Feature Artist: Wafia

As far as origin stories go, Wafia Al-Rikabi’s is as absorbing as they come, and remains a cornerstone to all that she creates. Born in the Netherlands, her younger years were somewhat nomadic before her family settled in Australia in 2004. After polishing off a degree in Biomedicine, she turned her focus to music. Fast forward a few years and at 24-years-old, she’s become one of the country’s most striking storytellers, with her SoundCloud play count in the millions.

Around this time last year, Best Before caught up with Wafia and good pal/labelmate Ta-ku, to chat about their collaborative EP, ‘(m)edian’. It’s a release that propelled the duo onto a global platform, landing them performances everywhere from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, to Berlin-based talent spotlight COLORS.

Wafia’s sophomore solo EP is just around the corner, and first single “83 days” is already making waves for its elegant RnB soundscapes. Asked about the overwhelmingly positive response, the Future Classic signee says it’s still always a surprise, “You just never know how people react to things. I’ve been living with [the song] for so long, sometimes I have no idea if it’s going to be anything that anyone likes. So it’s just best to have really low expectations.” For a hook birthed from tripping out of a car, the feat is all the more impressive. Wafia laughs, “I said as I tripped, “Whoa, that was a real high before the fall there!” And I was with one of the songwriters and he was like, “Write that down! That’s a song lyric!”

The new EP sees Wafia continuing to explore familial themes, tapping into her Middle-Eastern heritage. Having incorporated Arabic into her debut record, 2015’s ‘XXIX’ – its lead single “Heartburn” notably hand-picked by Pharrell for his Beats 1 show – Wafia says the new EP showcases her growth as a songwriter. “With ‘XXIX’, I was still trying to find my feet. On that EP, “Heartburn” was the most confident song on there, in terms of songwriting. I feel like there’s more of that on this EP. It’s more me being sure of what’s important and what is necessary, and bringing that to the forefront.”

On first listen, second single “Bodies” (due out August 25) is another stunning melodic musing, sharp synths and Wafia’s own velvety vocals forming an enchanting mix. Unravelling layers, however, the song takes on a new meaning when Wafia explains it was written the day her mother’s family in Syria were denied their refugee visas to Australia. “[I wanted to make] something that you can play in your home, and enjoy it for what it is at surface level, but if you choose to dig deeper, what can you gain from this?”

“I deal with stresses in my life by writing about them, because that’s the only way I can see something so positive come out of something so negative.”

The importance of family entrenched in a Arab culture, Wafia explains. Asked what her family thinks about having their story articulated in a song, Wafia says that although the subject matter is to be expected (“it plagues so much of our lives!”), it’s still very much appreciated. “My mum loves it. She feels like she did a good job raising me, and that I didn’t forget where I came from, and where she came from.” As to whether she feels a certain obligation to explore these themes, Wafia says it simply makes sense to. “It’s really important, but only because they personally impact me. I’m not going to write a song about something I don’t know.”

Accessibility in music, Wafia insists, is critical, particularly when packaging deeper issues. She adds that it’s what taught her how to both speak English, and connect with people. “Pop music did that for me, so I’m really drawn to that. When it comes to packaging, my good friend once told me that, to teach someone an idea or a concept, you present it in its most basic form, and then they can build on it.” It’s a mantra she’s actively applied to her own work, she adds. “That’s how “Bodies” is for me – I just wanted to simplify everything right down. Even with “83 days” – yeah, it’s a really specific number, but it’s a very specific feeling as well.”

Still, Wafia says writing is primarily a form of therapy for her – a lesson she took from working with “big brother” Ta-ku on the fiercely introspective ‘(m)edian’ EP. “I deal with stresses in my life by writing about them, because that’s the only way I can see something so positive come out of something so negative.” It was the only way she could deal with the harrowing circumstances “Bodies” is based on, Wafia admits. “I honestly just write it for me. The fact that other people can connect with it is all bonus.”

Trust, Wafia says, is essential in her working relationships, and the intimacy of a family connection is something Wafia feels with her closest collaborators, Ta-ku and co-writer Ben Abraham among them. “When sessions with other producers or other songwriters haven’t worked out, it’s been because I haven’t trusted them, or I haven’t trusted their tastes, or even I haven’t trusted to tell them my story. I think you really have to know what a person likes, but also what they dislike, and that’s a really difficult thing to say to another musician.”

Familiar fingerprints are all over the forthcoming record, Wafia assures: “I’m a fiercely loyal person, and I want to keep certain key people in my projects as things go on.” In the studio, having someone she trusts to validate her lyrics and melodies has been crucial, Wafia says, and that on the new record, Ben Abraham played a huge role. “He’s really good at being able to simplify my emotions to put them into a song, essentially. He’s really good at reining me in, like, “But how did it make you feel?” And allowing me to relive that moment and do it justice, to make sure the song feels like that moment again.”

It doesn’t mean that Wafia’s ruled out new collaborations, as she’s quick to point out. When entering unfamiliar territory, Wafia says, “You just have to accept that that person is new to you, and what they’re doing is really great, and you hope that your relationship with them will grow.” For now though, the involvement of friends like Ta-ku are a significant part of her releases and extend beyond a sonic level, the producer being credited for both the track artwork for “83 Days”, and the unreleased artwork for the new EP, Wafia says, her reasoning carrying both the down-to-earth logic and ethos that evidently underscores her endeavours. “I trust them. It’s like why would I go to someone else?”

Fall in love with the studio version of “83 Days” here:


Saturday 23 September – Riverstage, Brisbane (supporting London Grammar)
Friday 29 September – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
w/ GAUCI, Buoy + special guests
Thursday 5 October – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne
w/ Buoy + special guests