Tom Higgenson of Plain White T's - "Hey There Delilah"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Plain White T's frontman Tom Higgenson about "Hey There Delilah."

"Hey There Delilah"

Artist: Plain White T's
Writer: Tom Higgenson
Album: All That We Needed
Label: Hollywood Records
Year: 2007 (first released in 2005 on Fearless Records)
Chart Positions: US: #1, UK: #2
It is a popular misconception that the track star Delilah DiCrescenzo was responsible for the outsized success of Tom Higgenson's most famous song with the Plain White T's, "Hey There Delilah." While it's true that DiCrescenzo was the direct inspiration for the song when Higgenson sat down to write it in 2003, shortly after meeting her, the tune's slow and winding path to #1, in 2007, was a direct result of the now most antiquated of social media platforms (well, except for America Online): Myspace!

"It was the third single off the album," Higgenson recalled. "We released 'All That We Needed' and 'Take Me Away' on this little sampler. Back in the day, you would pass around these free samplers from the label, just to try to get people aware of who the hell you are, that we're on tour, just sweating our butts off and doing anything we can to get people to come watch us. We made a video for 'Take Me Away,' which was the label's choice for first single and it was on Fuse and MTV, too. That stuff was really big for us at the time. So, then it came down to what video we should make next. We put 'Hey There Delilah' up on our Myspace profile page with five or six other songs from the album, and we asked our fans what song we should do for our next video. 96% voted for 'Hey There Delilah.' So, it was like, okay, the fans have spoken."

Higgenson credits Myspace for kick-starting (so to speak) their career. "Tom from Myspace actually saw us play on a Warped Tour and he made us one of the first bands to ever be featured on the front page. This was back when Myspace was really a tastemaker kind of site. At one point, 'Hey There Delilah' was everybody's profile song. On my feed, every third page you'd visit, 'Hey There Delilah' would start playing because everybody was loving that song."

In that sense, the song was a success even before it ever reached the Billboard charts early in 2007. Being on the road almost continually for several years, the members of the band may have been the last to realize they had a certified hit on their hands.

"There was this one moment when we played Summerfest in Milwaukee," Higgenson said. "We're from Chicago. So, we played Summerfest a bunch of times leading up to it, but that summer of 2007, when 'Delilah' was blowing up on the radio, we were backstage all day. We soundchecked and then we just sat back until it was time to play. When we went on stage, there were like 10,000 people out there and we had a movie moment, like, 'What the hell are all these people doing here? I thought we were last.' And then I realized, that's the power of having a hit song on the radio. That was definitely the moment of going from a local band playing the side stage at Summerfest to headlining one of the main stages and having ridiculous crowds. For 10 years, we were grinding it out. Every tour would get a little better. Every album would do a little better. It was just this slow and steady grind. And then with 'Delilah,' once that hit, it was like, 'OK, skyrocket, right?' That song definitely made a lot of dreams come true."
Tom Higgenson:
After meeting Delilah [DiCrescenzo] I was like, "Well, all right, I've got to write a song for this girl. Maybe I can use this one guitar part I have." And I literally started playing it. The first verse just poured out exactly as it is, all the way through to the chorus. I didn't really know the girl, you know? So, it was like:

What's it like in New York City?
Tonight, you look so pretty


And then the second verse.

That's all I had, but I knew it was good. I was like, "Wow, this is really nice. This feels good. Now I'm gonna have to write the whole song."

There was no rush, so I took my time. It wasn't like we were going into the studio tomorrow or anything. Over the next six months, I'm taking a shower thinking about the song, or I'm sitting around with the guitar, thinking about the song. I just had to make up the rest of it. If I was in this long-distance relationship with somebody, what would I want to say? What would those emotions be?

During that whole time, I was also writing the rest of the album, but most songs, I'd spend a day or two and that's it. But because I felt those lyrics were so special, I really had to take my time to make it the perfect story.

I demoed the whole thing myself on a buddy of mine's digital 8-track recorder. I played everything myself in the basement. I did about 10 songs in one day, just demoing them out real quick. The final song I demoed was "Hey There Delilah." By the time I got to that song, after singing nine other songs worth of vocals and harmonies, my voice was just trashed. But in a way, the way I sang fit the song really nicely. It added to the earnestness of it. But I hadn't written all of the bridge yet. When I got to the last line, I had to hum the melody. That's the demo I played for the band and our manager, and everybody was like, "Dude, that's a great song."

When we recorded the song in the studio, everybody had such demo-itis1 for the way I sang it on the demo. We wanted it to have that same raspy quality.

