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
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
The first time I heard Plain White T’s’ signature song which reached number one everywhere in the world in 2007 was on a car radio, during an extenuating fight with somebody, in Rome.
I shouted at him to shut up because I wanted to give that song a proper listen, which I couldn’t do because he wouldn’t shut up, and neither would I, and so what I could hear in the end was very little.
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 lyrics.
In fact, I didn’t really understand anything.
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.
And so I went to bed with the song playing in my head without knowing that this masterpiece titled 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, this bunch of idiots.
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.
I correctly assumed that the singer was also the author, and I remember having thought these exact words: somewhere far away, some man has put together something that beautiful while I’m here with this one in the car arguing over foreign politics for six hours. What’s the point, I wondered? What am I doing with my life?
What I did with my life afterwards doesn’t matter, but one million years later, after learning English in the country that won’t be teaching anyone anything anymore thanks to Brexit, I made a list of all the musicians I wanted to interview for this website.
I admire a lot of artists for a lot of different whys and I eventually had the honour of interviewing many of them – but, for some meaning, Plain White T’s frontman Tom Higgenson has always been on top of that list.
The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.
Over the years, I tried many times to secure an interview with Tom, and I always failed miserably.
People have no idea how many doors get slammed in your face when you’re a journalist.
Nobody from America would ever reply to my proposal, not even to say no thanks, and I eventually got so irritated, frustrated, sad and heartbroken that I just wanted to forget about it all.
Then, a few years after, YouTube decided on its own initiative to play Hey There Delilah every single hour on repeat after I hadn’t listened to it for a while.
And so I thought oh, look, my song. How beautiful it is. I will always love it. And now that I understand the lyrics, I treasure it even more.
At that exact moment, I unexpectedly received a message.
Literally out of nowhere, a PR lady from Los Angeles I had never met before asked if I wanted to interview Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s.
Now, I know that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous, but I couldn’t really believe my eyes here: a perfect stranger had just made my day for many days to come.
The occasion for this interview has been the launch of the multi-award-winning documentary Bleeding Audio, which tells the story of the 1990s American rock band The Matches who reunited in 2014. The film features exclusive interviews with blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, Simon Neil and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro and Tom himself, who spoke both as a long-time fan and friend of The Matches and as an industry expert. He revealed where most of the money from record sales goes, and how Plain White T’s didn’t earn a penny out of the record label itself from selling five-and-a-half million copies of Hey There Delilah.
But as he said in the documentary, he cannot really complain: he released numerous studio albums as Plain White T’s lead singer and songwriter, achieved multi-platinum status, had a number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, got two Grammy nominations and reached worldwide fame and appreciation.
In 2017, Tom Higgenson started his own Chicago-based independent record label Humans Were Here which promotes local pop acts and produces Tom’s independent ventures including the punk rock band TLB he formed in 2013 with a bunch of schoolmates and the solo project Million Miler which is all about 1980 synth-pop, summer melodies and dance vibes. In 2021, Million Miler released an album titled MILLY, a single called Zuma Beach and an entertaining video clip.
If you’re in need to see a Converse-booted guy without any horrible tattoos on his arms brandishing a cassette player stereo on the beach and rescuing a green-painted alien girl who would eat the flowers he offers, then this is definitely your thing.
There’s a bit of E.T., a bit of The Goonies and a bit of Back to the Future in the Zuma Beach video, it makes you laugh and get nostalgic at the same time.
Meanwhile, his participation in the Bleeding Audio makes a great contribution to the storytelling of The Matches’ legacy, of what the music scene was like in America in the early 2000s and how you should not assume that the singers you see on TV are all millionaires.
And so it’s thanks to a documentary if I finally got to interview you, Mr 1980s, and now you’re going to be trapped here with me answering everything I’ve always wanted to ask.
And I’m so very happy.
I really am.
Oh man, it’s what you do to me.
Tom, I’ve been wanting to interview you for ages. Thank you so much for saying yes.
Oh, cool. Of course. Yeah, this is awesome.
You know, Ramones are a little band from the States you might not know…
Are you Italian, aren’t you?
I’m 25% Italian as well. My dad’s mom was actually born in Italy. So she’s like 100% Italian. But I’ve only been to Italy once, and never to Rome. It was like Sicily. We played at some US military base or something like that.
It must have been the U.S. Navy base in Sigonella, close to Catania.
That was really cool. Really nice. We had a couple of days off, and I remember we went to the coast, there was this beautiful coast. And there was a little town in the mountains on the coast where we got to eat lunch and spend an afternoon there. That was like the only time we really got to explore or do anything fun. But it was really cool and really memorable. It must have been 2015 or 2016. Well before this documentary came out.
Why should people watch this documentary?
Obviously, you’ve seen the film, so you know that Chelsea Christer, the director, and I, both are great friends with The Matches, and so when I was approached about talking about it, I was like “Oh hell, yeah, of course, I can talk about The Matches all day!”, and you know, I can talk about our experiences and the music, business and all that stuff. At the time, I honestly didn’t know if this was going to be or not as it took her a while to make this film and to get it all together, it was definitely a labour of love for her, and I probably did that interview around 2016, or maybe 2017. It was a long time ago. And so I wanted to support my friends in The Matches, I thought it was a really cool idea that she had. But that being said, from that point when I did the interview, I saw a couple of trailers, and a couple of little rough cuts along the way, and to see where it finally came to the final product, it blew my mind. This was amazing and turned out so well. There were a lot of thoughts like “Oh, is this going to relate to someone who isn’t just a fan of The Matches or to somebody who wasn’t in the scene back then?” And so we were talking about it, and I think it transcended all of that, I think it really spoke about a bigger picture. This is a classic underdog story, it’s like a Cinderella story – like, these guys were so good and they should have made it, and so you’re really hoping for them. I think the film has some really great insights on the pitfalls of the music business and just how hard it is to make it, and I’m just kind of peeling back the curtain a little bit on the business side and on some mistakes that maybe they made or their manager made, or whatever the case may be. So, yeah, I think it’s just super, super interesting and done so well. And even if you don’t like music or don’t know anything about The Matches or that period of time, I think you’ll still get a lot out of it. It’s pretty entertaining and all the music’s great. As I said, I was so impressed with how great it turned out seeing it from day one in the beginning ’till the finished product. It was mind-blowing how good it was.
