Fire can ignite you, or it can consume you; the past can break you, or it can fuel you. Jenna McDougall will not be consumed. Welcome to the Underworld.
Acting as the fourth record of Australian pop-punk band Tonight Alive, Underworld takes the frontwoman’s perceived weaknesses and insecurities, and turns them into strengths over heavy grooves and undeniable hooks. Reflecting on the darker sides of herself, McDougall taps into the “everyman” archetype, laced with punches of rock — her vocal stylings and lyrical dexterity emitting a light the guides the way, track-to-track.
As Tonight Alive embark on the album’s tour, McDougall takes a moment to discuss the record’s inspiration, it’s two, stunning features and channeling her zen.
Hi, this is Jenna.
Hi, Jenna. This is…Jenna. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Oh my God!
I’ve never had to say that before!
I only ever met two Jenna’s. It’s so rare!
I’ve only ever met, I think, one other Jenna in my entire life.
It’s pretty cool having a rare name like that, in a way.
Yeah, absolutely! How are you?
I’m good. I’m really in a really chill place right now; just in my bunker. How are you?
I’m doing well! Now, about your record. I know it’s a very honest and raw record and it embraces some of the darker, heavier sides of one’s self. What made you want to explore this side?
I had no choice, it’s a part of me. It was really cool. It was an amazing window of time where I felt a lot and I had to process a lot. And it was really cool that I could do that while writing. It was like I was inside writing every day when we were in the studio. It was really personal and intimate, just [Whakaio Taahi] and I at my house, in the middle of the studio, like in the back room of my house. A majority of the record was done there, so it was completely homegrown and really, like I said, personal and intimate…Yeah, it was only about a year ago when that all began.
I feel like, even though it does have these bleaker themes, there’s still a lot of moments and allusions to hope, like in “For You” and “Burning On.” Where do you think those stemmed from?
I think it’s always been in my nature to look for the silver lining. Or the way I accept challenges, I say the main reason is that everything is a gift. I started realizing that the things that make me strong are actually what I overcome; what I would have considered a weakness, a problem, or a complex. So, much of what is hard in my life is my fear of judgement. And that is something that I have worked with so much that I have gained my strength and it has fueled my confidence and awareness; to have an awareness for something that I would have considered a weak spot in my being. Like I said, it is in my nature to look for the lesson, or the silver lining, or something that presents a gift in what you would consider a burden.
Absolutely. And it almost feels a little bit like a metaphor for the current state of the world right now, where there is a lot of darkness and hatred, but there is also a lot of brave people speaking up and acting out as a light.
Mhm, that’s really cool. That is really nice that you would compare our record to that movement. Thank you.
Of course! I mean, how has it been for you, not only as a woman in the rock scene, but in the music scene, in general, during these tumultuous times?
I guess I, you know, whenever there is a question about stuff like that, I always get tricked out. I always feel a little dip, because I think there is so much wounding. I think a reason that we have so many issues is because of the wounding in a world where everything seems to be masculine. And I think there are gender roles and expectations and standards and realizations all over for both of us…
We are all just tender during these times, there are just always, just different extents that we have harder rules and conditions. In that process, we oppress others. So yeah, I have a lot of sympathy and compassion for both men and women at this time, because I know that there is a lot of pain from the past and that is the reason that we are still having problems between the sexes and it is just really amplified in music, because we express pain and being equal, and we are just trying to communicate. A lot of people have a problem doing that in a healthy way, so I am not sure if I made sense in answering your question that way, but…
No, I think it makes a lot of sense. Now, how do you keep your zen when you’re on tour? What keeps you grounded and calm?
Well, last night when I got into my bunker, I put on a meditation that I have been using — like recorded meditation for yoga and sleep. So it teaches you meditation techniques to put you in the dream state, so you are conscious, but your body shuts down. You actually experience your body relaxing, you kind of turn into a plank of wood…It’s amazing. So I do things like that.