We were actually sleeping in the studio when we were making the record. The plan was to wake up and do the vocal. I didn't have any coffee, and I did like seven passes without warming up or doing anything. I listen to that recording now and I'm like, "This vocal is crazy," but again, I think that added to the sincerity.

I don't remember when we first played it live. The song was written over the course of 2003, we recorded the album [All That We Needed] in the spring of 2004, and it came out in January of 2005. So, technically there may have been some shows between us recording it and the time it came out where we may have played it, but I don't think so because we were still pushing our other two albums.

When the album came out I don't think it was even in the setlist right off the bat because it was a slow acoustic song, and we usually play the rocking fun songs. We were still playing real small venues where it was, "Let's turn it up louder so we can get the kids to dance." So "Delilah" was kind of an afterthought for the live shows.

We got signed to Hollywood Records because of the success of that album. We made an album for them called Every Second Counts and our lead single was a song called "Hate." That song got on the radio and we'd never been on radio at that point, so that was a big moment for us. The head of the label came to see us in LA. "Hate" is on the radio and everybody's loving it and singing along. Then we played "Hey There Delilah" and the reaction of the crowd was twice as loud. The head of the label says, "What the hell song is that? Do we have this song? It's not on the album."

So, the label came to us and said, "Hey, listen, we want to take that song right off the last album and put it on the new album and push it out as the next single."

We said, "No way. It's already been out for two years. We've already sold 80,000 copies of that record. Putting the song on the new album is going to be kind of lame to our fans."

But luckily we came to our senses pretty quick and just went with it.

On the All That We Needed album, it was just an acoustic and vocal, exactly the way I demoed it. When it came time to do the video, we said, "OK, let's produce it up a little bit."2 That's when we went in with Sean O'Keefe, a Chicago producer who did Fall Out Boy. We'd always wanted to do stuff with him. So, we added some strings and a very subtle organ in the chorus and a couple of harmonies and stuff.

We ended up recording a few more songs with Sean and putting out the Hey There Delilah EP on Fearless.3 It had the video on it, along with a live version of 'Delilah' and four other songs. So, the single was the one with the strings, and that version is the one the world knows.

We'd been on the road since 2001, basically nonstop, playing 300 shows a year. Anytime we weren't playing shows, it was either Christmas or we were in the studio making the next record. Even when "Delilah" was slowly climbing the charts, we already kind of knew, this song is connecting with people. It was never in doubt because it had already been tried and tested. It was all an organic build.

We went to play in the UK and the record was not even available there, and the entire crowd would be singing along. It was like every step of the way the song almost did it by itself. We just had to be the ones to go and play it. And then we were able to follow it up with "1, 2, 3, 4" and "Rhythm Of Love," so for a good five years it was amazing. We were working our asses off but seeing the rewards for it.

After that, momentum has kind of gone down, but that's cool. We're at this level where we can play these shows and we can have this great crowd, but there's definitely something exciting about the grind and growing it and just building this thing and then having it explode. In a way, that's all behind us, but we're always writing and you never know what can happen.

I was never pressured to write another "Hey There Delilah." I probably should have tried, but I never really thought about it. We always wrote fun, uptempo songs for the live shows, so we may have struggled with that a little bit, where it was like, "OK, should we do more acoustic songs when the identity of the band was not necessarily those songs?" "Delilah" was an extension of us, but when it became something people connected to, there was definitely a bit of, "Well, what do we do now? Do we change who we are because that's what people want, or do we do what we want?"

I have all these songwriter friends and their big thing is, This guy wrote, "Hey There Delilah" by himself. Because hit songs these days are co-written by like 11 people. So, all my songwriter buddies are jealous. I'm sure if I wanted to I'd never have to work a day in my life, and I'd probably be okay, but that's not why I'm here. I love what I do. I'm writing almost every day and I started my own record label. I've got artists that I'm writing with and producing. So yeah, even if I had all the money in the world, I'd still be doing exactly what I'm doing. I just love music. Honestly, I think that's a part of why we had the success, too. When you do something you love, that joy for it really comes through.

November 12, 2020
All That We Needed will be issued on vinyl by Craft Recordings for the first time November 13.

More in They're Playing My Song:
Sophie B. Hawkins - "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover"
Shawn Mullins - "Lullaby"
Stephan Moccio - "Wrecking Ball"

photos: Colin Lane

Footnotes:

  • 1 ] Demo-itis [noun]: Fear that the recording won't be as good as the demo. (back)
  • 2 ] The video was released in 2006 and uploaded to YouTube early in 2007. It has been there ever since. (back)
  • 3 ] Fearless Records, their first label. (back)

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