Songwriter Interviews

Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne

by Dan MacIntosh

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Adam Schlesinger delivers the best in modern power-pop with his band Fountains of Wayne, but he's also the songwriter behind those clever skits you see on so many awards shows and TV specials - those little songs performed by a celebrity host packed with pop culture zingers which are often the highlight of the program. Those songs on A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All! - Adam. That song Jane Lynch sang to open the Emmy Awards - Adam. As a songwriter/composer/producer, he's been nominated for an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Golden Globe Award and three Grammy Awards.

Yes, the man who brought us "Stacy's Mom" has an impressive musical skill set that keeps him busy on a variety of writing projects. In addition to Fountains of Wayne, he has a band called Ivy, which represents another outlet for this musical omnivore.

In our talk, Adam explained the story behind his famous song, told us about comedy writing, and let us in on his big break: the title song to the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You're best known for "Stacy's Mom," which I imagine is your most popular song. Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind writing that song?

Adam Schlesinger: For some people, I'm more known for [the movie] That Thing You Do, actually. But I don't know, whatever, that's fine. "Stacy's Mom" is definitely the biggest of my own band stuff.

Songfacts: Tell me the story about writing that song.

Adam: I wanted it to be an update of the "Mrs. Robinson" idea. It was a contrast of that story against a track that sounded like '80s new wave, like the Cars or something.

Songfacts: Did you ever have a crush on any of your friends' moms?

Adam: Well, one of my best friends told me that he thought my grandmother was really hot, that added a little bit to the song. That's a true story. And my grandmother was pretty hot.

Songfacts: Let's talk about That Thing You Do, then. How did you get involved in that project and what are your memories of that experience?

Adam: That was a very long time ago. That was 1995 I think I first heard about it, or '96, and I was just starting out. I had a publishing deal as a writer and they told me about this movie - they said that they were looking for something that sounds like early Beatles. And they knew that that was an era that I liked a lot. So I just took a shot at it and got very lucky and they used the song.

Songfacts: I noticed that one of your songs, "Hackensack," was recorded by Katy Perry. Now, was this before Katy Perry was the Katy Perry we know now?

Adam: No, it was actually fairly recently. It was between her current record and the last one. She put out an MTV Unplugged video and album and it was on that.

Songfacts: Are you pleased with the job that she did on the song?

Adam: Yeah, I think it's great. I thought it was interesting, because she reversed it so that the melody in the chorus is lower than the melody in the verse, which is the opposite of how we did it. But I think it actually worked out really well, gave the song a different vibe.

Songfacts: One of the things I noticed, too, is that you've done a lot of comedy stuff. You've worked with Stephen Colbert. From a songwriter's perspective, is it harder to write funny material than it is to write straight, serious material?

Adam: Yeah, it can be. I think there's humor in the songs that I write with Fountains of Wayne, but we try to not step over the line into just straight up comedy, whereas if you're doing something for television, the comedy is the main point. And a lot of times if you're doing music that's potentially comedic, the musical bed has to be as obvious as you can make it to support the joke. If you're doing a parody of a certain genre, for example, you want to make the track sound like the most clichéd part of that genre.

Songfacts: How do you and Chris write together? I notice on the credits that you're both credited as the songwriters on most of the Fountains of Wayne material. Is there a typical way that you work together when you write songs?

Adam: Well, the truth is we don't write together at all. We share the credit, but we haven't written together in a long time. We agreed when we were starting out that we would share the credits. At the beginning we used to occasionally write songs together; we'd sit down with two guitars and try to write something. But we really don't do that anymore. So every song that's a Fountains of Wayne song is pretty much either my song or Chris's song entirely.

Songfacts: So that's kind of like the Beatles' John Lennon/Paul McCartney thing. Because they didn't really write together, right?

Adam: A little bit. It was the same idea. I think they started out as kids writing together, but as they got older they just began to write alone. Maybe that's just the natural progression for people. But for me and Chris it's also the fact that we don't live in the same place any more, so geographically it's hard for us to collaborate. And also, I think we're each at a point where we prefer to just see an idea through on our own. The most collaborative part of our process really comes in the arranging. But once in a while, one of us will suggest an alternate line or something.

Songfacts: How are you and Chris different in your approaches to songwriting?

