STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
The Weepies — the singer-songwriter/husband and wife duo of Deb Talan and Steve Tannen — had a successful musical career. They sold more than a million records — not an easy feat with buying music now being passé. They had more than 17 million streams on Spotify and 20 million views on YouTube.
They also had 2 kids and lived as vagabonds. While pregnant with their third child Nicholas, they decided to settle down. They chose Iowa City, Iowa, a place that they had enjoyed while on tour. They had no idea how significant that decision would become in the upcoming months. They had no idea that life as they knew it was about to come crashing down.
“Nicholas was born (about) a month early and we were right here in Iowa City where there’s this fantastic new neonatal intensive care unit that saved (his) life,” said Tannen in a phone interview from his home. “And then Deb was diagnosed with (stage 3 breast) cancer. It turned out that there was a brand new cancer center — one of the best in the world — about a half a mile from our house.”
Mom and baby are now fine. But the really remarkable story is how the family got through these ordeals. Music played a vital role. Tallen and Tannen, who began writing together the night they met, continued to work while Tallen was in treatment.
“I asked Deb what she wanted to do and she said ‘I want to home school the kids and make music, so let’s do that.’ So in some ways it was really comforting and focusing. It was great during the treatments to have something to worry about and focus on that wasn’t cancer because it can become all encompassing… Having music added another dimension of stuff that we could worry about, focus on, put our energy in. So we felt like we still had a life and I know Deb feels the same.”
Because of Tallen’s treatment, they were unable to leave home. Yet, the two still had time to write. Tannen explained the writing process under these circumstances.
“I think we were more private before we brought things to the table. That was just the function of Deb being exhausted and going through treatment. While she was in chemo or recovering, she had a lot more alone time than she usually had and I had a lot more time hanging out with the kids, just able to scribble on my own.
“So we were able to bring to the table more complete things. Also, our critiques were a little bit harsher because we’re gentle with each other at the beginnings of things and then we both have the ability to be pretty frank and take it. Like ‘yeah, that’s not working.’ Or ‘gosh, this part’s great, but that part sucks.’”
In spite of the health crisis, Tannen said that “the process that we went through the very first night that we wrote together is almost identical to the one we still have, which is either one of us starts with an idea and says ‘what do you think of this?’”
“I think that a lot of Darwinian evolution goes on with our songwriting,” said Tannen. “There’s a lot of survival of the fittest. The stuff that makes it all the way through the process we are usually at least emotionally connected to in some way.”
Because Tallen and Tannen were unable to travel, they invited musicians to contribute remotely. In addition to veteran Weepies collaborators Frank Lenz, Eli Thomson, Jon Flaugher, Meg Toohey and Whynot Jansveld, they got contributions from Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve (Elvis Costello), Gerry Leonard (David Bowie), Rami Jaffee (Foo Fighters), Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel), Oliver Kraus (Sia) and Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam).
Though when the two started writing it wasn’t with the intention of releasing the material as their next album, that’s exactly what happened. And all artists would be envious that instead of struggling to find songs for “Sirens” [Nettwerk, 2015], their first full-length release in 5 years, they had more than enough material to choose from. “Sirens” includes 14 songs co-written by Tallen and Tannen as well as 2 covers — “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne and “Volunteer” by Mark Geary.
Needless to say, this album, written against the backdrop of a family crisis, is very personal and emotional. Yet many of the songs are surprisingly upbeat.
“No one song could capture that year,” said Tannen, who acknowledged that 16 songs is a lot to put out at one time. “(The songs) hang together like a bunch of photographs from a certain time. It was intense, but there was beauty and inspiration, too.”
Now that “Sirens” has been released it’s time for The Weepies to go on a 3½-week tour. They’ll be accompanied by their band and their kids — ages 7, 5 and 2.
“It’s a friends and family tour,” said Tannen. “(There are) no strangers in our camp. Everybody knows everybody. Most of the people coming are either known as ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt,’ rather than their names, by the kids. It takes a village. We definitely are a traveling village.”
He added: “We learned how much help we needed over the last two years and I think we’re better for it. We’re taking a lot of help.”
Though just going on the road is an ordeal, it’s nothing compared to what Tallen and Tannen went through the past few years. The two really look forward to performing again.
“I think the band is better. We’re all working musicians, including us, and we’ve been honing our craft for four years. I think it’s going to be a really great show because we are going to be overly enthusiastic and grateful to be back.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Weepies with Greg Tannen
When: Tuesday, June 23. Showtime 8:30 p.m.; doors open at 8.
Where: Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia.
Ages: all ages
Tickets: $25 – $30
Contact: Check www.utphilly.com or call (215) 232-2100.
Artist’s website: www.theweepies.com