Aphir is Becki Whitton, a Melbourne-based songwriter and singing teacher who often makes music out of multiple layers of her own vocals under the moniker of Aphir. She also writes songs and sings for other musical projects including the post-funk outfit formerly known as Cromwell and electronic pop group, Gunwaif. She is about to visit Canberra to help budding label, Early Music, launch its winter catalogue of releases from local artists.
Alphamale is Hannah de Feyter, a Canberra-based experimental/noise viola player. She has forthcoming releases in Early Music’s winter catalogue and with Canberra label Cinnamon Records. In August she is going to New York.
With their powers combined, Aphir and Alphamale make music under the moniker of Cilt. They recently played their debut live show – a soundtrack to the silent film, The Phantom Carriage, in a secret, candlelit venue near Woden.
H: Becki. Hi. I have an icebreaker question, because I’ve never met you before: if you interviewed Katy Perry, what would you ask her?
B: I’ve thought of questions for her but the Internet has already answered them because she’s getting so much press at the moment. Initially I wanted to know if International Smile was about her, but apparently it’s about some DJ. Maybe I’d ask her for a sneak peak of the lyrics of that song she has supposedly written about John Mayer.
H: She and Taylor Swift can compare notes.
H: Thinking about Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, pop stars who write with this straight-from-the-diary thing—I mean I don’t think Taylor Swift is really like that, like there is this Taylor Swift character who sings her songs, and then real-life Taylor cackling on top of her big pile of money because she can sell sincerity so well—anyway, I wanted to ask, to what extent does your songwriting process involves the creation of characters? Your songs have distinct personalities and sometimes they seem like Becki and sometimes they seem like other people. Are there codified characters in your brain? How do you do it?
B: On a surface level there are codified characters in my brain but that’s more for performance, I think, than actual songwriting. It’s in the songwriting to a lesser extent. I imagine Gunwaif and FKA Cromwell and Aphir as being different people. FKA Cromwell only became a character with our last album, mostly because that album was written and recorded in a week so it had a really specific voice. And Gunwaif started with this idea about some cyborg character/popstar/creature and so that’s who I imagine performing the songs. Aphir is a different thing again. I probably have the clearest idea about who she is and how I can be her on stage. She’s kind of a bit Megan Jamesy, you know, like ‘cute archaic’ but with a bit of a futuristic glitch thing thrown in. Yeah, I guess it’s more about the performance characters. As far as songwriting goes the party line, particularly with Gunwaif songs, is that they’re all about mushrooms. Make of that what you will.
H: Amazing. Right now, whose vocal performance do you find most inspirational?
B: At the moment, probably MØ (pronounced ‘moo’). Her voice is really interesting. She has a really great dynamic range and heaps of character in her voice, like, she has a really unique tone, and you can kind of tell who her influences are and how she’s put together the best things about a few different people’s voices to harness her own style, which is really great.
Now I have a question for you: probably the main thing you’ve taught me about music is that a piece can be really interesting just because it explores an immersive texture, and I was just wondering if that was something that someone taught you, listening to a certain musician – or did you just click into it?
H: That probably comes from a bunch of different places. I felt a real shift in the way I experienced music when I started playing viola. I started out as a violinist for years and then jumped across…when I started playing viola in orchestras I had a very different experience, far more immersive, like, when you’re playing first violin you’re right out on the edge of the orchestra, but then when you’re playing viola you’re all of a sudden right in the very middle and there’s all this stuff happening around you. Listening to lots of minimalist modern classical, too. Texture interested me a lot when my vertigo was really bad because songs with lots of notes or melody really stressed me out, so I just needed to listen to like one sound at a time, like white noise or drone, Alvin Lucier or whatever. That music really trains your ears for minute textural changes. ZS is my favourite for doing this thing too, like, having this little cube of sound that they work out in lots of different ways. So, yes, texture – I like it. I don’t like adding lots of notes. Just one note for a long time.
B: We’re so different.
H: Well, the way you make your music—recording all these layers of yourself—obviously involves filling space and having a palette of sound, and the tech stuff too, adding more effects to your voice, means there’s a lot of interesting textures happening. Do you visualize it or – how do you tell when the texture is right or when the soundscape of a song is complete?
B: It’s important that everything has space, or the right lack of space.
H: You write the melody of the song and then add more and more lines in underneath?
B: I make the melody first because I write the melody and the lyrics at the same time, because I think that’s the most effective way to write songs – it means you can match the mood of the melody to the lyrics so it all makes sense. But the thing is I have to be really sold on the lyrics in order to have the drive to fill in the rest of the music. I used to appreciate music just for lyrics. These days it’s more to do with other factors as well, like I’ll listen to a lot of pop music just because pop singers – female pop singers particularly – are just so accomplished and their voices are what I want my voice to be like. Like, Miley Cyrus – her voice has improved so much and it’s almost like her voice is so good she can sing about whatever she wants. And that’s what I want for my voice, too.
H: It’s different having music without words because it’s less about meaning in that way and more about, well, it can only be about someone’s experience of hearing the sounds.
B: But you use titles and artwork to influence people’s experience of the sound. I’ve been trying to veer away from asking questions about your project’s name…I was going to write one down about whether there was a particular brand of alpha male you were trying to mock…but then I was like no, it’s multi-layered, that’s not all it is!
H: Well, maybe I do want to make fun of alpha males, but on the other hand I truly love them deeply. Not even in a funny way, and not even in a sexy way. I just really treasure some of those impulses that we might describe that way, not necessarily in men but in anyone. And I like those qualities in sound. I mean I’m not particularly male or particularly alpha, so.
B: If you could choose to experience every album you ever listened to in an isolated environment where you could control everything that your senses were experiencing, would you prefer to do that than have albums associate themselves with whatever experiences in your life–if you just listen to them on the bus, or whatever?
H: I feel like it becomes quite precious when music is wrapped up with a particular part of your life. So no, I don’t think I’d like to experience music in a vacuum. Because when you find some music that really hits you where you’re at– that’s so nice, right? I think that’s what makes music meaningful for a lot of people. But I mean obviously it’s more enjoyable to listen to music in the dark with your headphones than on the bus with some bro leaning on you. But the most exciting thing is when the artist has the power to design the experience you’ll have of listening their music. I love performers who have the luxury of being thoughtful about the space that their performance happens in. It’s nice to subject yourself to an experience that someone else has designed.
B: Please make friends with amazing installation artists in New York and play gigs in rooms full of fairy floss and stars.
H: Literally my dream. Not the fairy floss and stars. Plants, for me, like a forest or a greenhouse.
H: And we got to do that a bit with Cilt the other week. And that was the best show I’ve ever played. When we had total control over the atmosphere that we played it in and we could just make it really comfortable… yeah, that was the best.
B: It was really good. We should do some more recording. And we have an album to release still.
H: Yeah, oops, we should put that out.
They did put the album out, and you can find it on Bandcamp. Hannah and Becki will be playing as Cilt at A Bite to Eat in Chifley, ACT on Sunday 10 August from 5pm and at the Early Music winter launch at The Chop Shop as their respective solo projects on Saturday 16 August from 7.30pm.
Image: Oscar Condon