The only interview with Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s that is not just about Hey There Delilah

Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's

Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s

Hey there, Delilah
What’s it like in New York City?
I’m a thousand miles away
But, girl, tonight you look so pretty
Yes, you do
Time Square can’t shine as bright as you
I swear, it’s true (…)

A thousand miles seems pretty far
But they’ve got planes and trains and cars

Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's

Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s

I’d walk to you if I had no other way
Our friends would all make fun of us

And we’ll just laugh along because we know
That none of them have felt this way (…)

Hey there, Delilah
I know times are gettin’ hard
But just believe me, girl
Someday I’ll pay the bills with this guitar (…)

Oh, it’s what you do to me
Oh, it’s what you do to me
Oh, it’s what you do to me
Oh, it’s what you do to me

Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's

Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s

The first time I heard Plain White T’s’ signature song which reached number one everywhere in the world in 2007, I didn’t really get any of the lyrics.

I didn’t know the song title, I didn’t know the singer, and especially, I didn’t know a word of English at the time to make sense of the tune.
The only words I picked were trains, planes, cars and New York City, and I had no way to find out more: in 2007, Google wasn’t as diabolic as it is today when it comes to reading your mind.

Tom Higgenson - © to the owners

Tom Higgenson – © to the owners

And so I went to bed with the song playing in my head without knowing that Hey There Delilah had been dedicated by Plain White T’s lead singer Tom Higgenson to professional runner Delilah DiCrescenzo but she never reciprocated the crush and so they were just friends in the end – which is something the entire world seems to find incredibly amusing and they never miss the chance to remind Tom that he was friendzoned and they laugh their socks off every time they interview him.

As far as I was concerned, I was being moved to tears by a tune that was about trains, planes, cars and the city.
But it was somewhat clear that every note, every word in that song were screaming a sentiment that transcended romantic, platonic and everything in between:
Love regardless of the outcome.

Hey There Delilah eventually sold five-and-a-half million copies, reached number one in America on the Billboard Hot 100 and got two Grammy nominations.
Tom Higgenson went on to release numerous studio albums as Plain White T’s lead singer and songwriter, achieved multi-platinum status, and reached worldwide fame and appreciation.
He is in today for an interview about music, life, the legacy of Plain White T’s’ signature song and the Chicago-based independent record label Humans Were Here he created to make independent ventures and promote local pop acts.

Plain White T's in 2008 - © to the owners

Plain White T’s in 2008 – © to the owners

Tom Higgenson with a Ramones T-shirt

Tom Higgenson not wearing a Plain White T

Tom, what achievements are you most proud of?

Obviously, Hey There Delilah was a big moment for me and I just feel very lucky to have connected on that big of a level with the song. We got nominated for two Grammys with that one, that song took us around the world touring and has given us a fanbase that we can go and play anywhere, and there will be thousands of people there smiling and singing along, and that’s pretty amazing. That’s the dream, that’s why you pick up a guitar when you’re 14 years old and start writing songs or whatever: you dream about having a song like that, or a career like that. So yeah, I would say just that song in general and everything that has come from it has been the biggest achievement so far.

How much of the song’s success depends on the backstory, in your opinion?

This is interesting, because with that song, from the very beginning, people had to know, and they would ask “So is this about a real girl?” or “What’s the story?” And yeah, it’s interesting, right? Because I don’t know, it’s just a song. Obviously, there is a real girl who inspired it, but it’s funny that people wanted to know that. I think that’s what you’re saying, like how important do you think the story was to the success of the song – and I mean, I think it was just the song. Whatever I tapped into with that song really connected with people, and so I feel like it was just a natural thing for them to want to know more. So, again, I don’t know if the actual story was that important, but however I wrote that one, and whatever it was about that song, it connected with people, it fascinated people somehow, and I don’t think the actual story mattered, I just think it was the song that made them want to know what really happened or made them curious and made them want the story – whatever that may be. And then the song ended, but it didn’t really, you know, they kept it in here [in their hearts], which is pretty magical. But, at the same time, you told me earlier that, when you heard that song for the first time, you didn’t even really understand all the lyrics, is that correct?

Yes, because I didn’t speak any English at the time. All I picked was New York City and little else. 

That’s really cool. Because I attribute a lot of the song’s success to the lyrics. But it’s really cool to think that even someone who didn’t understand the lyrics was still very moved by the song. That’s really cool. I’ve never ever once had that thought in my life until right now. That’s really cool. Yeah. I mean, I should have because the song was a hit in different countries and stuff, even though I feel like everywhere we travel everybody speaks a little English. Thank you. That’s great.

Which one of your songs are you most attached to?

