En route to Italy last year in order to settle my dead father’s estate, I detoured through Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. A particularly fun haunt for white collar drunkenness during daylight hours was the so-called ‘Famous’ 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 ‘friend-of-a-friend’ 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 hadn’t really been serious, but accepted the drink. I’m 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 he’d taught her to play guitar, which is why she and her sister set off across Australia in a campervan. “That’s so funny,” Donna insisted, laughing. It turns out that Mr Simpson was in fact alive and well. “You’ve got to promise to keep that in the interview.” In hindsight, I realise that I was probably ascribing to Donna and Vikki’s 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 – some time in September – 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 ‘London Still’.
The reason the piece is included here now is in order to bring attention to the Waifs’ 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). ‘Friend-of-a-friend’ network, don’t 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 aren’t designed to operate under stage lights, hence the need to turn some of the lesser photos into ‘psychedelic mini-posters’. With the flash, there was just too much light. But enough disclaimers…
Music: ‘London Still’ – 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 – our home town in Western Australia – 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 ’n’ 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 wasn’t about the music. We wanted to travel around Australia. Everyone else was picking fruit and waitressing and we just thought, you know, ‘hell, we can sing, so we’ll get this guy as well…’ and we just kept going. It was really more about the traveling in those early days.
Demetrius Romeo: Was it perceived as ‘weird’ 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 we’re from a pretty small town. I used to see cars from Victoria come through our town with a different number plate and I’d look at them and think, ‘gee, I really want to be doing that one day – have a different number plate. They’re so cool, they’re traveling…’ It was kind of scary; we’d never driven in traffic lights before, we’d never seen a McDonalds. I was twenty-two years old and I’d never done any of that. It was kind of scary and exhilarating. We didn’t 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: ‘London Still’ – 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, we’ve been on the road for eleven years; this is pretty much all we know. It’s been a long time. This is our life and this is what we do, and I don’t think any of us can write about anything that we’re not experiencing, we’re 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 you’re about to do it for a third time. He’s asked you onto a third tour. Tell me about it from your perspective.
DONNA SIMPSON: It’s surreal, in a way, to be totally honest. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, always have been, and being from the town that I’m from, country Western Australia – somewhere where you’d see people on TV and never ever think they’re real or listen to records without thinking that these people exist – and then to be touring with Bob, it’s such an honour. We just feel so blessed to have this tour. And then again, we’ve worked really, really hard. And I prayed so hard when I was fifteen years old to get this tour. I’m thirty-three now and it’s coming through!
Demetrius Romeo: Have you had the opportunity to jam with him yet?
DONNA SIMPSON: Yeah, we sang ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ with him in North Carolina. About a month ago Vikki and I got dragged onto the stage. He said, [assuming gruff, Dylanesque growl] ‘get the girls!’ So we came onto stage and tried to sing the ‘ooohs’ with a big grin on our faces. It’s hard to sing ‘oooh’ with a smile.
Demetrius Romeo: ‘Home’ is an interesting concept when you’re always on the road and you’re engaging with so many communities and you’re singing about all these places that you’re visiting and it’s imbuing itself into your music. Is Australia still ‘home’ for you?
DONNA SIMPSON: Absolutely. I love it. Even though we spend most of our time away and I’m actually based somewhere else now, Australia will always be home. Always. It’s in my blood. The smell, the plants. I know the land. I come over here [Scotland] and I get into the mountains and I wouldn’t 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: ‘London Still’ – The Waifs