Interview: Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s

Plain White T’s
Plain White T's

Plain White T’s Tom Higgenson: “Sometimes you’ve got to throw something in there that is quirky and you wouldn’t expect”

The frontman and chief songwriter discusses his Illinois pop-punk band’s new self-titled album, his writing process and songs as stories

The new self-titled album from Illinois pop-punk balladeers Plain White T’s is a captivating reminder of the music that has had fans returning to their songs for over 20 years now. Led by frontman and chief songwriter Tom Higgenson, the 13 songs showcase his mastery of melody, sharp lyricism, and ability to tell a story in just three minutes. It’s the sound of a band that have doubled down on what they do well and reinvested their energies in delivering exactly that.

A strong offering from start to finish, a couple of our highlights include L-O-V-E – as poignant as it is earwormy – and closing effort Spaghetti Tattoo on which Higgenson leads the listener through a date, complete with little details that bring the night to sparkling life. That’s one of his big strengths as a songwriter, finding relatability through the use of specifics, and the new album finds him on top observational form.

Shortly before the album’s release, and after a lengthy off-air chat about Higgenson’s love of art that informed some of the ensuing conversation, we got down to the business of songwriting…

I’m always looking for a more fun way of saying something

Is there a different pressure when it comes to releasing a self-titled record?

“It is funny. When you when you see a self-titled album, it’s like, there’s got to be some meaning behind that. A reset button was hit for us in the pandemic. It feels like we’re getting a fresh start. We didn’t know it was going to be self-titled, that was a last-minute decision.

“The album was done and we were going through titles and lyrics like, ‘Oh, what about that, that could make a cool album title?’ Then, when we were doing the photo shoot for the album, I put on a plain white T-shirt and it was all wrinkled. Our drummer was like, ‘Dude, you gotta steam that thing.’ So I took it off and we hung it up on this little rack and somebody was steaming it. Just seeing the t-shirt hanging on this rack, it was like ‘Why don’t we put it in the studio and take a picture of that?’”

“As soon as we saw that it was like, ‘That’s the album cover and we don’t need a title for this album.’ All of the singles leading up to the album had all been black and white photos with no text, so it was perfect. It was as if we had thought about it the whole time, but it was by chance that it all worked out perfectly like that. It feels very intentional, but it was luck.”

In terms of intentions, are you someone who writes with an album in mind or are you always writing?

“A little bit of both, I’d say. We wrote about 30 songs for the album, definitely a few stragglers laying around. I guess towards the end it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got enough songs.’ We loved all these songs but there were too many so we had to cut some. At that point, you can look at it more objectively like, ‘Maybe we need a little bit more of an upbeat song?’ Or, ‘Maybe we need one more slow song?’

“Once you’ve got a full body you can write with intention, but for the most part, the majority of the process is whatever you’re inspired by. If I’m in a fun mood this day, if I’m in a more of a ballad mood, if I just met some girl that has a spaghetti tattoo on her arm and I want to write a song about her… It’s what hits you at the moment.”

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How then does that process tend to work with the band?

“Normally, I write most of the stuff on my own. I co-wrote some of the songs with other songwriters and friends on this album. Usually they remain fairly stripped down and are presented to the band. A lot of the time it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ But then, every once in a while, it’s like, ‘Oh, we love this one!’ You kind of wait for those reactions from the band, but you never know how they’re gonna feel.

“Then we kind of flesh them out together, take them from 75 to 100, with everybody adding their own two cents and their own vibe in there.”

Have you been together so long now that it’s a very natural thing?

“The process on this album was so frickin’ easy. It was really a smooth process. Once there was a song that we all loved and agreed that we should finish for the album, we would literally just get in the studio. There was maybe one or two that had a pre-production kind of jam together. But for the most part it was, get in the studio, try a bunch of shit, have fun with it and fuck around until that magic happened. Some of it was even left really stripped down, with just a guitar and a vocal with a little bit of production – a shaker here and there, things like that.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but it was a really easy process and the band was pretty much on the same page. And you know, there wasn’t any arguments or too much drama or anything like that. It was really refreshing, like a new chapter of Plain White T’s. It was a very smooth, fun album to make.”

