In October last year, Regan Matthews – better known as Ta-ku – slipped a woozy take on Estelle's 2008 Kanye West collaboration "American Boy" into rotation online. Along with a rare inclusion of the Perth native's own vocals, the slinky cover also featured the velvety tones of an emerging Brisbane-based singer-songwriter by the name of Wafia.
Fast forward nearly a year later and the dynamic duo seem to have struck up quite the creative connection. Their fated musical bond has resulted in the '(m)edian' EP, a five-track glimpse into their progress as artists and people in their own right. Structured thematically around the importance of compromise, '(m)edian' is a moving confirmation that the future of Australian music is in very safe hands.
During some downtime in their respective hometowns, we took some time out with Ta-ku and Wafia to talk about the heart behind the '(m)edian' EP.
Best Before: Hey Regan! Hey Wafia! Where are you guys located right now?
Wafia: I'm in Brisbane, and Reggie is in Perth. We both have some time home at the moment.
What have your tour schedules looked like over the last few weeks?
Ta-ku: We just finished up in Europe two weeks ago.
Wafia: I just did Splendour over the weekend, which was very exciting!
Did you get to go as well, Reggie?
Ta-ku: I didn't, unfortunately! Wafia wouldn't let me.
Wafia: Hey! Haha.
Ta-ku: Nah, just kidding. I've actually never been! They've actually banned me...
How have you both been settling in to the live shows?
Ta-ku: The live shows have been interesting, actually. We did about ten or so shows in Europe together, and we've only had the chance to perform together a handful of other times aside from that. In Europe, it was great to have so many shows in succession, because it allowed us to really get to know the set. It also really helped to see the response from different crowds in such different countries. It's interesting to feel the change in dynamic from a festival setting to the more intimate venues. Aside from the music, it's also been fun getting to know each other a little more.
If you'd asked me a year ago what I thought my upcoming album would look like, I'd tell you that I was just going to make new beats and feature vocalists. After working with Wafia, I feel more free as an artist to make something that's more reflective of me as an artist, not just a producer.
Do you feel you're learning and bouncing off each other as you go? Hopefully you both feel the same about that, because otherwise this could get awkward...
Wafia: Haha, exactly! I was actually just telling Reggie earlier that I've already learnt a lot from watching him perform. He's just incredibly charming onstage and off, and seeing how comfortable he is and what he does in situations to make others feel comfortable as well has taught me a lot. I've been learning a lot from big Ta-ku over there.
What about in terms of songwriting and music as a whole? You obviously spent a lot of time writing and pulling songs together for the '(m)edian' EP.
Ta-ku: Songwriting is an area where I've been learning a lot from Wafia. It's funny though, because it's not just necessarily with music, but more on a personal level. For me, writing has always been an interesting process, because I come from a background of making music alone in my bedroom. I'd never really taken the time to collaborate on songs so substantially before I met Wafia. Because of that, writing this EP has been an amazing experience; it's provided me with an insight into how she works as a singer-songwriter, as opposed to just being a lone producer. I enjoyed it – so much so that I'm taking the things I've learnt into the process for my album. If you'd asked me a year ago what I thought my upcoming album would look like, I'd tell you that I was just going to make new beats and feature vocalists. After working with Wafia, I feel more free as an artist to make something that's more reflective of me as an artist, not just a producer.
Was there anything else in particular that you gained new insight into after working with Wafia?
Ta-ku: I think it was just a new sense of confidence. Melody is probably my strong point when it comes to writing songs; I know what melody and what feeling a song needs for me to like it first. If I like it, and it's on the right track, then most of the time, the majority of my audience will like it too. I think that's more a matter of actually sitting down, writing a song, getting it to a point where I'm happy with it, and then letting it go as a fully formed effort on my own.
Reggie – over the last year, you've been singing on your own songs and a couple of collaborations. Was there a point where you bit the bullet and decided to put your vocals down on a track?
Ta-ku: I think the defining moment with that was my Boiler Room set in Perth. Even though that show is a bit cringe-town when I look back at it, that was the moment where Wafia and JMSN – who was also there at the time – said to me, "You might as well sing for the record you actually sung on." *Laughs* Gradually, it kept snowballing, and Wafia encouraged me to sing with her on certain tracks that I'd never tackled before.
My family defines who I am. '(m)edian' is full of small glimpses into that. We delved into good times, bad times, and issues that we've both experienced.
When did you guys realise that you had an EP like '(m)edian' ready to go? Are these songs that you'd already recorded, or did you set out specifically to make this project?
Wafia: We had actually been writing in sessions with a lot of people in New York, but when we went into the studio together earlier this year, we knew what we had to do was more conceptual and personal. We approached it from that mindset, and the songs on '(m)edian' were all written and produced specifically for the EP. But it wasn't until we were one or two songs in that we cemented the concept that we were going to run with, and we both realised that we wanted to write about a particular topic: our families.
