The Weepies' Guide to a Happy Life

Music Features The Weepies
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This unassuming husband/wife duo’s music has graced sitcoms like Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs, not to mention Sundance hit Friends With Money and major TV ad campaigns. They’ve also collaborated with pop-star-turned-singer/songwriter Mandy Moore, and their new record Hideaway—an irresistible collection of introspective folk-pop songs—is their most delightful work to date. But at the end of the day, The Weepies are just a busy young couple trying to make beautiful music without waking the baby.

Deb Talan and Steve Tannen’s one-bedroom house in the hills of Topanga, Calif., hardly fits three people. Even though the newest addition to the family—three-month-old Theo Samuel—only weighs in at about 10 pounds, his accessories dominate the space. A small flat-screen TV sits on a stool at the foot of the fireplace, overshadowed by a pink pig-shaped humidifier affectionately called the “humidi-pig.” There’s a polka-dotted bouncy chair and a formula bottle on the coffee table, a colorful mobile hangs from the ceiling above the crib, a smaller one twirls over the changing table, and pacifiers and pastel-colored blankets lay scattered about the house. Small canvases lean against the walls—bright owls and monkeys and bowls of fruit, painted by Talan herself. Theo’s crib in the corner obscures the family DVD collection, which ranges from Harold and Maude and Love Actually to The Office. The new parents deemed recording equipment a “baby hazard” and have since relocated it to the garage.

We’re listening to an iTunes playlist called “DebMixPostXmas,” featuring mellow songs by Ryan Adams, Great Lake Swimmers, Joni Mitchell, Beck, Ray Charles, Patty Griffin and, of course, Deb’s husband and bandmate Steve Tannen. Talan’s on the couch cooing at the baby, while Tannen rustles about in the kitchen, preparing a plate of carrots and almonds and asking if I know Lindsey Buckingham, because he really wants to meet him. Nope, I tell him. He looks disappointed and says, “Well how about the guy from The Streets?”

The phone rings. Tannen disappears into the bedroom for a few minutes and emerges smirking. “That was my father, calling to tell us that he got a humidi-pig as well, and to warn us that if you fill it up too high, it won’t work. They’re comfortable with filling it up to the nose.”

The only indication that musicians live here is a double guitar stand in the middle of the living room and a neon sign on the back deck that reads “The Weepies.” Talan and Tannen are trying to get ready for a photo shoot, but Theo just spit up and they can’t find his pink pacifier—neither the blue one, the green one nor the bluish-green one will do the trick. Somehow, though, The Weepies still look like they’ve got life pretty well figured out.

STEP 1: GET OUT OF THE HOUSE

Six years ago, Talan and Tannen were solo musicians and mutual fans. Talan was part of the new-folk scene in Boston, and Tannen in New York. After a few back-and-forth emails (“sent in a half-jokey, half ‘Hi, I’m a fan, how are ya?’ sort of way,” says Tannen), he scheduled his first Boston show at Club Passim. Although he casually mentioned the trip to Talan, he didn’t think she’d make an appearance. “I was extremely nervous anyway, and then Deb Talan showed up,” he recalls.

“With a posse,” Talan interrupts, laughing.

Tannen continues, “Yes, a posse of women all dressed in black, except Deb was dressed in red. And I can’t remember the rest of the gig.” Little did Tannen know, Talan had been waiting for weeks to see him perform. “I still have a little card I wrote on that says “February 12: Steve Tannen!” she says. Both too shy to make a move, they parted ways and agreed to meet again soon.

Talan later recorded a foreshadowing memory of that night in a song called “Slow Pony Home”: “I can remember when I first saw you / You said in my photograph I looked more far away / I laughed and smiled and didn’t say ‘I’m a bit afraid to be here.’”

