Friends since sixth grade, Ben Woolner, Michael Bell and Harry Sayers hail from Canberra, NSW: a town not widely known as a place for musicians to be “discovered”. The friendship has since evolved into an electro-pop creating trio in SAFIA, propelling to them onto famed stages across the world, including the ‘holy grail’ of the festival circuit, South by Southwest (SXSW).
“I remember the first time a song got played on the radio and then that was definitely a cool moment and helped us get motivated to keep working,” says lead singer Ben.
The story of fresh-faced kids jamming to rock music and performing covers after school isn’t particularly unique when hearing of the humble beginnings of most mega-bands, with this narrative true also for SAFIA. However, the band’s first break came three years ago after winning Triple J’s famed Unearthed competition – an annual search that finds hidden musical talent around Australia – and then, signing a record deal with Warner Music last year.
“Australia is really lucky in the fact that it has such a big, alternative radio station there’s a whole bunch of them like FBi in Sydney and 4RR in Melbourne. [There are] heaps and they’ve got good ‘listernerships’. In other countries, it’s very hard to break through and it’s still very commercial… so it’s really hard to get play in different countries who don’t have big government funded stations.” With a music culture primed for discovering emerging talent, SAFIA were able to walk through a (relatively) open door, allowing them to make industry professionals sit up and pay attention.
When asked for the play-by-play of their success, Ben defines it as more of an organic evolution and still isn’t entirely sure as to how it all happened so fast.
“I think it wasn’t until after school that we were doing different things that we kind of discovered production and electronic music and writing our different kind of stuff and… it was always just for fun. I never expected much from it and then it just started to pick up a lot of traction and then from there we were like ‘oh, we can maybe take this seriously’ and have a go at it.”
Another key to their career acceleration has been their opportunity to collaborate with other local musicians who have complimented their style, while also giving them added exposure. From celebrity DJ Alison Wonderland to fellow electronic duo Peking Duk, these collaborations are a result of the tight-knit music industry in Australia. “I think all the collaborations we’ve done have just been because we’re friends. There’s no kind of formal thing, it’s just…you know we’ve been friends with Peking Duck for a while and it made sense to just jump into the studio and see what happens.”
Now, after releasing several singles and highly acclaimed EP, Embracing Me, SAFIA have just released their debut album, Internal, a project that is close to their heart. “I suppose with this we are trying to make it cohesive and flow together from start to finish but also the tracks in themselves are really diverse. I think after hopefully one or two listens, they’re distinctively different enough that each track you’ll remember for a different reason.”
While the industry is important to them, Ben is still adamant to keep his art form authentic, making sure to add that when making music, SAFIA are always in it for themselves. “Make music for yourself, it’s really important to not worry about radio, labels, other artists [and just] make music that you enjoy listening to and then hopefully that will resonate across to other people if you’re lucky. And… strive to be unique.”