You both come from quite diverse backgrounds; Reggie, you're half Filipino and half Maori; Wafia, you grew up in the Netherlands, but have a Middle-Eastern background. How do you feel your family experiences and your backgrounds affect the music you make now?
Ta-ku: For myself, and probably Wafia too, my family defines who I am. '(m)edian' is full of small glimpses into that. We delved into good times, bad times, and issues that we've both experienced. I drew a lot of inspiration from my family; not musically, obviously – I'm the only musical one in my family. Instead, it was more from looking to different relationships with different individual members, and thinking how I'd been inspired by them. That's where I came from, and that's been my life, and I will always write from that.
Wafia: My parents actually aren't musical either, but the music that played in our house was always quite Middle-Eastern. I was raised listening to quite different music – in the western world, I guess we'd consider it world music. At the same time, that was also combined with stuff like Baha Men or The Spice Girls...
Ta-ku: Baha Men?!
Wafia: Leave me alone! It was in The Rugrats Movie, OK? Let me live!
Ta-ku: I thought I was the only one...
You were originally on the path to study medicine, though? Is that right?
Wafia: Yeah. I did pre-med at university, and I finished that degree. I pretty much left it hanging to do the music thing, though.
Ta-ku: She left medicine for the multi-million dollar business.
Wafia: Excuse me – research and finding cures is the multi-million dollar business.
To this day, I still don't feel entitled to this lifestyle, or that I deserve it. You know? I don't think anyone is "entitled" to success in general.
Was there a moment where music stole your heart, and you knew you had to pause and shift your direction?
Wafia: I think I had an inkling when I would find myself procrastinating to make music, and it slowly began to take over my life. But I wasn't really vocal about it to anyone in my life until I was literally on the way to my last med exam. My dad was dropping me off, and I told him that I wanted to do music after that day, and I didn't really care about the results of that exam. It was amazing, though, because he turned to me and responded with the best thing that a father could say: "I know." It made me feel really comfortable in my decision to commit to something that's often incredibly uncertain – especially at that early time.
Was there a time for both of you where the reality of doing music full-time for a living struck you as a possibility?
Wafia: I always hoped that would be the case, but to this day, I still don't feel entitled to this lifestyle, or that I deserve it. You know? I don't think anyone is "entitled" to success in general. Everyone works hard, and a lot of the time, it all comes down to circumstance. I think for my parents, at least, that realisation came when one of my songs was on the soundtrack for a movie or TV show, and my mum went to drop off my sisters at school and all the mums there were talking about it. I think that was when mum realised that this was a dream that existed outside her daughter's bedroom. Having my parents believe that I could take it to that level helped me to trust that I could take it there too. I think every parent wants to know that after they are sadly gone, their children can take care of themselves. That was an experience we all shared as a family.
Ta-ku: I had a similar experience. I was at my full-time job for a long time, and I knew I could have taken the plunge earlier, but for me, it was never about whether or not I could make it in music, or get by financially doing it full time. If you have a full time job, regardless of what it is – glamorous or not so much – it still pays the bills. I actually um'ed and ah'ed over that for a couple of years. In 2013, I just said "what the hell!" and I quit my full time job and ran with it. At the beginning, it was nerve-wracking, because there can be such a sporadic income with music. But I put my head down and tried to enjoy what I was doing. I wanted to remain fulfilled creatively, because otherwise my decision would have been fruitless. It wasn't about the money – I stuck to the idea that if I wasn't creating what I set out to make, then what was I doing? I made sure that was always the main concern. If you're doing what you're passionate about, everything seems to fall into place.
Is there an overarching theme or idea behind the (m)edian EP that you want people to catch? Is there a message in there?
Ta-ku: I think for me, it's definitely the issue of the dogs, and who let them out.
How did I know that was coming?
Ta-ku: We still don't know, guys. But for real – the word that sums up the '(m)edian' EP is 'compromise'. It's woven all throughout the record. We wanted to leave it open for anyone to interpret that in their own way, but for me, this EP is about compromising for people you love and care about. It's that idea of doing things for your loved ones that you don't always want to necessarily do, but you have to do, given the situation and the experiences you've had with them.
Wafia: Even for the recording of '(m)edian', within our working relationship in the studio, Reggie really trusted me with a lot. I feel like there was compromise even in that regard. We had a better EP for that; we saw each other take risks, and we believed in each other and let it happen. It was actually pretty amazing to see a theme or idea come together for this project during the process itself. I think I'm quite conceptual with my bodies of work, and Reggie accepted that. It's just been such a positive experience. '(m)edian' was an outlet for everything that's happened in our personal and family lives, and just speaking about that and making music about it together marked and charted the year for us both.
Ta-ku and Wafia's '(m)edian EP' is out August 5 on Future Classic. Ta-ku will make his directorial debut at Red Bull Music Academy Weekender Sydney in September with a three-part visual presentation of '(m)edian'.
Words by Jordan Munns.