It has been 25 years since West Australian sisters Donna and Vikki Simpson (now Vikki Thorn) joined forces with Josh Cunningham to create one of Australia’s best-loved bands, The Waifs. To celebrate this significant landmark the Waifs have recorded a double album of twenty-five original songs, one for each year, all of them recorded in the kitchen of Cunningham’s home near Moruya, Australia, where he grew up.
The Waifs produced this amazing and unexpected harvest during a couple of weeks of recording late last year. When the trio assembled with regular collaborators David Ross McDonald (drums, percussion) and Ben Franz (bass, Dobro), they really didn’t know what they were about to record, other than maybe some covers of other artists’ material.
“There was a freshness to it and a flying by the seat of our pants thing,” says Cunningham. “The familiarity of the environment and the history around it was conducive to the recording. It wasn’t like a normal studio where the clock is ticking and the atmosphere can be a bit sterile. We had the crickets and cicadas and the birds.”
Completing this serene scene was engineer James Newhouse, who assembled his recording gear in the Cunningham kitchen, and got to work as one new song after another poured out of the three musos. The songs went down live, an organic approach that delivered a warmth and spontaneity as seductive as anything in the Waifs’ impressive back catalogue.
“We didn’t even have a list of songs,” says Thorn, who for the first time is the leading contributor to a Waifs album, with ten songs of her own and a co-write with her sister on the poppy ‘Not the Lonely’. “What I love about this album is that you can hear the chemistry. Some of those tracks it was only the third or fourth time we had played the song together. I can hear the tension of us all listening to the music. That tension translated beautifully on some of the tracks. ”
Cunningham wrote the stunning title song shortly after the others arrived to spend a few weeks on his property. It’s an uplifting song, coloured by his earworm guitar motif, not only about the leafy environment around his home, but also about having the strength, just like those tough trees, to endure difficult times. That’s a theme that The Waifs, collectively and individually, have explored during their career.
“It’s about people having struggles in their lives and getting through those,” says Cunningham. “It’s also about the enduring quality of those 25 years we’ve been together.”
Since releasing their debut, self-titled album in 1996 The Waifs have established a strong and loyal fan-base worldwide, built on the relentless touring they did in Australia in those formative years, playing in any town that would have them, honing their stagecraft and their song writing skills along the way. Ironbark, the group’s eighth studio album, is a thank you to those thousands of fans who have stuck with them at home and overseas, and a fitting one given the quality of the material.
“We thought about this album from their perspective,” says Thorn. “How do we give back? It made so much sense just to sit around in a room and play our guitars together.”
Aside from the title song, which opens the album, Cunningham’s contribution includes a couple of gems that are immersed in the land and sea around his home. ‘The Shack’, for example, a gentle spoken-word stroll, takes him back to his youth, to the tiny house where he grew up, next door to where he lives now. Then there are the exquisite sibling harmonies on ‘I Won’t Go Down’, a pulsing acoustic tale of resolve that came to Cunningham during a thunderstorm while he was camping on the beach.
Thorn’s mournful vocal glides over Franz’s sparse bass lines and McDonald’s brushed snare on her ode to the emotional games young lovers play, ‘Lion And Gazelle’. Then she wrenches emotion of her own from the depths of another powerful musing on love, the banjo-infused ‘Dirty Little Bird’. Based in Utah with her family for many years, Thorn looks back to her roots on the lilting, alt-country tune ‘The Coast’, a reflection on the ghosts that are said to inhabit the treacherous coastline near Albany in Western Australia where the sisters grew up.
Simpson has written about heartbreak before and does so again on the sprightly country blues ‘Done And Dusted’. “Love’s done and dusted/ that ship has sailed/love’s done and dusted/I’m on my way”, she sings. There’s a fragility to her voice on ‘Syria’, the longest song on the album and one that observes sympathetically from afar the human tragedy going on in that country. “You see everything that is going on there on TV and social media,” she says, “and here I am sitting by my fish pond in Fremantle playing my guitar thinking how lucky I am.”
These are just some examples from what is the biggest and strongest collection of studio recordings in The Waifs’ career, tail-ended by new versions of three songs that have become stage favourites over the years: ‘Shiny Apple’ and ‘Take It In’ from their debut album and ‘Willow Tree’ from 2004’s double live album A Brief History.
Now 25 year veterans of the roots music scene, The Waifs’ history is anything but brief and the future looks bright. “It’s a bit sobering to realize that much time has elapsed,” says Cunningham, “but it has been a great journey. It has been such an honor to live this life and play this music with people that you love; and to still be here doing it and for it to still mean something to people.”
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Artists’ website: http://www.thewaifs.com/
‘Black Dirt Track’ – official video: