Tonight Alive’s Jenna McDougall On Mental Health, Working With Corey Taylor & Why She’s Undertaking “An Honesty Project”Written by Sally McMullen on May 1, 2018
2018 marks the 10th anniversary of Australia’s very own Tonight Alive. Over the last decade, the quartet have gone from home-grown heroes to an internationally renowned punk pop powerhouse that tours the world (including an upcoming spot of the final Warped Tour later this year). Not bad for a bunch of Sydney locals who are still in their twenties. And in January, the band released their fourth and potentially most profound record: Underworld. Experimenting sonically on their 2016 record Limitless, they returned to their quintessential sound on the latest album. This means heavy power chords and a sprinkle of synth pumped with their signature punk pop kick. In line with this throwback to their heavier sound, it was only fitting that they collaborated with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor for the album’s bookend and title track ‘My Underworld’.
However, the record is also one of Tonight Alive’s darkest and most brutally honest bodies of work. Apparently it was titled ‘Underworld’ as it mirrors the “ugly parts” that frontwoman Jenna McDougall wasn’t ready to face until now. The record touches on everything from mental health and eating disorders to feeling disconnected from your own body and self-healing through music. Although an extremely personal record, it’s probably no surprise that these universal themes have had a deep connection with their fans. And after touring Underworld across the States and Europe, Tonight Alive is returning down under for a six date tour around Australia this May. Ahead of the national tour, we spoke with Jenna about the healing power of the record, forging a supportive space for women in music and what Aussie fans can expect from the Underworld gigs.
Music Feeds: It’s been a few months since Underworld was released, have you guys been happy with the reaction to the record so far?
Jenna McDougall: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a really special reaction actually. I think even before we started playing certain songs live, we had fans tattooing lyrics on their body. So by the time we were on the album tour, we get to see them in person at meet and greets and things like that and being tagged online. So it’s seemed to have had quite an emotional impact on our fans, which is easily the most important reaction that we can hope for. Within the scene and the industry, we’ve had a really cool response as well.
MF: Wow, that must be surreal. Which songs have seemed to resonate with fans the most? Were there any surprises?
JM: I guess I’m not surprised because I have an emotional connection with those songs and I can almost hear the songs and the lyrics from the fans’ point of view. I’m writing for myself, I’m trying to give myself advice and am trying to be my own guardian and I think in some ways that if I do have guardian angels, they speak through me to me. So, I think I relate to some songs in the same way the fans do.
Some standouts are ‘The Other’, which I kind of had a feeling deep down that it had the potential to have a cult fan reaction because it’s really about being an outcast. It kind of touches on sexuality, it touches on not identifying with your body, things like that. Even though those are really subtle references and they’re literally one sentence at a time, I was really happy to have people hear that and have that speak to them.
In our song ‘Temple’, I mention having an eating disorder and the lyric is “I make myself sick just to hate this a little bit more.” And before I’d even done interviews about that, we had fans posting about eating disorder awareness and people were starting to speak out. And that actually helped me have the confidence to speak out about what I was going through.
MF: Yeah, the inspiration and stories are obviously very personal but the issues are quite universal too. You’ve said that Underworld is about some of the “uglier” parts of yourself that you didn’t want to see until now, what was it that made you really self-evaluate and bring some of those things to the surface?
JM: I think mainly my health has been a big motivator with my self discovery and self development. About five or six years ago, my condition became chronic and it was like a full body experience and I was depressed and lethargic. I was just really unfocused and unclear and I wasn’t enjoying my life. That turned me towards Eastern philosophy and medicine and alternative therapy and I started to really acknowledge the pain in my body and the toxicity of my body and certain relationships and things in my life.
I feel like my health has been a huge indicator of when there is a friction in my life. My skin is a big indicator for me of when I’m not healthy. Whereas I think other people have joint pain or headaches or anxiety or stuff like that. So addressing that, really helped everything come to the surface. So I really just had to roll with it and let my body speak to me.
Writing the record happened when we had three months off and dedicated that time between tours to write the record. We’ve never written a record so fast before but it was just like opening flood gates. I was working on my health a lot of the time and have continued to do that. Once the record was finished and we finished recording it in July, that was kind of when my skin totally cleared up. So it was really interesting that so much of my health condition was associated with past pain and traumatic experiences to whatever degree.
MF: And is it nerve racking laying your cards out so openly on something like a record that you know millions of people are going to listen to?
JM: Well, I’ve been going through what I call an honesty project. I don’t stick to it everyday, but I’m trying to be my most authentic self and return to the original self. The original self is the unwounded, unconditioned, unafraid, undamaged version of you before you went through everything you have to get to this point. And I’m trying to unveil myself to myself.
I’m really lucky, I’ve been in the band for 10 years and the people I create music with and spend my time with are my best friends and know me better than anybody. I’m lucky that what we created was born in that enlightenment. Of course there are struggles within that too, it’s not a perfect or harmonious situation. We have a really turbulent lifestyle and everyone goes through their own stuff. So even though I say I do have extremely supportive friends that allow me to work on myself, there are still struggles within that. But that’s where it all stemmed from.
