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THE WAIFS The Donna Simpson interview


For 25-years, a virtual eternity in the music business, homegrown heroes The Waifs have been captivating audiences with their own unique brand of folk rock. To celebrate this remarkable career milestone, the band has prepared two special treats for fans: a brand spanking new album, Ironbark, and a nationwide anniversary tour hitting WA this week (check out all the tour dates below). The Waifs’ Donna Simpson took time out to chat with CHRIS PRINDIVILLE about her excitement at this new phase in the band’s career. 

Let me begin by saying how much I’m enjoying the artwork for the new album, Ironbark. There is a haunting quality that draws you in.

The cover was shot on Josh’s property in New South Wales. We knew that we had our favourite photographer only a hundred kilometres up the road. Her name is Tamara Dean, and she is an incredible photographer. We are all quite big fans of photography. We had her staying with us for two days, so all the photography and visuals were done on site, on the property. It was great. We’d all go down and light a fire outside, and it just added to the making of the album.

With the new album, you have 25-tracks. Was the decision to go long form a reaction against the prevailing instant-gratification, short-attention-span culture we find ourselves in?

It’s actually a thank you to our fans. We’re so grateful that, after 25-years, we still have so many fans that come out. All of our shows are still selling out. Our fans have become so much a soundtrack to our lives. So 25-years therefore 25-songs.

How about newcomers to the band? Does the new album also cater to those who don’t have a longstanding relationship with the band’s music?

Absolutely. It’s a beautiful arrangement of songs. We are all still three individual songwriters. We write so differently, and about very different things.

Is there a thread that ties all the songs together?

Not as a playlist as such. That’s always a difficult thing to work out; we’ve done all the recording, we’ve done all the artwork, now what order do we put the songs in? I think in the old days you were supposed to put your best songs first, then they got gradually worse from there. I remember we did that on our early albums (laughs).

The title track which opens the album makes a very strong impression with the vocals. Are the vocal arrangements something you take particular pride in?

I know that on the opening track (Ironbark) we all took a verse each. Then we all come together on the chorus. There is nothing intentional about the Waifs. We just do what we do. It was all recorded live. That was fun. It was so beautiful to hear Josh sing after all these years. It took him years and years to sing. The old albums were just me and Vicki.

There is something very appealing about that blend of male and female voices…

I don’t think that there are that many people doing it. I heard Ngaiire doing this thing on Triple J, with all these gorgeous people – I think she had three backup vocalists, all in harmony. I thought, “that’s the shit; that’s why I haven’t been getting into a lot of music in the last few years.”

The album appears to unfold like a collection of self-contained little stories…

They all come from three very different songwriters. We’ve never written a song together, ever. I’m so lucky: I bring my songs to Vicki and Josh, my two favourite musicians, and say, “here you go. What are you going to do on this?” We come back together, and I’ll play harp, Josh will play a lovely lead guitar, and Vicki will work out a few harmonies for us.

Is there a glue that holds your work together as a band?

I don’t know how to answer that. I think the glue that ties it all together is the stamp we put on each other’s songs. Josh can say to me, “Donna, I have this song. I’d love for you to sing it.” I have quite a low voice, and he’ll say, “it will sound better with your voice.” I don’t know how other bands do it, but there is nothing intentional with anything we do; we just want to play. We don’t really care what’s popular and what’s not.

It’s remarkable to have that sort of longevity in such a tough industry…

Yeah, absolutely. Even on a personal level, with all the trouble I used to get into. I nearly got kicked out of the band.

Having a family member in the band (sister Vicki) must make those bonds even stronger?

Oh yeah! It makes the fights even bigger as well. If Vicki and I were merely friends, the band wouldn’t have lasted. No one would treat each other like we did and get away with it. With family, you’ve still got to sit there at Christmas dinner. And you love each other. You really do. Vicki and Josh went out for a long time. We are very lucky that the band has gone through relationships together. When someone has a heartbreak, we all go through it. We’ve always lived together; we’ve had babies together. I remember the first time when somebody wanted to move out, and it was devastating. We had one car; we split everything three ways.

Moving on now to touring, do you notice differences between audiences? From state to state? City to country?

Darwin and the North West has a really different feel. They like to drink beer just to cool off. Some places are wilder than others. Fremantle has so much love; Melbourne is always such a celebration. When you go to the country towns, they are so appreciative. Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton; some places you haven’t played before, or you haven’t played in years, and the audiences are so grateful that you are there. People come out of the woodwork everywhere.

How about differences between Australian and American crowds?

When we play, we find that crowds in the US are real listeners. It will be absolutely silent and then go absolutely nuts once the song has finished. They hang off every word. With Fremantle, you have got people waving at you and holding up their babies. Each crowd is really different, but there is so much appreciation for the band. Our fans are just awesome. They make it fun for us.

The Waifs’ latest album, Ironbark, is out now.

The 25th anniversary Australian tour kicks off in WA with the following dates:

March 2 Perth Concert Hall

March 4 Oceans Winery, Margaret River

March 6 Quinanning Tavern

March 9 Fremantle Arts Centre

And the final date on the tour:

April 15 Roebuck Tavern, Broome

For more details visit:

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