Interview with Jenna McDougall, Whakaio Taahi of Tonight Alive

Photo taken from band's Facebook page.
Photo taken from band’s Facebook page.

The following is an interview in our ongoing serial “Women of Hardcore.” For more from the serial click here

Pop punk band Tonight Alive have earned themselves some serious attention over the years. They’ve played festivals like Warped Tour and Soundwave, had their song “The Edge” featured on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, and toured with the likes of Pierce The Veil, Sleeping With Sirens, and All Time Low. HXC Magazine correspondent Liz Rainey recently had the opportunity to speak with Jenna McDougall (vocals) and Whakaio Taahi (guitar, vocals) at JBL Live at Pier 97 in NYC on the May 23rd date of the Future Hearts Tour. In the interview, they talk about exploring more of the U.S., the recording process of their third album, and what “punk” means to them. 

HXC: You guys are mainly from Australia. Was it harder to go international or to start out in Australia?

Whakaio: Personally, I think it’s definitely hard. It cost us so much money just to get here just to start the tour, which is obviously a big deterrent and why not a huge amount of Australian bands do it. We just kind of bit the bullet and did it because we had to.

Jenna: It paid off.

HXC: Is it easier to go back home now that you guys are more popular?

W: We used to play, like, seven or eight times a year in Australia and now we only play like once a year, so we love when we go back there finally and play to our fans that have been there for seven years since the start of Tonight Alive.

HXC: So where do you mainly play now? The States and the UK?

W: Yeah, States, The UK, Australia, and Asia as well. We haven’t been to South America yet, which sucks, but hopefully we get there pretty soon.

J: There’s definitely still places we haven’t been before, but we’re hoping to spread our seed into next year.

Photo by Liz Rainey
Photo of Cam Adler (bass) by Liz Rainey

HXC: Where are you most excited to now go that you’ve never been to?

J: South America. I want to go to Brazil and Argentina. I want to go to Mexico, Chile–just a bunch of places where people have been supporting us for so long even when it was back in the PureVolume days. I don’t know if that’s still running and popular now, but it was one of the best platforms for us other than Myspace. We just always had people saying ‘Come to Argentina! Come to Brazil! Come to Chile!’

HXC: So you think social media kind of helped a little bit more because you guys were more of an international band?

J: Yeah, it definitely did. But I guess our priority was always touring. We always knew we weren’t gonna be a band that just made records and then plugged it on social media. It was always about touring and getting overseas for us because all the bands we loved came from mainly America and the UK. I think it definitely helped to get the music over here before we would actually tour and solidify the foundation of our fanbase.

HXC: [For Jenna] Did you find it harder, being a female frontperson, to get that rise a little bit?

J: I find these kinds of questions uncomfortable.

HXC: Oh, I’m sorry about that!

J: No, no, I’m not saying that against you, but it’s been asked a lot of times. I guess for me it’s kind of like, why should it be harder because I’m a girl and why should it be harder because we’re female fronted?

W: (Jokes) It’s because you’re weaker than a man.

J: Oh that’s cute, that’s really cute. So, I guess even the question in itself subconsciously and without knowing it kind of has an undertone of stereotype. Why would it be more difficult or more of a challenge? Yeah, I guess at first, we were the only female fronted band in our scene and for me I definitely felt I had to prove myself. But now, as a 22-almost-23-year-old, I just feel, I don’t know, I feel proud of my gender and the way that I can communicate with people and relate not only to men but to women. I don’t know, it’s never been about that for us. We’ve always been a band with a message and a strong live show and thats whats always been important to us.

Photo by Liz Rainey
Photo of Jenna McDougall by Liz Rainey

“I think punk music is about breaking stereotypes and about breaking away from expectations.”

HXC: So you’ve never felt it’s been a struggle really?

J: I mean, there are issues that have come up because you’re female and people expect you to dress certain ways and act certain ways and, again, it’s all to do with stereotypes and I think punk music is about breaking stereotypes and about breaking away from expectations. I saw it as an opportunity to be a great vocalist and to stand out. I never thought, ‘I’m the only girl on a tour with 40 men.’ I didn’t worry about that. Our band has a dynamic that is really, really tight knit, and our crew as well, so I always felt protected and safe. But a lot of it has come from the challenge of having self-confidence and self esteem and believing in what you do. Coming into womanhood for me was an important thing for me to embrace myself and be proud of that and use it to my advantage.

HXC: So as a band, what was your hardest struggle?

