It doesn’t get much more dreamlike than the unplanned success of The Waifs; three kids from regional Australia who turned an ad hoc decision to create music together while driving across the country in the early 1990’s into a platinum-record selling international folk band icon nineteen years later.
‘We never set out with any expectations in the first place’ says song-writer Josh Cunningham. ‘We (Josh together with sisters Vicki Thorn and Donna Simpson) were just a bunch of teenage kids driving around the country in our campervan playing music and having fun. We’ve tried to keep that philosophy the whole time’.
The recording of their latest and sixth album, Temptation, the product of two weeks spent in a live-in Minneapolis studio, has followed that organic and unaffected approach. Josh says ‘…it was a pretty nice environment, upstairs there was a bedroom and downstairs there was a studio in the basement so it was a pretty good opportunity to relax and there’s a kind of cohesiveness to the sound that I think reflects that environment that we were in…the sound of this record is a bit more of a return to our original sound.’
A return to roots seems natural enough. Over the last three years The Waifs have been getting on with life; marrying Americans and settling in Utah, California and Minnesota. Still, Cunningham notes that the geographical distance between the founding three doesn’t impact on their work as a group. ‘There’s a kind of connection or chemistry that you develop and that comes after years of playing together and I notice that even if it’s been a while since we’ve been together it just feels right’.
That consensus must come in handy; with Vicki, Donna and Josh contributing equally, though not necessarily collaboratively, to the tracks on the album. ‘We all write independently so when we get together everyone will say ‘Here are some songs that I’ve written’ and we introduce our songs for the first time’. Such an open approach might be expected to cause problems in a group, but Cunningham dismisses the notion that too many cooks spoil the broth. ‘I think it’s pretty obvious when there’s a song that doesn’t work, we all have different styles. We have different tastes. It’s obvious when a there’s a song that’s right. If someone really doesn’t like a song we wouldn’t force them to do that but fortunately I think that we all like each others’ styles’.
Cunningham’s tastes are in part demonstrated in the title track; an ecclesiastical hymn of enticement, sin, and repentance which mirrors his own relatively recent embracement of Christian teachings. ‘(Temptation) doesn’t just reflect musical style, it’s actually a whole lifestyle in itself and obviously I’m very inspired by the Bible and my beliefs…for me it’s not just a musical preference but also a reflection of what I believe in as well. It’s a pretty special song from that perspective for me. I’ve been really into that sound for a few years’.
Now a resident of California, Cunningham has been keeping busy using ‘Waif downtime’, as he puts it, to nurture other directions, playing music at his local church and performing with travelling preachers. ‘…If I were to turn up to make another Waifs album and said ‘here’s a dozen gospel songs’ then that’s not really reflective of where the girls are at, I don’t expect them to do all those songs. But then I’ve got all these songs that I have been writing that don’t get that outlet so when I’m doing music in that context then I get to air those tunes’.
Many of the songs on the new album emerged from gigging over the last few years, while The Waifs played to American audiences first conquered after the bands’ peak in 2003. Audiences that Cunningham sees as distinct from those back home. ‘There’s a difference for sure’ he says enthusiastically ‘In Australia the crowd is a lot more involved, a lot more active. Whereas in the states the crowds tend to sit and listen and be quite respectful…Australian audiences tend to part of the whole experience in a kind of physical way. (The American audience) have a more intellectual experience. I think they listen and take in it on a different level. I’m not saying that Australian audiences don’t appreciate the music, it’s just that they get more active about it’.
And Australian audiences again have the opportunity to get involved. The first public taste of Temptation, due for release on 5 March 2011, has already begun in the form of a series of tour dates that sees The Waifs returning to their homeland.
A tour that Cunningham explains will, like the album, place emphasis on revisiting vintage Waif territory. ‘The tour began in South Coastal New South Wales (near Cunningham’s home town of Moruya), and we are going to a lot of the regional places that we used to go to…I guess we wanted a taste of what we used to do back in the olden days, just drive around and play the smaller places. When we’ve been touring since then and it can be hard to get to those places so we’ve been quite intentional about making sure we visit some of those old haunts’.
Does such reminiscing signal an end to the band? After two decades of writing, touring and recording you might expect signs of slowing down, but on that issue, Cunningham refuses to be drawn. ‘It’s a matter of whether we are still enjoying it, whether we feel that we are still contributing. There’s no point saying ‘this will be the last album’, or ‘We’ve got another five years left in us, because who knows where we’ll be in five years time. We may not play music or record for that long and then decide that we want to do it again. There’s no point making bold predictions or announcements, we’ll just keep going with it’.
That sounds fine to us.