The Waifs

The three members of Australian folk group The Waifs clearly had a date with destiny or, to be more precise, with Bob Dylan, whose classic “The Times They Are A-Changin'” was the first song Donna Simpson learned to play on guitar.

Sisters Donna and Vikki Simpson, along with Joshua Cunningham, all learned to play from the Dylan songbook as youngsters. Since then, they’ve managed to parlay a little luck, a lot of talent, and a knack for excellent timing into being hand-picked by their hero to open selected dates on his current U.S. tour.

“I think he has just been a favorite artist of most kids when they pick up a guitar and started strumming away,” Donna told POLLSTAR from a hotel room in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“It was his songs that you could learn to play easily and sort of relate to.”

They also picked up a bit of songcraft from the master, too, it seems. The Waifs’ latest album, Up All Night, is chock full of songs that are by turn confessional and intimate, humorous and catchy.

All three members are accomplished songwriters (the band tours with an additional guitarist and drummer) and all write separately; you won’t find a lot of lyrical collaborations. Each admits to requiring privacy to write, which is not that easy to find on the road.

“I know I tend to go out and find an old shack in the bush somewhere, or I went on a house float in Canada this year to do my writing,” Donna explained. “I really need to get away from everything.”

And sometimes that means from the rest of the band.

“We have this favorite saying that if Donna and I weren’t sisters, we would have bailed out years ago,” Vikki said, with a laugh. “We wouldn’t have lasted the distance. It sort of gives a license to kill.

“But the 90 minutes we step on stage each night and sing, it’s a different level of communication that goes on between us.”

It’s not always easy. Donna confessed to having developed a bit of a writer’s block recently on the road. “I used to be able to write on the road but I can’t seem to do that at the moment,” she said.

Fortunately, Vikki and Joshua have adapted quite well to the art of road poetry.

“The second track on [Up All Night] was written in a hotel bathroom,” Cunningham said. “There’s another song, ‘Fourth Floor,’ that was written in a park. I was watching a lady up on the fourth floor of an apartment building doing some gardening in a small window box and a song just appeared.”

It’s been about 10 years since Cunningham, who previously was with a band hailing from New South Wales, and the Simpson sisters, from the southern fishing town of Albany, Western Australia, decided to join forces after crossing paths on tour.

The Waifs

“I met the two girls on the road when I was with another band,” Cunningham said. “We weren’t really looking to get involved in the industry or in the business; we were just three kids bumming around and having a good time and playing music to support that lifestyle.”

“We were playing resorts, biker bars, beer gardens, markets and fishing towns,” Donna explained.

Fans encouraged them to make a CD of their music, and with the help of Philip Stevens, who owns a nightclub and did some local promoting, they began producing and selling their own CDs out of the back of a campervan.

“We did that, and one thing just led to another and, eventually, we ended up embarking on this overseas career by way of being chosen to perform at the Folk Alliance convention in Vancouver a couple of years ago,” Cunningham said.

It’s been a gradual climb for The Waifs and for Stevens, too, who became the group’s manager after it became obvious the band’s popularity had grown to the point that commerce was getting in the way of art.

“I’d already been managing the John Butler Trio,” Stevens told POLLSTAR from his home in Australia. “And they were growing in popularity and touring through Australia and North America. I think the girls and Josh saw what we were all able to do together.”

What they’ve also been able to do, in addition to building a worldwide fan base, is remain independent. They have their own label, Jarrah, and they have creative control of their work.

Since being tapped as a hot newcomer at both Folk Alliance and Newport festivals last year, record labels have come calling.

“I think there’s been a few companies that have been interested, but basically our experience of being an independent band from Australia, we just cherish that control,” Cunningham said.

The labels weren’t the only ones who came calling. Festival directors booked them at such prestigious showcases as the Kerrville and Newport folk fests, where they wowed fans.

The Waifs, by their own account, have been used to spending about half the year in North America and the other half downunder.

But with their current North American tour already extended once with the Bob Dylan opening slot and likely expand further, the times certainly are a-changin’ for The Waifs.