Latest release: Underworld (UNFD)Website: www.tonightalive.com
2019 has been an uncharacteristically but necessarily quiet year for Sydney-born pop punk/alterna-rockers Tonight Alive. The departure of foundation member Whakaio Taahi early last year and ceaseless touring put such pressure on the band, particularly the health of vivacious singer and lyricist Jenna McDougall, that they stepped down from all activity following their appearance at last year’s Good Things festival. Almost twelve months on, it’s a fresh and revitalised McDougall who takes the call on a sunshiny morning in Melbourne, both enjoying her first break from touring in a decade and looking forward to returning with a vengeance at January’s Unify Gathering.
Unify Gathering will be the first time you’ve really ventured out for a while, isn’t it?
I guess you could say that! It’s been a quiet year on the band front. There’s been lots of travelling and things like that in the year off, for us individually. It’s been lovely. But we haven’t been onstage for almost a year, and I’ve never, ever said that in my life. Far out!
You’re notoriously hard-working, so what’s it been like having to find something to do with yourself?
That was definitely a puzzle for a while. I’ve definitely never had to… I didn’t know how to have time that belonged to me, where nobody needed or expected anything from me. So time off has seen some lows, but it’s mostly been highs and, now, I think after a year I’ve reached a sustainable level of output and input and quiet time. Things are nicely balanced for me now, but it’s been a big moment of actually having a personal life!
Is it going to be a re-energised Tonight Alive that we see at Unify?
This is always a big festival too, so you’re really coming back with a bang.
It’s really exciting. We’ve had two previous experiences with Unify and they were both surrounding album releases, and now it’s another two years on, it’s been rather interesting after starting 2018 at Unify and then another round of touring… it’s actually bizarre for me in a way to have had this year off and not know where I was for this one, because I get pretty good at recalling things from the past by knowing what tour we were on, or what country we were in.
You’ve got some special guests appearing with you, and I’m not going to ask you who they are because I’m sure you want to surprise everyone, but whose idea was that?
Our label suggested that. I think it was a way of warming up back up and making this another Unify to celebrate, because you can play a lot of shows and they do mesh into one another, so this is a way for us to show that we really stand out. It’s something we’ve never offered out audience before, either, and I’ve been quite adamant about that in the past, about the stories that I tell with my songs and not really wanting to share them with other musicians. Not letting my stories be told through someone else’s voice. Only recently on our last record did we have songs that had guests on them, so I’m really looking forward to that. I think it’s going to be a very exciting communal, collaborative set.
Not being one to share your songs, your stories, as you’ve said, was it hard for you then to give them to someone else to perform this time?
It hasn’t happened on stage before, but on our last album, Lynn Gunn and I wrote the song Disappear together. In that way, it didn’t feel like that song belonged to me. It’s a weird thing because a lot of artists will say, ‘Once I’ve expressed myself through the arts, it belongs to the viewer’. And people say things like that, but I don’t know if it’s been a challenge for them as much as when you’re a musician and you give your songs to another person to tell through their voice – I guess it’s because they’re so personal, I can only write songs when I feel a deep calling to do so. There are so many session songwriters who can write and tell amazing stories but have no actual connection to them… I think I’ve grown out of that. I think I’ve grown out of a lot of things, having had a year off.
It’s been a decade now, so it’s interesting that you’ve decided to take that time off after ten years of slogging it out. When you come back to it, being an artist is never exactly easy is it?
No. The good thing is, when we had the 10 year anniversary last year, we just put out a record earlier in the year and even though we were one member down, and there was a massive dynamic shift, we had an amazing year. We played the last Warped tour, the cross-country Warped tour that’s been playing for like 25 years, and then we did the 10th anniversary tour and did double shows in each city in the UK, and our intention was to bring that tour to America and Australia but, we just burned out hard, basically. It was around Good Things last year where we had to make that decision to cancel the American tour and stay in the one place, and me, personally, I had to dedicate all possible time to my health and stop living my life in recovery all the time. So it had a big high and some big lows to it, last year.
You must feel fortunate that you can come back after a year away, because there’s probably some artists who aren’t in the position to be able to do that: take a year off and people just move on to something else. It validates the groundwork that you’ve done that your fans have stayed with you.
That’s a good point, and it’s still a little bit scary in a way: obviously we’ve had our fears over the year about how this might affect the direction of the band. But the thing is, we’ve put out four records and we’ve toured tirelessly since we finished high school and we’ve dedicated everything we possibly could to that connection with the fans and that quality of artistic expression. There is a lot of groundwork, and there is deep, grounded scaffolding that holds the band up and we are really emotionally connected to our fans as well. I guess when things happen at a pivotal point of your life… for a lot of our fans, we are all around the same age, so when you’re going through formative years and there’s a lot of changes and self-discovery, I think music can become really imprinted as a soundtrack to that period of your life, and I think we hold that nostalgic value to a lot of people.
A lot of your fans would be similar in age, and when a band is that close to its fans, perhaps both the fans and the band follow the same progression, because you share the same age bracket and often a similar outlook.
I find myself inspired when I go online to just see what’s happening on mine or the band’s pages on Instagram, which I don’t do often, but it’s always inspiring to see people sharing their journeys of self-discovery, or health, or a crisis, or coming out… all kinds of things: we have a lot of fans that are vegan activists, which is something I’m inspired by. There are a lot of people who are sharing things in the community of our fans that I find really inspiring. We had a fan who started talking about her eating disorder and raising awareness of bulimia, and it’s actually what inspired me to start talking about my experience with an eating disorder, and we put out a song called Temple that touched on that. I find that our fans are taking our message and running with it and then getting ahead of me and allowing me to see an example of people that are so fiercely dedicated to their self-improvement that it keeps me going, as well.
It must be great for you to be inspiring these fans to tell their stories, but it must also be special for you to see a fan from whom you can take inspiration because it feels more like a two-way street. Rather than you just being the artist, and that’s one of the amazing things about the artistic process is the way that it ends up being a feedback loop.
That’s really true. We’ve been really lucky to feel that way over the years, and even though we haven’t been on tour I get to follow along on peoples’ journey through that online platform. Which I do tend to write off quite a lot as a contributing factor to poor mental health. It’s probably had its negative effect on me, but if you can use it as a tool for discovery and expression then I think that’s really positive.
Tonight Alive will be appearing at Unify Gathering in January.