Singer-songwriters Donna Simpson, Vikki Thorn, and Josh Cunningham make up Australia’s folk-rock band The Waifs. Their 2002 radio smash “London Still” was followed by a tour with Bob Dylan and ARIA Awards including Best Independent, and Best Blues And... more
"Where do we take it from here?'' sings Vikki Thorn on “Day Dreamer,” one of the most uplifting moments on The Waifs' extraordinary sixth album, Temptation, in store April 26th from Compass Records.
It's a question the much-loved Australian band has asked itself several times in the 19 years since Thorn, her sister Donna Simpson and guitarist Josh Cunningham set off on their incredible journey.
A trip that began in a van in 1992, with the three troubadours playing gigs anywhere in Australia that would have them, has led The Waifs to multiple ARIA awards, platinum albums and successful tours across the world. The hard yards in those early days paid off in terms of their career, but also bound the three of them together as friends.
Josh, Donna and Vikki have all moved on in their personal lives since those formative years, whether through relationships, having children or relocating to different parts of the world, yet The Waifs' journey continues. That ever-evolving trip, and the bond that has developed between them, is very much central to the emotion, sentiment and spirituality of the 11 songs on Temptation.
The title track, for example, which has been on the band's live set list for a few years, is a rousing, gospel-tinged ballad, one of three Cunningham contributions to the album. All three songs are inspired by his recent embrace of religion, "I can only write about things that are close to my heart, that are real to me,'' says Cunningham. "To find faith ... that's a pretty powerful experience for a person to go through.''
Then there's "Buffalo", a beautifully stark and melancholy song by Thorn that allows the strength and subtlety of her voice to shine through. In contrast, but still embracing those familiar, rootsy Waifs characteristics is the first single, "Falling", an effervescent few minutes of country pop that highlights the sultry voice and songwriting skills of Simpson.
Temptation is the follow-up to 2006's Sun, Dirt, Water, which the band recorded in Nashville and which reached No.2 in the ARIA album charts. That album represented a natural progression for The Waifs, one on which they expanded and experimented with their sound.
Temptation sees them stripping back, returning to their roots and playing an assortment of acoustic and electric instruments, joined once again by the established rhythm section of drummer David Ross Macdonald and bassist Ben Franz.
There's also a re-shaping of songwriting input this time. While the bulk of the material for Sun, Dirt, Water came from Cunningham, on Temptation the songs are more equally spread.
For Simpson, who wrote seven of the songs on the band's classic multi platinum, 2003 album Up All Night, it was an opportunity to approach a part of her craft she'd been neglecting for several years. She rose to the challenge, penning four songs, including the infectious opening track, the raw, shuffling blues "I Learn the Hard Way".
Temptation was recorded in November last year at Underwood Studios, a ramshackle old house-turned-studio in Simpson's adopted home city of St Paul, Minneapolis. There's an almost tangible chemistry at work; an irresistible groove. As Thorn says, it sounds like a band that has been playing together for a long time. "That's how it felt in there,'' she says.
All five musicians lived together for two weeks above the basement studio, cooking, reminiscing and finessing each of the songs that had been brought to the table. "You just went downstairs when it was your turn to do a take,'' says Cunningham. "It was a great atmosphere to make an album in and I think you can hear that on the recordings.''
What contributed to the atmosphere was that for the participants it was a reunion as much as it was work. While Simpson and her young son call St Paul home, Thorn is based in Utah with her husband and two (soon to be three) children, while Cunningham, who got married in January, has lived in California since 2009. Macdonald flew in from his home in Canada and Franz from Australia. "It was the most enjoyable experience of recording with the band I have ever had,'' says Simpson. "I'm so proud of the record and I've never said that before.''
Not that she shouldn't be proud of what The Waifs have achieved over the past 19 years, all of it as independent artists. The sisters left their home in Albany, Western Australia in 1992 as the duo Colours. They met Cunningham in Broome, WA and became The Waifs.
The group forged their way on the Australian live circuit for most the 1990s, releasing albums such as their self titled debut in 1996 and Shelter Me in 1998, selling them mostly at shows. The third album, 2000's Sink or Swim, raised their profile and allowed the band to perform in Canada and the United States, attracting rave reviews in the process.
The biggest turning point came with the EP London Still (2002), which gave the band its first Australian hit. Followed in 2003 by the Lighthouse EP and the album Up All Night, which has gone double platinum in Australia and earned them four ARIA awards. That same year they toured Australia with Bob Dylan, who subsequently invited them to join him on his North American tour.
Further hits, such as "Bridal Train" and "Stay", have followed, along with live albums, more awards and ecstatic reviews for their live performances. With a national tour under way from February 22 and the album release to follow on March 4, there is every sign that 2011 will bring them further success.
There's a wealth of great new songs on Temptation to help that process along, such as Cunningham's "Moses and The Lamb", a seven-minute delight that starts off like a southern church sermon, complete with pump organ and banjo, before evolving into a blustering country-blues complete with three-part harmonies, Thorn's spiky harmonica and driven by Macdonald's rumbling toms.
The beautifully atmospheric "Drifting Dreaming" allows the sisters' voices to gently connect and feed off of each other.
On "Some Days", Thorn lets her melancholy run riot on a strutting, folky lament with a twist "I got a man and a family that loves me/Sometimes I have to ask myself what the hell it's all for''. In that same vein, the delicately funky Beautiful Night is about finding time to reflect with the ones you love.
That, it could be said, is what Temptation is all about - a band that has been on an amazing journey, through good times and bad, that has come together for the love of music and each other. "We're a family and we love playing music with each other and over the years I think we've contributed something ... made a difference,'' says Cunningham. "We've made simple songs that resonate with everyday people. That's all we can do. There's value in keeping that going.''
Let's hope they keep it going for some time yet.