here’s a scene in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004) where Lindsay Lohan’s character is tasked with finding the limit of an equation in order for the Mathletes to win the state championship. After having a life-affirming epiphany, Lohan correctly answers that, “If the limit never approaches anything… The limit does not exist!” Lest we delve into the finer points of calculus, the concept of being limitless becomes increasingly more intriguing when it creeps into art. For the members of Sydney quintet Tonight Alive, there was no title more fitting for their highly anticipated third album.
“It’s as much about redefining boundaries as it is about challenging the illusory concept of boundaries itself,” Jenna McDougall says of her band’s new record. But when the members of Tonight Alive first begun penning tracks for the release, they quickly realised that they were playing it too safe.
“We wrote about 14 songs that we felt made up the tracklisting for our next record,” McDougall begins. “We never knew that there was a sound that we were chasing or a change that we were looking for, it was just that we knew we couldn’t repeat the past. Upon sharing it with a few people in our team, it was obvious that it was the sister of The Other Side and it wasn’t enough of a step forward for us. We wanted to create a sound that hadn’t been done before – or at least, hadn’t been released in the last 10 or 20 years.”
Behind every great band you’ll often find a hard-working producer, and for Tonight Alive that role was played by David Bendeth. His résumé reads like the ultimate festival line-up – Paramore, Killswitch Engage, A Day To Remember, Asking Alexandria, Underoath… The list goes on. But it was his work on Bring Me The Horizon’s critical smash Sempiternal that really won the Sydney five-piece over.
“Sempiternal made us realise how far a band could come in a short amount of time with the right people and the right influences,” McDougall says.
|Listening to Limitless, it immediately becomes apparent that Tonight Alive are the latest in a long line of alternative bands to break out from the confines of their established genres (not to mention comfort zones). Emotive, shimmering pop songs like “I Defy” and the carefree “Drive” sit alongside melodic ballad-esque tracks like “Power Of One” and “The Greatest”. It’s a stark shift from the fast-paced pop-punk of 2013’s The Other Side, and not everyone was immediately convinced of the band’s new sonic direction.
“Whak [Taahi, guitar] and I write songs together and there were moments where we really had to trust each other – there’s about three songs that went on the record that he was so afraid to explore, where he was like, ‘You know, if you ever do a solo project one day, just save this song for that’,” the singer says. “There were kind of moments like, ‘Is this really Tonight Alive’s sound? Does this suit our band? Does this suit our fans?’ And we asked ourselves that question a hundred times and we learnt to answer it by saying, ‘There is no right, there is no wrong. It doesn’t matter what we believe Tonight Alive was two years ago, it’s what it’s gonna be in two years’.
“It really was about letting go of the idea that we belong to anybody – even that Tonight Alive belongs to us. The record ended up writing itself and taking on a sound of its own. It was a scary time, but it was also really exciting because it was liberating and it was letting go of every idea that we had in the past.”
A diverse blend of influences has shaped the Tonight Alive that now stare down 2016. Coming off a quiet end to 2015, the five-piece have scored a highly billed slot at this year’s UNIFY Gathering – fast becoming the Australian heavy scene’s preeminent calendar entry – and will embark on an intimate album launch on the east coast before a quick succession of headline runs in Europe and the US. They’ve come a long way since the bright-eyed teens that came out swinging with What Are You So Scared Of? in 2011.
|McDougall, now entering her mid-twenties, has been embracing spiritualism; musically, she’s grown to be worlds away from the Hayley Williams comparisons of old. At the end of 2012 whilst making The Other Side, she began religiously listening to Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette and the politically charged anthems of Rage Against The Machine. If you happen to have seen the band’s recent video for their killer new single, “How Does It Feel?”, you’ll also be aware that McDougall is one of the few people ever to exist who could pull off a look that’s equal parts Die Antwoord’s Yolandi Visser and Korn’s Brian “Head” Welch.
Coming into Limitless, two decades on from the heydays of her idols, the singer found herself drinking deep from the well of ‘90s pop culture.“I wanted to make an Alanis Morissette meets Rage Against The Machine record for Limitless – that’s what I wanted it to be,” she says. “But the thing that those artists have in common, I think, is true expression. I feel like between those two writers, I was kind of being encouraged to ask a lot more questions and reflect on the behaviour of people in my immediate life, and also people in my outer circles, and then on a global level – where is your influence drawn from? Why do you live your life the way you live it? I was going through a period in my life where I was asking a lot of questions, but I was also finding a lot of answers, so the lyrics are a lot more reflective than they’ve ever been before.”
|To reinvent themselves, the band had to look inward. McDougall, who’s struggled with writing songs in the past, feels that she’s finally learnt to tap into the songwriter within; Limitless is rooted in the vocalist’s self-expression and deeply reflects the personal growth she’s experienced as a result of life on the road. On “We Are” she sings, “If they’re not gonna change the world, we are, we are/No they’re not gonna save the world, we are” – an empowering sentiment on what’s ultimately an inspiring album. Tonight Alive have finally come into their own.
“I realised recently, who am I doing this for? Am I worried about people thinking I’m a good singer, or is my priority to be artistic and be true to myself before I’m trying to impress people?” McDougall questions. “Alanis Morissette once said, ‘When I write my records, they’re for me, but when I release them, they’re for my fans’. Really, who we attract is based on how we express ourselves. I think this is the first time I’ve had clarity in that plane of my mind where I don’t have everybody else’s voice talking – I just have mine.”