From Australia to Utah, The Waifs Become Active Again
Band relationships involving siblings can often be complicated and challenging, and the Waifs certainly have experienced their share of such moments.
The enduring and entertaining Australian folk rock group includes sisters Donna Simpson and Vikki Thorn. The fact that they've been making beautiful music together since they jumped in a Kombi van in 1992 is amazing enough. But throw some petty arguments, dirty looks, and a mean tambourine into the equation, and it's a downright miracle they're still active.
"I don't think there's anyone I've ever been treated as badly [by than] Donna," Thorn said over the phone in late July from southern Utah, where she has raised a family with husband Matt at their small ranch since 2008. "And there's probably no one I love as much as her either."
It's the bitter battles that can tear a family -- or a band -- apart, but Thorn is pleased to announce that her relationship with Simpson these days is "great, actually ... better than it's ever been," as they prepare to release Beautiful You on Aug. 14 via Compass Records.
The seventh studio album of their career with co-member/singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Josh Cunningham is their first since 2011's Temptation.
"There was a lot of tension for a lot of years. But, you know, I think sisters thrive on that sort of tension," says Thorn, who is a masterful storyteller and four years younger than Simpson. "It's a bittersweet relationship where we treat each other like shit sometimes but we never actually walk away. We always are there to love and forgive each other for anything. And since we had a break from the band and became mothers [each has three sons], our relationship developed on a much deeper level where we ... probably we just had something in common for once." She laughs.
Of course, music has always been a common bond, though Thorn admits if it wasn't for Simpson, she might still be wandering through life in her hometown of Albany, Western Australia.
"I was at a loss," Thorn says of the time when she "sort of flunked" high school. "I was a surfing bum chick and I just wanted to hang out, basically. I had this lax attitude that something would come my way.
"I don't really believe in destiny, I don't think," she adds. "I think it was Donna's adventurous spirit. I tagged along and that fostered a love for singing and music in me. I can't say with any certainty I would have found it without her nurturing that or taking those risks. I liked to play and sing but I imagine I would have just got a job somewhere locally and stayed there."
Simpson "dragged me along" to biker bars and other sordid joints where the 16- and 20-year-olds, calling themselves Colours, were the only women performing in front of miners who "come off work for 12 hours and then they spend the next eight hours drinking," says Thorn, who played the saxophone in jazz bands and sang in high school. "But she looked after us and she had the right attitude. She was tough and we never had any trouble. We had a great experience. I'm not the sort of person who would have done that on my own. She had a real desire ... we grew up in a pretty small town and I know she always had this desire to do something to get out of there, to do something more adventurous."
Colours eventually became the Waifs, who ended up sharing that spirit and wanderlust, developing an incredible following at home and becoming a fan favorite on the festival circuit abroad.
It wasn't without its obstacles, though. A couple of times, Thorn remembers having had to dodge a tambourine thrown deliberately by her sister.
Then there was the time of their first pregnancies 10 years ago as they were about to go onstage at a folk festival in Australia.
"You know, where our emotions were just through the roof and we actually had a physical fight," Thorn said, blaming another in a series of "absolutely insignificant" reasons for the anger. "Two pregnant women ... and it was tragic and hilarious at the same time. We can laugh about it now and we both do, but at the time, ... we were hiding on the stage crying before we went on and then the moment we go onstage ... you get it all out. It's a catharsis. We sing it out."
Yet it was only three years ago that the Waifs were thinking that the touring life as a group -- a staple of their 23-year existence -- might be over.
"Our personal lives are pretty full with kids and stuff and we all live in different parts of the world," said Thorn, mentioning that Simpson moved back to Australia after establishing temporary roots in Minnesota with her American husband, until they divorced.
Cunningham, married to a Californian, splits time between there and the East Coast of Australia, while bassist Ben Franz lives in Western Australia and drummer David Ross Macdonald is in Toronto.
"Logistically, it can be somewhat of a nightmare sometimes, but we all plan around it and make it happen," Thorn said of finding time to record or rehearse before a tour.
The Waifs (from left): Donna Simpson, Josh Cunnigham and Vikki Thorn. (Publicity photos by Jarrad Seng)
Their recording sessions remain essentially the same -- going in without a specific plan, then basically performing like a live band. During a two-week run in January at Byron Bay ("this tropical holiday resort town, really") in New South Wales, the Waifs did rely on the advice of producer Nick DiDia, who also worked on fellow Australian singer-songwriter (and upcoming Folks Festival performer) Kasey Chambers' latest album, Bittersweet.
"We went in there and tried to explain what the Waifs were ... and what we did and none of it made any sense," Thorn said of their introduction to the American who moved to Australia and has studio credits with major artists from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam. "He just sort of basically said, 'Shut up and play. Let's just play some music. Let's have some fun.' "
That was, seemingly, one of the missing elements after the release of Temptation.
Thorn said, "We toured that album and started to feel like the band ... there wasn't a lot of cohesiveness in the music anymore. We were starting to sort of ... the songs we were writing were too different."
Cunningham's religious beliefs led to him writing gospel music, "which is where his inspiration was coming from," Thorn explained. "We would happily play those songs but it started to feel a bit contentious sometimes" as she and Simpson were resisting the pull to become a platform for his beliefs.
"So that was an uncertain time for us," Thorn added. "And also the fact that our lives had gone in different directions. We were pretty busy as mothers, we had young children, and we had a good run for 20-something years. And our 20th anniversary actually slipped by pretty much unnoticed by all of us, which is a little bit sad.
"We weren't working, we had no plans to work. We weren't in communication very much."
