A year shy of their 20th anniversary, Australia’s favourite folk darlings THE WAIFS are back with their sixth record Temptation. I politely interrupted singer/songwriter Vikki Thorn in the middle of home-schooling her two boys to find out how friendships, family and motherhood are at the crux of The Waifs.
“When you become a mother, you give most of your time to raising your children. I’ve got two boys, five and six years old, and Donna [Simpson, vocals/guitar] has a five-year-old also. It’s taught us to value and appreciate the fact we still get to tour and record, write and play music.”
From humble beginnings of learning Bob Dylan songs in her bedroom to being invited to tour as Dylan’s support act throughout Australia and the US at the height of her band’s success in 2003, Thorn is an artist who remains relaxed and down to earth and clearly enjoys family life without any regrets, which is something I pick up on as she laughs infectiously during our chat.
For the past few years, Thorn and family have enjoyed living overseas on a southern Utah farm. Despite being housebound for months due to heavy snow, it provided a fruitful and creative time, as it provided the genesis for almost half of the songs on Temptation. “Any spare moment I got in the house during that winter, I picked up the guitar and wrote about four or five songs, more songs than I’ve written in ten years!”
“My songs [on Temptation] sounded like I was pretty miserable but they’re not always directly about me. You can be inspired by different moods you’re in or something you see and before you know it, your song can develop into something completely different. But I’m still writing in the first person so I guess people may make those assumptions.”
Describing the recording sessions as “a reunion of sorts”, Thorn and the band bunkered down after a short American tour to “record very quickly” in a Minneapolis basement in just ten days. “We weren’t sure if we were going to make another album, but we did a couple of small tours and had a heap of songs. We thought ‘let’s just get these songs down and if it sounds good, we’ll release it.’”
“Temptation feels less disparate compared to our earlier albums. Occasionally over the years, the songs that you do agree on work together. For our last album SunDirtWater, the songs sound more like a collection of songs by three different songwriters. The songs didn’t work as an album,” Thorn laughs, frankly.
Song credits are a well documented source of pain for bands with multiple songwriters, something which Thorn finds pleasure and pain in. “The difficulty in having three songwriters in the band is finding a collective vision. I sometimes fantasise what it’s like to be the head of a band where you make all the creative decisions and you make the album you want.
“We’ve learned to accept that, but at the same time it’s a continual frustration. Of course, we’re at the point now where we can all do our own things. Josh [Cunningham, guitar/vocals] – a lot of the songs he’s bringing to the band are gospel songs. We don’t always want to play that material so he has his own outlet for that. We’re all cool with that… it’s just a bit of negotiation and a bit of compromise to make it work.”
Over the past 19 years The Waifs have remained a fiercely independent band, funding their own records and touring off their own bat. Temptation will be released through their long-time label Jarrah Records, which they co-founded with their manager Phil Stevens and the one and only John Butler. I wrongly assumed Jarrah Records was all John Butler’s doing – Thorn quickly gave me a history lesson.
“Actually, Jarrah was originally formed as an umbrella company. The Waifs and [John Butler] both release their albums under Jarrah, but we’re completely independent of each other. I think it was initially formed because we were both travelling in the US trying to get distribution deals. They wouldn’t deal direct with a band name – they wanted a company name so I think [Jarrah] was born out of a necessity.”
She does acknowledge my faux pas gracefully though. “We’ve just used [Jarrah] as our label, but John has really been active with it, he’s embraced and promoted it, really taken it to another level. In that sense, it has become his label.”
The band recently announced their 2011 Australian tour, with upcoming dates largely made up of regional communities, such as Broome and Cairns, which are often overlooked by Australia’s biggest musical acts. Whilst Thorn has dreamed of “jumping in a van and playing every little small town and skipping the cities”, she has accepted that the band’s individual families would be unable to live on the shoestring as hard as The Waifs did in their early years – emphasising heavily on the word ‘hard’!
“It took ten years of hard touring to make a living. We never had day jobs; we were on the road continually moving around from town to town, prepared to rest on the bones of our arses to make it work. For a lot of musicians these days, they can’t just pack up everything and leave and live like we did. Living in each other’s pockets wasn’t an easy or pleasant thing to do, but it did pay off for us in the end.”
Catch The Waifs supported by swamp blues chanteuse Mama Kin at The Canberra Theatre Centre on Thursday February 24. Tickets are $56. Temptation will be released through Jarrah/MGM in March 2011.