In 1992, WA born sisters Donna Simpson & Vikki Thorn teamed up with NSW’s Josh Cunningham to form The Waifs; one of Australia’s most enduring musical endeavours. Grok managed to find time with Vikki who reflected on the band’s journey and life that led to their successful Aria chart-topping album, Ironbark.
You left home as travelling musicians in a van 25 years ago. Did you think in ’92 you’d still be doing this in 5 or 10 years?
We never thought about it. I don’t think you come into the music industry thinking about longevity- you know they teach you from a pretty young age that there’s a very high turnover. So you might as well be ambitious, but you’re not thinking “this is going to be a quarter of a lifetime job”.
What were some of the best moments from those early days on the road?
Just being young and travelling around the country—there’s a certain freedom. This is while we were still a cover band and before we really considered becoming songwriters. Once we realised we could make a living out of this; that was the moment—the realisation that this was a possibility.
I remember meeting a lot of people from overseas and connecting with them, with us not really understanding what it meant to be Australian and getting their perspective on what an incredible place this was to live. Over the years we got to meet a lot of the most influential people on us as musicians and just say “thanks”. There are a lot of highlights.
A lot of people struggle to take that kind of risk. Was there a specific event or tipping point that made you realise setting out was something you had to do?
My sister Donna always jokes we played music to avoid picking fruit. Donna was really the jet engine in those days. She left school early and was working 9-5 jobs around a small country town, and I think she had a sense that for her that wasn’t enough. She had something inside her burning away to get out and have some experiences. I was really the little sister tagging along because it sounded like a good adventure.
What advice would you give a young Australian musician?
Well I’m still really old-school, but for any musician it’s play live and learn to connect with the listeners as much as you can. For me playing music has always been about connecting with the people listening and sharing something with them. If you can get good at opening those connections, at opening yourself up you have a more fulfilling experience as an artist.
What’s the most beautiful place your music has taken you?
Metaphysically, the most beautiful place is on stage when the band is moving together as one instrument. When I’m singing with my sister and its completely connected, and that sound is being transferred from our beings to our audience. It’s rare, but totally creating something in the moment. That’s a beautiful place to be as an artist, but geographically, everywhere.
With your experience as career musicians and previous Triple J placement holders, what do you think the future holds for Australian music? What styles are you most excited to see emerging?
Australian music is developing in its own unique way; I’m blown away by the acts that are coming. I think Triple J has given kids the inspiration and confidence to dream – knowing people are willing to put this on air through Unearthed.
There seems more potential for artists to hear and feed off each other than say in America where the market is so big and it’s harder to even get a voice. But Australia is a real supportive breeding ground for prolific artists to communicate with each other; you can just see all this creative stuff coming out. Australia is magnificent for that. Then on top of that you can still be supported as a band that’s been around for 25 years.
Are there any favourite songs to play?
Actually I love playing London Still. We all love that song even though it’s our big hit and we’ve played it a thousand times. When we play it on stage it’s a point in the set where we can all breathe through and relax into the music; it has a really beautiful space.
On this latest album there are a couple of songs that are all in harmony with my sister, when we’re having a really good singing night they feel a bit elevated and inspired. It’s a real point of connection.
What’s been the biggest inspiration for your music?
Our biggest influence is probably Bob Dylan and that style of writing, just telling stories and putting them to chord structures. At its core it’s folk music; the human stories that we hear, the stories from our own lives are intertwined and songs sort of appear out of the mix of experience.
The inspiration for the band to even still be in existence is the listeners, for people to say “this song has meant so much to us”. They share all these incredible stories with us so we keep doing it. It’s moved beyond our own creative endeavours a little bit.
Josh was invited to join you and Donna after an incidental jam session at a pub. How much does this reflect on your creative process? Has it changed much since then?
We’re still jamming in every album! When we write a song we sit down and Josh, like he did from the first day we met him, he plays one thing and that’s the right thing. That’s why it works with Josh because he plays what we can’t play but we can hear in our head, he speaks what we hear on guitar. It always was very intuitive, even more after such a long time. The creative process hasn’t changed a lot in 25 years.
Looking at that meeting with Josh (Cunningham), it’s hard not to believe in fate. Did it feel much like fate then?
There was a gravity to it in retrospect. At the time you don’t recognise it, you might read it as human emotion. Donna and I had been on the road for six months and we’re sisters, we’re pretty close. Josh was in this rock and roll cover band and he just had the thing, this young kid with his long hair held it down.
He was the thing you wanted to hear. When Josh came and had a jam with us Donna asked him outright if he would join the band. She didn’t even consult with me – I remember giving this look, just “what the heck are you doing? We don’t even know this guy”. She felt something I think I felt too, but I was a lot more cautious. I was extremely excited because he really was remarkable.
With 4 ARIA awards, two acclaimed releases and supporting a touring Bob Dylan across two continents; 2003 was a huge year for your band. What was it like stepping into that kind of recognition?
It was fun. A little crazy, a little surreal but we’d been working so hard prior it felt like a reward. We came home and we got put in front of thousands of screaming fans we’d never seen before. We were in and out of the country a lot, but it felt like a bit of a payoff for the years that had come before.
Both this year and the tour are just getting started and “Ironbark” is already number 1. What does it mean to you as a musician to keep getting this kind of support?
It means everything, it’s the reason we’re here. You pinch yourself as a musician because you think this can’t last, and audiences always come, they’ve never not come. I get it because people are saying we’ve connected with a part of your life now, so it almost feels like we’re in it for life.
To go to number 1 after 25 years, we couldn’t stop laughing! Thinking this is great, this is crazy, people still go out and buy the album. You don’t even think about that stuff. For this to come out of nowhere, I feel it was really because we put it out there that we made this for other people. This was about “okay, you want an acoustic album? Have it, enjoy!”
At a solid 25 tracks there’s nothing underdone about this album. What does the future hold for The Waifs?
You tell me, maybe another #1 album next year! We’re in a very comfortable place where we don’t worry too much about anything. This is going to be a big year for us touring so I’m assuming we’re going to take a little break afterwards. We never say never, we might make another album or we might not. There’s always the possibility that you want to get out and tour again. With us it’s good to leave that door open.
Ironbark is available online and in stores as The Waifs continue their Australia-wide tour.