Last year, Thorn said she started to get antsy and wanted to perform again, even trying a couple of solo shows in Utah, backed only by "my poor husband" who she said is "a great guitar player and songwriter but hates performing. ... He thinks I just roped him in because I needed someone to bitch at onstage." She laughs. "[I'm] so used to having Donna there to throw dirty looks when someone plays the wrong chord."
Without her sister, though, she felt lost again, this time onstage. Then guess who called.
Simpson didn't have to twist Thorn's arm to try out their Stray Sisters project in 2014 that included Franz, who also plays pedal steel and lap steel. Performing first in Salt Lake City, then Australia, they included new songs like "Come Away," "When a Man Gets Down," and "February," all of which landed on Beautiful You.
After enjoying "a great, fun tour" of Australia, Thorn hopes they'll release a live recording of that back-to-the-future bridge between Colours and the Waifs.
"That was a real different experience for me because usually I play a minimum amount of guitar in the Waifs but when I was in the Stray Sisters I had to play more rhythm, supporting rhythm parts to what Donna was doing," Thorn said. "So that was the good thing about it. That challenged me a little bit and I got to play electric guitar."
Adrenaline pumping again, the sensation made Thorn miss the Waifs even more. Then guess who was next in line.
Cunningham was eager to come back and Thorn recalls him saying: "You know, I love it. I love singing and playing music with you guys, and I want to keep doing it."
With him feeling his faith had become a lot deeper, she added, "It's something that doesn't interfere in any way."
Excited about the possibility of returning to the studio, which she once considered "a foreign environment," Thorn got the bright idea that the three songwriters collaborate for the first time. They booked a week at a beach house on Australia's South Coast, their old stomping grounds, and with pen and paper in hand, and sat around the kitchen table catching up after not seeing each other for a while.
When it was time to write, "It got awkward," Thorn says. "We actually didn't know where to start. ... Tension started coming up. And we started trying to make light of the situation about what's the worst song you've ever written, what's the worst song I've ever written. ...
"And by the second day," she adds, "Donna just went, 'I've had enough of this,' and went to a back bedroom and wrote 'Beautiful You' and came back to the table and said, 'Here's a song.' And so I went to the back room and wrote ,'Black Dirt Track' and came back. Josh went off and wrote a song. That's how we wrote the album. ... We actually went to different parts of the house to write our songs."
Of the 12 songs that made the album (handling lead vocals on the ones they wrote), Thorn contributed five, Simpson four, and Cunningham three. Why they rejected the collaborative process remains a mystery, but Thorn theorizes that writing alone provided them a personal escape from each other.
"Because we lived intensely together ... and touring, and there really was no space and no separation in our lives," she said. "But writing songs was ... pretty much we used to write songs about each other and about our relationships." She laughs.
Apparently, old habits die hard, and changing their ways -- or their methods -- isn't going to happen no matter how warm and fuzzy they feel about each other now.
Thorn also said the two sisters individually write some of their best songs when they're feeling blue -- she in Utah when it's February, the month of her birthday (Feb. 6), and "such a shitty time of year" in southern Utah. Her song referencing that month and "6000 Miles" -- two of the best on the album -- were written during the same period as Thorn thought back to that time during her childhood when "the weather's gorgeous" and the family lived on the beach while getting ready for salmon fishing season.
"I've written actually a whole heap of songs every February and they all have this sort of feeling, you know this melancholy long feeling," said Thorn, whose smooth voice is the Brandi Carlile equivalent to Simpson's grittier Lucinda Williams.
Yet Thorn was pleased to break the streak of "depressing" songs with a pretty peppy "February," despite the fact it has "slapped another year on me," she sings.
"February's my muse here in the States," she added. "And I want to escape, but it's probably better that I stay here if I keep writing songs."
Eventually, though, Thorn did find a collaborator -- or the other way around -- for "Blindly Believing." Bex Chilcott, an Australian singer who goes by the stage name Ruby Boots, emailed Thorn out of the blue, asking if they could write together.
Chilcott flew in from Perth, they composed the breezy "Blindly Believing" and several other songs -- a couple landed on Ruby Boots' debut album Solitude -- in a couple of days. "We're best friends now," Thorn says, proudly proving that co-writing is possible, but "It's gotta be the right people, obviously."
That rules out sister Donna, who, according to Thorn, "wrote some of her best songs when she lived in Minnesota," where she hated the cold and the winters were particularly hard on her. "And now that she's all happy at home" in Australia, Thorn says laughing, "she's not writing at all."
Thankfully, all the Waifs seem positively chipper these days, already testing out new material with a series of shows on the West Coast in late June and early July, their first in the States in about five years.
"We still argue and we still get on each other's nerves," Thorn says, "but it's a lot healthier. I think we're just more mature than we were."
As corny as it sounds, Thorn interjects, love is what keeps the Waifs together and still attracts that loyal fan base that enjoys "growing old" with them.
"We're family and we love to play music together," she adds, "and I feel like that still comes across. The band, the way we still impart that at our shows ... There's a genuine passion and love for what we do and we want to share that with people. And people respond to that -- still. That's always been there, this chemistry, when we play together. It's gotten deeper. We're not sort of young and overly sensitive and emotional, like we used to be. ... All the tension's gone now. There's a real appreciation and gratitude that we can still do it."
Thorn also points out one major bonus: "No tambourine [is] coming toward my head anymore."
First in a series previewing artists scheduled to perform at the 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, from Aug. 14-16. The Waifs will play from 3:15-4:30 p.m. Aug. 16. This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.