W: The United States is always a struggle (laughs). This is definitely our hardest market; where the growth has been the slowest. It just costs so much money to come over. But the hardest struggle? Financially, probably. Money.

J: I guess that’s where it comes into play that it needs to be a first priority and you need to be in it for the right reasons, otherwise it’s going to swallow you whole. So for us, yeah, financials have been a challenge, but never enough to keep us away. The growth in America has been really steady, and it’s just been step by step. It’s been enough every time that we know it’s worth coming back and continuing to build sort of a legacy in Tonight Alive and the fanbase here.

HXC: Since we’re getting near the end of the tour—this is your second to last date—what has been a highlight from this tour so far?

W: Just touring with All Time Low. They’re like, the favorite band that we’ve toured with as a headline act. They take care of you and they’re just genuine people and this tour has been just going really quickly because everyone just gets along, which is quite rare on a lot of tours, so we’re very lucky to play to their fans and to such big rooms.

HXC: It’s definitely an interesting lineup, with you guys, Issues…

J: Yeah, it’s very diverse. I think it’s really cool. There’s something for everyone. Everyone has a lot of energy and everyone definitely has fans in the crowd that are rooting for them and cheering and singing and going crazy. Every night is a really high energy night. But what’s been nice as well is there’s been time for work and play and it’s been really balanced. S,o in Texas we went kayaking and bike riding. It was really cool, and it’s always been spontaneous. In northern California, we were on Lake Shasta with all time low and we rented boats and the guys were–can you pay attention? You’re distracting me because you’re distracted.

W: Sorry.

J: And the guys were, what’s that thing called, waterskiing?

W: Wakeboarding

J: Wakeboarding. I don’t know, it’s been really active and fun and we’ve been getting out and experiencing things and seeing a different side of America. The first time we came here was really hard and we were just in a van and we would just see cement and parking lots and stuff like that, but with this tour we’ve really been experiencing America a little more and enjoying it a lot.

HXC: I know this isn’t your first tour with All Time Low.

J: It’s not, actually. It might be our fourth.

HXC: With State Champs it is?

J: Yeah, that’s right.

HXC: With Issues is it also?

J: That’s right.

HXC: Do you feel closer with those guys now, coming to the end of the tour?

J: Yeah, we’ve been able to spend a bunch of time together. Obviously, we see each other every day regardless–you don’t have a choice in that. But it’s been really cool. Everyone’s created an inviting environment out of their buses or bandwagons and dressing rooms. It’s very diverse in the type of activities you can take part in. Issues are very into their games. State Champs play this game called ‘Werewolf’ that they’ve been teaching everyone slowly on the tour. Some nights there’s drinking games, sometimes we play poker with all time low. It’s been really fun.

Photo by Liz Rainey
Photo of Whakaio Taahi by Liz Rainey

“Whoever you are, whatever you do, whatever you sound like, whatever you love–embrace it, own it, be it.”

HXC: What do you guys think is next for Tonight Alive?

J: Well, we’re making a record right now. We’re halfway through it. We kind of have the skeleton and some muscle to the record. We haven’t wrapped it up yet, but we’ve got one month left in Jersey. In two days we’ll be back there to finish the record. A lot went into it. We were writing it for a year and a half plus, and there were a lot of highs and lows in that writing process because we were really pushing ourselves. We went through a lot of genre experimentation in the writing process and we came to the conclusion with the sound the we’ve kind of developed over the past few years. There’s no telling when it will be out, but we will keep everyone updated as much as possible.

HXC: And are you guys gonna think about coming back [to NYC] soon? Or going on other tours?

J: I think we’re kind of going through a transitional period right now where we’re not going to be putting touring first. I think we’ve done that for about four or five years, basically we’ve been touring relentlessly and hardly taking time off. So the rest of the year is gonna be spent in Sydney at home and kind of building the record cycle for next year.

HXC: Do you have any advice, to not only females but to any bands that want to start?

J: Whoever you are, whatever you do, whatever you sound like, whatever you love–embrace it, own it, be it. Just because you’re different from a band that you love that are really successful but you feel that you’re not as good or you look so different or you’re a girl or you’re a guy or whatever, it doesn’t matter. The reason people love you and your music is because it comes from you and it’s a really unique experience from artist to artist. So I think, write the songs that you want to write. Develop your sound. Don’t be concerned with image and press and social networking. Those things are not the priority. If you’re in this for the right reasons, you’ll write good music, you’ll put on a good live show, and you will get attention for it. So love what you do. Be yourself.

Interview by Liz Rainey

Transcript, Editing by Taylor Markarian

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