stream, who went by anxiety_dnb, dubbed Whitton’s music “ethereal trash”, a label she welcomes. “Heaps of people have described my music as like: high feminine voice, ethereal! I was just like… no. It doesn’t really sit with me. That’s where a lot of my harsher production comes in, ’cause I’m trying to rebel against that.”
Across the album’s softer second half, the atmosphere of dread blooms into a sense of resolve. The title track was directly inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the unapologetically optimistic platform on which he ran. “A big part of what Bernie Sanders continues to stand for is equality in terms of class and wealth. I was really a Bernie Bro!” she exclaims. “I was ready to see him win. To me, it seems a bit presumptuous to make an album called ‘Republic Of Paradise’, as though I know what that would look like. But I thought, maybe this will be the point where we get to start it.”
On the song, Aphir sings softly, as drums circle around her: “Paradise is human, not a chosen few but all / We’ve worked for this, we choose it / And we’ll grow in strength as we grow old”. She’s found the poetry in the political, a dream of a reality that feels like it should be within reach. She confesses, “I never thought I would be able to write music that engaged in any kind of political way, because I was like, I’ll never write so literally as Rage Against The Machine. But when I wrote the title track, it was so earnest.”
Modern art pop is often characterised as cold, academic, emotionally distant – sometimes rightfully so. But the best artists of the genre, from Kate Bush to Radiohead, have always made music that’s deeply human and passionate. With ‘Republic Of Paradise’, Aphir has cracked that code for herself. Whether the record feels challenging or peaceful, transcendent or intimate, it’s always inclusive in spirit.
“I’ll never write so literally as Rage Against The Machine. But when I wrote the title track, it was so earnest”
Though entirely self-produced, the album features a cast of contributors across Australia’s small, vibrant art pop scene. Says frequent collaborator Kat Hunter of Melbourne art rock act Lack The Low, who knows Aphir better than most, “Becki has always had an attuned sensitivity and a gentleness both as a person and in her art, which sometimes has this delicate, receptive quality about it.”
“But there’s a tough side to her too, and in this new record that side really comes to the fore. You can hear her staring fear in the face and vanquishing it. That strength was always there under the surface, but is now in full view.”
‘No Accident’, the final track on ‘Republic Of Paradise’, fades with a repeated mantra: “Now no emotion be unfelt / Rest the illness, make us well… / The best in us remains, upheld… / The best in us remains”. The truth is, art alone won’t save the world. But, perhaps, it can lend us the armour to start building that paradise, brick by brick.
Aphir’s ‘Republic Of Paradise’ is out now