Jenna McDougall continues her mission of empowerment through new solo project Hevenshe

Jenna McDougall is starting from scratch. Her band, Australian pop-punk outfit Tonight Alive, went on hiatus in 2019, wanting to take a break from their rigorous international touring schedule to focus on their mental and physical health. When Tonight Alive went on hiatus, it was a really high priority for me to start figuring out how to write for myself because it felt like the first opportunity I’ve ever had,” she says.

Her Tonight Alive co-writer Whakaio Taahi had left the band shortly before Underworld’s release. Writing by herself proved to be a challenge. “I was desperately trying to write music but constantly hitting a wall and not having the muscle memory yet and thinking that my creativity depended on collaboration,” McDougall says. “But I really was determined to rewrite that story for myself, that I didn’t have to depend on a co-writer or a producer to help me find myself.”

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During lockdowns in Melbourne, McDougall bought a piano, which opened up her creativity and unlocked her self-expression. “Being on hiatus, and then going into the pandemic, was this three-year grace period where I actually got to explore that potential, and that’s why Hevenshe was born,” she says. And now, she’s introducing Hevenshe to the rest of the world. In addition to writing the songs herself, McDougall is also self-managing the project, and is releasing the music on her own label, PREMA Records.

Her first single, “No One Will Ever Love You,” is out today (June 7), just six days after McDougall turned 30. “The day before my 16th birthday was the day that Tonight Alive was born,” McDougall says. “It’s really interesting that around this whole June period, it’s such a transitional, fertile time, where things have been born, including me! I was born in June and the band and now Hevenshe. It’s really exciting.”

Where did the name Hevenshe come from?

I’m very attracted to ethereal, transcendental, esoteric themes. I’ve referenced heaven a lot in Tonight Alive’s music. Something I shied away from as a young adult and teenager definitely was my femininity. I’ve always presented in an androgynous way. And I think a lot of that was to do with a matter of being safe as well, being accepted, being taken seriously. Not just looking androgynous, but literally in a masculine kind of presentation because that’s the easiest way, unfortunately in the scene, for me to have felt like I could be taken seriously and to not stand out any more than I already did, as a female.

Hevenshe’s an invitation for me to embrace womanhood and femininity, and not just that, but the Divine Feminine, beyond what some people think is feminine, in the external form of superficial things like having your nails painted, or your hair dyed and things like that. So I’m trying to unlock a deeper connection with what it means to be in the female form for me.

When it comes to doing this project, what’s your mission?

It’s not so different to what I wanted to achieve and want to achieve still with Tonight Alive. I want to be a representative of an empowered human being, whether female or not. I want to give a soundtrack and an example to people of a free and liberated individual who is at ease, at peace, at home in themselves. And that’s not something that comes naturally to me — that’s my medicine as well. So I’m trying to take the medicine and distribute this medicine of an example of power and freedom.

My mission really hasn’t deviated from that. I still want to see my supporters, my listeners live a rich and full life, and I want to bear witness to that. And I want to create music that inspires that for them. It’s probably my life’s mission. Even beyond Hevenshe, I’m sure that that’s still going to be what matters to me throughout my whole life.

How would you describe the sound of the project, since we’ve only heard the first single? 

Structurally, it’s all guitar-orientated. I’m going to lead the project with upbeat, wholesome, heart-centered songs. What this ended up sounding like is nothing like I intended. It was a bit of a surprise to start writing indie-leaning rock music, but it’s still the essence that I’ve always had of melodic, generally uplifting scales. I try to create an open landscape in my music — I just see this as the type of music that I would want to listen to at the end of a night at a festival, and it’s a heroic, triumphant, heart-wrenching, life-is-beautiful moment. I see it like that, or I see it like on a road trip on your own. It’s kind of like solitude, empowerment, reflective music.

You mentioned you were going in an indie direction. I also heard a lot of classic rock on that song, and these other types of rock that you didn’t try in Tonight Alive. Was it music you always wanted to try out or something you got into recently?

I got into the War On Drugs in 2018, and they’re a band that significantly altered my taste, and my preferences for music, and my appreciations have changed. And that’s pretty retro-inspired indie rock, and it’s cinematic, and it’s really beautifully produced and poetic, and really guitar-centered. So I think that’s been a big influence. But I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll. I’m a child of Queen and AC/DC and Elton John and the Eagles, and my dad’s a real rock ’n’ roller. I think that’s probably just naturally coming forward now that the angst of my teens are maybe behind me. The nice thing to feel in myself is that there’s still a real passion that I can’t shake. [Laughs.] Just because I’m not angry doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about something. 

How did “No One Will Ever Love You” come together?

I wrote this song after I got home from the cinema, and I’d watched Bohemian Rhapsody. I just went straight for my guitar when I got home because I was so inspired by the movie. The verse and chorus came in one go. I was really surprised by what it sounded like. But it felt really natural and real. In a way, it reminded me of Courtney Barnett, who’s an Australian rock artist. and that excited me because I was like, I think I sound Australian for the first time…I feel like I sound like where I come from, for the first time. That’s a really significant thing for me because, as Australians, we’re very self-deprecating, and we disown and dishonor where we’re from most of the time.

I wrote this song in 2019. So it’s been with me for a long time. It’s felt like a friend. And when I wrote it, I was like, “I can do this.” It was a significant moment of writing a song on my own. It’s the song that as soon as I had it, I was like, “This is coming out first.” Because I think that Tonight Alive fans are going to understand this. It’s not going to be a shock — it’s going to feel familiar.

What are your plans for new music after this song? What can we expect?

I just want to go hard and go nonstop. It’s been an interesting ride being an inactive artist, and it was really necessary because otherwise, this would never have happened. Tonight Alive was born in a time where there was this old paradigm of you write and record a record every two years, and you just tour relentlessly, and I love touring, but I don’t want to wait two years to make and release a record ever again. I want to record nonstop because I have the ideas, and that’s refreshing too, just to be inspired. I’ve got three albums’ worth of music that need to be recorded. I’m just getting the ball rolling now, and I want people to know that they can expect a lot of music from Hevenshe.

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