Review: Wafia at St Stephen’s Church (Sydney Festival)
February 3rd 2017
Lee Tran Lam
All Photos: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival
Wafia’s career has blown up so quickly, it’s like someone’s thrown accelerant on it.
Only three years ago, the Brisbane artist was supporting English band Daughter at St Stephen’s Uniting Church for Sydney Festival – sharing the stage with Vancouver Sleep Clinic. (These two Brisbane acts had actually written a song together the day before the gig: ‘Fading Through’. It would become one of the many tracks that would power mega interest in Wafia’s music.)
Skip to 2017 and Wafia is now playing the same venue, as the headliner. The show has sold out – and as her highly expressive face conveys, she truly can not believe it.
(I kind of wish I could write this review in emojis, just to convey Wafia’s ultra-endearing reactions throughout the gig. There’s her cranked-up-to-11 amazement that people have showed up and filled row after row, simply to hear her. There’s her modesty about being so clearly the centre of attention; her nervousness about revealing herself through such hyper-intimate songs and, most adorably, her being so overwhelmed by the crowd’s enthusiastic response that she has to keep fanning her face, like she needs a temperature drop to balance out her blushing.)
For this Sydney Festival show, she filters down all her songs until they’re stripped-bare piano notes, matched only by the drift and surge of her voice. That she happens to be backlit by the stained glass windows of the church – and her music travels so resoundingly throughout this place of worship – seems thematically apt. Her vocals are as pure and lofty as the building.
With collaborator Hans van Vliet on piano, Wafia starts her set with two tracks from her 2015 debut EP, XXIX: ‘The Raid’, which is as urgent and disarming as its title declares, and then ‘شيطان (Untitled)’, which is as hypnotic and hard to shake as “your demon at the bar” that the song focuses on.
She also uses the show to break the seal on some new songs. While they aren’t yet “complete” – and Wafia admits that, in the past, she would’ve been too deterred by their imperfections to play them live – there’s no rough-draft-only inferiority to her new tracks. In fact, they’re among the standout songs performed. There’s ‘The Ending’, with its resonate line: “We all get hurt by the ending”, and ‘Bodies’, a response to the raw political climate and how she feels about its abrasiveness, “being an Arab Muslim woman”. There’s a refrain that she asks us to sing, and the crowd, very happily obliges.
Wafia is both thrilled and thrown off-axis by the fact the audience is enthusiastically harmonising with her – there she is again, fanning her face, flustered, like she had expectations of gig-goer apathy and instead, everyone is melting into the song, individually amplifying notes that she’s co-written.
Her musical collaborator Ben Abraham is also a strong presence throughout the show – despite a fashionably late introduction. Wafia tries to welcome him early on in the gig – but he doesn’t turn up, so she launches into ‘Meet In The Middle’ from 2016’s (m)edian, her EP with Perth producer Ta-Ku. As a delay tactic, this is pretty great, as ‘Meet In The Middle’ is one of the highlights of that record. On take two – and a suggestion that perhaps the audience might have to join her in calling for “Ben Abraham!” – he appears. They banter nicely, as he sits down at the piano. They talk about how they met three years ago and wrote ‘Heartburn’ together.
“Yay! Now we’re rich,” jokes Abraham.
“No comment,” quips Wafia.
It’s a cute intro to the song, which – regardless of how it may or may not have fattened up their bank balances – is one of the highlights of Wafia’s XXIX EP. (And that’s not just me over-hyping it; that song has racked up more than 2 million plays on Soundcloud since it went up a year ago.)
The pair’s strong songwriting game is a reason that they were asked to pen some music for someone else. While working as writers-for-hire, Wafia admits to realising she “couldn’t be the artist that gives away pieces of me” – and ends up performing one of these very tracks. You’re glad that she kept custody of it.
The set includes other unreleased songs, including one about the the worst kind of counting game (where you tally up the days as you’re trying to get over someone) and her crush on another woman. She also returns to the (m)edian EP she created with Ta-ku and performs ‘Love Somebody’, one of its excellent singles.
In the end, Wafia thanks everyone – and declares it “pretty insane” that she’s getting this attention. She ends the show where it all began – with her cover of Mario’s ‘Let Me Love You’, which she originally posted on YouTube in 2014. (Someone has since done a ukulele cover of her cover, as a YouTube tribute.) She inevitably – deservedly – gets a standing ovation from the night’s churchgoers. It’s hard not to think of one of the lyrics from her last song, because even though it’s big-time pop cheese, it’s still an honest declaration to make about her: “baby, you’re a star”.