Don’t look back

Australians don’t go in much for pat sentiment. With sandy wit, Waifs singer Vikki Thorn tells Xpress just how profoundly the experience of having two children in two years influenced her art.

Americana from Down Under: Originally from Australia, The Waifs are Bob Dylan-approved folk rockers. Photo by Jason Ierace

“My creative processes came to a dead stop,” she says with a deep laugh.

Then again, long before Thorn and sister Donna Simpson put their band on ice to marry American men and embrace domestic life, a grinding schedule and too much togetherness was wreaking emotional and physical havoc on the folk-rock trio, songwriters all (their third steady member is Josh Cunningham, who’s still based Down Under).

In the mid-‘90s, The Waifs began to blow up in their native country, a rise that culminated with the triple-platinum-selling, award-bedecked 2003 album Up All Night.

“It was a very intense time, both personally and career-wise,” says Thorn. “We were enjoying the fact that we had this massive success in Australia, and Donna had a hit song [the evocative ‘London Still’] that we were having to do a lot of media promotion for. But we were working too hard. We had lived together for 12 years, sharing houses and touring in minivans … and Donna and I never got along that well anyway,” she reveals with another laugh.

“Internally,” she says, “it was collapsing.”

The Band’s Levon Helm continues his miraculous comeback

“Just give him a Grammy,” sighed New York Magazine‘s Karen Schoemer, the first reporter granted an in-person interview with Levon Helm upon last fall’s release of his victory-over-throat-cancer album Dirt Farmer.

OK—done. In February, in one of those rare instances when the Grammy-givers get it right, The Band’s inveterate drummer/singer picked up a statue for Dirt Farmer: 2008’s Best Traditional Folk Album. The disc is nothing if not traditional, a tuneful return to the cotton-farming beginnings of the Arkansas-raised Helm, ironically the sole U.S.-born member of a Canadian act whose influence over American roots rock is almost too embedded to analyze.

Although he’s declined most interviews since his Grammy coup, Helm will make his first MerleFest appearance this weekend, playing a brief show on the Cabin Stage with obliquely referenced “special guests.” The bill is a good fit of performer with festival, especially since Dirt Farmer leans heavily toward covers of mountain music. Harmonizing on some tracks with his daughter Amy (of old-time act Ollabelle), Helm uses every grain of his compromised voice to honor his hardscrabble childhood. As Now Toronto reporter Tim Perlich pointed out: “It’s going to take more than a few malignant tumors to stop tough hombres like … Helm.”

 

Enter Bob Dylan, who tuned into the Waifs when they opened for his band in Australia. Delighted by their breeze-in-the-desert take on Americana, he asked them to join him on his 2003 tour of the States and Canada.

Buoyed by this honor, the Waifs dipped into Dylan’s limelight—an experience Thorn describes as “intense and surreal.” For a while, the excitement sustained the band’s faltering dynamic. But while Thorn concedes that jamming with Dylan “was a great thing for the band, particularly as it raised our profile and exposure in America,” she dares to confess that Bob played second fiddle to another man.

“At the same time, I had just met my [now-]husband and was falling in love. Now I wish I had gotten to experience the weight of [the Dylan tour] on its own—but my head and heart were not really there.”

It wasn’t till afterward—a couple of kids afterward, in fact—that Thorn fully appreciated what she calls the “magnitude” of the situation.

“One day I was sitting at home nursing one of my children and the [1967 Bob Dylan documentary] Don’t Look Back was on TV. I’m sitting there watching it and realizing, ‘Oh my goodness, I played music with this man … I sang with him.’”

The day Xpress interviewed the Waifs singer, Dylan became the first nonclassical or jazz composer to be awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize. And Thorn admits that her band’s stint with rock royalty “was a hard thing to overcome.” An EP here and a benefit concert there were all that marked the intervening years. But last fall’s Sun Dirt Water heralded a fresh, triumphant return. The album sounds more jubilant than road-worn, although a little tarry, Tom Waits-ish grit rumbles through the first two tracks. Lucinda Williams is an ever-present influence, especially in Cunningham’s “How Many Miles,” which sounds startlingly like Williams’ take on Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel.”

The glove-tight harmonies of Thorn and Simpson continue to distinguish the Waifs. But the sisters’ voices have matured, sounding more golden and less, well, waifish. Long roads traveled and lots of lessons learned could explain the change in timbre. But Thorn goes a simpler route. “My vocal range and tone improved after I gave birth,” she says, “and my voice got deeper.”

Now that the initial postpartum writer’s block is over, she credits motherhood for making her a better singer. “It definitely increases your capacity for joy, so maybe I’m just more comfortable with myself now,” Thorn offers. “Or maybe it’s a hormonal thing. But people notice a difference.”

Despite distance (they live in different states), domesticity and the vagaries of fame, it’s one sure thing she shares with her sister: “Donna says the same thing happened to her,” Thorn says. Sounds right.


who:21st Annual MerleFest
what:The largest folk festival in the United States
where:The grounds of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro (near Boone)
when:Thursday, April 24, through Sunday, April 27 (the Waifs play two shows: Thursday from 7:40 to 8:05 p.m. on the Cabin Stage and Friday from 1:45 to 2:30 p.m. on the Watson Stage. Levon Helm and The Ramble—with special guests—play Saturday from 10:15 to 11:30 p.m. on the Cabin Stage. Tickets range from day passes to inclusive packages with amenities. www.merlefest.org or 800-343-7857)

 

 

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