Maybe not quite to the level of Johnny and June or Sonny and Cher, but the Weepies’ Steve Tannen and Deb Talan are a much-beloved husband-wife duo who have been making delightful folk-pop records for the past dozen years or so. All told, their four albums have sold over a million copies … a million … folk-pop records. That’s no small feat. In fact, it’s a testament to the fact that there’s just something magical about their music. It’s not fussy and not feigned. It just is what it is.
A couple years back, though, Talan was diagnosed with breast cancer and the Weepies’ future was suddenly up in the air. The two leaned toward their three young children and into their ever-present creativity to get them through. The result is the touching new Sirens LP, its 16 songs merging like pieces of a collage to tell the story of that time. Here, Tannen fills in the rest.
It’s a cool record, man. Let’s just get that out of the way right at the top. Job well done.
Thank you. Thank you. It took us a lot to get there, but we’re done and we’re ready to make the next one. [Laughs] Totally serious. Totally serious. … We’re going to L.A. to do the BMI Pop Awards where we’re going to sing a P!nk song … which, like, Weepies at the Pop Awards … what’s happening? I don’t even know, but okay. But we happen to know some of the writers who are going to be there, so we’re like, “Can we extend the trip?” Of course, it’s all on BMI’s dime, so the answer’s no. And that’s fine because we have to get back here because the band’s going to show up and we have to rehearse because we’re actually going on tour.
[Laughs] So is the whole family going along for the ride? Can we expect a whole Partridge Family thing, at some point?
Oh, yeah! It is the Partridge Family. We already are the Partridge Family. At this point, they’re very young, so they’re all Danny Bonaduce. They’re all playing the shakers, but I think it’s a little like growing up in a household that speaks different languages. You just speak the language. You don’t think about it. That’s sort of where the kids are at with it and we’re just inclusive with everything. We take them everywhere.
It doesn’t surprise me too much — the Weepies at the Pop Awards thing — because people that I would never expect to even know who the Weepies are just gush over you.
That’s nice to hear, but that has not been my experience with my parents’ friends. [Laughs] “Are you guys still doing that? Are you guys still writing songs?” It’s totally like that.
[Laughs] Well, I’m not as old as your parents …
So that’s why. The only thing that finally got my parents’ friends was that we had our picture taken with President Obama and that seems to have turned the tide. Whether they are Republicans or Democrats doesn’t matter, somehow we have the seal of the President of the United States and we count. Now it’s like, “Oh, yeah. They do something that’s a grown up thing.”
That’s instant credibility right there.
Aside from your parents’ friends, what do you think it is about the Weepies that people love so much? Can we pin at least part of it on “Vegas Baby”? Because I think that’s it.
[Laughs] That’s so funny because we were just arguing about whether or not … we’ve not played that song out in, like, a decade. And we have Pete Thomas in the band …
You better play it in Nashville, is all I’m gonna say.
Oh, dude, I’m winning this because Pete Thomas is coming on drums from the Attractions and he digs it. We have Johnny Flower on bass … we have to play it.
Yeah. You don’t argue with Pete. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He’s in the Rock and Roll motherfucking Hall of Fame. Yes. I even saw the induction ceremony. Totally. But, if we do that, we have to cut out something else. And there are other ones that are close to our hearts and there are some we feel we really want to do because we know a lot of people would like to hear them.
Well, you can alternate …
Yes, yes! The set list, at present, is 37 — which is undoable. I just got a questionable text from Pete. He’s the only one who hasn’t been in the band for years. And he was like, “Just checking on those last seven tunes … we’re doing those?” And I was like, “Yes. How many do you do with Elvis?” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Because the Weepies equals Elvis Costello … absolutely!
Well, no, but … [Laughs] Have you seen Elvis? He’s got a spinner and he spins it, and it’s got like a hundred songs on it. So they play whatever the spinner hits. So I know … anyway, he can do it. Everybody else played on all the records, so they all know the songs. It’s no problem.
