“It was like taking a psychology course, really challenging and incredibly emotional” - hmv.com talks to Tonight Alive
Australian pop punkers Tonight Alive are aiming for the big time with their turbo charged new album Limitless. Ahead of the album’s release we sat down with singer Jenna McDougall and guitarist Whakaio Taahi to find out all about the album’s painful creation, how producer David Bendeth pushed the band to their very limits and why this is an LP all about growth...
When was the first song written for ‘Limitless’?
Jenna: “Right at the end of 2013. We wrote ‘The Greatest’ at the start of 2014 and I think that’s the second oldest song on the album. Wow, it’ll already be two years old by the time it comes out! There’s been a lot of changes in that time though, we grew and evolved a lot, we’re a lot better songwriters now and a lot of the songs on the album are from the end of our writing sessions rather than the stuff at the beginning.”
Where was the album written? At home or in various hotel rooms?
Whakaio: “It was written everywhere. The first bunch were on tour, we had 14 songs and we ditched all of them. Then we had ‘The Greatest’ and ‘To Be Free’ and then we worked with some other people and went on these writing trips, we wrote a lot.”
Jenna: “I did get sick of writing, because we did so much of it. But occasionally we’d come up with a song that felt like a statement and that would remind me why we did this, why we’re in love with music.”
Was it painful to scrap those songs at the start?
Whakaio: “Not at all. It all felt like a journey to get to where we are now. We weren’t fighting to keep them.”
Jenna: “Those songs were basically my fantasy songs, they were the songs I always wanted to write, they reminded me of Blink-182 and Green Day and Good Charlotte and Yellowcard and they were all references to my teenage taste. I was bummed we didn’t record them, but I knew they weren’t leaders and wouldn’t change anything for us. We couldn’t just repeat 2004 in our own way.”
You worked with David Bendeth, when did you decide on him?
Whakaio: “We were originally just supposed to do a writing session with him, but it ended up turning into a counselling session. He confronted us, asked us about our vision and what plans did we have, questions we couldn’t answer. He really cracked down on us and we knew he was the guy for us.”
Jenna: “He really pushed us, but that’s what the album required. He pushed us emotionally before he pushed us as musicians.”
Whakaio: “It was very different, we’re used to going in and smashing out songs, but he worked us. On one of the first days he just turned to Jenna and just said ‘What’s your relationship like with your father?’. We were all really shocked, but he was trying to know what makes us tick. He even said at one point “You’ve not been playing as a band, you’ve been playing songs on stage to a click track’. We needed him for this journey, for sure.”
Did that not make for a ridiculously intense way of working?
Whakaio: “It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Being best friends got us through this. A lot of bands go to David and he’s got no qualms about getting in a session player if the guy who’s there can’t play the songs.”
Jenna: “It was like taking a psychology course. It was really challenging and incredibly emotional. When we finished recording we’d either go home talking about all the things we disagreed with or we went home in silence.”
Whakaio: “He knew exactly what he was doing and where he wanted to end up. You’d end one day hating him and the next day he’d be brilliant with you. He’s given us a clear vision of what the band needs to be and how we need to go on.”
Jenna: “We need what we needed and we knew that we weren’t good enough to be the band we wanted to be yet. We’re hard workers, we’ve got no problem being pushed.”
What was the song on the album that took the most work to get right?
Jenna: “‘Oxygen’. The vocals took eight days to get right. I really feel like I got a spiritual blockage and couldn’t get it right, I have real OCD about the way I record my vocals and I just had to grind it out. It’s my favourite song on the record now, I’m glad I put the work in.”
Does the album have a unifying theme in its lyrics?
Jenna: “They are all connected, every song is the sister of the other. Some of them took a while, some came instantly. They’re all kind of pledges to yourself, I give myself advice with my lyrics, it sounds like I’m giving other people advice, but I’m giving myself advice.”
Who are the lyricists you look to?
Jenna: “Alanis Morissette, she’s my favourite, but I love Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha too. They’re both very cool writers, words of self-empowerment. I love Alanis Morissette’s vulnerability and how she’s prepared to say ‘I was wrong’ or ‘I was weak’, offering everything up.”
Finally, how much have you got planned in terms of taking the album out live?
Jenna: “Up until about September is planned and we’re thinking about after that. We like being on tour and it’s going to be a big year for us, we can’t wait to play the new songs to everybody!”