Plain White T’s | Behind The Lyrics

Catapulting to global fame in the mid-2000s following the release of their iconic ballad ‘Hey There Delilah’, Plain White T’s have come a long way since they first emerged on the Chicago underground scene in 1997.

Honing their unmistakable blend of pop rock sensibilities and introspective lyricism on each new release since, the last two and a half decades have seen the four-piece reach truly monumental heights. From early appearances at Warped Tour to becoming double GRAMMY award nominees and topping the charts in multiple countries, they have made an indelible mark on pop culture, consistently delivering infectious pop rock anthems along the way.

Celebrated for their poignant storytelling, at the heart of the Plain White T’s magic lies frontman Tom Higgenson’s ability to translate profound emotions into lyrical gems that resonate universally. Painting vivid portraits of life’s triumphs and tribulations, his heartfelt musings on nostalgia, love, and loss have long captured the essence of the human experience, resonating deeply with audiences across the world.

A songwriter who wears his heart firmly on his sleeve, as Plain White T’s celebrate the release of their self-titled album, Tom talks Rock Sound through ten lyrics that define his band’s career.

“Well, do they have radios in heaven? // I hope they do // ‘Cause they’re playing my song on the radio // And I’m singing it to you // If they don’t have radios in heaven // Here’s what I’ll do // I can bring my guitar when my time is up // And I’ll play it for you”, ‘Radios in Heaven’ – ‘Stop’ (2002)

“That song was written about my great grandma, who had just passed away at the time. I was very close with her. Every weekend when I was a kid, I would go to my grandma’s house on Friday night. I would stay there, and my great grandma would come over. She lived in a different suburb, but every Friday night throughout my childhood was spent with my grandma and my great grandma. On Saturday afternoons, we’d take a walk to the park to feed the ducks and fly a kite, and I have all these beautiful memories of those times.

When my great grandma passed away, I felt like I needed to do something for her, so I wrote a song. I don’t remember where the idea of having radios in heaven came from, but it was such a nice thought. The band were nowhere near being on the radio at that point, but it was putting a little bit of hope out into the world that maybe one day we’d get there. I wanted to show her that I was doing something worthwhile down here, and I was thinking of her whilst I did it.”

 “It won’t stop if they don’t stop yelling // It’s not the way of working your problems out // I can’t stand being around this yelling // So I’m finding my way out”, ‘Breakdown’ – ‘All That We Needed’ (2005)

“This was written for a buddy of mine who killed himself when we were in our 20s. I was really affected by it. He was down for a while, and there was nothing that anybody could do, so it was a sad moment for me and my friends. I felt as though I needed to write something to pay my respects to him, or maybe it was just to get it off my chest. Sometimes there are things that weigh my heart down, and by writing about them it feels as though I’m giving them a new life. That somehow helps me cope.

I don’t think his parents were fighting all the time or anything like that, but it was an easy story for me to tell. I wanted to let people know that they’re not alone and that everybody goes through bad shit sometimes. There are times when that doesn’t end in a positive light, but I try to always be hopeful with my lyrics.”

“I can fill the whole floor to the ceiling // With all the dead wrong choices I’ve made // And even though we try to learn // From each others mistakes // We’ll do it again”, ‘Big Bad World’ – ‘Big Bad World’ (2008)

“I love this lyric. It’s about acknowledging that you’re a fuckup and you’re doing stupid shit but knowing that chances are you’ll probably do it again. I love the way that song bounces, and how the bassline goes against the guitar. It’s such a feel-good song, even though the lyrics are about getting through a tough time. You try to learn from your mistakes, but you’ll probably fuck up again sooner rather than later, because we all do.”

“Racecars and spaceships and carnival rides // Ghosts in the graveyard that come out at night // These are the wonders of the younger”, ‘Wonders of the Younger’ – ‘Wonders of the Younger’ (2010)

“I actually came up with the title of this album before writing any of the songs. I went to see a Cirque du Soleil show called ‘O’ in Las Vegas, and it made me feel like I was a kid watching ‘The Goonies’ or ‘Back to the Future’. It took me back to that innocent sense of wonder and amazement, and at 30 years old I realised I needed to check back in with some of the things I loved when I was a kid.

Each stanza of this song individually paints its own little picture of what life is like when you’re a kid, and there’s even a reference to ‘The Goonies’ in there. I wanted to make a song, and an album, that reflected on things I loved as a kid, but also explored what they mean to me now as an adult. It’s one of my favourite Plain White T’s albums.”