And it’s freaking Pete Thomas! He can take a nap through the set and still play it.
I believe you’re right. But he’s also, to be honest, he’s more of a professional than I am, for sure. He’s a pro. He keeps us in line. He’s like, “Here’s what I need.”
Got it. Okay, back to business. The other piece of the magic, as I hear it, is the way you guys blend your voices. Tell me about the art of that. How much of it is technical versus intuitive?
It’s almost all intuitive. There’s almost no painful work. There’s time and craft, meaning we will try some things out. But, before I met Deb, I was singing to her whole Something Burning album in harmony in my car. That’s why the first night she came to the show, I literally had been singing to her record the whole way up from New York — like four hours. I just love doing it. And I think Deb’s voice is at the heart of what people respond to. I really do. I mean, I think we’re good writers. I think we have a very accessible style. But Deb has this voice that just slays me and I don’t think I’m alone.
Probably not. I go back to that record … “Thinking Amelia” … I love that song.
Oh, it’s amazing. And “Forgiven” just kills me every time. But when we do some of the harmonies, I will occasionally throw Deb Talan out because she has better chops than me, so I will need some time, sometimes, to figure out the weirder stuff because I’m worse at it. Does that make sense? I have to work a little harder at it. And she’ll be like, “Come on! Come on!” And I’ll be like, “Get out!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] I feel ya. Now, Sirens … Here we are in an era of short attention spans and what not, but you guys really went for it. This thing has 16 tracks on it clocking in at an hour. Was the muse working overtime? What was going on?
Honestly, we weren’t trying to make a record. We didn’t know when we were doing it … Okay, I hate to bring it back to cancer, but I have to.
See? I was going to avoid that altogether.
Well, when we started what became this record, Deb had been diagnosed and we were like, “Well, what are we gonna do? What do you wanna do? This could be the worst year and then end.” Because stage three is serious — beyond serious, if you look at statistics. She was like, “I swear I just want to homeschool the kids, hang out with everybody here, and let’s work. Let’s write and record whenever I can.” So we did. We got what we felt were connected to, actually, a different 16 songs of which this is maybe 10 of them. We brought that to our friends Terry and Rick and Mark who run Nettwerk, and said, “This is what we have.” Terry listened to two songs and said, “We’re putting it out. We’ll put it out whenever you like. Let’s do it.”
After we did that, Nettwerk started getting ready to release it. They have a huge amount of time they release in. It’s a big build up. During that time, we were still working, so we handed them six more songs and just replaced stuff. It felt like it hung together as a record of a time. Used to be, it was a record of an event. That’s why it was a record, like The Sun Sessions. This felt more like a scrapbook, like that was that year.
How’s it going to feel to revisit all that and play these songs live for the next however many months? Is there enough distance from the experience that it’s going to be okay?
Well, fuck. That’s a good question. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Sorry.
Well, I’ll say this. We played “Sirens” live on the air in L.A. last week and it was fine. It was actually fantastic … like really good. When you can feel it, again, it’s always worthwhile. It’s always good. You can definitely phone it in, if you’ve been at it long enough. I’ve seen people I really love and respect pretty much phone some of it in. I’ve seen James Taylor do “Fire and Rain” probably 50 times and do I really think he feels all of it? No. I really don’t. I’m pretty sure he glosses over some of the second verse. But, with “Sirens” being so fresh, I feel like we really were feeling it and that was good. It was a good experience.
Yeah. And, since it did come out a positive result, in the end … that’s something to hold on to.
Exactly. Exactly so. That is totally a positive from it. I think part of the reason we want to go on tour is to have that live experience again, though. The only thing we have to bring to the table is emotion from a song. So, hopefully, that’ll work to our advantage. But, since you put it like that, I did just get a little nervous. I was like, “Oh, man. That could be messy.”
But it could also work to your advantage.
I hope so, but now that you said that … I mean, Deb is a very open person and she absolutely can be waylaid by an emotion or a moment. We put off a show in L.A. this last time for a half hour because of a little thing that happened beforehand. It’s a real thing that I think most people would be like, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s go. I’ll deal with it later.” But, that’s hard to do.
