Folk singer Deb Talan has been through more in the last eight years than most people experience in an entire lifetime. In 2013, a little under a year after the birth of her third son, Talan was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, which led to a double mastectomy and months of chemotherapy. Two years later, during an interview I conducted with her for a Refinery29 story about her band The Weepies’ latest album and her bout with cancer, she revealed for the first time publicly that she had been a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and for that reason, had been estranged from her family for a decade. All of that was captured in her song “Orbiting.” By 2017, the #MeToo movement had gone viral, and Talan had begun using the stage as a way to tell her survivor’s story. The following year, I interviewed her again, this time for Saratoga Living, along with her Weepies collaborator and husband, Steve Tannen, prior to a tour stop at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. At that point, the couple told me they hadn’t been writing any new material together, and it will likely stay that way.
On New Year’s Day 2020, just two months before the pandemic touched down, Talan and Tannen finalized their divorce, ending a 13-year marriage and effectively bringing to a close their 18-year professional relationship as pop duo The Weepies, a band that had recorded five albums together, toured around the world (many times with their young sons in tow) and enjoyed the adoration of legions of fans (10 of their tracks on Spotify have garnered more than a million plays). “It was very hard to come to,” says Talan of her divorce. “With most people who get to that place, it’s like your relationship changes and you change and it takes awhile to adjust to the fact that that’s happened.” Despite that fact, Talan will reunite with her ex-husband to play 13 shows from January to March 2022, traveling from Washington State to Oregon, and then to California, Texas and Oklahoma, at which point The Weepies’ will presumably play their final show ever at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City, OK. (Talan says she’s still trying to work out those details with Tannen.)
Last summer, Talan ventured out and started performing solo shows again, something she hadn’t regularly done in more than 20 years, though her most recent solo record, Lucky Girl, which came in 2017, was her fifth. (She did several dates in support of it, too, but The Weepies still took precedence over her solo dates.) “It felt like an emotional and spiritual need to get out and play,” she says, “and I feel like people have been so hungry for that kind of connection and reflection. Live music felt like such a gift to be able to get to people whenever I could.” To that end, she’ll be playing a rare solo show at Saratoga Springs’ Caff`e Lena on August 12 (get tickets here). It will be her first appearance there in 16 years, having last performed at the historic venue as a member of The Weepies in 2005, two years before marrying Tannen and to that end, pre-kids. “The history that Caffè Lena has, you can feel it in the place,” says Talan. “It has that really lovely sense of being part of a lineage in some way, and I selfishly, personally, don’t have a whole lot of experiences that feel like that in my personal life these days—I’m not connected with my family of origin [though I am] with my sister now, thankfully—but I love that intergenerational thing, like that ‘getting together with extended family’ kind of thing, and [playing there] feels like that, but in a professional musical way.” (In regards to her sister, the two were estranged for 12 years, before reconnecting five years ago.)
Audiences at Caffè Lena should expect to hear songs from both Talan’s solo and Weepies days, as well as some deep cups. “There’s a Weepies song called ‘All This Beauty‘ that we could never get off its feet as a live song,” says Talan. “It has a very ‘party’ feel on the album Hideaway, but I’ve found a way to play it in a gently positive way. Going through a divorce, too, there’s all this looking back at all the beautiful things Steve and I did together. Revisiting some of the times that I think of as our ‘Golden Age,’ relationship-wise and musically. So I had a pretty sweet time picking out some of the Weepies tunes from that time.” It’s not lost on Talan, though, that when she’ll be performing those Weepies songs, half of what made it a Weepies song in the first place will be missing. “I find myself reaching back to the person that I was,” she says, in rearranging the songs for one voice. “There’s this grief; you’re letting go of that other half of the collaboration that I had with Steve, which was so beautiful, but I’m also reconnecting with that version or part of myself that maybe I have felt less connected to in the last six or seven years.”
Since Lucky Girl is already four years old, Talan says she’s got a number of new songs that she’ll be road-testing as well, which should be released on a new solo record sometime early next year (she may also be launching a Patreon page). Some of those songs were written during the pandemic. “Initially, I felt pretty shut down,” says Talan, when I asked her if she’d been productive as a songwriter during lockdown. “I had to adapt and connect with friends and try to find strategies for taking care of my sons during this time. And then it felt pretty generative—but it was intermittent, which is often the case for me anyway. I would say that the productive times felt very cathartic, maybe more than usual. It was not dissimilar from going through cancer and being inside music and creating during that time. It felt like this through line connected to a sense of vitality and movement.” She had a particular breakthrough with one of her newest songs, “Holy, Holy,” which she says is about the deep friendships she discovered following her divorce.
In addition to all the changes going on in her personal and professional life, Talan is poised to begin an exciting new chapter soon, furthering her role as an advocate for child sexual abuse survivors. “I have this very slow barge of a website coming together, because I’m trying to put a whole bunch of different aspects into it,” says Talan. “One of the pieces that I feel is going to be a very significant part of it and I have a feeling may grow in a direction that guides me is a survivor blog and resource section for survivors. For me, I just feel like many of the private, anonymous-feeling but often very, very raw and generously sharing people all over the internet were so comforting and grounding to me. I’m just hoping to create a little spot like that, virtually, and then see what happens in more of an in-person way.” She stops and starts a few times before deciding how to phrase what she says next. “I experienced so much abuse, and I think like many survivors that had this at-home experience of abuse and walked around with what felt like a blinking light on their head and ended up experiencing abuse from many other corners as well, I have that life experience. So I feel like the very in-person disclosure and sharing still feels really big to me. When I choose to say something at shows, I’ve gotten fairly polished in the way I say it, because I’ve done it a lot, but it feels thunderous every time. As I’m talking, I can feel it in my body—there’s this big charge to it. I’m trying to be really mindful about how I step into that, and I think creating a resource where I’m able to be very personal in what I’m writing, so that people can see their own story in what I’m writing, that feels really safe to me right now.” What a tremendous gift, then, that she’ll be able to test out that thunder at one of the greatest listening rooms in the world?