Compass Studios, Nashville, February 2007. Nobody's fretting about making an album here, much less the challenge of following a triple-platinum, multi-award-winning independent roots music landmark of five years earlier.
As tourists take pictures of the studio's scarred back wall – the place where Waylon Jennings is said to have practised throwing his bowie knife between takes back in the '70s – this band is just here to take stock after a break; to sing, play, kick ideas around.
Then an album happens – kind of a spontaneous souvenir, in a sense, of the joy of making music together. That's the Waifs for you.
Sun Dirt Water is an album born of time and distance. The geographic space between singer-songwriters Donna Simpson, Vikki Thorn and Josh Cunningham, and the long hiatus since their last studio triumph, Up All Night, created a kind of vacuum that these new songs could hardly wait to fill.
"We had more songs to choose from than we've ever had," says Josh. "We ended up recording 21 or 22, so the hardest part by far was working out what to leave out and what fit together, to give the fans something that has some unity and variety and still represents where we've come to."
Vikki agrees. "This was by far the most difficult Waifs album, in terms of finding cohesion with our different songwriting styles. But for that reason I feel it's our most interesting and risky album to date."
It's Vikki who sets the bar with the title track. "Sun Dirt Water" is a worldly, seductive groove that meanders between styles with insouciant authority – slinky jazz, elegant country, smoky blues – and effortlessly nails what Josh calls "our finest recorded moment to date."
"I think the recording has a really great energy to it and the vocal is the best vocal on any Waifs record. It really sets the tone for the album, for me, cause it has that great, liberated energy and expression in it."
From the darkly evocative storytelling of Donna's "Vermillion" and "Sad Sailor Song" to Josh's upbeat country spiritual, "Eternity", this sense of liberation runs an exquisitely loose thread through the Waifs' fifth album.
The eerie introspection of "Love Let Me Down"; the gleeful, organ-fuelled pop of "Stay"; the electric riff rock of "No Such Thing As Goodbye" and the old-time ukulele thrum of "Sentimental" are worlds apart stylistically, but they spring from the same well of timeless roots influences, and an instinct for collaborative expression that only comes with years traveling the same road.
For those who came in late, the road looms large and long in the Waifs' inspirational tale of self-determined international success. It intersected for sisters Donna and Vikki and guitarist Josh in a remote corner of the Western Australian desert some 15 years ago.
Their mobile cottage industry of campfire-crafted songs and independently recorded, gold-selling CDs slowly reached critical mass in Australia between '96 and '00, while their captivating on-stage chemistry spilled into a contagious festival following through Europe and North America.
The Waifs' rainswept radio smash of '02, "London Still", led to a US release deal with Compass Records and ever more touring – with Bob Dylan among others – while their aforementioned watershed album, Up All Night, stormed mainstream and alternative charts back home, and picked up ARIA Awards including Best Independent, and Best Blues And Roots Release.
A live retrospective, A Brief History, was another multi-platinum success in '05. It was also a full-stop of sorts, as Donna and Vikki concentrated on motherhood in their respective homes in Minnesota and Utah. After a final show in New York in August, Josh joined Missy Higgins as a hired gun.
As usual, bassist Ben Franz and drummer David MacDonald are back in the engine room for Sun Dirt Water, which was co-produced by Compass Records' Garry West. "He was all about getting good sounds up, getting everyone to feel good and capturing a mood and a moment," says Josh. "The songs are essentially as they were when they were written."
Indeed, some are presented here exactly as the first take found them. Others are subtly embellished by some of Nashville's most esteemed session players: Hammond organ by Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan); steel guitar by Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor) and a splash of clarinet in the home stretch by Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck).
Together, they reach a new benchmark of worldly eclecticism, without surrendering one iota of the homegrown and unaffected heart and soul that's made the Waifs one of Australia's most loved and admired musical exports of this century.
"I guess every record signals a new phase," says Josh. "Our focus has shifted a lot in the last few years – not that we were ever hugely focused on our career as such; it was always just about playing music – but the band was always the biggest part of our lives.
"Now that the girls have got families and the like, music is something that we do in between times, rather than all the time. It really makes you appreciate what you have and what you do. It feels like a time of positivity. We're happy with the record we've made and we're looking forward to getting on the road and showing everyone what it's all about."
Sun Dirt Water is out September 1st, 2007 through Jarrah Records and MGM Distribution.