The simplest songs can take months to conceive. And then there are the songs from Illinois outfit Plain White T's — chiming charmers like "1, 2, 3, 4," the Grammy-nominated "Hey There Delilah" and the chart-climbing new "Rhythm of Love" — which are childsplay, according to key composer Tom Higgenson, no more or less than the sum of their nursery-rhyme-ish parts.
"But we've gotten lucky," he adds. "We've somehow been able to tap into that thing where the inspiration is just overflowing."
That's especially the case with Wonders of the Younger, the band's latest (and sixth overall) recording for Hollywood. It was initially inspired by a mesmerizing Cirque du Soleil performance of O that Higgenson caught in Las Vegas.
"Just the spectacle of it, seeing all these images," he marvels. "It had a lot of these youthful elements — like a pirate ship, clowns — but it was putting them into this amazingly mature, adult show. And at one point, there was a guy sitting onstage reading a newspaper, on fire. Turning the pages. The whole thing felt like a dream, and it made me want to make an album that felt like a dream, basically."
Once Higgenson had arrived at his Wonders concept, he continues, "that just opened the floodgates for all these childhood memories and emotions that found their way into the songs." Take, for instance, the chipper pop ditty — and potential mega-hit — "Our Song," a mournful number about missing your girlfriend on tour. Easy as pie, he swears. "I was literally in L.A. with my guitar in a hotel room, and I was lonely. I just sat down on the white bed and the first verse was written in two seconds — 'Sitting on this white bed / It's not the right bed, 'cause it's not our bed.' Then I thought about it over the next few weeks, wrote more lyrics, and a month later the song was done. It's not like rocket science — it's just tapping into some kind of emotion and being poetic with it."
The frontman knows he's probably shattering a few arcane myths about his craft.
"It's not like I light three candles and I meditate or something like that," he says, chuckling. "You just sit down with your guitar and play, and sometimes you can't think of anything. Or you play some riff that doesn't sound that cool, so you give it up. But then some days, you come across something that just sounds great and you roll with it. There's no right or wrong way to do it — the song just comes when it comes."
Even so, Plain White T's have matured considerably since their lo-fi early years as punk/emo brats. Like their forebears Green Day, they've graduated into making art for its own sake, exemplified by Wonders' ethereal "Welcome to Mystery" experiment (originally featured on the Almost Alice compilation that accompanied Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland film).
As much as Higgenson loves sonic adventure, his bottom line is still consistency. "And you see this so often," he says. "A band will come out with this amazing album, and then their next album just sucks. And then they totally disappear.
"But for us, it's my love of songs and songwriting and music in general. I mean, I can't see myself ever not being inspired to write, or not putting out something that comes from the heart."