For Vikki Thorn, one third of the Australian folk-rock trio The Waifs, next week’s concert at the Ogden Nature Center is a return to the state where she made her home for more than a decade.
“We were in Utah 11 years,” said Thorn, who lived with her husband and three sons down around Torrey. “We raised our kids there.”
So then, how did a folk singer from Western Australia end up living in Utah, of all places?
“I must have a dozen songs about it,” Thorn laughs. “But basically, it was: I fell in love with a man in Utah. I have at least a half-dozen songs about that, and one of them is called ‘How In the Hell Did I End Up Out Here?’”
Thorn, her husband and their three boys have since moved back Down Under. She spoke to the Standard-Examiner recently in a phone interview from her home on the south coast of Western Australia.
“Sometimes my career dictates where I need to be, and right now I need to be in Australia,” she said. “The Waifs were working a lot in Australia, and living in Utah I was away from home too much.”
Thorn said her boys still consider Utah home.
“They grew up there, and moving them to Australia has been a bit of a culture shock,” she said. “The funny thing is, they’ll be at a skate park in their cowboy boots and Wranglers, which is something you don’t see around here.”
In 1992, Thorn and her sister, Donna Simpson, formed a duo called Colours, and started playing Bob Dylan covers in the bars of their native Australia. Soon they met singer-songwriter Josh Cunningham and by the following year the trio had renamed themselves the Waifs.
The Waifs eventually became the darlings of folk festivals throughout North America, performing their self-described brand of “wholemeal” music.
In spite of a two-year hiatus, 27 years later the band is still going strong. What’s their secret? Thorn thinks people recognize The Waifs as the organic, real deal.
“I don’t say this in a boastful, prideful way, but there’s a real intuitiveness in what we do that I think comes across to an audience,” Thorn said. “It’s like second nature when we play together. We’re able to have a lot of fun, and the music just sort of flows out of us — it’s a very intuitive and natural thing, and I think an audience gets that. We’re very comfortable around each other, on stage, and in our role as performers, songwriters and storytellers. And I think that long history comes across.”
For those unfamiliar with The Waifs, Thorn describes the band as “three distinct songwriters and front people” playing together.
“A lot of people think we write music together, but we never have,” she said. “We’re there to support each songwriter in what they do. As a result of that, there’s quite a bit of genre-hopping within the acoustic realm.”
Unlike some bands, Thorn says the trio also comes across as three totally distinct personalities onstage.
“You have the Josh fans, or you have the Donna fans, or the Vikki fans,” she said. “We’re all different, but we very much are all storytellers. We tend to give a lot of background on songs, or their history.”
Thorn concedes that there has always been a bit of a “healthy sibling rivalry” between her and her sister, who also has three sons.
“We’re naturally competitive and different, and we’ve used that on stage a bit,” Thorn said. “It’s funny, but it’s also a real thing. We always say if we weren’t sisters we wouldn’t be working together.”
Nevertheless, Thorn acknowledges if not for older sister Donna — whom she calls a “strong woman” — she probably wouldn’t be doing this music thing.
“She’s the reason I even do this,” Thorn said. “She picked me up out of high school; it was something I’d never give thought to. She really grabbed the bull by the horns and said, ‘Let’s go on an adventure.’ It was a bit like ‘Thema and Louise’ — that was a pretty gutsy move in Western Australia, which is like the back end of Texas.”
Whether by design or accident, Thorn said The Waifs have managed to avoid the political and topical subjects that often ensnare folk singers. She says they’re not “those kind of songwriters,” and contends that the three artists are more into “the human experience.”
“That’s what moves us, is people’s stories — and not so much opinions,” Thorn said. “And I guess through that you try to find ways you can connect with others, rather than ways to disconnect.”
Thorn said that living in the United States for a very long time, she could feel the social climate changing. Now getting ready to return to the States after a long touring absence, she wondered aloud how that will feel.
“But any chance to be a part of spreading some goodness or some good news is a wonderful thing,” Thorn said. “I don’t mean to sound cliche or corny, but we feel so much gratitude that we’re still doing this 27 years later.”
Thorn said the Waifs have always tried to make a connection with their audiences by sharing their music, but now she thinks the band is doing a better job of listening to their fans’ stories. When they started doing regional tours in Australia again, Thorn says they made a point of getting to know fans after a gig. She now appreciates being able to listen to the audience’s responses to the stories they just heard The Waifs tell onstage.
“For years we’d hide in the backroom, or go out back for the wine and cheese after a gig,” Thorn said. “We’d hang out with other artists, but we didn’t meet anyone.”
Thorn says she looks forward to returning to Utah next week for the Ogden Nature Center show.
“My husband and I were just talking about Utah today,” she said. “I ended up living in a part of the world I never dreamed I would live, and I said to him for the first time today, ‘Thank you so much.’ … He was saying he felt bad that he took me there, but it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had.”