Limitless and starting to tour behind the newly released follow-up Underworld, a transformative time for Tonight Alive understates the changes the group has experienced.
The Australian band switched record labels, reshaped its sound and experienced the departure of a treasured member. For singer Jenna McDougall, the changes have been even more profound since she had faced major physical and emotional challenges before reaching a place now where she’s able to live a far healthier and happier life.
Looking back, McDougall traces some of her debilitating physical and mental issues to the time when Tonight Alive was making Limitless and facing difficult decisions about the kind of album it would be.
“Limitless and Underworld are very much connected,” McDougall says. “It’s kind of like a two-part series and Underworld is a direct product and result of Limitless, even though they might come off as polar opposite records.”
Limitless marked a crossroads of sorts in Tonight Alive’s career. The band’s second album, 2013’s The Other Side, received strong reviews and debuted at No. 44 in the States and No. 5 in Australia. The momentum had Tonight Alive’s Australian label, Sony, thinking a commercial breakthrough with Limitless was within reach, McDougall says. Those ambitions translated into a somewhat difficult album process for the group, which at the time included McDougall, guitarists Jake Hardy and Whakaio Taahi, bassist Cameron Adler and drummer Matt Best.
The first hurdle came when the band submitted what it thought would be the tracklist for the third album. But Sony rejected that batch of songs and suggested that Tonight Alive’s writing team of McDougall and Taahi work with some outside writers.
The band complied, and the result was an album that softened some of the band’s punkier edges and had more of a radio-friendly Pop feel. The label’s commercial ambitions for Tonight Alive made the making of Limitless a trying experience at times.
“There was a lot of argument with that record, with our producer (David Bendeth) and with our label about the way things should be recorded and the songs that should be chosen,” McDougall says. “We tried so much to have faith in these people that do have a lot of experience and have had very successful records. It was really getting into our heads because we weren’t trusting our instincts.”
For McDougall, the stresses of making the album and the mixed reception and relatively lukewarm sales performance of Limitless contributed strongly to some serious health issues.
“I remember being in the studio in Jersey and I started getting all of these symptoms I never had before, like head spins every time I stood up,” McDougall says. “And I’d get heart palpitations, but not in moments that were obvious. It wasn’t like a stressful or anxious moment that these heart palpitations happened. It could be when I was lying down and resting. I started getting hot flashes and I’d get black and white light in my eyes, just weird things like that. And the final symptom of making that record, being in the studio, was I almost felt like I was being strangled. I didn’t have pain and my throat wasn’t swollen. But I couldn’t sing without feeling like something was pushing me back. I pushed my voice back inside my throat, I think.”
McDougall sought out various remedies and treatments, including doctor visits and acupuncture.
“I think on a spiritual level,” she says of the stress, “that was really representing the truth being suppressed and not feeling like I was doing (music) for me.”
The issues continued as Tonight Alive toured behind Limitless and extended to the recording of Underworld. At various points, McDougall battled depression, fatigue and eczema — the latter being a skin condition that had long afflicted the singer and actually caused the band to cancel a spring 2012 tour.
Throughout this period, McDougall was taking steps to improve her heath, including altering her diet and eventually going vegan. But what finally put her on a path to much better health and feeling more settled emotionally was learning about a meditation technique called yoga nidra.
“It’s really amazing,” McDougall says. “They say you’re going to the sleepless dream state, so you’re actually conscious in a way, but your body kind of shuts down as if you’re sleeping. So you get to consciously experience that peace that your body has when it’s asleep. And it’s unreal. I was basically prescribed that. I started speaking to a doctor and he was sort of counseling me over the phone, and he prescribed it three times a day to start with. I now only do it a couple of times a week, but it’s as if it was my medicine, and it really changed things for me.”
The band also got to a healthier place musically with Underworld. After Limitless, Tonight Alive parted ways with Sony (as well as its American label, Fearless Records) and signed with Hopeless Records in the States and internationally, and with UNFD in Australia. Both labels told the band to make the kind of album they wanted to make, which freed up McDougall and Taahi as songwriters and the band as a whole to fully follow their musical instincts.
McDougall decided to confront some parts of herself and her personality she had neglected and be totally honest in her lyrics, while Taahi tapped back into the riffy, harder edged Rock that he loves.
The result is an emotionally impactful album that retains the Pop sense Tonight Alive has always shown, but shifts toward a heavier Rock sound, particularly on tunes like the hard-hitting single “Temple” (a song in which McDougall dissects her health problems) and “Crack My Heart” (which deals with accepting emotional flaws McDougall has seen in herself). Other songs, like “The Other” and “In My Dreams,” are more textured, but retain a good bit of tension and energy.
Though the writing and recording of Underworld went well, McDougall still struggled with her health throughout that time. But during the five months off between finishing the album and starting pre-release promotion, she was able to return to Australia, decompress and, with the help of her new diet and yoga nidra, return to full strength.
But another significant setback occurred last fall when Taahi decided to leave Tonight Alive to pursue a writing and producing career in Nashville, Tenn.
The group has decided for now not to replace Taahi and will perform as a four-piece on its current co-headlining tour with Silverstein. The band’s hour-long set will include a cross section of key songs from Tonight Alive’s four albums. To compensate for Taahi’s absence, the group is using pre-recorded guitar parts to fill the gaps.
“I want to say we’re not ashamed to play (with) tracked guitars,” McDougall says. “I mean, those guitars were recorded by the members of our band, (so) it doesn’t feel in any way like cheating or cutting corners.”
Tonight Alive co-headlines Bogart’s Saturday with Silverstein. Tickets/more info: bogarts.com.