When you look at Tonight Alive's successes both at home and abroad — the Sydney outfit enjoyed ARIA Top 10 debuts, major label backing, sold-out tours and coveted festival slots — it's easy to see why vocalist Jenna McDougall looked like she had it made. An inspirational musician in her own right, she was navigating a persistently masculine industry with what seemed like a perennially sunny disposition. But at a crucial time in her life she found herself bombarded by a chorus of voices that weren't her own.
For the better part of a decade, McDougall learnt first-hand what it was like to have middle-aged label execs commenting on everything from Tonight Alive's sound to the way she presented herself.
"There was always a running commentary from the outside," she says. The artistic cost of showing off her bright green box braids in the "Human Interaction" film clip was the insistence on a full-blown pop radio affair complete with back-up dancers ("Drive").
With the band's shift to indie label UNFD in Australia and Hopeless Records elsewhere in the world, and the announcement of Underworld, their fourth record, McDougall has finally been able to find her voice. "I feel like no one's ever trusted my ideas until now," she says. "I'm encouraged as an artist to write whatever I want."
If 2016's Limitless was the commercial lunge the band's major label had always hoped they'd make, Underworld sees Tonight Alive firmly back in the driver's seat. It's been a transformative year for the pop-rock band to say the least: founding member Whakaio Taahi — who co-wrote the new album alongside McDougall — left the fold to pursue a songwriting career in Nashville, Tennessee. On their recent 'Back To Beginnings' tour, McDougall knew it was exactly where she was meant to be.
"I felt like my soul was on fire on that tour," she says. "That's how it should have felt for Whak, and I'm really glad he didn't stay if his soul wasn't burning to stay, you know?"
In her stark lyrical admissions — "I'm intoxicated by my depression" — McDougall reveals her struggles with mental and physical illness, which she'd learned to mask with a bubbly persona. "You just want your physical body to represent your inner self and when it doesn't... It feels like a disconnect, even within yourself," she admits.
A turning point in the singer's life came when she met Prahlad Nrsimha. A devout Hare Krishna and the long-standing spiritual guardian of the Vans Warped Tour, Prahlad taught McDougall how to crack her heart open, stand in her fire and know her pain — something she'd spent years trying to repress.
"I sort of realised how much I was turning away from myself every time I felt pain," she recalls. "It was such a time of ascension; it was an opportunity to really see what's possible for me and how I could express myself and be accepted for it. To not be genuine is my worst nightmare."
Towards the end of 2016, McDougall remarked that every day she feels like she's closer to living her purpose. With Underworld, she may have just reached it.
This interview is as part of our 2018 Australia/NZ album preview, featured in issue #795 (February 2018), available now.
Topics: Tonight Alive