What happens when you sell out but no one buys in? In 2016, Tonight Alive were put through the ringer following a mixed, divisive response to their third album, Limitless.
Speaking after the fact – officially no longer with the major label that put it out – the band now openly discuss the record's cleaner, pop-oriented direction as being one that came from a conflicting, challenging place. “It's a record that I back personally, but it was definitely made in an unusual position for us,” says Jenna McDougall, the band's lead vocalist.
“There was that level of interference with the label that meant there was an element of control there. It was never ill-intentioned, but there was manipulation involved. We were being encouraged to challenge ourselves, but at the same time we were working with a group that was used to servicing things to radio. The same team that worked on our band were used to working on artists like Delta Goodrem and Jessica Maubuoy – and we were being packaged like that. I felt really restricted. It was the label that was putting doubts in our heads that we couldn't keep growing in the same way that we had done with [previous album, 2013's] The Other Side. There was a lot of healing that had to come from that level of rejection.”
Now signed to UNFD locally and Hopeless Records internationally, the band are reclaiming what's rightfully theirs. It started with their first headlining Australian tour in over 18 months, titled 'Back to Beginnings', where they opted for a smaller scale of intimate shows on the pathway to album number four, Underworld. Set for release in January, McDougall agrees when the idea is floated that the album is an equal, opposite reaction to everything she and the rest of the band went through in the Limitless cycle. “One of the ideas that was going through my head when I was listening back to the album is, ‘Once you're an outcast, you're always an outcast,’” she says.
“Growing up, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. I didn't know what my single identity was. I think that reflects in our music – we have a lot of different personalities. It's natural for us to keep evolving, and I love the new sound. This record has its own personality. It's heavy – there's a lot of distorted guitars and really strong riffs. We kept it very internal. We didn't have all these calls and emails every single time we wrote a song. We wrote it at home and recorded it with Dave Petrovic, who knows our sound better than anyone. We stopped denying ourselves of what felt natural.”
When Underworld was announced, coinciding with the release of lead single ‘Temple’, there was something noticeably missing. Not in terms of the music itself – ‘Temple’ stands as one of their best singles to date – but in terms of the band's personnel. With the announcement of new music and the next stage of Tonight Alive's career also came the bittersweet announcement that it would be happening without guitarist/keyboardist Whakaio Taahi, a founding member of the band. Regrouping as a four-piece, McDougall speaks highly of Taahi and his contributions to the band, up to and including the recording of Underworld.
“He moved to Nashville after receiving the offer of a mentorship as a songwriter and producer,” she explains. “Whak is building his own career in that way, and he's happier now than he's ever been. It was the hardest decision to make, but it was also an obvious one. It was the relationships in the band that kept him with us, but he's the kind of guy who is always after the next challenge. As much as he loves what we've created together, I think he was ready for the next stage of his career.”
Although hiring a touring guitarist was briefly considered by the band, McDougall believes the right choice was made to not replace Taahi and continue on as a quartet. “We didn't want to introduce any other new energies to what we have,” she says. “We've got a great chemistry the way we are.”
Catch Tonight Alive at the Unify Gathering next month. Underworld is out Friday January 12 via UNFD.