Together in song

Aussie folkies reunite for first album and U.S. tour in four years

The Waifs: (from left) Donna Simpson, Josh Cunningham and Vikki Thorn.

The Waifs: (from left) Donna Simpson, Josh Cunningham and Vikki Thorn.

PHOTO by jarrad seng

Chico Performances presents The Waifs Tuesday, Aug. 25, 7:30 p.m., at Laxson Auditorium.
Tickets: $13-$29
Laxson Auditorium
Chico State

Chicoans had grown accustomed to indie-folk band The Waifs making a stop in town or at a nearby summer festival nearly every year, but the upcoming appearance as the opening act of the new Chico Performances season comes in the middle of the band’s first North American tour in four years. Live shows, not to mention rehearsals and recording, have been few and far between as of late for the Australian-born band.

“Donna’s living back in Australia, Josh is between California and Australia, and David lives in Eastern Canada in the bushes,” explained vocalist/guitarist Vikki Thorn about her bandmates as she answered questions from her current home in Utah.

The Waifs’ core members—Thorn, vocalist/guitarist Josh Cunningham and vocalist/guitarist (and Thorn’s sister) Donna Simpson—have been together for 23 years, and along with their regular rhythm section (drummer David Ross MacDonald and bassist Ben Fraz), they’ve weathered a few peaks and valleys in activity over that time. But with homes and growing families spread across the globe, it’s getting harder to bring everyone together.

“After finishing a tour in 2011, we felt a little tired. No phone calls were exchanged; we just stopped really. That was the third time I had not performed for that length of time with the band,” said Thorn. “However, it was a really important time for me to connect with my kids and become a mother and learn how to maintain a house and do all the things a mother does.”

Nonetheless, in 2014, the band members reunited for an Australian tour and, finding themselves in the same country at the same time, decided to do a new recording. They ended up in the coastal town of Byron Bay with American producer Nick DiDia (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam) and recorded their first album since 2011’s Temptation, the just-released Beautiful You (on the band’s own Jarrah Records).

For the new recording, the three songwriters—who normally write separately, bringing individual songs to the group—decided to get the creative juices flowing by trying something different.

“Before we went into the studio … I asked the band, ‘Why don’t we write an album together (which we had never done before) and collaborate?’ Eventually, we rented a little beach house in Australia and sat around the kitchen table and really didn’t know what to do. It actually got a little tense since we hadn’t seen each other in three years.”

With the new collaborative approach not working out as planned, it took one member going off solo again to get them back on track.

“At one point, Donna stormed out and wrote ‘Beautiful You’ and from there it took off. Sometimes in this group the motivation is little competition between songwriters.”

The result is an album that again features the three songwriters bringing their own tunes to the table, but this time with a more even disbursement of credits, with four from Simpson, three from Cunningham and five from Thorn.

The album features many standout folk and Americana-tinged numbers, such as the title track and Simpson’s harmonica-soaked ballad “When a Man Gets Down,” which showcases her phrasing and vocal skills.

Conversely, on the pretty and evocative “Black Dirt Track,” one of the album’s strongest numbers, Thorn reminisces about a special place from her childhood: “Black dirt track/Bare brown feet/Child’s a girl/with secrets to keep.”

“It was the summer camp where my grandfather and father grew up,” Thorn explained about the song. “There’s a black dirt track that goes into the fishing camp called Cozy Corner.”

While the band tours America (and soon Australia) in support of Beautiful You, Thorn remains enthusiastic about playing music on a more consistent basis and contributing even more songs to upcoming albums. “It feels like I only started writing a lot more songs in the last five years,” she said.

We’ll wait. We’re used to it.