The Waifs: 'We Truly Felt Like We'd Been Embraced That Day'

1 June 2023 | 12:57 pm | David James Young

"In terms of the public perspective of the band? They're still very much very attached to this narrative of the three kids who got in the van and travelled around the world playing folk music."

The Waifs

The Waifs (Supplied)

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In the opening lyrics of Fisherman's Daughter, the opening track from The Waifs' breakthrough 2003 album Up All Night, the trio set a motif through their imagery that has come to define how the world views them: “I don't like gold, and I don't like pearls/I'm just your regular Western Australian fisherman's daughter/I'm a middle-class, folk-singin', guitar-playin' girl.” No bells and whistles, nothing fancy, just a few chords and the truth – and even 20 years removed, this still largely rings true for the veteran trio.

“I've never really thought about how those are the first words you hear on that album,” says Vikki Thorn – one of two folk-singin', guitar-playin' girls in the band alongside her sister, Donna Simpson. “For me, it really does sum up The Waifs as we were. We've grown in terms of who we are as individuals but in terms of the public perspective of the band? They're still very much very attached to this narrative of the three kids who got in the van and travelled around the world playing folk music. It's still true, to an extent. We never had these big ambitions to be playing for 30 years straight. It was all for the fun of it, and that's still the true ethos of The Waifs.”

Thorn has found herself reflecting on the album as a whole of late as The Waifs prepare for an extensive national tour to commemorate its 20th anniversary. At each show, they will perform the whole album from start to finish and celebrate the music that made them a household name. Though The Waifs were largely treated as newcomers following the success of Up All Night, however, the reality of their supposed overnight success was that it was over a decade and four albums in the making. 

They originally formed out of Albany, WA in 1992, when Thorn was all of 16 and older sister Simpson was 20, and were soon after joined by lead guitarist Josh Cunningham. Though they toured frequently throughout the 90s, they were largely not met with a great deal of commercial success. As such, there were no premonitions about having written a hit single when pen hit paper for what would become the trio's signature song, London Still. With that being said, Thorn certainly sensed that things were different when that number, in particular, was committed to record.

“We had this drum beat that Dave [McDonald] came up with that really made it pop,” she recalls. 

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"We normally had a strumming guitar on every song, but on that one, we took it out and used a keyboard instead. It created this whole space, this element, that had never been in our music before. But did I think it was going to be a hit? No, absolutely not. Think about what was big on radio at the time! London Still didn't sound remotely like that. Then again, maybe that's why people were pulled towards it. It stood out. It was very spacious on the airwaves and had this contemplative feeling about it that resonated with people.”

So big was its resonance that the song went on to be voted third in the triple j Hottest 100 of 2002 – outperforming Eminem's 8 Mile anthem, Lose Yourself, and The Vines' era-defining Get Free in the process. As the countdown took place in late January 2003 – less than a fortnight after the release of Up All Night – Thorn recalls getting off a plane and heading to a Melbourne hotel, tuning in as soon as they arrived. “We were listening on the hotel's clock radio, as this was well before streaming,” she laughs. 

“We thought the song might get in the 70s or 80s. One of our songs did, actually [Highway One, at number 80], so we thought we must have missed it. It wasn't until the countdown was in the 20s that we got a call from our manager, who thought we were in with a chance and then got a call from triple j, who wanted to interview us. It was super exciting because we'd never been a mainstream band in any sense. We truly felt like we'd been embraced that day, and it's definitely a highlight of our career.”

Talk turns to Thorn's songwriting contributions to the album, which resulted in the tracks Nothing New and Three Down. Speaking of the former in particular, Thorn claims it to be “the best song I'd written up to that point”. “I didn't write a lot of songs at that time – and I didn't write a lot of good songs, either,” she quips. “I was really happy with that one, though. It's interesting... we've played it maybe twice since it came out 20 years ago, and that's because it was of a very personal nature. Wherever I was at that period of time, I got out of it pretty quickly and didn't feel like singing about it anymore. Revisiting it in preparation for this tour has been interesting, certainly. I still really appreciate it from a distance, now I'm not so close to the story behind it.”

Thorn reveals that she is fresh from four days straight of rehearsal with the full Waifs touring ensemble: herself, Simpson, Cunningham, McDonald and long-serving bassist Ben Franz. Many songs from the album are known like the back of all ten of their hands, having been played every night since the aforementioned London Still, Fisherman's Daughter and Highway One, plus the Thorn-led Lighthouse – which topped the independent singles chart and chalked up number 12 in the 2003 Hottest 100. Others, like Nothing New, have barely been touched – meaning the quintet have gone through the process of re-learning the music they made from the exact same era.

“Surprisingly, after the second run-through, it was all just muscle memory,” she says of the album's deeper cuts. “That all felt quite natural by that point – and it actually ended up being the ones we play every night that were the most interesting to us. Because we've performed them so much, they felt so far away from the original versions – we wanted to see what would happen if we pared back and got it back to how it sounded at the time. Josh has even changed the pickups in all of his guitars to get that tone, and Dave has stripped back his drum kit to the one we travelled around with at the time. We're hoping to really bring a faithful recreation of this album to everyone who's coming to see us.”

You can purchase tickets to The Waifs' upcoming Up All Night 20th Anniversary Tour here