I would think, too, if you’re a known figure at any level, with your life on display … what’s that like, to go through very personal experiences in a public way? Seems like it would be one part invasive and one part supportive.
We’re so low-profile that I don’t think it applies. But we did have a discussion, right when Deb got diagnosed, because we do have some people who care who we don’t know. So it was, “Do we tell the world or do we keep it? Do we go the Sheryl Crow way or keep quiet about it until it’s over?” Deb decided, “No. I’m not going to be able to maintain that. I can’t lie very well.” So we decided we’d go the other way. We’ll just open it up. We’ll blog about what’s happening. We’ll email anyone back. We’ll call everybody back. And the love that came back was incredible and definitely made us think we will never go into politics. Because I’m sure that the hate side of that has got to be unknowable. I think that only sociopaths could be successful politicians. There’s no way you can’t be affected by the love coming at you. And I’m sure the same is true of the hate.
Yeah. No doubt. Okay, last question … Because I was a girl who wanted to be a boy, I have to ask you about “Boys Who Want to Be Girls.” Talk to me …
That’s one of those moments I was just talking about with Deb. We lived at the heart of the beast in L.A. — Hollywood at Santa Monica and La Brea. That is a big congregation spot for the trans community. It’s also a high drug area, so the cross-section of that is on display and, if you are walking your one-year-old and your three-year-old around there every day, you can’t help but come up against it. And if you are porous people like we are — and Deb, particularly — you can’t help but embrace it and have it permeate where you’re at. Deb was definitely affected every day there.
When we moved away and came to Iowa, that wasn’t the only one that came out, but I think it was the best one. She was just writing that one day and it’s directly about a couple of the people there who we got to know and the question of your own identity. Is it easier for people who want to be something else? Is it easier for people who want to be something similar, but not exactly who they are? Is that easier? Is it? Or is it the same? I’m not sure the song has an answer, but I think it was a really beautiful exploration.
I don’t think it needs an answer, if it has the question and gets people just even thinking about it … particularly parents.
That’s fantastic, because we were worried. We got a little heat early on from one of our close friends. We shared the record with maybe 12 people. And we got a little heat because some people were uncomfortable with us raising a subject which is not our issue, particularly. It was a trans guy who was like, “You know, you don’t really have a right to comment.” And I was like, “Well, we’re not commenting other than our feelings on being in that world, in that moment.” So, we went with it anyway, but I can see criticism and I accept it. I hope that the discussion is the greater part of it.
Yeah. And I think it’s admirable, and I think it’s brave when a hetero couple — with all the privilege that that entails — looks outside themselves and does wonder what it means to be “other.”
Oh, man. You so get it! Oh, thank you. Thank you.
I have a lot of friends with kids and they come to me and ask me the questions like this. My best friend’s daughter has a male doll that she calls a her, so it is.
The other thing is, our two-year-old has really taken to being all the female characters in whatever she reads and it’s so natural to experiment with that and to see what is fitting. It doesn’t bother anybody. It doesn’t hurt anybody. I don’t know what the greater social answer is to getting back to that. But it’s worth talking about.
Absolutely. Especially, as parents thinking about that … my goodness, I’d rather have a whole bevy of parents contemplating it because, hey, it may end up being your issue. You don’t know yet.
It will. Of course it will. It is. I feel like we’re a little bit in the Dark Ages talking about this stuff. There are all sorts of ways in which we’re going to look back, in 50 years, and go, “What was the attitude? That wasn’t really the attitude!” Like, “No. I swear. That was the attitude. They closed the school. They wouldn’t let him use the bathroom.”
I’m betting 20, maybe 30 years, it’ll be that, with the way things are progressing.
I hope so. Here in Iowa, it seems very progressive where we are in Iowa City. But I know, traveling around, we haven’t quite turned the corner. So, I don’t know.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.