Plain White T's

Plain White T’s Tom Higgenson: “From loving music and knowing where your favourite songs take you, you naturally put some of that into your own songs”

And do you already have your lyrics done at that point, or are editing them up to the final moment?

“There were a few songs that I was messing around with lyrics from the original writing session, from having the demo to the actual album. But I feel like once we recorded them for real, nothing really changed.

Spaghetti Tattoo and Girl From Pasadena, both those two songs had different lyrics on the demo. I even hated listening to them because I was like, ‘No, that’s got to be better. I have to think of a better line for this.’ So I actually made new demos for both of those to replace the old demos, before we even decided to put them on the album. A lot does go into the thoughts of the lyrics.”

How does tend to happen?

“On Girl From Pasadena the first line of the chorus is, ‘Now I’m catching every green light on my way to meet you.’ It was me and my buddy, Lil Aaron, writing that song. We knew the melody, we had the ‘Pasadena’ but we couldn’t hit on that line. It was a labour, sitting there silently, looking at each other. Once it was cracked, though, that’s one of my favourite lines on the whole album; that symbolism of you’re driving and catching every green light, you’re in the right place at the right time. There’s something so symbolic about that and it really was the perfect lyric. But yeah, it didn’t come easy. It was like, ‘What the hell fits here? What do we want to say?’

“But then some of the songs, like Spaghetti Tattoo, the lyrics of that song were literally the first thing that came out of my mouth. I’d gone on this date with this girl the night before, had a fun time, and I kind of went over the night and it just wrote itself. So it’s always a little bit different.

“Like I said, there was a line in both Spaghetti Tattoo and Girl From Pasadena that I wasn’t happy with. So I took the time to labour over, not necessarily like crazy, but I knew that these lines could be a little bit better and that the song deserved a better line. It was like, ‘The song is so good but this part doesn’t feel authentic or as real to me.’ So I had to take the time and make it make it right.”

We love the interplay between the guitar and vocal on Girl From Pasadena

“Funnily enough, that guitar part doesn’t change the whole song. The part was there and the melodies were written around the guitar. It’s dumb how simple that song actually is. It’s the same three chords over and over again. The pre-chorus does go to the second chord first, so there’s a little bit of a change to give your ears a bit of a break from it. But yeah, it’s a really basic arrangement with that guitar part.

“When the strings come in, the bridge really feels like it lifts off, almost like you’d expect to see in a musical where people start to dance. That’s a really tricky little moment. The song originally didn’t have a bridge; it just went right back into the last chorus. Again, I felt like, ‘This song is so good, but it needs to go somewhere else for a second.’ So I wrote that string part it in my head. I was hearing those melodies. The chords, nothing changes in the song in the guitar part, but it feels like it does because the strings come in with a counter melody that really feels like it’s going somewhere else. But in reality, it’s still over those same three chords.”

Have you always had that ability to hear what a song may be missing?

“I think so. It’s fun to write without a guitar or anything. Once you have a verse melody or something, you don’t even need a guitar because you can feel where the song needs to go. I guess it’s an instinctive thing, but you can feel where a launching point is needed.

“For that song, I wrote it in my head and I was like, ‘Man, is that even gonna work over these chords?’ We did a little MIDI string thing to make sure it would and it was like, ‘This sounds great.’ Then we gave it to a real cello player to do real strings. But yeah, I feel like it’s instinctual. From loving music and knowing where your favourite songs take you, you naturally put some of that into your own songs.”

One of our favourite lyrics was on the song L-O-V-E, ‘If Dalí painted you, you’d be surreal’. How do you tackle a subject like love that’s been written about so many times before?

“It’s so funny because L-O-V-E reminds me of 1,2,3,4, one of our old songs, in the sense that it’s the simplest possible lyric. Somebody has had to have done ‘L-O-V-E’ in a song before, but I couldn’t really think of one. It almost feels like it’s a cop-out. We were talking about art earlier, and with that Dalí lyric, it’s obviously my art nerd coming out in that moment.

“I had the chorus idea of L-O-V-E and I was like, ‘Is this too basic?’ You don’t want to go Sesame Street on it, you don’t want it to sound like it’s a five-year-old. You want it to have that emotional weight. After having that chorus, what in my mind really saves that song is the lyric that leads up to it, ‘Do I have to spell it out for you?’ Just by saying that, it makes it okay to be like ‘L-O-V-E,’ because you’ve set it up.

