It’s not a typical starting point for a new album, the band members asking each other to nominate the worst song they’ve ever written. Then again, there’s a lot about The Waifs that defies convention.
This unlikely scenario unfolded when Vikki Thorn, her sister Donna Simpson and Josh Cunningham got together in a studio in Western Australia last year. The three mainstays of The Waifs hadn’t seen much of each other since touring on the back of their last album, 2011’s Temptation. The reunion called for a break with tradition. Instead of writing separately, the formula that has served them so well for almost 20 years, it was time for total collaboration. The three musicians would work together as a unit until a bunch of songs emerged.
Much to their surprise, the three amigos drew a blank.
“It was all very exciting,” says Vikki. “We probably hadn’t sat together in a room like that for 15 years. We got out pens and paper and guitars. It felt like it should be an easy thing … but it wasn’t. We tried in earnest to jam and shape songs. We tried going through ‘what’s the worst Waifs song you’ve ever written?’ Even that became awkward because we couldn’t all agree which were the worst ones. It was all very intimate and personal. Then Donna one day got the shits and went off and wrote a song.”
We can be glad she did. That moment of frustration opened the floodgates to what has become The Waifs’ seventh studio album Beautiful You, an exquisitely crafted collection of songs from the three songwriters that bears all the hallmarks of a Waifs classic.
“I thought, ‘I’m just going to walk outside and write something’,” Donna recalls of that false start. ‘It just kind of comes to me that way. It came and just kept rolling.”
In January 2015, aided by their regular rhythm section of drummer Dave Ross Macdonald and bassist Ben Franz, The Waifs entered 301 Studios in Byron Bay, NSW with producer Nick DiDia (Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, Powderfinger) and emerged several weeks later with Beautiful You. The emotionally raw but musically buoyant Beautiful You demonstrates the easy chemistry that has bound The Waifs together for more than two decades, as well as celebrating the depth of songwriting talent they have at their disposal.
The 12 new tracks – four from Donna, three from Josh and five from Vikki – play to the strengths of one of Australia’s most enduring and lauded folk, pop and roots outfits. There’s a familiar mix here of celebration and reflection, combined with that easy musical energy and intuition spawned from so many years of touring, whether in the pubs of rural Australia in the early days or on the road internationally ever since then. Beautiful You boasts abundant choruses, intoxicating instrumental exchanges and joyful harmonies, the characteristics that make so memorable the band’s noughties hits London Still, Bridal Train and Sun Dirt Water.
The title track, Donna’s aching vocal drifting over a simple guitar motif, has a deeply personal undertow, a plea to a friend struggling with addiction: “You gotta change the road you’ve been taking,” sings Donna, “lay down your weapons and surrender.”
Simpson’s shuffling, alt country ballad “When a Man Gets Down,” another personal account, this time of a relationship breakdown, is equally emotive. “I sat bawling my eyes out when I wrote that song,” she says. “It was something real that was happening in my life.”
Josh’s country stroll “Dark Highway” is a gentle prod at humanity inspired by the night his van broke down and no one stopped to help him. He wrote the song in the back of the van to kill time until assistance arrived (“obviously I eventually got out of there” he says).
Then there’s the overtly poppy “Blindly Believing,” complete with a killer hook that explores the fleeting nature of love. Vikki wrote the song with WA singer Bex Chilcott, better known as Ruby Boots, in a session in Utah that marked Vikki’s first attempt at co-writing and that produced several co-writes for Ruby Boots’ debut album, Solitude.
Donna’s “Rowena and Wallace” is a bluesy coming-of-age romp punctuated by Vikki’s harmonica stabs and Josh’s piercing electric guitar, while Josh’s “Born to Love” echoes the folk/blues swagger of his hit song Lighthouse from the band’s breakthrough, ARIA Award winning album Up All Night (2003).
Home has been in a variety of places for The Waifs during their career. Donna lives in Fremantle after spending eight years in Minneapolis, where the band recorded Temptation four years ago. Josh splits his time between California and the NSW south coast, where he’s building a house for his family. Vikki is based in Utah. It’s no accident that what inhabits Beautiful You most of all is that attachment to home, wherever that might be.
Twenty-three years after Donna and Vikki set off from Albany to play music across Australia to anyone who would listen, teaming up with Josh en route, the three have come to appreciate the places they left behind. It’s hardly surprising then that Vikki, who with her sister grew up at Cosy Corner Beach near Albany, WA, steeped in the simple, rural traditions of their salmon-fishing family, should reflect on and celebrate those things on the new album. This she does beautifully and longingly on the pulsing, heartfelt album opener, “Black Dirt Track.” “The longer I am away from Australia the more connected I feel to Australia and I keep writing songs about that,” Vikki says. “I grew up near the salmon camp where my grandfather fished, my father played there as a kid and when I go back there now I do the same things with my children. I physically feel connected to that place when I’m there. It’s almost a spiritual thing. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I learned to play guitar, where my husband proposed to me. I’ve had all these deeply personal moments and significant things happen in this one place.”
There’s a similar bent to “6000 Miles”, on which Vikki contemplates the distance between her old home and her new one.
The closing “February”, a sparse acoustic ballad that develops quickly into a full-tilt rocker, has Vikki anticipating warmer, brighter days: “February hitches up her skirt and rolls her stockings down,” she sings.
There are plenty of brighter days ahead for The Waifs. As Josh notes, “the relationship deepens”. Beautiful You is a powerful statement of the individual songwriters’ skills, their beliefs, their passions and their dreams. Bound together by expert musicianship and the love and respect that have developed between them since the early 1990s, it’s also a moving, entertaining and ultimately joyful statement from a group of musicians dedicated to each other and to their craft.
“It’s still great to look across at each other and know where we are going to go with the music,” says Donna. “That has never changed. And we get along better now than we ever have.”