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Wafia is the good thing we all need right now

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Drew Escriva

WORDS BY AMY DORRINGTON

Self-care, toxic relationships and being adored by Elton John.

“Today I removed my nail polish, that was big!” laughs Australian singer-songwriter Wafia when I ask her what she’s been doing for self-care. It’s a question I’ve found myself asking a lot lately. Maybe it’s the more empathetic, level-up version of “How are you?” for these apocalyptic times.

She tells me she’s getting back into working out after a long hiatus. “I had to remind myself why I like working out and do it for the right reasons, which is mental health. I’m going to try and do it every other day, that’s my goal.” It’s a relatable sentiment and it’s endearing to learn that someone you look up to is experiencing a similar struggle.

It feels like the notion of self-care has mutated over these last six months, from being a luxury that we might treat ourselves to when we have a free evening (hello wine and a bubble bath) to something imperative to our mental health and survival in 2020.

Impressively, amidst all this craziness, Wafia is releasing her new EP, Good Things. We’re meeting for the first time over – no surprises here – Zoom, Wafia from her sun-filled home in LA and me from my living room floor in the peak of Melbourne’s winter.

There was something comforting to me about speaking to Wafia – she calmed my fan-girl nerves and reminded me that we are both having a very bizarre and very difficult human experience. Like everyone else, we are feeling the heaviness of the world, and we’re trying to be grateful for what we have.

Celebrating the tiny wins – or in Wafia’s case, some very impressive wins – is more important than ever right now, while we try to navigate the mundane purgatory of everyday life. Through a screen, we dove deep on toxic relationships, isolation-induced creative blocks and what it’s like to count Elton John as a fan (yes, really).

So, 2020 has been a bit of a wild ride so far. What’s life in LA like at the moment? 

I’m very much in lockdown. Before this, my day-to-day life would be going to sessions every day and writing music. That’s definitely not the case anymore. I wish that they would lock it down properly so that we could actually get rid of this thing, that would be nice. I’m just trying to stay motivated every day, trying to switch it up and make it feel different in whatever way I can.

Happy birthday for the other week! I’m a Leo as well, so I’m all about celebrating Leo season! Do you identify with many Leo personality traits?

I agree! Happy Birthday! I don’t know much about astrology. What are the Leo traits? I know that there’s vanity involved. I would say I’m vain, to some degree. I would say I’m prideful. Those things are probably considered bad things to some people! But, I also know that I’m quite loyal. So, yeah! I’m a typical Leo, I’ll take it!

You were born in the Netherlands to Iraqi and Syrian parents and have moved around the world frequently for most of your life. How has your cultural identity and all the location changes shaped your artistic expression?

I think it definitely exposed me to a lot more music that I otherwise wouldn’t have got. I love very blatant pop music because it takes me back to living in Europe. I love stuff that’s on the nose – I wouldn’t make that, but I love that, so I’m very much influenced by it and like being cheeky with it. Being able to listen to Arabic music influenced my melodies and my sense of harmony. My dad makes this joke where he’s like, “I think that we groomed you to be a touring musician because we never stayed in one place for too long.” I’m like, “Yeah, sure Dad!”

I didn’t know until recently that you identify as queer – I’m also queer. I become an even bigger fan of someone when I find out they’re queer because it feels like you’ve finally found your people. How did you come to embrace your queerness? Was it something you’ve always known and loved about yourself or a more gradual awareness?

I had this recovered memory the other day where I got in trouble because I was marrying girls in the back of my primary school! I think I was like four or five and I got in trouble for it. Looking back on it now, I think that was the moment it started. For me, it’s totally on a spectrum, and it really depends on the person – that’s who I fall in love with.

Speaking of the queer community, Elton John was recently raving about your fab self-love bop ‘Pick Me’ on his radio show, and if your Instagram post is anything to go by, you seemed pretty happy about that. Was that a surreal feeling? Did it feel like a defining moment for you?

Definitely, I mean, he’s the god of the gays! He transcends generation and genre. He’s also one of those people where I can go to my parents and say, “Elton John liked my song!” and they will know who that is. To me, that’s so sick because I got to show my parents that someone they know likes my music and they can call their families back in Syria and Iraq and say “ELTON JOHN!” and there’s that cross-cultural understanding.

