Since 2008, Tonight Alive have built a reputation as a dedicated Australian rock act, leaning on an early love of pop punk. The energetic five-piece were known for big guitars and even bigger melodies which helped them carve out a loyal fan base across the globe.
In 2016, they’ll break that mold, completely.
Their aptly-titled new album, Limitless, is an iconic, career-defining collection of songs, rooted in a timeless pop sensibility. Ambitious instrumentation and rhythms are given the space to truly shine as vocalist Jenna McDougall delivers an inspired, arresting performance bolstered by lyrics that pulse with emotional honesty.
As with any great artistic triumph, the path to its creation was paved with trials. Rather than merely reinvent their sound, the band members made the decision to strip back every element of their process and learn how to present their work in the most genuine way. To get the final 11 tracks that make up Limitless, they would have to create and discard several albums of material, much of which initially resembled their last album, 2013’s The Other Side.
“We were pretty settled in that world,” admits McDougall. “We started writing music that was quite similar to that record and it took a very conscious decision and a proactive movement to want to learn again. It kinda took hitting a wall and also facing a mirror and saying, ‘I’m not really sure I’m the same person I was two years ago, so why am I writing music that represents that?’ It was very much a break-it-down and build-it-back-up-again situation.”
“It was probably the hardest thing that we have ever done,” explains guitarist and co-songwriter Whakaio Taahi, “because it is constant self reflection, and that is hard for anyone to do. We literally wrote the last song the day before we went in to record, so pretty much from The Other Side, we were writing every day for two years to get to where we were. So, it was a huge journey.”
The process would involve opening up the tightknit writing team of Taahi and McDougall to include a number of world-renowned songwriters. Initially hesitant to leap into working with strangers – “we’re kind of protective,” laughs McDougall – after a series of false starts they formed an immediate connection with composer David Hodges (Kelly Clarkson, Christina Perri, Evanescence), resulting in the tracks “Human Interaction”, “How Does it Feel”, “Power Of One” and “I Defy”.
“We wrote ‘How Does It Feel’ together in six hours,” she confirms, “and we hardly ever finished one song in one day with most people. Half the time, you’re trying to get to know a person before you can create something together, but we just had a really instant connection and understood each other.”
“Just that one day with him will help you write four songs on your own better than you could before,” stresses Taahi. “And that’s really why we collaborated with a lot of people, just to learn ourselves and become better writers, which I think we’ve done.”
Having successfully navigated a 24-month writing experience that saw them pen over 50 songs, the band decided to further throw themselves in the deep end, selecting multi-platinum, award-winning Canadian producer David Bendeth (Breaking Benjamin, Vertical Horizon, Paramore) to helm the recording, a man known for his tough love approach as well as his sonically stunning results. As musicians they would be pushed well out of their comfort zones. Bass player Cam Adler wasn’t initially certain they’d all even make it onto the record.
“In the past, he’s brought in other drummers to drum on records, and has been known to do the same thing with bass players and guitarists. So we went into the studio knowing that, and it was hanging over everyone’s heads almost as an incentive to work,” he laughs. “We all made it on the record! He did a really good job of whipping us into shape and developing us not just as individual musicians but also as a collaborative unit. That being said, there would be some days where you would work all day and feel like you’ve taken a step backwards.”
“When I did finally cry, it was because I was fighting for the song, ‘Human Interaction’,” explains McDougall. “We were rearranging so much, trying to get the best version of the song and the best version of the vocal arrangement and when I cried about it, I just kind of broke a little bit and said ‘I’m putting my foot down for this song’ and fought for it and he said ‘that’s what I needed to see from you’.
“He encouraged us to have vision. He would always bring up these references to songs and artists that we would never put ourselves in the same category or genre as and he would challenge why we didn’t think we had the potential to reach that level. “
Looking back, they have nothing but praise for their producer and couldn’t be prouder of the results. Attention to detail was key and they placed no boundaries on the time or energy that could be spent in ensuring a song properly captured the meaning and intention behind it. McDougall dedicated eight days to perfecting “Oxygen”.
“I think a lot of that is because of the lyrics, I can’t really think of another way to explain it, other than they have an onomatopoeia to me, the way that I sing ‘inhale, hold, release’, the vocal technique used on those lyrics reflect those actions themselves, and creating tension and creating anxiety and peace and transcendence and all of these things that the style and the way that it is sung reflect they lyrics. I think that is what makes it such a visual and physical experience listening to that song.”
“The last track on the record is my favourite”, says Adler. “It’s called ‘The Greatest’ and I feel like that song is the purest representation of the band, because it is all about the lyrics, with the band there pillowing them along, helping tell a story that perfectly sums up the band’s message of fearlessness and being self reflective. I feel like when the song is released, our fans will resonate with it.”
Unlike the journey to its completion, finding the right title for album was quick and painless. McDougall bounced it off the other members without contest, proving it to be the best summation of their unique approach to art, life and opportunity.
With Limitless, Tonight Alive arrive in 2016 as an original force on the global music scene, now on equal footing with the artists Bendeth compared them to, unchained from constraints of genre, self-doubt and external pressures.
“To me, really, it represents the whole progression to this point of letting go of boundaries and letting go of expectations. It’s also the sound of the record, that’s the one word association of the actual feeling that is evoked through those songs, through the lyrics and through the musicality. Limitless is what we want to represent and what we want to encourage in the lives of our listeners. We always like to challenge authority and we always like challenging expectations.”