It’s an unlikely tale. Rising from the fevered hotbed of Sydney, Australia’s underground hardcore scene, boy meets girl. Or rather, two boys meet girl to make kick-ass rock music.
Try to keep up – the story goes something like this…
Guitarist Whakaio Taahi and his compadre bass player, Cameron Adler, needed a frontman for a rock project. Scrap that. Frontwoman. Enter ingenue-with-attitude, Jenna McDougall – as soon as the sixteen-year-old songstress’ soaring contralto and sweet strains took the mic to their songs, something clicked. Already onboard, rhythm axeman Jake Hardy and new recruit, drummer Matt Best – a childhood buddy of Whakaio’s. One jam later, the writing was on the wall. Tonight Alive were up and running, pedal to the metal.
The band stepped up, and fast. Songs honed, stagecraft already a dead cert, they entered Sydney’s subterranean circuit of metalcore and heavy bands, playing their own brand of catchy-as-all-hell pop-punk… and promptly took the scene by storm, developing a rabid young fanbase in thrall to the band’s ebullient, fist-pumping anthemery, arena-sized hooks and high-voltage live performances. Right from word-go, it was clear Tonight Alive were going somewhere.
A year on, courted by labels and management secured, with two stellar EPs (‘All Shapes & Disguises’ and ‘Consider This’) under their belts, a demo of Tonight Alive’s new material landed on producer-extraordinaire Mark Trombino’s (Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World, The Starting Line) desk. He rang the band immediately, wanting in.
“For him to contact us, and say he was interested, was a big deal,” says Jenna, now 19. “We couldn’t believe he’d put himself out like that. He’s amazing. Mark created the albums we all grew up listening to – the albums that launched the careers of all these great bands.
Whakaio weighs in. “Yeah, it felt right that he do our first album, that he be the one to kick-start us off. As soon as we got over there, we found Mark felt the same.”
Recorded at LA’s infamous NRG Studios over two months, Trombino’s personal interest in the project played out in other fortuitous ways. “Nothing was left to editing or over Pro-Tooling,” notes Whakaio. “Jenna sang every line until it was right. I played every guitar part. The drum sound is natural and not heavily sampled. There was no copy-pasting. That was really important to us, as well as Mark. That it sound real. Natural.”
“It was great because it made us really step up as musicians,” says Jenna. “I know I definitely came back from the experience a better singer.”
What you’re listening to now is the inspired result of that auspicious partnership between a bunch of Aussie kids and an auteur with a canon of classic records already to his name. What Are You So Scared Of? is one more album to add to that list.
As the charging powerchords, chiming verseline and rattlesnake high-hats of Breaking & Entering kick off proceedings, Tonight Alive make their intent known with this instant torch song. Like serving up straight red cordial shots to a bunch of Ritalin-deprived delinquents. Like scooping up a surging circle-pit and slamdunking into a kids’ jumping castle. Like a surly prom queen setting her school afire as the So-Cal styled band plays on, What Are You So Scared Of? is a veritable barnstormer of a debut album. Bouncey, infectious and thrilling.
Cue the mosh-happy shout-a-long of Starlight, the sheer infectious fun of Sure as Hell and the sugar-rush of songs like To Die For and the title track. Lending both cred and sporting their influences on their sleeve.
But there’s also gravitas to match Tonight Alive’s gusto and good time – the balls-out heaviness of Listening, the acoustic-shaded power ballad Safe and Sound, and one of the album’s best tracks, Let It Land, all showcase a band with serious songwriting chutzpah. Meanwhile, the moving closer, Amelia, is Jenna’s paean to a girlhood friend who passed away aged 16, and packs one powerful emotional punch.
What really lifts Tonight Alive above another female-fronted pop-rock band is their muscular musicality, a deft sense of dynamic, a way of shifting seamlessly from the big riffs and breakdowns, to allow space and the sensibility of Jenna’s sweetly sung melodies to shine through. The hardcore heritage has set them in good stead – these kids have some bad-ass chops. Underpinned by Best’s impassioned, athletic drumming, the mercurial undertow of Adler’s tasteful basswork and Hardy’s meat’n’ potato riffery, Whakaio lays down the sort of colour, texture and zinging, adrenalizing leadlines that sing like a wire fenceline being drawn taut.
When it comes to fronting Tonight Alive, Jenna is all heart and zero artifice – plus, this gal’s got one helluva set of lungs on her. Equal parts sugar and spit, honey and husk, vamp, vitriol and vulnerability, she belts it out, hell for leather. “The weird thing is, even though as a band, we all grew up on bands like Thrice, Sum 41 and Something Corporate, I think what influenced me most, vocally, was stuff as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Missy Higgins, Avril Lavrigne and Fall Out Boy,” says Jenna. “Plus I listen to tons of metal, where there’s a lot of screaming. I really dig the aggression.”
Already with a cult following Stateside, key to the band’s burgeoning profile has been the inclusion of songs off their last EP on reality TV show The Hills. Ironic, considering the band are from Sydney’s Hills District. “Yeah,” laughs Whakaio. “We’re the Aussie Hills!”
“We’re hoping it’ll help us out in the girl department,” quips Matt, “That we’ll get invited to some Hills launch party in Hollywood. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Perhaps a song on Jersey Shore might tip things in their favour? “God,” drawls Jenna. “We hope not.”
The band’s grounded approach has added to their groundswell appeal. “We started off playing youth centre’s,” says Whakaio. “And so we all feel like we have a personal connection to so many people who come to our shows. I know that sounds cliched, but it’s true – it’s almost like we’re friends with all of them. We make a point of going out after a gig, making contact with the fans, thanking them, keeping them informed.”
So, why the title What Are You So Scared Of? “It’s the only question I can ever ask myself where I’ll always have an answer,” explains Jenna. “Asking myself, ‘what are you so scared of?’ has always helped me pass through any personal fear or doubt. And it’s summed up the last year for us as a band – we’ve broken new boundaries, stepped up into another league.
“What Are You So Scared Of? is our mission statement, if you like – we’re moving forward, dissolving old barriers or blocks.”
She’s no blonde bombshell, that’s for sure, but Jenna and her band may very well be the bomb: Tonight Alive are gonna blow up big-time. Prepare yourself, people. Tonight Alive are here, and they’re on fire.