Congratulations on releasing your new EP Good Things. It feels like a reassuring hug, something that I really need right now. What was the inspiration behind this EP? Would you say it’s like a love letter to yourself? 

I love that! Thank you. This is my first time getting any kind of feedback on this EP outside of my own family and partner, so this is awesome to hear! My intention with this release was to encapsulate what my 2019 looked like. It was really rough. I went through this really big break-up in my life that shifted how I saw everything and how I saw myself. This honours that.

The inspiration was this recurring theme in my life where I’ve taken something bad and turned it into good. I’ve done this with previous EPs, I’ve done this with any sort of relationship I’ve had, whether it relates to different partners, different family relationships and friends. I think that’s in my DNA and I’m really proud of that. This is a culmination of all those things. It celebrates and makes room for the good. I’ve always approached songwriting as taking this sad thing and turning it into something positive. It’s a blessing in disguise that I didn’t know I needed, so it isn’t really about a break-up. It’s about me and I’m so glad that translated.

How does it feel to be releasing new music in the midst of a pandemic? Were the songs on this EP written during this period or beforehand?

I wrote all the songs before the pandemic, but I think some of them ring true now more than ever. Like the lyrics “You’re a million miles away and it weighs me down” in the track, ‘Hurricane’. I really feel that more than ever and I’m glad that those songs can comfort me even as I’m far away from family and friends.

This time of pauses seems to be forcing many of us to confront suppressed feelings and process emotions that we’d perhaps been avoiding. Artists like Taylor Swift and Charli XCX have released some of their best work during the pandemic. Has this period of isolation sparked creative inspiration for you, or have you struggled to tap into it?

Much like how I approach anything, I allow myself to feel the feelings fully and then I write as much as I can in a journal, then I bank that for later when I’ve fully processed it. That’s kind of what my songwriting as a whole looks like, and I don’t think it’s any different in a global pandemic. I don’t really want to write about the pandemic because everything already reminds me of it, so I’m focused on how I can escape from it. I’m revisiting older feelings as I write.

But, to be honest, I’ve struggled to write most of the time. For me, a big part of music is connection and getting to see my friends who I write with. When that’s taken away from me, there’s still a lot of reason to write, but it’s hard to find the motivation. I realise that I always give up on myself before I give up on other people. I would never cancel a session to write a song, but if I book in that time with myself, I’m 100 per cent cancelling on myself. I have very little commitment to myself in that way. But also I’ve been so lucky in that before all of this, I did hundreds of sessions and this is a break from all of that, so I’ve been more focused on the releasing and the visuals. If I was going to the studio every day I wouldn’t be able to give that as much love and care.

I love all the tracks on this EP but I’m obsessed with the positive affirmation disco vibes of ‘Good Things’ and the goosebump-inducing ballad ‘How To Lose A Friend’. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of tempo, but both very relatable. Which song on the EP are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of all of them, especially ‘How to Lose A Friend’. There’s no word for a friendship that doesn’t exist anymore, so I’m nervous about those friends hearing that song. But I’ve already lost what I love, so it can’t be worse than it already is.

I’m a big fan of your style, and you seem to have a lot of amazing vintage pieces in your wardrobe. Is your personal style another way to tell a story and express yourself creatively?

Yeah, especially on stage. But that wasn’t always the case. I started off wearing a lot of black. I wanted to hide myself as much as possible. That came from my own body issues. It’s such a funny thing because when I thought I was going to be a musician, I didn’t even think about that aspect, that people were going to look at me all the time. I wasn’t really anticipating that, so I’ve had to do a lot of work on it, to grow into this role. Slowly there’s been this growth in my career, where it’s gone from very muted darkness, to now – bright, very free, colourful and fun and that reflects me as a person and how much I’ve grown over the course of my career so far.

You started your music career by posting covers on Tumblr. Years later, your track ‘Pick Me’ has gained popularity on TikTok and even has its own choreographed dance – how do you feel about that and have you learnt the TikTok dance!?

I have not learned the TikTok dance. Everyone has been bugging me to learn it, and as a form of rebellion, I won’t. I think it’s cool, my little sister does it, but I’m too anxious to move my body that way, then film it and put it out there. I just started feeling comfortable on stage.

Wafia’s new EP ‘Good Things’ is out today, listen to it here.

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