Life has been moving fast for Jenna McDougall, but she’s trying her best to live in the moment. Just days after the release of after the release of Tonight Alive’s fourth studio album, Underworld, McDougall is preparing to embark on the band’s first tour of the year – a stateside run with alternative veterans Silverstein – while doing as much press and promotion as possible. “I’m in Massachusetts right now. I don’t really know where. We drove overnight and we have an in-store in Hanover later.”
This isn’t the first or last interview McDougall will do today, but compared to the last several days a round of afternoon press doesn’t seem all that daunting. The band performed to what she describes as an “epic turnout” at Unify Gathering in Victoria on the day of Underworld’s release, January 12. Two days later the group flew to the US, an experience that ended with McDougall’s luggage being lost, and then they set to preparing for the next run of promotion and performances. “We’re just gathering ourselves at the moment. The next week [we have] in-store performances and acoustic performances, and then we start the tour Thursday. Going straight into it this year.”
Her time spent traveling has presented the opportunity to browse reviews and reactions to Underworld online. The album has been promoted as the band’s most honest release, as well as their most personal, and so far the band’s fans appear largely happy with the result. McDougall loves to see the positive response but admits she tries to limit her engagement with social media platforms.
“I’ve had my little peek online and I really like looking at the things people tag me in when they’re posting about the record and stuff like that,” she says, “but Instagram is mainly the only social media that I use. I peek through messages and things like that but I don’t think about it too much. It keeps my head in a bit of a better place when I don’t. But everything that I have seen so far has totally been awesome.”
McDougall later admits to taking screenshots of positive messages she receives. “People say and feel beautiful things, and it’s really nice that they can use the internet to share that.”
Discussion turns to a fan who posted a photo featuring a tattoo of the flower from the Underworld album cover prior to the record’s release, a fact that surprises and humbles McDougall. “That’s amazing! I kind of disassociate a little bit from things like the record and the band sometimes, it’s just the way that I am. I can kind of separate the record and say the record represents something to somebody, and the songs and the music and the culture that the band is a part of represents something that people can connect with and I don’t necessarily think that has anything to do with me sometimes. I think that a lot of the times, something big is working through me and it doesn’t freak me out, I think it’s amazing, and I don’t take it as a personal compliment. I just think it’s beautiful that I’m a part of it, but I don’t think it’s got anything to do with me in a way. It’s not because of me, it’s that somebody related to something that I also relate to.”
This comment is surprising considering the deeply personal lyrical content of Underworld. McDougall titled the record as such because it reflects an ugly side of herself that she wasn’t able to confront until recently. One of the shining examples of this happens on the lead single “Temple,” which addresses depression and the way we tend to romanticize our sadness. “I just knew everything I did in that was 100% authentic,” she explains. “I was sharing myself in a way I never had before. I just knew where the truth was.”
She continues, “We’ve always [done] whatever we thought we were allowed to do and I remember our conversation in the studio like, ‘it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter that this doesn’t sound like anything we’ve done before and it reminds you of the 90s and there’s no silver lining to the lyrics.’ We always have to talk ourselves out of our views and constructs we’ve kind of felt like we’ve belonged to. That song was a real taking back of our power and expression because even for me, I usually write about things that don’t have a silver lining, which was alarming at first to be doing ‘Temple’ that way, but it was also really freeing. Everything about that song felt like empowerment, sonically and lyrically.”
McDougall turned twenty-five eight months prior to this conversation, not long after writing Underworld. This fact generally wouldn’t matter, but for McDougall, that birthday signified something important, momentous even. She recounts a diary entry from that very day, saying “I’m in my life, I’m living it, this isn’t an extension of my childhood anymore or my teenage years or my early 20s, this is 25. This is a significant age and everything beyond here…I’m probably going to make the mistake of thinking of it as an extension of 25 as well.” She laughs.
