En route to Italy last year in order to settle my dead fatherâs estate, I detoured through Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. A particularly fun haunt for white collar drunkenness during daylight hours was the so-called âFamousâ Spiegeltent, in which fabulously talented musicians such as Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, Paul Capsis and The Waifs chose to play.
I tried to use my Festival Media Pass and what ABC NewsRadio bona fides I could manage in order to wrangle entry to the Waifs' gig plus maybe land an interview thereafter. The âfriend-of-a-friendâ network paid off as far as the performance was concerned. As for the interview, however, I was told beforehand that Donna would be happy to submit to my questioning, but it would cost me a bacardi-and-coke. By the end of the show, her price had risen to a double. When I got backstage, she laughed and said she hadnât really been serious, but accepted the drink. Iâm glad. Through the course of the interview, where I traced biography in order to set up a question, I casually informed Donna that her dad had died some time after heâd taught her to play guitar, which is why she and her sister set off across Australia in a campervan. âThatâs so funny,â Donna insisted, laughing. It turns out that Mr Simpson was in fact alive and well. âYouâve got to promise to keep that in the interview.â In hindsight, I realise that I was probably ascribing to Donna and Vikkiâs lives the plot of a later episode of Sea Change. Scoff if you may, but there was a time when I consumed music and music journalism the same way I consumed television: ripped to the gills!
This piece would have gone to air about the time the Waifs returned to Australia last year â some time in September â by which time I was eating my own body weight in pasta three times a day in the South of Italy. Naturally, the interview was punctuated with excerpts from the song âLondon Stillâ.
The reason the piece is included here now is in order to bring attention to the Waifsâ tour of Australia from April 1-10, in the hope that I may thereby wrangle a ticket to their Sydney show (on at the Enmore Theatre, in case you're wondering). âFriend-of-a-friendâ network, donât fail me now!
Oh, I guess I should mention that I took photographs of the gig with my then-brand new toy, a digital camera. These toys arenât designed to operate under stage lights, hence the need to turn some of the lesser photos into âpsychedelic mini-postersâ. With the flash, there was just too much light. But enough disclaimersâ¦
Music: âLondon Stillâ â The Waifs
Demetrius Romeo: How did you and your sister come to music?
DONNA SIMPSON: We started just playing when we were fifteen or sixteen and just really loved playing around Albany â our home town in Western Australia â in tennis clubs and pubs. Pretty much the day Vikki finished school, I bought an old campervan and went and picked her up. It had psychedelic yellow fluff through the roof.
Demetrius Romeo: At some point you picked up a third member of the band.
DONNA SIMPSON: Yeah, we found Josh up in Broome playing bass in a rock ânâ roll band. He kinda liked our sound so we auditioned him for five minutes and he joined.
Demetrius Romeo: Was it a big change to go from a duo to a trio?
DONNA SIMPSON: Not at all. It was really exciting to have a guy on the road touring with us. It was all about traveling back then; it wasnât about the music. We wanted to travel around Australia. Everyone else was picking fruit and waitressing and we just thought, you know, âhell, we can sing, so weâll get this guy as wellâ¦â and we just kept going. It was really more about the traveling in those early days.
Demetrius Romeo: Was it perceived as âweirdâ by friends and family for you to just go off into the night in a campervan and not be seen again?
DONNA SIMPSON: It was, because weâre from a pretty small town. I used to see cars from Victoria come through our town with a different number plate and Iâd look at them and think, âgee, I really want to be doing that one day â have a different number plate. Theyâre so cool, theyâre travelingâ¦â It was kind of scary; weâd never driven in traffic lights before, weâd never seen a McDonalds. I was twenty-two years old and Iâd never done any of that. It was kind of scary and exhilarating. We didnât stray too far from home in the beginning, just went four hundred kilometres away, and then just kept heading north. Everyone was freaking a bit. We were getting all sorts of gigs in biker bars, and then we went up all through the mining sites, up through the Kimberley region. Through the zinc minds and diamond minds in Argyle. It was incredible.
Music: âLondon Stillâ â The Waifs
Demetrius Romeo: So much of your music speaks of travel. A lot of it has the railroad motif with the harmonica that is common to those forms of music, be they folk or blues or even country. How much does it inform your music?
DONNA SIMPSON: Mate, weâve been on the road for eleven years; this is pretty much all we know. Itâs been a long time. This is our life and this is what we do, and I donât think any of us can write about anything that weâre not experiencing, weâre quite honest songwriters in that sense.
Demetrius Romeo: You have one of the few distinguishing attributes for a support band that has opened for Bob Dylan, in that youâre about to do it for a third time. Heâs asked you onto a third tour. Tell me about it from your perspective.
DONNA SIMPSON: Itâs surreal, in a way, to be totally honest. Iâm a huge Bob Dylan fan, always have been, and being from the town that Iâm from, country Western Australia â somewhere where youâd see people on TV and never ever think theyâre real or listen to records without thinking that these people exist â and then to be touring with Bob, itâs such an honour. We just feel so blessed to have this tour. And then again, weâve worked really, really hard. And I prayed so hard when I was fifteen years old to get this tour. Iâm thirty-three now and itâs coming through!
Demetrius Romeo: Have you had the opportunity to jam with him yet?
DONNA SIMPSON: Yeah, we sang âKnockinâ On Heavenâs Doorâ with him in North Carolina. About a month ago Vikki and I got dragged onto the stage. He said, [assuming gruff, Dylanesque growl] âget the girls!â So we came onto stage and tried to sing the âooohsâ with a big grin on our faces. Itâs hard to sing âooohâ with a smile.
Demetrius Romeo: âHomeâ is an interesting concept when youâre always on the road and youâre engaging with so many communities and youâre singing about all these places that youâre visiting and itâs imbuing itself into your music. Is Australia still âhomeâ for you?
DONNA SIMPSON: Absolutely. I love it. Even though we spend most of our time away and Iâm actually based somewhere else now, Australia will always be home. Always. Itâs in my blood. The smell, the plants. I know the land. I come over here [Scotland] and I get into the mountains and I wouldnât know how to survive. But in Australia I know the snakes and the spiders and all the plants and the orchids and the bush. We grew up pretty much in the bush. To have dirt on your feet again is really nice.
Music: âLondon Stillâ â The Waifs