No Rest for the Aussies
The ever-working Waifs are out touring the States again. After ten years, three albums and a billion gigs, the Australian trio — made up of sisters Donna and Vikki Simpson and Josh Cunningham — keeps doing it their way, all the time. Their music is a fine blend of folk and contemporary pop highlighted by the band’s impressive harmonic talents, their clever and honest lyrics, and a winning, natural charm that you’d have to be pretty cynical not to fall for. Add to that seemingly never-ending touring and recording schedules, as well as a deep and profound love for what they do, and there’s no wonder half the world already love them and the other half is just about to.
I spoke with Donna Simpson — singer, guitarist and self-proclaimed AC/DC fan — as The Waifs were just beginning their latest, greatest tour of the US.
How did you all end up playing together?
Vik and I took off in an old van around Australia ten years ago, singing everywhere from biker bars [to] gold mine sites and clubs to fund our travels. We didn’t take it seriously, we were young, making money and travelling through remote parts of our country. They were happy days. We met Josh on the road while he was also doing the same thing, playing bass in an all-guy rock n’ roll band. I guess we stole him, cause he’s still with us ten years on.
Working as hard as you do, without having the backing — financial and otherwise — that a label offers must be a bit tough at times.
Yes, we work hard and tour a lot, but that’s because we want to. We love it. We only do about two tours a year in Australia and that’s enough to sustain us. That’s why we’re over here touring.
Um… I know some would probably say that “only” two Australian tours a year are still quite a lot. Are you, like, demigods with enormous stamina? Don’t you ever get tired?
Zzzzz… what? Huh? Oh! Well, a complete tour in Australia can be done in about six weeks, but to cover the rest of the ground, meaning North America, UK and Europe, we need to tour it solid for about eight to nine months a year. You get used to it. I feel lost when I’m not on the road. I’ve not lived anywhere for two years now.
Is it a bit frustrating, though, having released three albums, all of them independently, without having a label to pick up the bills?
Ha! Good question. Frustrating? No, not at all. We’ve never sought out a record deal back home. We’ve never sent them our albums. We’re more than happy with our position in the Australian music scene. Independence ain’t that bad, ya know… you can make money.
How is the folk scene in Australia, by the way? Are you part of some “folk crowd,” or are you all on your own?
Well, we’re not really considered too folky back home. There’s not a very big folk scene, although people really dig acoustic music. We play in big rock clubs and outdoor festivals. There’s not as many folk/acoustic style venues that you’ve got over here. So yes, there’s a healthy acoustic and roots kinds scene out there, but there is a lot of rock n’ roll too! “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution! La la la.”
How would you say you have evolved over the course of your three albums?
Oooh, I don’t ever listen to the albums, but I hope we’ve gotten better. The first is quite folky, if I remember rightly. It was recorded in 1996, we were young and it was our first project. You’re bound to make mistakes. It still sells really well, which amazes me. People say it’s their favorite… The second album is Shelter Me, recorded in 1998. Again, I don’t ever listen to it, but I recall that it’s recorded a bit smoother. It’s got some nice songs on it. Our new bass player Ben Franz reckons this is his favorite.
Sink Or Swim, our latest album, is really a mixed bag. We’ve never written a song together, and I think that’s quite obvious on this album. You can hear our different influences. We wrote a few pop/rock-y kinda songs as we were all listening to different music from each other.
To answer the question… ummm… yeah, we’ve got a lot better and have evolved greatly since all the albums. We’re constantly changing — I think live is always better.
I’m a bit surprised to hear you’ve never written a song together, what with all the time you must spend together in between gigs and all.
[The entire band laughs at the expense of this poor interviewer] Time? In between gigs? Our days are spent travelling to the next show. We don’t get a lot of time to ourselves, so when we do we try and be alone. The other day in New York City I went and did the band’s laundry. It was the most beautiful, serene, non-musical moment I’ve had since we’ve been on tour. It was more satisfying than Stonehenge!
Your album Sink Or Swim has just been picked up and released by a label in the UK, and you’ve just been over there touring with Billy Bragg. That must be quite satisfying but also a bit weird, promoting a two-year-old album?
Hmm, yeah. It’s a bit tiring, but the Sink Or Swim album is new to UK audiences, so it’s nice to play these old songs to new ears. It’s great to also have the album easily available to the English fans.
With your intense touring schedule, do you ever think of yourselves as recording artists per se, or is it all about the gigs?
It’s still a lot about the travel and songwriting. I mean, recording is fun and we’re always keen to get into the studio and record an album “we love,” but to be playing live is another thing altogether. I like to think of ourselves more as songwriters and performers than recording artists. There’s definitely an art to recording, and I don’t think we’ve mastered that yet.
Your lyrics seem to be deeply personal and self-referential, at times poignant to the point of the tragic. In a particular example like “Service Fee,” it seems almost as if you couldn’t cope really, without the outlet of songwriting.
To begin with, I’d like to say that I think it was a big mistake putting that song on the album. What were we thinking? I wrote it and I hate it. You’re right, it is tragic! It’s far too personal and now I feel it shouldn’t have been put out there for others to have to listen to.
It’s easily one of my personal favorites on the album, though. It’s absolutely brilliant!
It was an intense, fucked-up bitter time. Tragic! I’m glad I’ve moved on. That said… of course we can “cope” without the outlet of writing songs about ourselves. We grow and we learn. We become inspired and are constantly changing as people, but I think we will always write honestly whether about ourselves or not.
Who and what do you look to, musically?
The Earth, love, hate, life, society, dreams, pain, and desires are enough inspirations to begin with. There’s never a shortage. I listen to everything from Nick Drake to AC/DC, whereas the others are more into folk and country artists. We’re constantly discovering new artists and are being given loads of CDs on the road by songwriters and record companies. At the moment we are in love with The Be Good Tanyas.
And what do you try to achieve with your music?
A good song… like everybody else, I suppose. I write purely for myself. If people like it, then we play it. If it has an effect on them in any way, whether it makes them smile or cry or dance, then that’s a bonus.
Being on the road with two other people, one of them your sister, must be rather intimate. When it all gets a bit too much, how do you get by?
When it all gets too much, we fight. It’s like a marriage, except there’s three of us. Ahem. Without the sex…
Damn, there goes that headline, then. You seem to have quite a busy year ahead of you. Can you fill us in about The Waifs 2002? You’re fresh from the UK supporting Billy Bragg.
We finished the Billy Bragg tour a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve been touring in the States for about two weeks now. The Bragg tour was fantastic. He’s an amazing performer and a very funny guy.
And how’s the US tour going so far?
Oh, we’ve been having a fantastic time. We’ve been in the USA for ten days and have played seven shows between Vermont and Virginia. We’ve headlined all but two, which have been showcases in New York City. We’ve found a lot of the crowd coming to the shows know of us and know our songs. It’s weird to be in New York or Boston and have people singing along to your songs, and I’m thinking, “how the hell do you know these songs, we’ve not even recorded them yet!” Bloody Napster! [Laughs].
And next up is?
This year we will be recording our fourth album in the USA, releasing a live album in Australia and a single, as well as touring the world for eight months straight. It’s crazy, I know, but we’re up for it. I’m just hanging to get into the studio and make this next album. I love the new songs. It’s exciting!