‘There’s a certain alchemy to this band’: The Waifs’ Donna Simpson looks back on 20 years of their seminal album ‘Up All Night’

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‘There’s a certain alchemy to this band’: The Waifs’ Donna Simpson looks back on 20 years of their seminal album ‘Up All Night’

The Waifs are one of Australia's most beloved bands, and this year they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their seminal album 'Up All Night'.

Wonder if you can pick up my accent on the phone / When I call across the country, when I call across the world / I see you in my kitchen, I can picture you now / As you toast to your small town when you drink the happy hour

I’m in London still… 

Twenty years ago, that opening line of Australian trio The Waifs’ 2002 single ‘London Still’ entered the music-loving hearts of people across the nation where it’s firmly remained ever since.

The heartfelt, plucked ode to missing home “resonated with every Australian that has ever found themselves in a far-flung, cold place somewhere across the globe”. It caught the ears of the mainstream and youth radio station triple j, who threw it onto high rotation and catapulted Josh Cunningham and sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson into the spotlight. 

Keep up with the latest music news, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

The success of ‘London Still’ paved the way for the following singles ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’, ‘Lighthouse’, ‘Highway One’ and ultimately the band’s 2003 LP ‘Up All Night, which debuted at #3 on the ARIA charts and won four ARIA Awards for Best Blues and Roots Album, Best Independent Album, Engineer of The Year and Producer of The Year for Chris Thompson.

“It’s funny because when the album [Up All Night] came out, everyone was calling us the New Kids on the Block; a breakthrough band and yet we’d been around for 13 years before that,” the band’s Donna Simpson shares.

“We’d just been doing it independently, and we still are independent, but that album just had a breakthrough on commercial radio and that’s what was like the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, that’s what tipped it over the edge for us. 

“I had a guy that I used to flat with come over to my house the other week and he said, ‘Oh, Don, that album got me through my teenage years’. He said, ‘I was 14 and that was everyone’s favourite Australian album when we were young’.

“It just meant so much. Everyone was listening to it and we weren’t savvy to it. And we never have really been, you know, we hear people’s stories about it, but it still doesn’t cease to amaze us.” 

With the release of Up All Night, 2003 went on to become an unforgettable year for the band comprising of sold-out international headline tours, being the first Australian band to play New Orleans Jazz Festival, touring with Bob Dylan in Australia and the USA and being named in Rolling Stone’s ‘Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll’ story, that cited their independence and mainstream success as a game changer for musicians in the future.

Recorded between LA and Melbourne, with Canadian producer Mark Howard – (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, U2, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, REM), and beloved ARIA Award-winning Australian producer, Chris Thompson, Up All Night was actually the band’s fourth album, having already released three LPs, self-titled The Waifs (1996), Shelter Me (1998) and Sink or Swim (2000). 

At the time, it found the trio at their most rootsy yet, wedding elemental themes of loss and loneliness to burnished soulful music with the rough edges intact. 

Arriving as the band’s fourth album, Simpson credit’s its success to their tireless touring ahead of its recording. Constant touring laid a broad foundation, musical chemistry, and an approachable relatability through their lyrics solidified a lifelong, dedicated fan base.

“We’d been touring for ages, doing seven months tours and nine months tours all through the US and by this stage, these songs were really honed, they’d already grown to their fruition. 

“Sometimes when you do a new album, and this is what I always regret, you’ve got to write some new songs, but it takes a couple of years, or at least a year of playing them live for them to evolve and grow into their right spot.

“So with these songs on Up All Night we’d already done that. We’d been road-touring these songs heaps and so they’d already found their place when we went to record them. 

“We’ve had so much time to get these ones right whereas I don’t think we’ve done that with any other album since.”

Now, two decades on from the iconic album release, The Waifs are heading out on an extensive Australian tour spanning from June to September, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ‘Up All Night’. 

“It shocked me,” Simpson says on the 20th anniversary tour idea, “because I never knew how old that album was. I mean, time just flies and it was a beautiful, significant part in our lives, but I just never knew it had been that long.