“I don’t know,” she continues, now reflecting on life. “It definitely makes me look at things in sort of a different perspective and I guess just being on the road for 7 years and being in a band for almost 10 years, I felt like I kind of had one chapter and I wanted to make sure that 25 came as a new chapter. Even though I’m still touring and still releasing music with Tonight Alive I’m trying to become more present and live more as my authentic self. I [don’t want to live as] a filtered or altered version of myself, which is something that can very easily happen when you’re kind of perceived through a public eye a lot of the time. I kind of learned how to not be so present and not to feel my truth all the time because I was not sure if people could handle it or if I could handle them having it. I guess I’m trying to see myself more as a human and not as a public personality. A lot of people have to see me, and I have to see myself as well. Just coming nearer to the truth of myself and be more authentic and making decisions for my happiness and my growth and not for anything else. And that’s cool, that’s part of maturing.”
Part of being human is feeling pain, which is something Underworld addresses at length. “That’s been a big part of 25, to feel pain and just to know that it’s a process. There’s a lot of things like that in my life right now that’s just like ‘hey, I feel this way right now I need your help’ and request to people in your life too and ask them ‘hey can you just hold me for a few, can you hear me out, I don’t need advice I just need an ear’ and kind of determining the feelings more and asking for what you need and also just being in the moment with how you feel and not trying to quickly get out of it. As soon as you start crying, you’re trying to wipe the tears and it’s like, why are we always trying to finish the feeling? Whenever you’re happy you want the feeling to last so when you’re sad you’re like ‘get me out of here.’ So it’s interesting to see what we can get from being in the moment with each of our feelings more, pleasant or not.”
The conversation remains on happiness and the search for one’s authentic self. McDougall explains, “There’s a Linkin Park lyric, “be more like me and less like you”. You can kind of play with that and get closer to your authentic self. Be less of what people expect and be less of a mirror of what other people already are. Just start extracting all those layers that were developed as a part of fitting in or a part of being accepted or praised by other people by those people’s standards.”
Hearing McDougall talk about her search for authenticity may be surprising to some longtime fans. Tonight Alive has long existed in an alternative grey area due to an impossible to classify sound that is all too often described as being caught somewhere between pop-rock that radio should embrace and pop-rock made for the Warped Tour market. The band has found success by defying expectations again and again, which would lead many to believe they have always felt free to create as they saw fit, but interviews leading up to the release of Underworld tell a different story. To hear Tonight Alive tell it, the band’s decision to join indie label UNFD in Australia and Hopeless Records elsewhere in the world in early 2017 was one of the most empowering moments of their career. The freedom the band felt in their new deals helped McDougall convey everything she hoped to express with the new album.
“I couldn’t have been writing about what I’m talking about now if I didn’t already feel it then and I’ve already reflected everything that’s important to me, I’m just coming closer to living it more truthfully and more frequently and without any of the other interruptions and influences, so yeah this has always been a part of me and I think to me the thing about being fearless and all those kinds of things is something I’ve always been hungry for, so it’s already been present in my life. [Now] I’m trying to live it every day.”
Speaking with McDougall the energy and excitement in her voice are electric. It’s clear she has not only accepted her role of influence but found a great sense of pride and purpose in her ability to make it okay for people to be themselves. Along with the other members of Tonight Alive, she is leading a revolution of self-reliance and confidence that could very well change the course of countless lives. Perhaps even more impressively, Tonight Alive is doing all of this on their own terms, and in doing so creating the best material of their career. The future appears bright, but where could it be headed?
“You know,” McDougall begins, “what I want out of this year is something I’ve already had before. I wanna experience it more consistently. I remember at the end of 2016, when we were on tour with Sleeping With Sirens, it wasn’t that it was any kind of special occasion, that tour, but I was just in the flow and I was up there every night speaking my truth and sharing my soul and just being honest with people and letting the music work through me. I felt that very vividly and consciously every single night. Even though that sounds like a really long time ago, basically after that tour, we started writing Underworld and then only toured half that year in the UK and Australia. So that was… I don’t know, I also felt it in November when we played some shows, like 7 dates in Australia, it was just that connected feeling again. I just know that in the past experience and music and things like that I didn’t feel that consistently, and I guess I want to go into this year just in that mode of like “I am free and because I’m free, others can be free too if they choose.”
Underworld is available now worldwide.