JENNA MCDOUGALL AND TONIGHT ALIVE HAVE FACED ENOUGH STRIFE TO LAST A DOZEN BAND LIFETIMES. SIMON YOUNG HEARS HOW, AFTER HITTING PERSONAL AND CREATIVE LOWS ON 2016’S LIMITLESS, NEW ALBUM UNDERWORLD MARKS THE SYDNEY QUARTET’S REBIRTH…
“We were never prepared to give up on the band…”
“During Limitless, I was fighting with myself and could feel it intuitively, but I wanted to trust the people we worked with so much. I’m just really glad that’s the last time I’ll ever be in that situation.” Jenna Mcdougall is looking back on Tonight Alive’s third album with a tone that suggests that there are moments from the past few years that she’d like to lock in a heavy box, wrap with bulky chains and cast into the depths of the Tasman Sea.
And yet, from the outside looking in, the first few months of 2016 appeared to be pretty rosy for the Australian quintet.the band – completed then by guitarists Whakaio Taahi and Jake Hardy, bassist Cameron Adler and drummer Matt Best – had two albums to their name and racked up countless air miles as they criss-crossed the globe with repeated visits to the UK and the States, while their song The Edge was chosen to play out the $709m-grossing movie The Amazing Spider-man 2. Main stage appearances at Reading & Leeds.a Kerrang! cover. It’d take a cynic to bet against the Sydneysiders’ chances of making tidal waves following the release of their third album in the spring of that year.
Indeed, Limitless was backed by the might of the Sony corporation; sure, the label released their first two albums – 2011’s What Are You So Scared Of? and its 2013 follow-up,the Other Side – but all signs seem to suggest that their paymasters thought that their third album was the one.the band worked themselves into the ground amid a flurry of promotional activity, with glossy videos accompanying the singles Human Interaction, How Does It Feel? and Drive.
While the album reached Number Six in Australia and a perfectly respectable 37 in the UK charts, the process was far from smooth, and left something of a sour taste in mouths. For starters, the band regularly crossed swords with their label over how they should be presented to the wider world.the whole experience came with a price that weighed heavily on Jenna’s mind, and went in some way to inform their new record, Underworld. Released this week, it’s an album borne of catharsis and informed by the slow, steady rebuilding of their tattered confidence.
“We did nine days of pre-production and spent three of those days sitting in an office listening to references, playing demos and rating the songs,” she recalls of the Limitless sessions. "It was such a mental and emotional grind and it was sucking the life out of the record before it had even been made.”
In particular, the decision to release the poppy Drive as a single – accompanied by a jarring video that featured backing dancers – caused much festering rancour towards the label.
“I didn’t want to put the song on the record,” she admits today. “to make peace with the decision, I rewrote all the lyrics; it’s about rejecting the conventional and rejecting control.the video with back-up dancers and all that kind of stuff was an experiment.the label felt it was going to connect, but that whole time, we were hoping that it wasn’t going to damage our relationship with our fans.
“It wore the band out a lot and instilled a lot of fear in us that we had made a big mistake and weren’t going to be able to come back from it,” she adds. “it took some time to regain our confidence.”
Following Warped Tour that year, the band severed ties with the label and found themselves in a state of flux as they pondered their next move. But, as Jenna reveals, quitting was never an option.
“We were never prepared to give up on the band,” she says. “it was only ever a question of members wanting to stay, and that of course eventuated in Whakaio leaving [after the album was finished to pursue a career in songwriting and production]. we were just unsure of the best way to rebuild and redefine who we are. I knew my work wasn’t finished.”
It was during a camping trip 14 months ago that Jenna decided to shave her head, perhaps as a way of emotionally distancing herself from a traumatic period in the band’s career.
“I felt it coming for a long time,” she says of her haircut. “i felt that image had controlled me for so long that if I got rid of that obsession, it would no longer do that – and I was right. I created a fire ceremony; I put all my crystals out, shaved my head and then burned my hair. I said some words about setting myself free and releasing myself from that attachment and obsession with image in the entertainment industry, conventional beauty and feminine expectation that was really peaking for me on the Limitless cycle.”
And with that, the locks from her bleach-blonde, Warped Tour bowl cut crackled and disappeared in the flames. How did you feel afterwards? “It was like I saw myself for the first time,” she explains. “it was like being a baby, where nothing has made an impression on you yet. It felt I was going back to a purer version of myself that was unchanged by the world. It was like looking at my soul. I felt a lot of peace. I didn’t want to stop shaving my head and grow my hair back until I knew I could maintain that state of mind. I guess I kept my head shaved for three or four months, then I knew the work was done. I let that go. It was a gesture, a physical gift to myself.”