Still nervous a few weeks later, Tannen attended a Deb Talan show at The Living Room in Manhattan. “I tried to pay her back—I brought my posse,” he says. “But of course my friends included a Ringling Bros. clown and two six-foot-four musicians who look like they should be in a circus.” That night, Talan and Tannen left the club together and began developing an unexpected musical partnership. Initially, they tried to impress each other by playing old standbys (“It was like a duel,” Talan says), but as the pair gained confidence throughout the night, they started playing new and incomplete songs. “We didn’t jump in right away and say, OK, we’re a duo,” she says, “but there was a sense of being so excited to share music with each other, that we actually started collaborating that first night.”

STEP 2: BE HUMBLE

At one point that New York evening, Talan casually told Tannen that the bridge on one of his songs was a little long. “I remember thinking, ‘Shit! You’re right!’ but not in a self-defensive way,” Tannen says. “Then I thought, ‘well, that was weird.’ Because you usually get defensive around other writers, and it wasn’t intimidating at all.” They were both completing songs for their respective solo records, which would become Talan’s A Bird Flies Out and Tannen’s Stopped at a Green Light—but some completely new material also came out of that collaboration, and just like that, The Weepies were born.

They started dating, but Talan and Tannen didn’t know what to do with these purely collaborative songs, so they decided to make a record together and call it Happiness. Talan’s sweet, deliberate vocals and buoyant lyrics (“When the cold wind’s blowing / Snow drifts through the pine trees / In houses lights are glowing / Likewise in your eyes that find me here”) and Tannen’s moodier vocals and lyrics (“Dating a porn star, it isn’t all roses / She leaves you home on a Saturday night / You can go crazy with thoughts and supposes / Lost the thin thread between what’s wrong and right”) combined to make an album that truly suits its title—in no way edgy or groundbreaking, but sincere and romantic.

STEP 3: TAKE RISKS

The problem, of course, is that records cost money. And when you put one out, you need to tour behind it, which leads to another problem—touring can be expensive, too. Talan and Tannen moved into a friend’s guesthouse in Pasadena, Calif., and loaded their gear and merchandise into the trunk of a small Toyota. They spent 2004 sleeping on friends’ couches and in cheap hotels, scraping by. “I borrowed a lot of money from Visa,” admits Tannen, “and we took Deb’s credit cards away so that if it all went south, I could declare bankruptcy and we’d start again.” The Weepies performed at small clubs, coffeehouses and even homes across the United States, hoping to gain traction and make money. It eventually paid off—Nettwerk Records’ Ari Martin attended a Weepies show at The Living Room in New York. They gave him some demos, signed to the label and in 2005 put out Say I Am You.

Like its title, which comes from a verse by 13th-century mystical poet Rumi, this record is more elaborate—both lyrically and musically. While the band’s lovey-dovey youthfulness isn’t lost (“Sometimes rain that’s needed falls / We float like two lovers in a painting by Chagall”), a deeper emotional imagery arises here that wasn’t fully explored on Happiness (“Tangerines are hanging heavy, glowing marigolden hues / Teasing a half-pale moon / And I feel a pull to the blue-velvet dark and stars”). And the hooks are irresistible.

STEP 4: MAKE FRIENDS

One day, former pop princess Mandy Moore, planning to change gears and make a singer/songwriter record, came across Say I Am You while browsing iTunes and immediately decided she wanted to work with The Weepies. “I was so taken by Deb’s voice and their quirky sense of melody that I became obsessed with them and stalked them,” Moore jokes. Her manager contacted the band and arranged a coffee meeting at their house; the plan was to get to know each other without any pressure to write. “They let me purge myself about everything I was going through,” says Moore. “It was like a free therapy session.” That therapy session quickly turned into writing sessions, which turned into music, and The Weepies ended up co-writing five of the songs on Moore’s 2007 record Wild Hope, including both the title track and the first single.

STEP 5: KNOW THYSELF

During their years together, Talan and Tannen discovered drastic differences in their writing habits. “I write 17 pages, and the same sentence nine ways, and change the ‘to’ to an ‘a,’ and I keep writing until I really like something, and then I circle it,” says Tannen. “And Deb draws a single line over and over, and she’s thinking, and she taps the pen—and then she writes a perfect line.” So they decided to use separate writing spaces. Whether they’re in different rooms in the same house, or Talan’s going for a walk while Tannen’s at home, they deliberately carve out time apart for the first steps of the songwriting process. Then they reconvene, present the results and start tweaking the music.