It’s a good film, yes.
And not just because I’m in it!
What’s the most important thing people should know about the music industry?
I think it’s just like how frickin’ hard it is to really make it. You know this, you know the documentary – and The Matches were really special and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be the biggest band in the world or at least as big as frickin’ Plain White T’s – you know, and have some success. I mean, they have success, of course, but I’m talking about a bigger level, a global level. And I don’t know why that is. And I think that’s like how many friends do you have that are super talented and should be like superstars, but they’re not? So much goes into it, so much work, so much luck, and I think the movie taps into all of those things. And it doesn’t even have to be about music, it can be about anybody with their dreams, just about dreams and finding your way or even following a dream. I think this is the hardest part, to believe in yourself enough to go out and do it. And again, even though The Matches didn’t have a weird and amazing success as a band, it led them to do amazing things, and they found success in other ways through being in the band, so I think that’s also good, that’s good moral – like, follow your dream and either way you’re going to get somewhere awesome. You might not get to exactly where the dream was, but you’re going to take this detour and get somewhere even better, somewhere else. And that’s amazing, and I think that’s the moral of the movie. And so, to answer your question, I think everybody needs to remember that and relate it to their own lives and their own dreams.
In the film, you said that you didn’t make any money out of selling more than 5 million singles. 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. Right?
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 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.
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?
There are always great artists out there. Sometimes you’ve got to hunt a little bit more for them, but I mean, I 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.
Who has most influenced you?
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 which is out on Spotify. 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.
You mentioned Michael Jackson. In Europe, he got arbitrarily cancelled.
Really? Holy Cow!
How about the United States?
Um, no, I mean, he’s pretty normal here. He’s still played all the time.
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.
I am not going to ask you about the girl, but how much of the song’s success depends on the real-life story, 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. You know, obviously, there is a real girl that inspired it, but it’s funny that people want 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.
I almost cried the first time I heard Hey There Delilah without understanding anything, though. I didn’t speak English at the time.
So you heard that song and didn’t even really understand all the lyrics?
All I picked was New York City and little else. It was a long time ago.
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 that 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.
Thank you for making that masterpiece. Which one of your songs are you most attached to?
It’s obviously Hey There Delilah. Like I said, 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 like I said, 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.
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 she was also an English teacher. 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, I would love to make that 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. So, yeah, 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.
And what sort of movies do you want to make?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I mean, have you ever seen the Irish movie Once?
Isn’t it about a busker playing music on the street who goes out with a Czech flower seller in Dublin?
Yeah, exactly. 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. That’s just one of those inspiring movies that you could easily make with the right people or the right inspiration. But yeah, I don’t know. I’ve just put out a music video for that side project Million Miler. It’s called Zuma Beach and is kind of an alien, sci-fi-like video: there is a UFO crash that I’m driving by, and I find this alien girl who survived the crash, and so I take her around and show her things on the Earth, and then we get to Zuma Beach. That was fun, because I obviously write songs that are a little bit romantic or a little bit about love and relationship, but to kind of have fun and tell a totally different story than you would expect, I love that too. You know, I always want to surprise the audience. You’ve got to give them something they have never seen before or never heard before. You can’t write the same song twice or tell the same story twice.
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. Even when you do all the work as you saw in the documentary about The Matches, even if you do all the work and are amazing and go on tour, there’s still that element of luck involved. So 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 for showing up, because you’re there and because you’re doing it.
What’s the legacy of Plain White T’s work so far?
Like I said, we’re lucky enough to have written at least one very successful song. You know, we’ve got a few songs that are very loved by people around the world, but to have a song like Hey There Delilah it’s pretty amazing and pretty special. To this day, it’s 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’s just so nice and 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. So yeah, I think that really, the legacy is just that song. And then the work that we’ve put into it, the love that we’ve put into it with our other music, our music videos, our albums – I mean, those are all gonna be out there forever. So people will always be able to discover everything that we’ve done. And maybe Hey There Delilah will be that conduit, so 20 years from now, someone will hear that song and be like “Oh, that song is so great”, and then they’ll go listen to our other stuff and other songs. Luckily, we have that doorway that people will hopefully always explore.
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.
Is there somebody you would love to collaborate with?
I mean, jeez, yeah. Anybody whom I really love. And I think this would probably be a terrible collaboration and I forgot to mention him as one of my influences, but Skrillex, I think he’s a big deal in music. He came in and really shook everything up, he did something that no one else ever did before, and that’s not easy to do. Now, he’s doing more producing and stuff, but when he first came out, he was pretty groundbreaking. And I love that, I love anybody that can do something different. These days, people kind of think that everything has been done before, but an artist like him reminds us that this is not true.
With all this rap music currently being made, what’s the future of rock?
I feel like music is constantly changing and morphing. In America, right now, there’s actually 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.
Yes, I remember that well.
Yeah, 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?
Do you agree with that?
Yeah, absolutely. Like I was saying about my label, I’ve got all kinds of different artists and I feel like they all somehow fit together because, in my humble opinion, they are all really great. And if all songs are great, 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.
Do you think a band could potentially never split? What does it take to never break up?
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 or whatever… I don’t know, it’s weird.
Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided from the band’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners
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