Rebecca Waychunas refuses to concede any ground to her past. The 27-year-old Philadelphia songwriter records sanguine electro-folk under the moniker Aphra, and as she sings on “Honey” — the latest single from her upcoming debut EP, Sadness Is A Gesture, which we’re premiering below — “Gone are the tears/ Gone are the days.” The lyrics capture the guiding ethos of the project so far: that although these songs are rooted in yearning isolation, the act of disclosing those emotions is a method of gaining power over them, and that while sorrow is an essential characteristic of Waychunas’ identity, it’s only an expression, not a fixed state. Or as she affirms on the EP’s title track, “sadness is just a gesture that my loneliness makes.”
“Tragedy and trauma are a huge part of my past. People need to know that about me before they get close to me,” Waychunas tells me over the phone from her apartment in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood. The EP was in part inspired by strained relationships: “It’s definitely about mourning,” she explains, although she considers her open grieving as something remedial — a process of inoculation rather than self-immolation: “In order to process trauma in your past, you have to see it, you have to look at it, you have to talk about it. Whether it’s with a therapist or through art or with just a friend.”
It’s inevitable that music became Waychunas’ outlet to contextualize these sentiments. As part of Philly’s DIY scene, she’s surrounded by a thriving arts culture, and was thrust into the middle of it at a young age. Both her parents are musicians — her father a songwriter, her mother a DJ involved in the freestyle movement — and she accordingly has been performing since childhood, eventually transferring to the Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) in Philly after a year in a Catholic high school. She didn’t begin seriously writing her own songs, however, until she picked up the guitar in college, adopting an aesthetic in line with what her piano-man rocker father approved of at the time. “You know the girl on the stool, at the bar, singing little Taylor Swift songs — that was me.”
Eventually she abandoned the outdated persona. “I got bored,” she admits. “I got bored of singing with my acoustic guitar. I got bored of singing country music and using the tropes that were in blues rock.” Instead she found new influences in the likes of Little Dragon, Lykke Li, and Oh Land — uncompromising songwriters with a command over not only what’s in their music, but exactly how it hits — the latter of which most prominently inspired her deep dive into what’s become Aphra’s sound. “I remember sitting in front of my GarageBand and being like ‘This is not how she would have done this!’” Waychunas laughs, before she subsequently charged into an Apple Store and demanded someone who knows how to make electronic music explain to her what she needed to expand her palette. From there she set out with the vision in mind to create Sadness Is A Gesture, learning how to will it into shape as she went along.
Waychunas wrote, mixed, and produced the entire EP, an intentional individualism she committed to after never quite finding what she wanted working with other friends and artists. Because of her perfectionist tendencies — she’s the kind of musician who will “record the same line 20 times, get nothing, and then the next day work on the same line another ten times, just to get it exactly how I want it to sound like” — she decided it would be best to isolate that process, expressing that, “I wanted to do it myself. Only yell at myself and have only myself to blame.”
The singular vision and execution of Aphra’s current incarnation proves the clarity of Waychunas’ intent. She’s crafted a sound all her own. Sadness Is A Gesture is an assured, devastating work and a remarkable showcase of Waychunas’ immaculate songwriting. It’s a collection of seven songs recorded over the last two years, each carefully considered as its own piece, but together forming a unified whole dealing with addiction and how it has run a thread through most of Waychunas’ relationships. The subject matter is claustrophobic, but the sonics are anything but; instead, every note rings with an aromatic warmth that invites willing submission.
Her production work plays with space in a way that’s as striking as the xx’s early recordings, stripping away the clutter in moody R&B to emphasize each instruments’ intrinsic impact. “Rooms” is built on a low-throb, Waychunas’ voice confidently hissing and whispering admissions of her body’s decay under the weight of a parasitic intimacy. “Oh Peter” takes instead a glitchy solemnity, expansive yet apprehensive, recalling FKA Twigs by way of Sharon Van Etten. And on “Would You,” the last song written right before the EP’s mastering, she sings over nothing more than a reverberating electric guitar, unwaveringly undressing herself to a significant other, daring him to love her as she truly is rather than how he might see her. Her songwriting is unadorned, but hardly fragile — if she’s been broken before, she now holds herself together by taut stitching. Her melodies are patient, yet forceful — undulating in and out of silence, instinctively tempered.
My personal favorite moment on the EP is when Waychunas takes this aesthetic to its most bare on “Happy,” ornamenting the song with little more than a churning, chimney-fire guitar that crackles as she pushes her vocals to the red with a raw-yet-measured wail. Her lyrics are plainspoken, but direct — cutting to the subliminal without ever crossing the surface. “If we go out and you don’t wanna stay/ We can leave, you don’t have to explain/ Even though I think you spent too much time alone,” she sings consolingly, her voice quavering but her conviction resolute, embodying gracefulness in dependency.
This voice is the most powerful instrument on Sadness Is A Gesture, as well as the most versatile, benefitting from Waychunas’ dual auteurism as both the vocalist and the producer. She bends it to atmospheric heights on the chorus of “Honey,” meanwhile stretching it out into a punctuated howl on “Oh Peter.” On “Geranimo” alone, her voice slackens into a creeping flatline, pinches into a puncturing needle, falls into a deep rumble, and waxes and wanes in a feathery cascade. Her lyricism is rich and lucid, yet her tone alone captures in its entirety the condition of her soul.
“I know confessionalism is a big thing, but that’s not what I’m trying to do,” Waychunas declares adamantly. These songs aren’t open wounds to prove to anyone the depth to which she bleeds, but are instead on display as an affirmation to others of the legitimacy of these experiences. “I think a lot of young people, women particularly, ask for validation from everyone, not just the people that you trust,” she says. “I want to give people permission to be themselves, and have it not be scary.” To that end, Aphra is the music of resolve: that of still holding onto love that may not have its hands on you, refusing to define yourself by the moments that defy you, and of keeping close to your past without letting it keep you back.