.Like They Mean It

thewaifs musicWaifs’ Songwriting springs to life onstage

A little bit of feeling can make a big difference.

A British study in 2008 found that people can hear recordings of a complete stranger and pick up on whether or not the person is smiling, especially if it’s a Duchenne smile—the kind where someone’s eyes wrinkle up and their mouth opens. Choir directors often even tell singers to smile as they open their pipes. Supposedly, it helps the voice resonate.

Maybe, then, a lot of smiling is what’s missing from the Waifs’ studio releases—well, that and the onstage jokes that Donna Simpson bounces off her sister Vikki Thorn during live shows, plus a couple playful jabs at longtime member Josh Cunningham. Even Thorn, who plays guitar and harmonica for the band, concedes, “We’re much better live than we are on our recordings.”

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“We have an energy we feed off of in the live scene,” Thorn explains. “Donna and I, particularly, as performers react to that energy, and it comes across when we sing. You just don’t get that in a studio at all. We tend to treat songs a lot more gently in the studio setting than we would live. And there’s a chemistry that’s hard to capture.”

None of this is to speak unfavorably of the Waifs’ albums nor their songwriting—a workload that all three core members share.

Cunningham, who plays mandolin and guitar, crafts tunes that are at once familiar and inventive. A longtime fan of country, blues and classic rock, he builds his songs often around major chords and basic progressions that lend themselves to strong melodies and beautifully dense licks and solos—country-twinged notes falling nimbly off his guitar like meat falling off of a smoked brisket. Thorn and Simpson’s songs, by contrast, are usually vehicles for strong stories. Thorn’s are abstract and emotional, while Simpson’s are often more heartbreaking tales. On their 2000 release Sink or Swim, Simpson has a song called “Service Fee,” written from the perspective of shattered woman who wishes she charged an abuser for everything he had done to her.

The Australian folk rockers, who return to the Rio on Wednesday, Aug. 26, are touring on their seventh studio album, Beautiful You, which came out Tuesday, Aug. 18. After more than two decades together, the band members now live oceans apart, with Thorn now living in Utah. But that doesn’t mean they’ve grown apart. It just makes touring all the more special.

“We used to live with each other, and our lives were absolutely entwined with our career and what we did,” Thorn, who once dated Cunningham, says with a laugh. “That came out in a lot of the writing in those days. We would write about each other not so secretly. There were no boundaries between career and social life. So, it’s been very healthy for us all to have a life outside the band just to develop personally as people. And we’re much happier doing what we’re doing now and much happier to see each other and play music. We had no separation from it. I was ‘Vikki from the Waifs.’ I wasn’t just ‘Vikki,’ and it was the same with Donna and Josh. Our whole identities were wrapped up in what we did, and I don’t know if that’s a healthy situation for anyone to be in for a long period of time.”

Cunningham and Thorn are both married now. And Simpson and Thorn each have three young sons—“a little band of Waifs,” Thorn says.

“As soon as we stepped away from that [lifestyle] and got into other relationships and had families, you just grow up,” she continues. “You mature and have different experiences. That’s what we bring back to the music now, and I think it’s a healthier situation in every aspect.”

STREET SMARTS From left, Donna Simpson, Josh Cunningham and Vikki Thorn have been together in the Waifs for more than 20 years. INFO: 7:30 p.m. Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $25/gen, $40 gold. 423-8209.


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