Band mates, husband-and-wife, and parents to three kids, the Weepies have experienced a lot together—and cancer was no different.
When Deb Talan was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2013, she and Steve Tannen had been working on their first full-length release in five years as folk duo the Weepies. By mid-2014, Talan beat cancer and they had enough material for a new album, Sirens, which comes out April 28 on Nettwerk. Listen above to an exclusive premiere of the Weepies’ cover of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.”In an email interview, Talan and Tannen share how they wrote through the pain and stayed positive.
How did Deb’s cancer diagnosis shape the rest of the songwriting?
Songwriting doesn’t necessarily reflect exactly what’s going on at that moment – I think we’re less confessional than some other writers in that way. The emotions of a song have to be real, but can come from any time, or any imagining. Things will come up from years earlier – an image from passing a doorway when we lived in NYC, or a dream or a memory – all of it makes it’s way in. With that said, there were some that seemed to match some of the somber tone – “River From the Sky” was an early dark lyric, but “Fancy Things” was from the same period, and it came out totally different in tone and lyric – nothing to do with the specifics of our year. But neither way is on purpose, we just follow what happens each day we write.
How long after Deb got sick did you begin writing songs again? Did you consider stopping work on the album altogether?
We had one early discussion about what Deb wanted to do with her time – and she was crystal clear that she wanted to home school the kids, write, paint, and record. So that’s what we did. We had no record deal or vision for an album, we just wanted to continue working while we could.
We wrote through the entire process – that’s not by design, we’re just obsessive writers. Deb wrote (and sketched art) literally while getting chemo. Steve wrote very badly during diagnosis – a necessary clearing of the panic from the system maybe – and steadied a bit in January, and was able to get back to work.
Tell me a bit about your songwriting process, especially any songs on the new album that started on acoustic guitar.
We scribble a lot while we’re going through our days, and will also walk around with guitars on. I think it’s important we set aside “empty time”– it’s not like going to a job, it’s more like, we’ll say we’re writing during these times, but we might not be – we’ll just make sure we’re not doing anything else during that time, because it can fill up with every
day life pretty quickly, and then suddenly a month goes by. We write together a bunch, but we also drag songs back into our individual caves – though there was less solo editing and worrying over this record than usual.
We have an old Hofner acoustic which has a tremendous voice, and we take turns writing on that – it’s got both a spooky tone that’s nice to sing over and a nice instrumental low end – that’s our writing mainstay. Steve’s Taylor 914 and Deb’s Taylor 610 are both just so sweet and easy to play, and we’ve been writing on them forever and they are always around. Deb has a Gibson B-25 that she started “Sunflower” and “Brand New Pair of Wings” on. Steve also wrote a bunch of the guitar parts on an unplugged Finkelpearl Vector electric. Electric guitars can be great for writing if they’re unplugged, unamplified they have a cool voice.
What type of acoustic guitars do you play/did you play on the new album?
Hofner Acoustic (no markings, probably from the 60’s)
Why did you choose to cover “Learning to Fly?”
In late 2014, after we had given a new album of original songs to Nettwerk, Deb was healing and full of energy, and we still had time in the studio. Since we had just finished a big project, we felt freed up to do just about anything. We were still going in every day experimenting, we did some drum and bass tracks, some instrumentals, and then some songs we’ve simply always loved. When we finished recording this track, the sound was so positive and uplifting that we wanted to do something with it – our record label loved it too, so it made it’s way onto the record. But we weren’t setting out to do a “cover,” it was simply a record of the event – that’s just what happened that day!