Tonight Alive Aren’t Searching For A Silver Lining, And That’s OK

"I think I’ve tried to protect people my whole life by lying, or suppressing the truth, or suppressing my feelings, and that made me sick for a really long time."

Tonight Alive

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From the outside, Tonight Alive have has a seamless ascension to the top of the Australian music scene.

Formed a decade ago, the band now has four studio albums and three EPs under their belts, travelled the international festival circuit relentlessly and performed countless headlining tours — all before hitting their thirties.

While such longevity in the Aussie music scene is rare as it is, it’s even rarer for a band who skyrocketed to national and international attention during our brief but fiery emo obsession. Early on the band was often touted as Australia’s version of Paramore — perhaps a lazy comparison due to both bands having a female lead.

On paper it may seem like a dream success run, but it hasn’t been a smooth road. They were dropped from their record label after a lacklustre reception to their 2016 LP Limitless, and the departure of guitarist and songwriter Whakaio Taahi in 2017 forced the band to recalibrate the way they tour and record.

Though five became four, the resilience of lead singer Jenna McDougall has always been at the heart of Tonight Alive. She’s been open about her own personal health issues — ones that have impacted her professional schedule from time-to-time, but also ones that have ultimately inspired new material and a new message: Not everything always has a silver lining, and that’s OK.

We talked to Jenna ahead of Good Things Festival and chatted through the highs and lows of their latest album Underworld, and what the future has in store for Tonight Alive.

You’ve spent nearly all of your formative years releasing and touring music, and you can nearly see the evolution of growing up throughout the albums. Does each album feel like a different chapter of your life?

Hugely. I remember the emotional things during each period of time and I can definitely see we’ve come a long way.

It’s cool to have a set of songs and an album that’s a stamp for different times like, OK that’s me from the ages of 19 to 21 or 22 to 24 and stuff like that. It keeps me in check.

Do you find it difficult when fans expect you to stay in the pop-punk sound of your earlier albums such as What Are You So Scared Of or The Other Side?

Definitely, but I can also see how as a fan of music how you want another album just like this favourite one you had, because you can’t get enough. It’s ultimately harmless but it is a bit of headfuck. It twists your mind a little bit when someone says, ‘I wish you could have stayed the same as the first EP, I loved you back then’.

It kind of feels like this weird identity crisis, because I just look at myself back as that 17-year-old, so helpless and lost, and I had my own level of suffering at the time and there’s no way I want to go back to that.

I think it depends how much you’ve thought about it and developed your own perspective on the topic because I think it can be a little bit damaging to people who want you to say the same.

Tonight Alive

Photo via Tonight Alive Facebook.

Underworld feels like a very cohesive album, one that you can definitely listen to in full, something which many records now lack. Can you talk me through the process of writing and recording it? 

It was completely different. It was really refreshing and I’m so glad and grateful it turned out the way it did.

Essentially what happened in the year prior to that is we put out Limitless and within three months of that record being out it pretty much got shelved from our label and we weren’t receiving emails from them anymore. The campaign basically just closed because the goals were to unfortunately have commercial success and it wasn’t on the cards for that record.

“We captured a moment in time which I really love.”

Basically, our manager said ‘I think it would be best if you guys start writing immediately’, which is really, really stressful, but we finished a year of touring and Whak and I shacked up for three months at my house. We wrote every day straight throughout the summer from January to March and we went to Thailand and recorded with Dave Petrovic who did our first EPs and The Other Side, so some of our most-loved music.

We recorded with him for two months and it was a very fast journey of six months from beginning writing to finishing recording. But that’s probably why it has that cohesive sound to it, it’s very clearly a chapter. We captured a moment in time which I really love, whereas other records were written in the space of two years, written on tour, in a studio, on a bus, in hotel rooms, it was all over the place. So one environment, one season, I think that affected how it sounds a lot.

When I first heard ‘Temple’ my first reaction was basically ‘Holy shit!’ It’s just such a powerful song. I heard you had to push for it to be released as a single, is that right?

I threw a spanner in the works by saying that, I was like ‘Nah I really like this song’ and I think based on what it’s about, which is a lot to do with my mental health and having an eating disorder at the time, everyone kinda shut up and listened.

It was a really nice feeling to slam something on the table, and be like ‘I believe in this so strongly’, and I’m so glad that we followed that instinct because it was such an amazing way to lead the campaign. A lot of people connected with that song and it’s been healing for me to release something that’s so ultra-personal.

It’s the first song we ever wrote that doesn’t have a silver lining in the lyrics so that’s a big deal.

Tonight Alive

Photo via Tonight Alive Facebook.

Touching on your mental health battles and eating disorder, what do you do now to protect and nurture your mental health with such a hectic schedule with touring and recording?

I think honouring my feelings was a really new concept to me. A couple of years ago when we were in the middle of Limitless and Underworld I had a friend who said ‘Honour it’.

I think I’ve tried to protect people my whole life by lying, or suppressing the truth, or suppressing my feelings and that made me sick for a really long time.

I didn’t know I could feel something and own it, I just felt like ‘This feeling is negative and therefore I need to deal with it and finish it’. But honouring was a whole new concept. Being transparent has been a big thing for me as well, such as writing this record and releasing ‘Temple’ as a single was a big statement.

In my personal life it’s really just saying, ‘I’m not ok with this’ or ‘this is my boundary’ or having hard conversations and speaking the hard truths without that preconception of how people react. If it’s the truth for you, or it’s your need or your boundary, it’s OK to express that and how people react is on them.

I think I’ve tried to protect people my whole life by lying, or suppressing the truth, or suppressing my feelings and that made me sick for a really long time.

There’s been huge debate in Australia in the last couple of years about festivals not doing a good enough job of including bands with women in them on their line-ups. Is this something you look at now before agreeing to tour with a company or festival?

I can’t say it is yet. I think that’s amazing though… I think we’re in the middle of a transition period where there is awareness and there are plans being put in action with festivals and I think that’s really great.

I think it may take longer than what we hope to see but I think we’re part of a generation that when we’re really dissatisfied with the way things are, we’re setting up a healthier and inclusive future for people who are younger than us.

I don’t come from an angry standpoint with it but it can be constructive to be dissatisfied and to be vocal about this stuff. I’m happy being a part of the wave. We may not be the tidal wave but I think we’re leading up to it.

Tahlia Pritchard is the Editor of Punkee. Follow her on Twitter

Tonight Alive are appearing at Good Things Festival this December. For all dates and details, head here