“Maybe that’s just an innate thing, ‘How do you get the story from point A to point B and not lose your audience?’ Again, you don’t want to make it sound stupid or too simple. I think a simple line like that makes it all okay.”

Plain White T's

Plain White T’s Tom Higgenson: “I put my whole heart on my sleeve and put it all out there”

Do you see songs as stories?

“Yeah, I do. Absolutely. It’s funny, because a lot of songs that I love, bands like The Strokes… I feel like Julian [Casablancas] is much better at giving you those little lines where you can almost string your own story to it. He gives you just enough to feel it. I’m always jealous of writers that do it that way, because usually I put my whole heart on my sleeve and put it all out there. And I guess there’s no right or wrong way, it’s just a different way of doing it.

“But yeah, I’m always jealous of those writers. You can easily try to be write songs like that and be like, ‘What the fuck is this guy talking about? Who cares?’ You know, there’s no depth or meaning to it. So it’s a fine line to walk with that; just giving enough information to let the listener put it together themselves.”

Like with art where you have photo realistic artists who can paint like it’s a photograph and then those impressionists who can create a similar mood with just a couple of brush strokes…

“Exactly. The subject matter always matters. You know, someone can do the most beautiful, realistic thing, and you’re like, ‘Oh, who cares? if there’s not a unique twist on something. If there isn’t their own personal take, it just becomes a little bit boring.

“There’s no right or wrong way of doing it, as long as it feels inspired, as long as it feels honest, and has whatever that thing is that you can’t really put your finger on. I don’t know what that is, but it’s coming from a real place of inspiration. You can feel it with art and with music.”

Do you have any tips on lyric writing?

“I would say we touched on it with L-O-V-E and that “Dalí” line. With a chorus like ‘L-O-V-E, is that what you want from me?’ You have to get a little fun with the lyrics in the verses, it can’t all be basic. You have to have colour; you have to say something that hasn’t been said. I’m always looking for a more fun way of saying something.

“One of my lyrical examples of this is in the movie La La Land. On one of the songs Emma Stone sings [Audition (The Fools Who Dream)], she says the line, ‘The water was freezing/She spent a month sneezing.’ Hearing “sneezing” in a song, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never heard that word in a song.’ It was just so refreshing and fun.

“Sometimes you’ve got to throw something in there that is quirky and you wouldn’t expect. Be playful and be colourful with your lyrics. So, ‘If Dalí painted you, you’d be surreal,’ I thought that was a fun version of one of those kind of lines. You know, something you’ve never heard before, but you hear it and are instantly like, ‘Oh, yeah, I get it.’”

Do you enjoy this point, before the album and the songs are out there in the world?

“I really enjoy listening to my own music until it goes out there. When 17 November comes, that’s the moment where it stops being mine and it goes to the world. That moment is when you start thinking about, ‘Okay, what am I going to write next?’ We’re talking about the songs like L-O-V-E, songs that are really special to me but no one’s really heard yet.

“It’s just more fun to listen to them now and be like, ‘Oh, man, I think that guitar is perfect,’ or, ‘This could have been a little louder.’ In your own mind it’s still fresh and new. Once it gets out there, then it’s up to everybody else to decide what’s good and what they like.”

And what do you hope for your albums once they are released?

“I hope this album sells 50 million copies and becomes the biggest thing in the world, and that people really love it and connect to it and see themselves in it. I hope the songs make them smile, make them feel hopeful, make them feel optimistic, make them feel love, and truly makes their lives better for three minutes. That’s the goal of a song. You want someone to hear it and appreciate it and smile.

“That’s the beauty of art. You look at a painting, it doesn’t necessarily take you out of your own life, but it makes you see your life differently. Like a good movie, you escape for two hours and then you take a piece of that movie into your own life. The same goes for a great song or a great album. You love listening to it for three minutes but then, after it’s over, you can look at life a little bit differently. That’s the power of art and the power of music, and so that’s my ultimate hope – that we can have that meaning to people.”

The new self-titled album by Plain White T’s is out now via Fearless Records and the band will be touring the US in early 2024. For dates and tickets, head to the official website plainwhitets.com

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