“Transformative.” It’s a big word, but it might actually understate the changes Tonight Alive has experienced between recording the 2016 album “Limitless” and starting to tour the band’s newly released follow-up, “Underworld.”
The Australian band has switched record labels, reshaped its sound and seen the departure of a treasured member. Singer Jenna McDougall suffered through major physical and emotional challenges before reaching a place now where she’s able to live a far healthier, happier and authentic life.
The “Limitless” album marked a crossroads of sorts in the band’s career. Its second album, 2013’s “The Other Side” received strong reviews and debuted in the states at No. 44 on “Billboard” magazine’s album chart. It had its debut at No. 5 in the group’s native Australia.
The momentum had Tonight Alive’s Australian label, Sony, thinking a commercial breakthrough with “Limitless” was within reach, McDougall said. And those ambitions translated into what in some ways was a difficult album for the group, which at the time included McDougall, guitarists Jake Hardy and Whakaio Taahi, bassist Cameron Adler and drummer Matt Best.
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The first hurdle came when the band members submitted what they thought would be the songs 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 to come up with new songs for the album.
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 made the making of “Limitless” a trying experience at times for Tonight Alive.
“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 said. “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 just trusting our instincts.”
For McDougall, the stresses of making the album and the mixed reception and lukewarm sales performance of “Limitless” contributed strongly to some serious physical and mental 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 said. “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 like my eye, I’d get black and white light in my eyes. 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 I was being pushed, something was pushing me back. I pushed my voice back inside my throat, I think.
“So I went to a hospital, I went to doctors, yeah, I got acupuncture. I tried a lot of different remedies,” she said. “But I think on a spiritual level, that was really representing the truth being suppressed and not feeling like I was doing it (music) for me.”
The mental and physical issues continued as Tonight Alive toured behind “Limitless” and extended right through the recording of “Underworld.” At various points, McDougall battled depression, fatigue and eczema – a skin condition that had long afflicted the singer and actually caused the band to cancel a spring 2012 tour.
Throughout this period, McDougall tried 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.
The band also got to a healthier place musically with “Underworld.”
After “Limitless,” Tonight Alive parted ways with Sony (as well as their American label, Fearless Records) and signed with Hopeless Records in the states and international and with UNFD in Australia. Both labels told the band to make the kind of album they wanted to make, which freed McDougall and Taahi as songwriters and the band as a whole to fully follow their musical instincts.
McDougall decided to confront some parts of her personality and be totally honest in her lyrics. Taahi returned to the riffy, harder edged rock that he loves.
The result is an emotionally impactful album in “Underworld” that retains the pop sense Tonight Alive has always shown, but shifts toward a heavier, more rock-centric 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 some 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.
Taahi decided last fall to leave Tonight Alive to pursue a writing and producing career in Nashville.
The group has decided – at least for now – not to replace Taahi and will perform as a four-piece on the current co-headlining tour with Silverstein. The group’s hourlong set, McDougall said, will include a cross section of key songs from Tonight Alive’s four albums, and the group has settled on a way to compensate for Taahi’s absence – using prerecorded guitar parts to fill the gaps in the band’s live sound.
“I want to say we’re not ashamed to play tracked guitars,” McDougall said. “Those guitars were recorded by the members of our band. It doesn’t feel in any way like cheating or cutting corners.”
Silverstein & Tonight Alive
Where: Ace Of Spades, 1417 R St., Sacramento
When: Tuesday, Jan. 30
Time: Doors at 6 p.m.