It’s obviously Hey There Delilah. It’s like a dream to have a song like that. Every time I sit down to write a song, I pick the guitar and I’m trying to tell my story or to tell something that I care about, but of course, the goal is to tell it in a way that other people will feel what I’m feeling, and so I have to give props to that song because as a songwriter you dream of it connecting at that level – not even like success, but just that it hits people and they feel what you’re feeling. So, of course, I’m very proud of that song – and I wish they all had that effect on people. But I’m just glad that at least one of them did. And obviously, we’ve had a couple of more hits and stuff, but none was as big as that one, and to have a song like Hey There Delilah is pretty amazing and pretty special. To this day, it is still trending on socials like Tik Tok every couple of weeks, and there’s a new meme with something about Hey There Delilah all the time, it hasn’t gone away this whole time. It’s pretty amazing that it is still captivating people, and that people are going to hear it for the first time and still feel the way you did so many years ago.

In the Bleeding Audio documentary, you said that you didn’t make any money out of selling more than 5 million copies of Hey There Delilah. How can it be? 

Basically, a record label is like a bank: they just kind of loan you the money to make an album, and then, of course, they do all the promotion. And they’re great, I’m not gonna knock them out, we couldn’t have made it without them. So, this is not even necessarily a negative thing, this is just the truth of the industry. So I’ll try to make it quick for you: let’s say that they spend one million dollars on you, on your album, on recording the album, the studio time, the producer, the mixer and mastering and all that stuff, and then the artwork and then actually producing the CDs and the albums and everything, and then we make a music video and then they go promoting it, and then the radio stations playing us around to do promo stuff. So let’s say a million dollars goes in. And so in our record deal – let’s be generous and say that we get 25% of our music, which we don’t even, it’s less than that. It’s more like 12% or 13%, but let’s just make it easy and say it’s 25%. So, now this is the part when it gets confusing. So, they’ve spent a million dollars, right? And our share is 25%. Now, let’s say that they make one million dollars so that first million comes back – which, by the way, it’s already very difficult to even make a million dollars from music because you have to have a hit, the stars have to align even to make you successful like that. So, now that a million dollars come back you would think okay, we’re recouped, we’ve made the money back for the label. But that’s not true, because out of that million dollars that we own, our share is only 25%, so out of that million dollars ‘loan’ they gave us, even though a million dollars has come back, only $250,000 of that loan is paid back to the label. So they give us a loan of a million dollars, let’s say, and we don’t pay that loan back because we’re only paying it out of 25%. Our 25% has to pay that loan back. So, until they make $4 million dollars, we didn’t pay them back. We don’t make a single penny until we’ve paid them back out of our share and out of our earnings. So, even though they’ve made their money back, we still owe them $750,000 – because we’re only paying them back.

Most people wouldn’t imagine that. They think you earn a percentage from every record sale.

Yes, because you wouldn’t think that now that you’ve made a million, you are still not making money but it’s just them making their money back. And think that our actual percentage is not 25%, it’s more like 13%, so you’ve got to think that by the time we make one penny, the label has made millions off our music before we make our first penny. But then again, I’m not complaining because they are spending a lot of money to promote it and get it out there, and that’s why we need them in the music business. Because we don’t have a radio team, we don’t have promotion teams, we don’t have a million dollars to be able to dump it into our music. Then money comes in from different places, and every time our songs are played on the radio, we get money as we wrote the songs, and this is thanks to the label getting us on the radio and paying for the promo – but from the actual label, you don’t make shit. Then you are obviously touring, and when you have a hit you can go on tour and make a lot of money or whatever, and there are revenues coming from different places. So why don’t you hate the label? That’s because they can build your band up or your songs up to a place where people will buy a t-shirt or a ticket to the show, and your music will be played on the radio and licensed for a film or whatever. There are all these other income streams: for selling your soul to the label, you get it all. But yeah, well, it’s not even really shitty; I mean, it’s kind of shitty. But, like I said, it evens out, and the perks of it even out the negative stuff.

What do you think of the current state of music and who are your influences?

There are always great artists out there. Sometimes you’ve got to hunt a little bit more for them, butI think music is great. There’s always good stuff out there, there’re always people being creative, people being inspired and inspiring. So yeah, I think music is thriving right now. I love music from the past as well, of course, but there’s always good stuff out there if you look for it. I love, of course, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen. And then The Strokes, Panic! at the Disco – I really love The Weeknd. Those are the main influences, I’d say, but then there’s always something that comes along, or some song or some artist that you kind of get into. And I’ve got a solo project called Million Miler, it’s like 1980s vibe, synth-pop stuff and I put out a full album called MILLY. I’ve been listening to a ton of 1980s music, I’ve got all these 1980s playlists that I’m making on my Spotify and stuff. And I’m producing a lot as well, I’ve got a record label called Humans Were Here and I’m doing a lot of producing and writing for other artists with my label. So it’s kind of fun for me as a writer to be able not to just have to write Plain White T’s songs all the time. I can do punk rock for my other band, TLB, so I get not just to be stuck in one box, I get to dabble in all these different little aspects of different genres and songwriting. So it’s good to have different influences – and you can think like “Oh, so you like The Weeknd and you like Panic! at the Disco? And how does it relate to The Strokes or whatever?”. But I get all of those influences out in different places and that makes sense.