Adam: When it comes to the stuff we do for the band we agree about 80 or 90 percent of the time. But there's that extra 10 or 20 percent where we have huge fights and totally disagree. In terms of our personal taste, there's a lot of overlap. But I probably listen to a broader range of stuff than he does. I mean, he pretty much hates almost everything, and then there's a few things that he really loves, whereas I'm a little bit more all over the map. That's also why I like to do other stuff outside of the band, because there's other musical stuff that I'm interested in that he's just not interested in, so I find other outlets.

Songfacts: You do Ivy, which is very different. What kind of a need does that meet for you to be able to do Ivy.

Adam: Ivy and Fountains of Wayne have coexisted for many years. Everything is different about the two bands. I think Fountains of Wayne is, for me, much more about storytelling and characters and Ivy is much more about atmosphere and mood. The lyrics in Ivy songs are there to help create that mood. It's not so literal, and it's fun to work on something where you're focusing mostly on the vibe, which is what Ivy is.

Songfacts: They just had the Emmy Awards. You've been to almost every one of the awards shows. Which one is your favorite and why?

Adam: Oh, boy. I've had fun at all of these things just because they're so crazy and bizarre and surreal. We worked on a show called the Comedy Awards earlier last year, which was pretty incredible, because Bill Murray was there and Eddie Murphy was there, and it was amazing to see all these people close up.

Songfacts: Have any of the awards show experiences inspired any songs that you've written?

Adam: Well, I've written for awards shows, so in that sense they have. We just wrote an opening song for the Emmy Awards which was just aired that was performed by Jane Lynch. So in that sense they've inspired some songs.

Songfacts: I didn't realize you wrote that. What was that song called?

Adam: The song is called "TV Is A Vast Wonderland." David Javerbaum wrote the lyric, I wrote the music. And it's a play on the famous quote about TV being a vast wasteland, which was said by Newton, who was the chairman of the FCC.

I also wrote the opening song for the Tony Awards this year. Both of those things were collaborations with a guy named David Javerbaum, who I've worked with on a bunch of different stuff. He's a comedy writer who used to be at The Daily Show for many years. We did the Stephen Colbert Christmas Special together, we did this Broadway show called Cry-Baby. And then we've written a bunch of awards show stuff together including the Tonys and the Emmys this year.

Songfacts: Did you write on that song where Stephen Colbert talked about how if this can be a hit then I'll be set for life? Do you know what song I'm talking about?

Adam: Oh yeah. You're talking about "Everybody's Talking About Sully." That is the first song off the Christmas Special which is called "Another Christmas Song," which, basically, the gist of that song is let's make this a big Christmas song so I can get rich.

Songfacts: I love that. We think of Christmas as being this really sincere holy thing, and people make Christmas music because they want to honor the Christmas tradition, when, quite honestly, I think a lot of times people are thinking there's a lot of money to be made in Christmas music if you get it right.

Adam: Totally. For many years, I think "White Christmas" was the biggest selling record, wasn't it?

Songfacts: It was. I'm amazed at how many things you do outside of Fountains of Wayne.

Adam: Yeah, part of it's just practical these days. If you want to make a living as a musician, you try to be involved in as many things as you can. And part of it is just creatively for me, that's what I enjoy. I like switching gears and I like working with people, and that's what keeps it all popping.

We spoke with Adam Schlesinger on September 20, 2011. Get more at
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Comments: 2

  • Dan from Norwalk, CaRockDoc50, I totally agree with you. Although I enjoy a lot of modern music, some of the best of it hearkens back to '60s sounds. Thank for your kind words. I wish I could have shared that beer with, Adam, though.
  • Rockdoc50 from Radnor Pa And Boston, Ma (commuter)I'm a 60-ish physician who lives in the Philly Main Line. I grew up in the 60s and have to admit that I hate just about everything I hear in music these days. Except, of course, Fountains of Wayne. To me, they are this generation's "America," the epitome of the super-pop band. Except besides the catchy tunes their lyrics are smart, witty, fun, and dripping with irony and humor. I've seen the band perform a half dozen times or so over the last few years and never get tired of listening to their music. Big fan of Schlesinger. Would love to just sit down and have a beer with him some time. Very nice interview. Thanks
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