I also have a relationship with our fans and an understanding of transparency. It was really freeing. I just felt for the first time that I’m not shackled to an identity and I don’t belong to anybody. I don’t belong to a belief system and I don’t have to be an empowered version of myself every single day. I think people will relate when I’m vulnerable and when I’m honest and exposed. I felt really confident in that, and to answer your question finally (laughs), I wasn’t actually afraid.
There is an abundance of support in my life and in everybody’s life if you shift your perspective a little bit. There is support available through every direction whether it’s music or friendships or how you view yourself or your favourite author or something like that. People will understand. And I just think that being my most authentic self is key to that, it invites that honest interaction. So I’m really glad that that’s what this album has set up for our fans.
MF: Another highlight of the album is your collaboration with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor for the closing track ‘My Underworld’. Apparently he said that it was one of his ‘favourite’ things he has ever done. What was it like working with him?
JM: Oh, wow! That’s so crazy! It was really cool. We didn’t meet until a few months after we recorded the song but he was just super, super generous of himself and his time. The emails that we exchanged were so personal and real and genuine. That is even more valuable to me than having his voice on the song. That really true interaction. But basically I contacted him over Twitter and we kind of had a little bit of conversation a couple of years ago and never spoke again after. It was actually before Limitless was even out, so it would’ve been in 2015 some time.
So I ended up sending him a message and saying that there’s a song on this record we’re record that I can really hear your voice on and I’d love to send it to you, there’s no pressure but let me know what you think. And four minutes later he wrote back in capital letters “I’D LOVE TO!!!” with all of these exclamation marks. I just love the seed of the story, that the first tone of the whole collaboration was that enthusiasm and that dedication to doing a song even though he hadn’t heard it.
It was just really cool. So he recorded it in New York, I think. Everything you hear is pretty much his take on the way the song was written. He didn’t sing anything the way that it already was, which I really love. He was super open to my suggestions. Like in Slipknot songs, he does this sort of spoken, deep husky voice underneath his vocals and I asked him to do that but I called it the “deep, sexy voice” (laughs) and he was like “Ok, I’ll do my deepest, sexiest voice.” I felt like a total dork asking that and I couldn’t ask it any other way but he understood. He was just really flexible and creative, he made a great addition to the album.
MF: You guys have just wrapped up the US and Europe dates, what can Aussies expect from our turn on the TA tour?
JM: I think we’re just ready to return with a renewed energy and I think the last tour we did here was a reconnection with our fans and with Australia in general. We hadn’t toured Australia in more than a year and a half at the time. I think the last time we’d toured Australia was supporting A Day to Remember in 2016. So coming back in November last year was like “Hey, we have new music and kind of a new line-up.”
But now with the new album out, we can just come back with impact and we can really just be in the zone. We’ve toured more days in the year than we haven’t, there’s probably been two weeks off since New Year. So I’m really excited to just deliver and inspire people.
MF: There has been a lot of conversation around the lack of gender equality and the support of women in the Australian music industry. As not only a frontwoman, but a member of a band that frequently brings female acts on tour with you, what do you think the industry needs to do support female artists?
JM: I actually think we’re already on the way and this conversation is so important and it’s so present. But it’s only really been present for maybe a year or two, so everyone demanding change is really great and there’s a new wave that has to come in and that’s not going to happen overnight. I think the space is being created for more female artists to feel important and feel seen and heard. So that environment is opening up already.
We just have to keep encouraging that openness and that conversation. But I don’t think it’s the rise of women and fall of men. I think coming with a hateful, angry perspective can only get us so far. My opinion is that we’re already on the way and, as I said, the space is opening. I know our band is going to keep booking female artists to support our tours and I know a lot of other bands will be doing the same. I think it’s about having that confidence to come forward. So many young musicians should have the confidence to come forward and feel safe and feel encouraged and feel like there’s a place for them, which there is. I think things are going to be really different in a year’s time, in five year’s time, in ten year’s time, it’s going to be unrecognisable. So I think the work is being done right now. I think we need to salute that and acknowledge that, but that’s just my perspective.
Tonight Alive’s ‘Underworld’ national tour kicks off this week. Details below.
Tonight Alive 2018 ‘Underworld’ National Tour
Supported by Between You & Me and AViVA
Thursday, 3rd May
The Basement, Canberra
Tickets: Live Nation
Friday, 4th May
Metro Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Live Nation
Saturday, 5th May
The Zoo, Brisbane
Tickets: Live Nation
Thursday, 10th May
Arrow On Swanston, Melbourne
Tickets: Live Nation
Friday, 11th May
Max Watt’s, Melbourne
Tickets: Live Nation
Saturday, 12th May
The Gov, Adelaide
Tickets: Live Nation