What was your dream job when you were a kid? What would you be doing right now if you didn’t ♫ pay the bills with the guitar? ♫

Haha! Yeah, I always thought I’d be a teacher. I had a couple of really great teachers in high school, they were both English teachers, actually, but one of them did like drama as well, she was like the director of the plays in high school. And I was involved in theatre and stuff like that. So, I would love to do that. And then the other English teacher also taught a film class, and I’m a big movie buff. And so yeah, that would be the dream job, to teach films. Honestly, it is still one of my life goals to make a movie or something. I really love movies and I’m very moved by movies, and I love doing music videos because it’s like you kind of get to make a little mini-movie. Videos are one of my favourite things to do in a band, because it gets you to play both roles: you’re a moviemaker and it’s also your song. For example, have you ever seen the Irish movie Once? The movie has some beauty in it, it really revolves around this guy busking and playing the guitar on the street, and he meets this girl, and they kind of start making this music together. It’s so very music-centric, and the whole movie was made with like $100,000 or something. So it was a very low-budget, beautiful movie. It’s not that I want to just make a movie like that, but it was inspiring that you don’t need millions of dollars and some big studio – all you really need is a good story.

What’s the role of luck in success?

It is crucial. I have a buddy of mine who would always say: the harder I work, the luckier I get. And I think that’s very accurate, because if I write songs all day, just sit around in my living room and never put them out or never go out and play or anything, then they could be just as good as Hey There Delilah, or any of my songs, but nothing happens because you’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to get out there and play, you can’t just sit at home and expect things to happen. I don’t mean to say that you just have to work and it’s all gonna happen, because there’s still a lot of luck involved, but you still have to put yourself out there and believe it: I never once doubted Plain White T’s or thought that maybe we should call it quits, it was always like: just put your head down and go. So, I don’t know – to answer your question, luck is still very important, but by working hard, you will put yourself into those situations where opportunities will happen: the lucky breaks will happen because you’re there just to show up, because you’re there and because you’re doing it.

Do you think a band could potentially never split? What does it take to stick together?

To never break up? I mean, yeah, look at The Rolling Stones! Jesus! You’ve got people that break up and then they get back together. And I don’t get that. Even with Plain White T’s we’re still going, even though we’ve had members quit, and you know, this and that. But to me, as long as I want to do Plain White T’s, I would never stop: I love it, it’s fun and it’s my passion – I don’t care if I’ve got to get out there by myself with my guitar, but Plain White T’s will keep going. So yeah, I don’t get why bands stop or call it quits. It’s weird.

What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?

They’re entertaining. I don’t necessarily watch them but I enjoy the idea of giving people a platform. It’s like a talent show in high school, or junior high. I sang a rap song in my junior high that I wrote with my buddy, we had a thing together, we went by T&T which means Tom and Tom, we wrote an original rap song, and we performed it at the talent show, and people loved it, so they made us do it again at the eighth-grade dance. And so maybe because of that, I was like “Alright, people like this, so I got to do music” – you know, I had a very good response here, so I had a little of taste of what it might be. So, yeah, in that sense it’s just the case of taking that talent show to a higher platform and a higher level with America’s Got Talent, but again, I don’t believe that this is going to necessarily launch your career or anything. That comes from you, that’s again, the hard work, you’ve just got to get out there and do it. So I think a lot of these shows are fun, and it’s kind of like an entertaining thing for people to sit home on their couch and watch. But beyond that, I think they’re not out there looking for the next big thing, they’re just trying to have fun. Talent shows don’t hold a lot of weight for me.

With all the rap currently being made, what is the future of rock music?

I feel like music is constantly changing and morphing. In America, right now, there’s a big Emo-rap scene happening, and these rappers coming up are more influenced by blink-182 than Tupac or whatever, it’s like they want to be punk rockers or something. The mix of genres is really interesting. I don’t know if you have Alec Benjamin over there in Europe, he’s an acoustic guy and he’s just a really beautiful songwriter – he tells these stories and he’s really young. And he says that Eminem is his favourite artist, so he’s got the bit of that storytelling but he’s playing almost in a Plain White T’s style, like lighter music, and it’s interesting, it’s a cool melding of a couple of different worlds. And so both rock music and genres, in general, are just kind of merging and melting into one thing – while when I was younger, the punk kids didn’t listen to rap, and the rap kids didn’t listen to rock. And so I feel like maybe because of Spotify and because of just the way the world has gone, nobody cares, and if there’s a cool song, it’s all kind of slowly combining, and so if it’s good, it’s good, you know? If the songs are good, at the end of the day that’s what it’s about: songs. Are you connecting? Does this matter to you, to other people? And if you can get that, if you can nail that, that authenticity and that connection, then yeah, it doesn’t matter if it’s rock, punk, screamo or country.

 

Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided from the band’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners

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