Indie-folk Australian trio The Waifs back on the road after touring with Dylan
Donna Simpson, singer-songwriter-guitarist for Australia’s endearing indie folk band The Waifs first learned to play guitar in 1985 at age 15 from her dad, “a classic campfire style guitarist … [and] … fisherman,” as she describes him on The Waifs’ Web site (www.thewaifs.com). The first song Simpson learned was Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'.”
Late last year, Dylan asked The Waifs—Simpson and her fellow singer-songwriter-guitarist, her sister Vikki (who also plays a mean harmonica), and their friend Josh Cunningham—to go on tour with him as his opening band. It was a nice match, with The Waifs matching Dylan’s storytelling style with their own brand of lyric-heavy songwriting, mixing their Aussie sense of humor with a blend of funky modern folk, sweet harmonies and even a little country twang.
I spoke to Simpson recently on the phone from her Minneapolis-St.Paul home, where she has lived for the past six months. Simpson, who grew up in Albany, a little fishing town on the coast of Western Australia, moved to the Twin Cities for “Love. I wouldn’t live this far from the ocean if I didn’t have to.” She lives with American singer-songwriter-guitarist Ben Weaver, with whom she toured recently in Europe “drumming on an old mailbox with brushes. … It was awesome. I loved it!” Simpson was busy “madly packing, even as we talk,” getting ready to begin her Waifs tour that will be stopping at the Sierra Nevada Big Room.
“I’m sharpening all my pencils,” she informs me in a charming Aussie accent. “My eye pencils, my writing pencils. … I mean, when do you get to sit down and sharpen all your pencils? Only during an interview.”
It occurs to me to ask Simpson if she’s the funniest person in the band. “No, Dave [MacDonald, the drummer in The Waifs’ touring band]. He’s the funniest. ‘Zen Ben’ [Ben Franz, bassist], he’s the calm one. You know, if Ben ever snaps, we’d know something was wrong. … Now I’m picking dog hair off the rug. I’ve got this Siberian husky who sheds a lot. Her name’s Lucky. She’s bloody lucky I let her sit on the carpet!”
“Do you take Lucky on tour with you?” I ask.
“No, she stays with friends…”
“Do you ever feel guilty and buy her presents when you’re out on the road?”
“No. She’s a dog.”
“Have you ever written a song about Lucky?”
“No. She’s a dog.”
So what was it like being on tour opening for her longtime hero Bob Dylan?
“I was drunk for most of it. I don’t remember most of it,” Simpson told me matter-of-factly. Being born in Australia and knowing how they love their beer, I asked if she was a beer drinker. “No, hard liquor. … Well, not any more…”
Periods of alcohol-induced amnesia notwithstanding, Simpson does seem to remember quite a bit about touring with Dylan. “The best thing was being able to tour with him and hear him play every night. It’s a serious thing opening up for someone big like that. … It was a big honor to tour with him. I wish I was still on that tour.”
Asked if it ever became “just another gig,” Simpson pointedly replied, “It never, ever became just another gig because every night you were opening for Bob Dylan! He never plays the same set. It’s a different show every night. He is a modern-day Picasso. He’s just brilliant!”
Simpson is looking forward to coming to play in California, “the happy state,” as she calls it, where The Waifs have played “a lot” for “all those happy Californians. It’s a shock! Oh my God—these people are so vibrant. They seem so happy!” Simpson is particularly excited about playing in Chico for the first time ever, partly because she is looking forward to getting a massage from well-known local masseuse Weezie Campbell, whom Simpson knows from the festival circuit.
“As soon as I found out I was playing in Chico, I was like, ‘Oh my God! Weezie!' She gives great massages. … I got a bit greedy once and had two in one day!"