Transformative. It’s a big word, but if anything, it might actually understate the changes Tonight Alive have experienced between making 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 band member. And in the case of singer Jenna McDougall, the changes have perhaps been even more profound, as she has suffered through major physical and emotional challenges before reaching a place now where she’s able to live a healthier, happier, more authentic life.
Looking back, McDougall realizes she can trace some debilitating physical and mental problems to the time when Tonight Alive was making Limitless and facing some difficult decisions about the kind of album the band would release.
“I mean, 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.”
The Limitless album marked a crossroads of sorts in the band’s career. Their second album, 2013’s The Other Side, received strong reviews and debuted in the states at No. 44 on Billboard’s album chart and at No. 5 in their native Australia.
The momentum had Tonight Alive’s Australian label, Sony, thinking a commercial breakthrough with Limitless was within reach, McDougall says. 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.
The first hurdle came when the band members submitted what they thought would be the songs for the third album. 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 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 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 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 like my eye, 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 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, I got acupuncture. I tried a lot of different remedies,” she says. “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 — 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 try to improve her health, 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 kind of 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 their 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 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.
The writing and recording of Underworld went well, even though McDougall still struggled with health issues through that time. But during the five months off between finishing the album and starting pre-release promotion, McDougall was able to return to Australia, decompress, and with the help of her new diet and yoga nidra, regain her physical and emotional health.
But one significant setback occurred in fall 2017 when Taahi decided 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 instead perform as a four-piece. The group’s set, McDougall says, 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 pre-recorded 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 says. “I mean, those guitars were recorded by the members of our band. It doesn’t feel in any way like cheating or cutting corners.”
On the Bill: Tonight Alive — with The Mighty, Doll Skin. 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, Marquis Theater, 2009 Larimer St., Denver. $17 advance/$20 day of show (if available).