.World Music Maestro Aya Safiya Makes Her Pop Debut

With her new EP, the East Bay-bred singer-songwriter doesn't completely leave her roots behind.

Aya Safiya is a traditional Greek musician perched on the cusp of something new. She’s a violinist and vocalist trained in North African, flamenco, Balkan, Greek, and Turkish techniques, but if you ask her, you won’t find any evidence of her world music background on her self-titled debut EP. That’s because for the first time, Safiya is making pop music.

“I’ve always wanted to do pop and rock because that’s what I grew up with,” she said. She recalls a cassette tape by The Beatles being the first thing she ever chose to listen to when she was 7 years old. In her new EP, it’s not too difficult to pick out the mainstream influences she cites: the eerie melodies of Feist, the powerful choruses of Hozier, the deft lyricism of Lauryn Hill, the folksy harmonies of Gillian Welch. But in between the lines, some of her training in world music lingers.

Safiya is the daughter of musical wayfarers. In his travels around the world as a professional street musician, her father eventually found his way to Greece, where he fell in love with the warm weather and the music. He met Safiya’s mother, who is from Tokyo, in Istanbul, and the two lived in Greece together and passed on their passion for traditional Greek music to their daughter.

“I grew up with Greek music, so it wasn’t something I chose — really, it was just given to me,” said Safiya. “But I chose it later on and it became my passion.”

Growing up in Oakland and Berkeley, she spent her childhood and young adulthood learning violin, attending Balkan music camps, and working and performing at Freight & Salvage and Ashkenaz. Before her solo project, she played in various traditional Greek and world music groups including Agapi Mou, Café Aegean, Romantique, Taraf de Locos, and The Aya & Tano Collective. She’s traveled as far as Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and Nicaragua studying, playing, and teaching her music, and moved to Boston this spring with her partner and frequent musical collaborator Tano Brock, who produced the new EP.

Violin and traditional Greek instruments are absent from Safiya’s self-titled EP. Instead, she favors the simplicity of piano and guitar, creating a minimalist pop project anchored primarily by her smooth, haunting melodies. She lets syllables extend, her voice ringing out with a perfectly clear tone — yet it’s often subtly fraught with tension, echoing the relationship ups and downs found in her lyrics. The result is soothing but with an undercurrent of the unsettling.

“I’m a very emotional person and always have been, although I feel like everyone I grew up around discouraged emotions, so I had to suffocate them all my life,” said Safiya. “That’s why songwriting is so important to me, and singing in general — it’s sharing myself and getting things out of myself.”

“Appleseeds” is the emotional high point on the EP, a shock of impassioned rock amid a sea of tamer acoustic songs. Safiya’s vocals kick in immediately, a high eerie melody ringing out like a siren in the night over sparse acoustic guitar. Minimal production gradually kicks in — a spooky vocoder backing vocal, a driving bass line, hand claps — until she’s reached the huge, harrowing chorus that sounds almost emo rock: Peel me open, hurry, cut me right open / Bite into my appleseeds and die, and die again. Chopped up vocal samples punctuate the empty spaces between her words, a grandiose pop beat accompanied by rowdy electric guitar.

“It’s really my female empowerment song,” said Safiya. “Every time a man comes in and oversteps his boundaries, it’s kind of my warning, like don’t fuck with me. I could be nice but don’t fuck with me.”

For Safiya, “Appleseeds” is the most deeply personal song on the EP, inspired by her accumulated experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abusive relationships. She wrote it months before #MeToo went viral but shares the movement’s motivation: To help women unite and feel less alone in their experiences by sharing her own.

Other moments on the EP are calmer, but still emotion-heavy. On folk-rock ballad “What Do You Do,” which she released as her debut single back in May, she croons thoughtfully, What do you do / When you love someone you’re not supposed to? Her world music influence even shows itself in her interesting, melismatic melodies. On sweet, acoustic guitar- and organ-infused diddy “He Couldn’t Love Me,” Safiya finds the silver lining of a bad relationship: I’m gonna love you like / he couldn’t love me.

Safiya may have been a musician all her life, but this is just the beginning of her career as a pop singer-songwriter. She can’t wait to grow her audience, share her songs, and travel and connect with people. And while she’s left the Bay Area for now, she has no intention of making herself a stranger.

“I’ve spent almost half my time being back in the Bay since moving to Boston,” she admitted. She sees her new songs as perfectly suited for Freight & Salvage and hopes to eventually perform them there. It’s the rich world music scene of the Bay that raised her, after all.


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