The last time I interviewed The Weepies’ Deb Talan, things got decidedly heavy, fast. First, a little background: At the time of the interview in 2015, I was living in a micro-home with my wife and puppy in the hills of Oakland, CA, and was hovering right around rock bottom. My freelance writing career was tanking, and assignments were drying up (ironically, California was also suffering from a seemingly endless drought). The few writing jobs I did pick up, I poured my heart and soul into—and one of those was a piece on folk-pop duo The Weepies, of whom I’d grown fond over the previous handful of years. Ever since I’d gotten the advance CD for 2008’s Hideaway in the mail, I’d been binge-listening to it, memorizing the lyrics and proselytizing about its wonderfulness to anyone who’d listen. I honed in on the second track, “Orbiting,” as my favorite, and just listened and re-listened to it, over and over again. After seemingly 1 million spins, I still had no idea what the song was about, and it had equally been bothering the music-lover and journalist in me. So, as sort of a throwaway question, I asked Talan what the song meant—if only to get some closure for myself. That’s when all the air got sucked out the room.
Talan first paused, and I could hear her ask her bandmate and husband, Steve Tannen, off the phone, if it was OK for her to talk to me about the song’s meaning. It was clearly a sensitive, personal subject. I couldn’t hear his response. She then got back on the phone and explained that she’d done some digging on me before the interview and had come across a recent interview I’d done with the frontman of a ’90s alternative rock band, in which he detailed being sexually assaulted as a child. After reading that story, Talan said she felt she could talk to me about something bad that had happened to her as well. What came out was a heartbreaking story about being sexually abused, a situation that upended and promptly ended her relationship with her parents, whom she hadn’t spoken to in more than a decade. “Orbiting,” it turned out, was written for her mother in the aftermath. (Listen to its two sister songs on the album, “Antarctica” and “Old Coyote,” to get the full picture of the pain, suffering and healing process that followed.) Mind you, long before the #MeToo movement got underway—and Talan was not only telling a journalist (me) the story for the first time, but also bringing it to light during a particularly trying time in her life: She was battling Stage 3 breast cancer and had just gone through a grueling, brutal regimen of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. (Thankfully, she’s in full remission at this time.)
So when I found out three years later, after returning from Cali to Brooklyn and then moving to Troy—which, eventually, brought me to saratoga living magazine—that The Weepies would be playing at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall this September 29, I immediately bought tickets and scheduled an interview with the band. It turns out that The Weepies have more than one connection to the Capital Region. In fact, they’re old pros. “Back in the day, we played at Caffè Lena,” Talan tells me. “And one of my college roommates lived in Saratoga Springs for quite a few years, and she now lives in Troy.” (It was just a happy coincidence that the band ended up playing there.) Tannen, on the other hand, tells me he attended the NYS Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga back in the ’80s, staying at Skidmore College while there and seeing one of his first-ever concerts—38 Special with Night Ranger—at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “It was so instructional,” he deadpans.
For those unfamiliar with the band, Talan and Tannen first met while performing as solo artists in Boston, later marrying and moving to California, where they started a family. (The couple now has three children—all boys [ages five, eight and ten]—whom they homeschool.) A handful of years ago, they left California and settled in Iowa, where they’re now based. Armed to the teeth with folk-pop gems and expert songwriting skills, they’ve made a number of friends in high places, including actress/musician Mandy Moore (This Is Us), who co-wrote a trio of songs with the band for her 2007 album, Wild Hope, and President Barack Obama, who featured their song “Can’t Go Back Now” in a 2008 campaign ad. They also had songs placed in TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl and How I Met Your Mother. Over 12 years, the band has released five studio albums—Happiness (2003), Say I Am You (2006), the aforementioned Hideaway (2008), Be My Thrill (2010) and Sirens (2015)—all of which are peppered with songs that will likely show up in their upcoming live shows.
However, diehard fans might be bummed to learn that the band doesn’t really have any new music coming out anytime soon. (Though Talan just released a wonderful 13-song solo album, Lucky Girl, in 2017.) “We are usually really prolific, and we haven’t been,” says Tannen. At the time of this latest interview, they’d just recently finished a 23-date tour, where they paid homage to the 10th anniversary of Hideaway, and for the first time in a while, were content not putting pen to page. “We’re on our first nostalgia tour,” they both say in near unison, dissolving into laughter. “Troy’s going to get the tail-end of it,” says Talan. Fans should expect to hear a heavy dose of tracks from Hideaway, as well as a curated set-list of songs the band has cherry-picked from their deepening catalogue—some of which have awakened memories of the past. One those tracks, “Lighting Candles,” reminded Tannen of the time right before the birth of his and Talan’s first child. “I forgot all the fears before you have a baby,” he says. “Is the baby going to be healthy? Is the mom going to survive? What’s going to happen? It’s so huge. And then, after the first year, you totally forget.” Of course, they’re also playing “Orbiting,” which Talan tells me she’s used as an opportunity to “speak out as a survivor and call out to other survivors in the audience.” She says she feels less intimidated to talk about her experience now that #MeToo has gone global. “Since I’ve done a lot of my own healing through all of this, I almost feel a responsibility to have a voice about it for those people who aren’t there yet,” she says. Adds Tannen: “We’ve gotten more fan emails about this subject on this tour than we ever have before.”
That didn’t mean all the cities on the recently wrapped tour responded the same way when Talan brought up her hyper-personal story of abuse onstage. In San Francisco, for example, the crowd immediately cheered and showed its support, while in other cities, there was an air of “discomfort,” says Tannen. “It was almost a feeling of shock, initially,” says Talan, followed by intense attention and then a deep breath or “sense of relief.” In other words, the emotional energy was palpable. “I’m not being flip here at all, but I thought those cities felt better as a setup than those who were fast with acceptance,” says Tannen. “It felt like you were standing up,” he says to his wife. “I felt really proud about those shows.”
When I ask the couple why they decided to leave California for Iowa, they gave me all the usual responses: the need to get away from the frenetic California city life and ability to raise their children in a quieter environment—why my wife and I left Brooklyn for Troy. Which got me thinking out loud: Maybe the reason the band wasn’t writing any new material was because they’re just content. They chuckle. “There’s a songwriter named Catie Curtis who has a great song that says, ‘Love and happiness ruined my ambition,’” says Tannen. “There’s a deep truth to that.” Don’t get them wrong; their 2015 album, Sirens, isn’t the last music you’ll be hearing from The Weepies. “I feel like we’re shifting into whatever gear is next,” Tannen says. At the end of the day, I’d be content hearing them sing the phone book in Troy—and whenever they decide to start writing new material again, rest assured, I’ll be listening. I hope you will be, too.