I was recommended by a doctor a couple years ago to walk barefoot on grass at least once a day, because what happens when on tour — like right now I’m lying in my bunker and I can feel the bus vibrating. You can feel the artificial, mechanical vibration, and then you are on concrete when you are parked and you don’t have anything to do but be parked and inhale cigarette smoke; so things like that that are not good for reaching good health. So yeah, to go outside, and get into your surroundings, which is really just putting your bare feet on grass and absorbing energy. It is something that really sets you straight.
And I try to eat well on the road, as well. I am vegan and I eat gluten free. I used to be sugar free, which, when I am, it is much better for my everything basically. I am more level-headed and I don’t get as agitated or anxious. So yeah, if I am looking after my body and spirit, touring can be a really, really great environment for me.
For sure! What are you anticipating most about this upcoming tour?
I am just excited to be in the flow again. I love the routine of tour. When I am home, I can’t believe myself, I am not living with a purpose anymore. When I am touring, I am living with a purpose, which for me, is just to create a space where people can be free and inspire people to empower themselves emotionally and socially, and in every way in their life that they can. I always enjoy that so much, it enriches my life so much more to do that for other people. So, I am anticipating that really good energy that I get when connecting with fans and performing music every day.
Are you excited to see, over the tour as fans get more acquainted with the new albums, their reactions?
Yeah, I am. It’s really cool, because we have only played two shows for it on the tour this year, and the new songs have such an awesome reaction. People can dance, people are singing…I can really feel their connection to the music already and the album. So, I think it is just going to become more connected, more expression through each experience.
I know on the album that you have two songs, one that features Lynn Gunn, and the other, Corey Taylor. How did those come about?
Well, Lynn and I have been friends since PVRIS’ tour together about three and a half years ago, so in 2014 we both followed Mayday Parade on their American and Canadian tour and it was almost winter at the time. We were just like kids running around and having fun, checking out book stores and restaurants, watching American Horror Story on our bandwagon. You know, we had a really cool time together, so every time we play festivals together and run into each other at different clubs, we always talked about collaborating and this was the first time we had to do that. It was cool that the first song we ever wrote together actually got to be released. We wrote it in half a day.
I know! And Corey Taylor is someone that I had a little contact with a few years ago over some messages on Twitter, and he was just really open-hearted. We had done a few sessions where each of us were out at the time together a while back, but we didn’t actually speak again until Underworld was finished. I reached out to him to say that I could imagine him on it and that I would love if he could hear it, and he wrote back straight away in capital letters saying that he would love to. He was positive and engaged with it throughout the whole process, and he recorded his vocals in a day. He wrote his melodies and called a response that you can hear in the bridge, which were all of his ideas. It’s really cool, because I am a really big fan of his voice and the way he expresses himself and holds himself. I loved him since I was 15 years old, as I saw him play a bunch of festivals. So yeah, it was a really powerful and touching experience. He continues to really support the song and the album, as it came out a couple days ago, so it’s really positive.
Yeah, it’s actually, too, to give some of your younger fans, who maybe weren’t as acquainted with Corey or his music, the chance to kind of open up those doors and experience something different.
I haven’t thought of it that way, like I had never thought of people not hearing Corey before, so that’s awesome.
Before I let you go, do you have any parting words of wisdom for your fans?
Sure, I mean, I’ll take an excerpt from one of songs. One of my favorite lyrics on the record is “Stand in your fire.” And that is something that I have been building; it is like looking at my shadowed self and the underworld — which are two concepts that really connected when talking about the band and the way that we shun things that we don’t want to remember; like a weakness for someone else and the feelings we don’t accept.
So, standing in your fire is to burn all the things that we know we are not going to need, and to be with that and have tears that we can instantly wipe away. It is like journeying into a part of yourself that you haven’t yet been brave enough to do. That is from the point of my life where all of the words I just kept hearing didn’t stop, while the underworld continues to exist. So it is an ongoing process and I am living it now, as I put out a record that is still extremely relevant to the moment that I am in at this point in time. So, I really encourage our fans to take that journey with me and know that they are not the only ones doing it.
Catch Tonight Alive performing at Union Transfer in Philadelphia Feb. 18, at House of Independents in Asbury Park on Feb. 19, and at Irving Plaza on Feb. 28.