The band’s new record, Hideaway, emerged from one of these occasions. Tannen went for a morning drive, and when he returned, Talan was playing a loop on her laptop of the first verse and chorus of what would become the wistful pop song “Orbiting.” “I came home and she was kind of crying,” recalls Tannen, “and I think that was the beginning of [this] record.”

While the music on Hideaway is fuller and more polished than ever, its content is almost uncharacteristically introspective, and sometimes dark. “When we got back from this extroverted tour, we needed some time to decompress and revisit the emotional leftovers from that time,” Talan says.

Also, around the time the new record was conceived, their child was too, which emotionally charged The Weepies’ writing. The somber but hopeful “Lighting Candles” is about looking back on the realization of how much they wanted to have a baby (“Oh the disappointment, so hard to handle / I’m still in the dark lighting candles”), and the bouncier “Takes So Long” seems to stem from a similar frustration: “I don’t know why it takes so long / I cut my hair, I grow it back / First the thought and then the act.” But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. And it’s not all even necessarily autobiographical—they included tracks like “All Good Things,” an upbeat breakup song from their writing session with Moore, which is also featured on Moore’s Wild Hope—and “All This Beauty,” a sweet, simple track about the wonders of nature.

STEP 6: KNOW WHEN TO SAY NO (AND WHEN TO SAY YES)

Last year a number of music supervisors caught on to The Weepies and placed their songs in TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, Everwood and One Tree Hill. This past holiday, JC Penney featured the song “All That I Want” from Happiness in one of its commercials, and Old Navy followed suit with “Stars” off Say I Am You. Music fans can be quick to cry “sellout” when an indie band accepts a commercial offer, but Talan and Tannen don’t take these decisions lightly. “We still live in a one-bedroom rented [house],” says Tannen. “Come over here and pay for Theo’s schooling or whatever he wants to do when he grows up, and we’ll turn down people who have great musical ideas but happen to work for Old Navy.” He adds that these days, listeners take so many liberties with songs anyway, and television is just another way for an audience to hear music. “[A teenage fan could] put our song on their ‘My Boyfriend Is A Jerk’ mix, and we didn’t sign off on that, but I’m totally cool with it.”

And the band has turned down plenty of commercial offers. An upset fan once contacted them after he thought he heard their song on a TV advertisement for diamonds, and Tannen explained that it wasn’t, in fact, The Weepies, and you wouldn’t hear their songs on commercials for major diamond or chemical companies. “My wife wears a diamond that was bought by my grandfather in 1911,” he says. “We would never do that.”

STEP 7: WAIT FOR THE RIGHT TIME

In the past year, Talan and Tannen put out a record, got married and had a baby. Hesitant to start a family while couch-surfing and debt-accumulating, they waited for a more emotionally settled and financially secure year. “When they told me they were having a baby, I was like, of course you are!” Moore says. “I don’t know two people more suited to be a mom and a dad.” The little guy has already put a stamp on their songwriting—there’s talk of making a kids record one day, inspired by the late-night improv songs they write to entertain him. “Talk about a non-judgmental, captive audience—there he is,” says Tannen, pointing to the baby. “It’s been really fun not to care if the songs suck.” The Weepies plan to take Theo (and a nanny) on tour with them this year. “He’s included in everything from now on,” Tannen adds.

As the back-deck photo shoot wraps up, the sun dips behind the canyon. It’s getting chilly outside. Theo fusses tentatively, as if to say, “I’m pretty tired of being held by strangers, and I’d like to have dinner and hang out with my family now, so if you don’t mind….” I pass the baby to Talan, and she props him up on the picnic table and starts singing a song for him in her best union-chant voice: “Standing up in anger / Standing up and screaming / Standing up, I’m Theo Tannen / You will remember my name!” Theo smiles, his dad erupts in laughter, and for just a second, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of love this tiny house can hold.

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