“The album is called Underworld and I named it that because it reflects the ugly parts of
me that I wasn't ready to see til now.” – Jenna McDougall.
Underworld, the cathartic new album from Tonight Alive, is an honest representation of
what has happened to the band in the past year. The band’s most organic album yet,
Underworld is a raw and real insight to a band reconnecting with their authentic selves.
“I think a lot of people have put me on a pedestal, thinking I’m a really happy bright
positive person,” says frontwoman Jenna McDougall. “I think it’s important to set an
example that we all have darkness and we all have pain and that pain can make us sick.
Emotional trauma can have a huge mental, physical and spiritual effect on you and it’s
important to address those things. The fact that it’s coming from someone like me, I hope is
helpful because people definitely have had one perspective on me so far.”
I see a woman in the mirror, but she’s not in my reflection – The Other
Since 2008, from the outside it seemed like Tonight Alive were living every band’s dream:
they were signed to a major label, released a trio of successful albums – including two ARIA
Top 10 hits – and years of relentless touring saw the Sydneysiders become a force on the
global music scene.
Behind the curtain, it was a completely different story for the now four-piece, comprising of
McDougall, rhythm guitarist Jake Hardy, bassist Cameron Adler and drummer Matty Best.
Coming into their third record with peak success the #1 goal, the pressure was on for
Tonight Alive to create a big record with that ever-elusive radio hit.
In spite of all the good intentions in helping the band reach their goals, Tonight Alive struggled with their identity in a corporate environment. At a time when McDougall was excited to take creative risks with her image to match their message of empowerment, she
also had to make sure it was palatable for a wide audience. McDougall couldn’t understand
why she couldn’t be the same person on the stage as she is off it, and this had a deep
impact on her formative years.
“I didn’t know how emotionally draining and detrimental it would be to have middle-aged
men commenting on and having input in the way I present myself. It’s been that way growing up, since starting the band at 16 until now at 25. I’ve always had a strange relationship with men in the music industry because they oppress me. It’s really confusing learning this with a teenager's mind thinking it’s normal. It was really underhanded and always in a blackmail kind of way. It was like, ‘if you do this, you can do that. If you really want to put Human Interaction out and have green box braids and wear a white space suit inspired by TLC, you have to have a conventional image for the Drive video and you have to have back up dancers and do a pop video.”
I feel so alien in the place that I call home – In My Dreams
The lead up into the writing and recording of Underworld was confusing time for Tonight
Alive. Prior to laying the groundwork for album #4, Tonight Alive severed all their contracts
and McDougall shaved her head.
“I needed to be free of this thing that has controlled me so much, that so many people have had a say in, and I’ve allowed it to mess with my self-confidence and self-esteem,” she says. “That was the pinnacle of me trying to detach from anything superficial. I’ve been through
all the dieting, the gym and all the abuse to try and be beautiful and it never worked. It doesn’t matter how far you go to be beautiful, if it’s not for yourself you’ll never be satisfied.”
Time has come to begin again – My Underworld
The foundations of Underworld were laid by McDougall and former guitarist Whakaio Taahi
(who has since departed the band to focus on his song writing career in Nashville) at her home in Sydney and realized at Krabi Road Studios in Thailand with the help of producer Dave Petrovic, who worked on All Shapes and Disguises (2010), Consider This (2010) EPs and The Other Side (2013). In the wonderfully breathtaking and serene coastal province, Tonight Alive were free to write the album they wanted to. There was no pressure to write a hit for
radio, nor did they spend days in a producer’s office criticising their songs while watching
endless videos of female electronic pop stars (as the process went with their record prior, Limitless).
“Beautiful places let you reflect on the stuff you don’t want to see about yourself,” says
McDougall. “I wasn’t happy at the time we were in Thailand; I was actually really suffering
with my health and the confusion of where everything was at with the band. It wasn’t an easy time at all. I think when you get solitude and get to withdraw from everything and
everyone, that’s when stuff starts to surface. It was a perfect place for us to hold space for
us to go through some heavy realisations.”
One of the songs that emerged from these sessions is Temple. Born out of a time when McDougall was experiencing severe depression and fatigue, the lyrics were penned when she was totally entrapped in being sick in her mind, body and soul.
“I was developing an allergy to everything. I couldn’t have any food without having an allergic reaction and my body was covered in unbearable eczema. At the time I had no energy, I had head spins. Temple is about the helplessness and the desperation of trying every single possible remedy and being on the phone multiple times a day to different doctors trying to get some sort of diagnosis, I ended up starting to look for an autoimmune disease because I just believed all those conditions had to add up to something greater.”
Despite endless blood tests and no diagnosis for what she was experiencing in sight, McDougall felt powerless within her own body.
“Another part of Temple is that I developed an eating disorder because of these allergic reactions. There was nothing I could eat, so I was on such a strict diet to the point where I couldn’t eat food and limited amount of vegetables would make me react, so I started developing a habit and it went on for two years. I didn’t really tell anybody about it, there was one person that knew. It took me a long time and it definitely became an addiction because I couldn’t even eat without the fear of my condition being any more severe, so that’s what inspired Temple. I’m out of that stage now but it was all-consuming at the time.”
In the end, McDougall never got a diagnosis for her illness. She believes it was a spiritual illness and, in a way, she’s grateful for the experience and the woman who has emerged from the other side.
“I think being sick is part of the underworld and the shadow work for me because it forced me to do so much emotional realisation, and to make decisions that are excruciatingly hard. Being sick really pushed me to raise my awareness and make more empowered decisions for my happiness.”
As a body of work, Underworld is a pure expression of who Tonight Alive are at this point in their lives. An emotional journey of the underworld we all have within us, the band artfully blended their last four albums and channeled them into a clear sound with a renewed focus on driving heavy guitars and drums with honest lyrics that see McDougall dissect her darkness to get a deeper understanding of who she really is. Songs like Temple and Disappear – featuring guest vocals from Lynn Gunn (PVRIS) – wrestle with pain and the sickness that follows, while For You and Crack My Heart sees McDougall sing about love for the first time in some years. The album culminates in McDougall finding peace in My Underworld, a stirring duet featuring Slipknot / Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor.
At its heart, Underworld is Tonight Alive letting their love of music bleed into their songs
again, even if the journey to get there was painful.