Finding inspiration in a bag of almonds
FFWD Magazine - Jennifer Abel

Posted by on 10 May 2004

The Waifs live their dreams on the road and at home - wherever that may be

Donna Simpson has Jimi Hendrix blasting from the stereo when I call her at home for our scheduled interview. In itself, this is not overly strange. "I listen to a lot of blues and reggae," says Simpson, one of three singer-songwriters at the core of Australian roots group The Waifs. What’s more unusual is the fact that Simpson can be called at home at all. After more than a decade of constant touring with her sister Vikki (also the group’s harmonica player) and stringed-instrument wizard Josh Cunningham, she’s "settled down" – as much as a touring musician can – in British Columbia. (The other Waifs still call Australia home.) Although motivated mainly by personal reasons, the decision also made logistical sense for the thirtysomething Simpson. "We’re over here 10 months of the year anyway," she explains. In fact, they’ve done so much touring on this continent that Simpson once had a Spinal Tap moment when she told a Washington, D.C. crowd how much she enjoyed being in Canada – the band had played in Toronto the night before. Many of The Waifs’ recent travels have been in the company of one of the trio’s heroes, Bob Dylan. After a two-week stint opening for Dylan and Ani DiFranco on an Australian tour, the freewheelin’ legend asked the band to join him for 26 dates in the southern U.S. this past spring. When Dylan hits the Eastern Seaboard next month, they’ll be in that coveted, yet sometimes difficult, position again. "Bob’s fans are Bob’s fans," admits Simpson, who learned to play guitar at the age of 15 when her father, a Western Australia fisherman, taught her "The Times They Are A-Changin’." "(But) a lot of them have embraced the music. We feel honoured." In addition to reaching new ears through these tours, the band has had an experience that most musicians can only dream about. They got the chance to sing "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" onstage with Dylan at a concert in North Carolina. Simpson describes the moment simply as "being in a Bob Dylan song." The Waifs’ whole career has had the feel of a Dylan tune. The band members all learned to play guitar in their teens, and music provided a means for them to explore the world beyond their rural homes. "It was never about being in a band or writing music," Simpson says. "It was about the travel." For much of their 11-year career, The Waifs were inseparable, whether they were playing remote Australian shrimp-and-strip joints or sharing a house in Melbourne. While some might think spending that much time in small spaces with a sibling would be a new circle of hell, Simpson says that working with Vikki has been easier than working with a friend, because no matter what happens, "You’re still going to have Christmas dinner together." These days, The Waifs spend their downtime apart, and it’s during those times that the bulk of the songwriting occurs. All three writers pen their own material, then bring the results back to the group. Simpson’s contributions are inextricably connected to her life experiences. "I can’t really make up a song. It sounds silly, but they just come." Simpson frequently embarks on what she calls "songwriting missions" in order to find her next work. She’ll spend a few days alone in a strange location – like a tiny, crooked stone shed in Australia or a British Columbia houseboat – and see what comes out. "You’re not worried about anything," she says about these excursions. "You really delve inside and what comes out is the truth." The delving is sometimes made easier by not taking much food along – say, only a bag of almonds and a bottle of rum. "You sort of push yourself to the edge of insanity," admits Simpson. "But don’t starve yourself." Simpson admits that having a home base in the tiny community of Tofino might change her songwriting style. "I’ll start writing about the house and the kitchen," she laughs. Nevertheless, she’s quite comfortable with the idea of having a permanent residence, complete with a kitten and herb garden. But while she’s enjoying her newfound roots, and while she suspects that the ratio of downtime to touring will increase in the future, Simpson admits that none of The Waifs really want out of life on the road. "We don’t know anything else.... This is what we do. We’re dedicated to our music and what comes with that."