“It’s a pretty nostalgic thing to do,” she continues. “It takes me back to what I was wearing, what I was doing, who I was dating and the festivals that we played at when the album broke through. All those little things that I’d sort of forgotten about, you know?

“The excitement of hearing your song on the radio so much. You’re doing your grocery shopping for the week and there’s your song playing throughout Woolies. Every shop you went into ‘London Still’ was playing.”

While fans can expect to hear the iconic ‘London Still’, the tour will see The Waifs deliver a plethora of other story telling masterpieces, performing the album in full and a sprinkling of fan favourites as a five-piece band, performing with the musicians who had a hand in making the iconic record. 

“I’m really excited to revisit the nostalgia overall. People say ‘don’t you get sick of certain songs?’. There are artists that I go and see and they just wouldn’t play your favorite songs but I’m still not sick of these songs. I still love ‘London Still’, I still love ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’. I still love ‘Lighthouse’ and I love playing all those songs.

“But then there’s all these other songs on the album that we’ll play because we are going to do it from top to bottom,” she adds. 

“There’s all these songs that we hadn’t played in many, many years. Recently we all just went up and got an Airbnb up in the mid-north New South Wales coast and spent five days together with these songs. 

“I actually went in there a bit stressed and here we are playing all these songs and we just ripped into them like nothing had ever stopped. 

“There’s a certain alchemy to this band. There’s no stopping and explaining or reteaching. We all just went into it and it was all there. The harmonies came naturally and the playing; it was really beautiful and special. And I loved hearing Vicky sing the songs that she put aside for so many years, you know?”

The original road warriors, The Waifs have clearly built a career out of continually circling Australia and the globe. From bustling cities to the farthest regional and coastal towns, they have spent the past 30 years reuniting with old friends and gathering new fans thanks to their enchanting live shows and affable nature. This anniversary tour is a reflection of this, spanning 44 dates across every corner of the nation. 

The Waifs announce ‘Up All Night’ 20th anniversary Australian tour

Swapping tour buses for plane tickets, checked luggage and a minivan, the tour is set to be a real special celebration of the band’s history, with special guests joining them along the way, including the likes of Josh Pyke, Mick Thomas, Jeff Lang, Liz Stringer, Felicity Urquhart, and more. 

There will also be a special Melbourne appearance by multiple ARIA Award winner Missy Higgins, who supported the original Up All Night album tour in 2003.

The first time Missy opened for us, I think it was in Melbourne, I walked out and I saw this young girl on the piano playing and I remember saying, ‘she will never open for us again. She’s too good, this girl is too good.’ 

“And then she went upstairs and because she wasn’t used to touring, she drank our rider with all her friends,” Simpson laughs. 

“It’ll be great to have Mick Thomas on tour as well. He’s always been really supportive of our music and, and Wedding, Parties, Anything took us under their wing around Australia and we feel forever in getting to them for that. That was amazing and that was before we recorded Up All Night so it really gave us a pretty solid fan base, which was lovely.”

From their beginning in a van in 1992, playing gigs anywhere in Australia that would have them, The Waifs have become an enduring presence in the Australian music industry with multiple ARIA Awards, platinum albums and successful tours across the world. And still, they continue to forge a proudly independent path 30 years on and show no sign of slowing down. 

“This is our thing. Our celebration. It’s a well deserved celebration and it’ll be quite a nostalgic one too.” 

Tickets are on sale now. Head here for full touring dates, tickets and more details.

The Waifs Victorian Dates 2023

Wed 31 May – Queenscliff Town Hall, Queenscliff

Thu 1 June – Queenscliff Town Hall, Queenscliff

Fri 2 June – Ballarat Civic Hall, Ballarat
With special guest Jeff Lang

Sat 3 June – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
With special guests Jeff Lang & Missy Higgins

Sun 4 June – Riverlinks Westside Theatre, Shepparton
With special guest Jeff Lang

Wed 7 June – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan

Thu 9 June – Northcote Theatre, Melbourne

Fri 9 June – Gippsland Performing Arts Centre, Traralgon

Sat 10 June – Burrinja Cultural Centre,  Upwey

Sun 11 June – Capitol Theatre, Bendigo

Tue 13 June – Lighthouse, Warrnambool