“So, when the day comes and I don’t wake up // I’ll float away, full of love, like helium // From heaven I won’t worry // ‘Cause I left behind one hell of a story”, ‘Helium’ – ‘Should’ve Gone To Bed EP’ (2013)

“This is about my 14-year-old son, who is my best friend. As you get older, you start to feel your mortality a little bit more. When you’re young, you feel invincible, but once you grow older and the people around you start dying you begin to see the fragility of life. This line is about acknowledging that I’m not going to be here forever, but luckily my son is going to carry on my legacy. He’s going to be the best thing I leave behind, and that reassures me that everything will be okay when I’m gone.”

“Days like these don’t come up any higher // We’ve got main street lit up like a fire // Nothing compares to breathing the air // When I’m back in my hometown // Someday my kids will run like I did // On these streets and old playgrounds!”, ‘American Nights’ – ‘American Nights’ (2015)

“This is also a reference to my son. I had a great childhood, and I love thinking back to what it was like to be a kid. That’s an ongoing theme not only in my music, but in my life. Now that I have a kid, I want to make sure that he has a childhood as great as mine was, or hopefully an even better one.

There’s something magical about the place you grew up in, and during the pandemic I took my son to see the places where I spent my childhood. We went to my old high school grounds and the park across the street from the house I grew up in, and I showed him how I used to spend my days. I wanted to let him see where I came from, because I think your geography helps to mould the person you are. I hope my son’s childhood is as magical as mine was.”

Time goes by too fast // Gotta try to make it last // Gotta try to make my life better // Try to slow down and keep it all together // Take it day by day // Find myself along the way”, ‘Pause’ – ‘American Nights’ (2015)

“This is a reminder to myself that you need to push pause sometimes. I feel like I need that reminder more often these days, because I’m always just doing one thing after another. I was on the phone with a friend recently and I asked when we could see each other again, because it had been a few weeks. She told me that we hadn’t caught up for two months, and I was shocked. The older you get; time goes by faster and faster. Occasionally, you have to stop and catch your breath. It’s like that ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ quote: ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’”

“They won’t leave you behind // But that isn’t to say that it’s not on their minds // Maybe it would wise for you to be in the room next time // Join the land of the living”, ‘Land of the Living’ – ‘Parallel Universe (Deluxe Edition)’ (2019)

“I actually didn’t write that lyric, our guitar player [Tim G. Lopez] did. When we’d be in the studio, he’d always be the one who would say, ‘Oh, you guys can handle it’. If there was ever an argument, he’d stay out of it and let the rest of us work it out. However, whenever songs would come out, he’d always be the guy who said, ‘I always hated that part’. The rest of us would be stood there like, ‘Why didn’t you say anything!’

He claims that lyric isn’t autobiographical, but to me it’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe it would be wise for you to be in the room next time!’ You can’t really bitch about it if you chose not to have a say in it, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the line is about, even though he won’t admit it. I love the idea of joining the land of the living though, because we can all feel like zombies sometimes. You’ve got to snap out of it, open your eyes, and see where you’re truly at.”

“Conversations about art // The spaghetti tattoo on your arm // Yeah, we talked until the restaurant lights came on”, ‘Spaghetti Tattoo’ – ‘Plain White T’s’ (2023)

“I went on a date with this girl who I’d been messaging during the pandemic. We’d had plenty of time to talk and get to know each other beforehand, because during the pandemic we couldn’t really do anything else. When we finally got to meet up in person, we went to a restaurant and sat talking for hours. At one point we looked around and we were the only people in the restaurant. We were the assholes keeping the staff there, and they were all waiting for us to leave.

This song is me recounting that night. I’m obsessed with art, I’m a big collector and I paint too, so we talked about that a lot. She also actually had a tattoo of a plate of spaghetti on her arm, which she let us take a photo of for the single cover art.”

“Almost fell asleep on the drive home // I wonder if you would give a shit // Got all these demoed songs on my iPhone // And if I died, then none of ’em would ever be hits”, ‘Would You Even’ – ‘Plain White T’s’ (2023)

“This is about the same girl who I went on that date with but was written a couple of months later. We’d been hanging out, but it was a little bit hot and cold, and some nights were better than others. I stay in Malibu when I go out there, which is stupidly far out from anything else in LA. We’d hang out until super late, and then I’d have to drive 45 minutes back to Malibu. I was so tired, and after a not-so-great night out with her, this is what I was thinking about.

I wondered if I fell asleep right then and crashed my car, would she even care? It was a silly emo moment, but I thought it was cool. I was in the middle of writing this new album, so I had a bunch of demos on my phone. I thought, ‘If I died right now, no one would ever hear these songs’. This album that I love would never see the light of day, and that’s way sadder than having a bad night with a girl.”

Plain White T’s self-titled album is out on November 17 via Fearless Records.

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