BOUND BY HARMONY
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for folk rockers The Waifs. But the three-piece have found that no matter where they are on the globe, their shared love of music always draws them back together
The Waifs were a band who lived in each other’s pockets for years. They don’t any more. In fact, they are scattered so far around the world, it is a special event when they can be together.
When that happens, it is just like old times. Even down to the fact that they still can’t write songs together.
It is 23 years since sisters Donna and Vikki Simpson set off from their home town of Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia, with no great plan other than to get away and play music.
Some months later, the sisters met guitarist Josh Cunningham and, hundreds of shows later, The Waifs became the little band that roared, with hits like London Still, and acclaimed albums like 2003’s Up All Night and 2007’s Sun Dirt Water.
It wasn’t as simple as that sounds: Vikki and Josh fell in love, the relationship between the sisters could be tense on stage and off, then the band survived the split between Vikki and Josh.
Today, Vikki Thorn, married mother of three young boys, lives on a secluded property in Utah.
After some years in the US, Donna lives about as far from Utah as it is possible to be – in Fremantle, WA.
Cunningham, meanwhile, divides his time between California and NSW.
“Somehow we just make it happen when we need to,” Vikki says. “To be honest, none of us were sure if we ever would get back to it again. We are so busy in our lives and that seemed to be like a natural ending to things.”
But the old feeling that has always been there always rises again. Whatever else is going on, they just want to play.
“I had written a lot of songs, and played them with a few other people, but it never felt quite as right as playing them with The Waifs,” Vikki says.
“In the early days, I wouldn’t write many songs because I didn’t pick up the guitar when we were touring. But after being at home for a few years it’s my passion, even with chaos all around me and in the middle of housework.
“The boys will be running around, coming up to ask for this and that, but when a song is coming I seem to be able to take the time to do it.
“If I’m nodding vacantly at them, they know to leave me alone and go and try dad.”
Vikki enjoys songwriting more than she ever has. She even found a collaborator in Perth alt-country singer Bex Chilcott, aka Ruby Boots. Four songs they wrote together at a songwriting session in Utah appeared on this year’s Ruby Boots album Solitude.
Another, Blindly Believing, appears on Beautiful You, the seventh Waifs studio album.
“I had such a great experience with Bex that I said to the others, ‘Let’s do something we’ve never done and write an album together’.”
They carved out a week and rented a house in Dunsborough, south of Perth, arriving with guitars and notebooks.
“We’ve always written separately,” Vikki says. “This was the first time in 15 years where it was just the three of us in a room together like that, so we started talking.
“It got a little awkward. We talked too much, it got too analytical. Donna got the shits and went to a back room and came back with Beautiful You. I went off and wrote Black Dirt Track. We wrote a couple of songs each but there was no collaboration.”
That Waifs thing, just rolling with it, still works best.
Thoughts of home are never far away in Vikki’s songs. Black Dirt Track recalls a childhood by the ocean, and 6000 Miles is the distance from her new home to her old one. “I just can’t let go of your golden shores,” she sings.
“Where I live is isolated although probably not as geographically isolated as Albany. It is high desert, canyon country. You get snow in winter but there is red rock so it looks like the Kimberley sometimes.”
The Waifs are in the middle of a tour which has taken them from Albany to Broome, then the east coast and to Alice Springs and Darwin.
“It is incredible to me, after not playing for three years, to find there is a lot of love for the songs and the band.”
The Waifs, from left, Donna Simpson, Josh Cunningham and Vikki Thorn, are currently on tour around Australia.