The year was 1992. Over in Albany, a port city in Western Australia, lived two middle-class, folk-singing, guitar-playing sisters.
Long before they were in London still, Donna and Vikki Simpson were breaking out of their hometown to travel around and play whatever pub would have them. In their travels, they met a guitar player around the same age, himself chasing the dream of hitting the open road and playing music to anyone who would listen. After a ten-minute jam session, the three decided to combine their powers and become The Waifs. Little did they know this bond would last through countless tours, eight studio albums and Bob Dylan getting to know them by name.
“We really didn’t have any grand aspirations or plans for the future,” says Josh Cunningham, who plays lead guitar and sings with the trio. “We were just a bunch of kids, fresh out of high school and leaving home for the first time. We weren’t even writing songs back then, we were just playing a bunch of covers – we didn’t foresee this being a career or anything like that. It was just like an adventure to us, really. It beat picking fruit or working in a bar. Having said that, I think there was a pretty immediate knowledge among the three of us that we were going to play a very significant part in one another’s lives. We certainly didn’t plan to be around for 25 years, though – at that time, I don’t think we could have even dreamed of it.”
2017 is the 25th anniversary of The Waifs, who are among the most celebrated folk acts to ever emerge from this sunburnt country. Their time together has resulted in four ARIA wins, four consecutive top five albums and a live reputation that has inspired two separate recorded documentations of their shows, including the platinum-selling A Brief History… in 2004. It’s a given that a lot has changed in The Waifs’ world since their humble beginnings out west, but a greater curiosity may be that which has managed to stay the same.
“It might seem a little obvious,but I think the key thing that has stayed the same is the way that we write songs together,” says Cunningham. “Obviously our circumstances have changed a lot over the years – we live apart, we’re all married, some of us have kids and we spend a few seasons over in the States these days. The consistency across all these different chapters of our lives would have to be the strength of the songwriting itself. There’s a chemistry that can only come when we’re playing music together. Whatever the context of our own individual lives might be, The Waifs is something that we can always come back to.”
On the eve of their quarter century, The Waifs have released their eighth studio album. Entitled Ironbark, it’s their first album in two years and one that – according to the band itself – feels a little more homegrown. “I think that spending so much time over there [in the US] has definitely influenced the music that we’ve written – a few albums that we’ve made have had a pretty distinct Americana flavour to them,” says Cunningham.
“We’re obviously not anti-Americana; we didn’t mind sounding like that. With Ironbark, though, I think we thought it was important to get back to a more Australian sound, whatever that might mean. We recorded it here, in a very familiar setting. We had a pretty laid-back approach to it, and I think that’s reflected in the album itself.”
With Ironbark in the can, the next step is the one thing The Waifs know best: touring. They’ve got a month and a half of shows locked in across Australia, starting in their native Perth this week before crossing the Nullarbor, trekking the east coast and winding up back in Broome, where it all began, in the middle of April. Billed as An Evening With The Waifs, these shows are set to be some of their longest and most expansive, with hopes to draw from their vast discography in conjunction with brand new songs from Ironbark and, of course, all of the band’s hits.
“It’s not going to be a complete retrospective – we’re definitely going to focus in on the new material as much as we can,” says Cunningham. “That said, there are quite a few older songs that we just couldn’t get away with not playing – and a lot of them are on the first two records, so it definitely does span quite far. We might go through the archives and see if there’s anything that we haven’t played in a while that is worth resurrecting. When you’ve got so much to draw from, songs tend to come and go.
“I was talking to a guy just recently who wanted to hear us play ‘Lest We Forget’ from our second album, which used to be one of those must-play songs. We’ll definitely be taking in a lot of fan input – I think that’s definitely going to drive the selections for the setlist.”
He laughs to himself before slotting in some trivia for what might have been: “There was even a point where we were considering having a spinning wheel onstage to pick what songs we’d play, but that was pretty quickly talked down.”