BOSTON — The tour bus is parked in front of the Paradise, a neighborhood rock club not far from Boston University. Inside, the three members of the Waifs are hammering out a set list, passing around a laptop like a joint. Cut, paste, cut again — until everybody agrees on the song titles glowing on the screen.
“You witnessed a rare thing there, actually,” says Vikki Simpson, 31. “We were discussing this without arguing about it. Typically one person has to do it or there’s a big argument.”
“And the irony of it,” adds Josh Cunningham, 31, “is that every night, it seems to be a huge drama to get this set list together, and then it never really varies that much.” He laughs and sprawls out on the couch.
Simpson can’t get too comfortable, though. She’s seven months pregnant with her second child. Her sister, Donna Simpson, 35, who is due on the same day, has politely excused herself from the interview to sing with her husband, Ben Weaver, the trio’s opening act. After the show, the tour bus will cruise on to a few gigs in New York. Then — after 13 years of creating their folk-country music together — they’ll return to their native Australia for an extended break.
The Waifs might be the most popular festival band you’ve never heard of. Merlefest: 1,200 albums sold. Telluride: 800 albums. Festival International de Louisiane: 700 albums. Newport Folk Festival: 500 albums. And by the end of their energetic Paradise show, it was nearly impossible to edge past the dozens of cash-clutching fans at the merchandise table.
“Throughout the whole process, we never really aspired to have a career in music,” says Cunningham. “We started out playing and traveling around our own country and having a bit of an adventure. We never really had that much ambition, so I guess it’s surprising, in a way, to have gotten where we have and experienced the things that have happened without really having that intense drive to get there. This all just kind of happened organically as we drifted along.”
In January, the trio issued A Brief History …, although that title is only half-accurate, as the double-disc set collects a live version of nearly every song from their three studio albums, including fan favorites like “Gillian,” “Lighthouse,” “Crazy Train” and “The Haircut,” as well as new songs like “Bridal Train.”
A more formal history goes like this: Donna learned guitar from her father at age 15, with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” being the first song in her repertoire. Three years later, Vikki figured out how to play “House of the Rising Sun.” Energized by music, they bought a camper van in 1992 and busked all around Australia, playing Dylan songs wherever they could and scrounging money so they could stay on the road.
The sisters met Cunningham at a club in Broome later that year. After a jam session, Donna invited him to join their duo as a guitarist. Vikki was reluctant, to say the least, but Cunningham accepted, leaving his rock band to live in the van with the sisters. They toured around the continent for three years, evolving into capable songwriters in their own right. (The title track of the live album brightly explains the whole saga.)
The first of four independent albums arrived in 1996, and they started recording shows in 1997. Audiences caught on to their laidback approach, intrigued by cheeky, slice-of-life songs like “Billy Jones” and “The Waitress.” When the trio released “London Still” — Donna’s somewhat melancholy reflection on leaving home to live for a year overseas — everything clicked. The subsequent album Up All Night won four ARIA awards (Australia equivalent of the Grammy) in 2003, including trophies for best blues/roots album and best independent release. It was also certified double platinum.
“We weren’t even in the country when all that happened,” Vikki says. “We were in the States the whole time touring, so we were quite distant from all that success. We were hearing about it, and we literally flew back into Australia for one night to collect the ARIAs and then back to L.A. the next day. That was a combination of a year’s worth of buildup and success that the band had been attracting, and we sort of experienced it all in one night. And we were very jet lagged.”
They still perk up, though, when they talk about opening Bob Dylan’s Australian tour in 2003. It was “something you’d never dream of,” Vikki says. When the maternity leave concludes, she wants to record “a heap of stuff.” Cunningham says those sessions might include a Nashville-born country album.
“It seems like ’roots music’ is the broader term when folk music a bit of commercial success,” Vikki says. “But I mean, we’re not strictly folk anymore. Actually, I think we’re becoming more countrified now.”
“More countrified, more Americana,” Cunningham adds. “That’s probably as a result of having toured over here for so many years. We go to the festivals, and we get exposed to a lot of that sort of music.” He cites Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Jackie Greene and Patty Griffin among their favorites.
Onstage, Vikki can wail with the best of them. Donna’s rich baritone characterizes her compelling narrative songs. And Cunningham, though singing occasionally, provides a strong, country-influenced backdrop on his hand-built guitar — or a ukulele, if you’re lucky.
“We’re rehearsing quite a few new songs on this tour,” Vikki says, “but not to the point that we’re ready to go in and do an album yet. I guess we just don’t feel focused enough. There is so much going on in our personal lives at the moment. I feel we need to focus on things. Add an album and then the follow-up that comes with that, too. We just need to take the time.”