In the following months, whakaio and Jenna began working on new songs at the singer’s house.
“I came into writing Underworld not even yet grieving for the way things went for Limitless, so I felt pretty tender,” she notes. “during that era, I felt very suppressed and constantly felt I was trying to counteract the control that was being exercised over me. My personal approach was to practise radical honesty. I guess I felt, after having shaved my head in September and us cutting ties with our labels and things, that I would never compromise again.”
The album title itself comes from a place of spiritual neglect, a murky realm where uncomfortable, embarrassing things are brushed to one side. Radical honesty, says Jenna, is a way to confront and cast off this emotional ballast in order to live a more peaceful life. “It’s so nice when you feel safe in your relationships to be vulnerable and exposed,” she says. “i’d always had access to that but I was so afraid to be judged. During Warped, I realised the power of asking for help and expressing your needs. It’s just being at peace with the fact you don’t have to know where you’re going with your thoughts or have a specific question or hope for an answer; it’s practising self-expression. I think being more honest in your journals and in your conversations is a really good place to start with seeing your true self.”
Empowered and exhilarated by this realisation, the songs came thick and fast. Following a tour with You Me At Six in April of last year, the band spent six weeks in Thailand with producer Dave Petrovic. But it was there that Jenna had to contend with her long-running battle with eczema, as well as deal with those negative feelings lingering from the Limitless sessions.
“I wasn’t happy in Thailand,” she says quietly. “my body was covered in eczema and I was really sick.the most frustrating thing was that I was doing everything I could to feel better: having a vegan diet, being sugar-free, alcohol-free, grain-free. there was a point where I couldn’t even eat without the fear of my condition being any more severe.
“I’VE LOOKED IN THE MIRROR AT TIMES AND SAID, ‘I HATE YOU’” JENNA MCDOUGALL
I dealt with it with a lot of pain and privacy.”
After multiple calls to doctors for help with any kind of diagnosis, something amazing happened.
“My body had something to express and amazingly it left my body once the record was finished,” she says. “the album has taken me on a ride, and I’ve felt a huge shift in myself.”
The past 18 months have witnessed a drastic, positive change in Jenna’s outlook on life as she’s weathered her own storm.you can hear it in her voice; she’s calm, yet confident. It takes her a moment to gather her thoughts when asked what she’s learned on this personal journey.
“I’ve learned that in the past I’ve suffocated my potential,” she says. “i’ve learned that I hold myself back and should hold myself accountable for that. The potential already exists; it’s just about me grabbing it, accepting it and living it. I think I’m coming to my power, coming into my womanhood, and I think I’m only scraping the surface of that right now.”
It’s a far cry from the young woman who only a few years ago could barely come to terms with the person staring back at her. In the song The Other, she sings:‘ i see a woman in the mirror / But she’s not in my reflection.’
“I’ve looked in the mirror a lot of times and have said,‘ i hate you,’” she explains. “I’ve looked in the mirror thinking, ‘You are pathetic, what are you doing to yourself?’”
So what do you see when you look in the mirror now?
“I see a person I don’t want to change,” she brightens. “the reason why I changed my image so much in the past was because I didn’t feel like my physical self was an expression of my true self. I don’t feel like there’s anything I need to shun or neglect or abandon or criticise anymore. there’s a lot more self-acceptance. I just want to enhance and advance. Keep progressing.”
This process of painful self-evaluation and a steadfast refusal to give in has birthed Tonight Alive’s most confident body of work yet. whakaio may have recently parted amicably from his bandmates – “He was the heartbeat of the band and thrived in the studio,” she says – but at this point, if the past two years couldn’t derail the band, then it seems that nothing will.
“I think the lyrics in Burning On sum up the record: ‘you’ve spent your life avoiding pain / But beauty lies in that which is not safe,’” Jenna explains. “It’s sort of me talking about risk taking and trusting the universe. Last year, someone said to me, ‘you have to stand in the fire,’ meaning you have to feel the pain and know it. that’s the only way you can learn from it.you have to see it through.”
TONIGHT ALIVE’S UNDERWORLD IS RELEASED ON JANUARY 12 THROUGH HOPELESS. THE BAND TOUR THE UK IN MARCH – SEE THE GIG GUIDE FOR INFO
Jenna Mcdougall (vocals)
Cameron Adler (bass)
Jake Hardy (guitar)
Matt Best (drums)