Interview: Rachel Platten

Rachel Platten comes to San Diego's House of Blues on Jan. 13

By Tom Roth

USD Radio’s Tom Roth spoke with Boston pop artist Rachel Platten prior to her Jan. 13 show at San Diego’s House of Blues. From Homer’s Iliad to 100,000 screaming Caribbean fans, Platten shared her influences and even spilled the beans on why her friends make fun of her.

Tom Roth: Your music tends to be very upbeat. How do some of the more brooding artists you list as inspirations (like The Roots or Lauryn Hill) influence your music?
Rachel Platten: It’s funny because this record has a lot of the really uplifting, funny side of the stuff that I’ve been writing and that happens when I co-wrote. I’m kind of a joiner, I always have been. I love being a part of things. I love being a part of a community so going into a co-writing session is so fun and I’m instantly in this mood of “I love doing this and I wanna write something positive and happy”. When I write by myself, the stuff is… not dark, but maybe a little bit more… thoughtful and serious. That’s maybe where the artists that I listen to – like Lauryn Hill and the Roots – come in but I dunno if either of those artists are that dark. They’re talking about some serious subject matter but they’re not doing it in a brooding, miserable way. I think both of them address stuff that is painful but in a way that you can listen to it and feel like “OK, there’s hope”. And there’s a good beat [laughs] and there’s a melodic line….

TR: Another band you’ve said is influential is The Pixies. Is there a Boston connection going on there?
RP: No, because I didn’t learn about them when I was in Boston. Although now that I know that, I’m slowly getting more into them. But I didn’t find out about them until I moved to New York which is strange because I was 20 and my producer at the time, this guy Mark Turrigiano, who’s a big Pixies fan, introduced me to them along with some other artists that I love like Elliot Smith and Nada Surf and a lot of indie rock that I hadn’t been listening to but before we went in to make some songs together, he was like “Alright, girl. You need to completely absorb yourself in these artists”. And the Pixies were one of them that I fell in love with. So no, no Boston connection from the start but now that I know it, yeah. Huge fan.

TR: The title of you album (Be Here) implies a philosophy of living in the moment which fits with your words that in life “there will be pain, but there is always joy in it”. What events in your life and career led you to this mindset?
RP: I think maybe the search for, or the quest of following my dream led me to that. It has not been easy – there have been a lot of ups and downs. It’s funny because when you have success and stuff on the radio, people are like “Oh my God, it’s overnight and you’re the new artist!” but I’ve been working for a really long time and really hard and there’s definitely been a lot of “no’s” and a lot of people who didn’t believe in me. I think it was figuring out how to overcome that and not let the darker side of my mind (which we all have) win… telling it to be quiet. I know that if I stay positive and do the work – not only the work in songwriting, but the work in maintaining my happiness like yoga and meditating and all that stuff that my friends make fun of me for – that stuff keeps you on the light side of life, I think. I think the search for following my dreams has prompted the theme of wanting to stay in the moment and staying present because all we really have is right now. We can ruminate and get depressed about stuff that happened in the past but that doesn’t really exist. This is all we really have.

TR: The sounds of “You Don’t Have to Go” belie the – shall I say – sultry subject matter. Was this track written on a whim or was it more thought-out?
RP: [laughs] It was kind of a whim. I think how I wrote it was my ex-boyfriend and I, actually, he played the drums. We went to this rehearsal studio in New York and he was playing this groove but the groove you hear is changed a little bit. I started beatboxing on it… the original groove he had was this sexy, dirty… [beatboxes]. You can’t really write that, obviously [laughs]. It was just this soulful beat and I think that inspired it. It was like “Oh man, this beat is so hot” and I started playing those chords over it and it just came to life in that studio pretty quickly. It wasn’t like “Oh man, I gotta write a song about a girl having a one night stand. I gotta figure out how to do this”. So no, it was kind of on the spot. And the subject matter was funny. I kind of surprised myself with it. I hadn’t ever really written anything like that before.

TR: Commercially, “1,000 Ships” ( has become your most successful song so far. Were the lyrics influenced by Homer’s Iliad? Is that an important story for you?
RP: I wouldn’t say its important any more than any other Greek mythology. I don’t really subscribe or follow Greek mythology much but I love to investigate it when I’m writing and I love to investigate scenes and stories. I like to even look in the encyclopedia for random ideas and things that I might not have known or thought of. I had reread The Iliad but kind of a shortened version several months before I went to Sweden just because I was fascinated with the story and Helen of Troy. I loved the idea that her beauty had all this power over men and I thought it was fascinating that we have that echoed in modern movies and TV shows and it’s so funny how much it comes from these old stories and how much of it replicates it. I read it and I think it crept into my consciousness. I haven’t really told this story before, but I did not think of Helen of Troy when I wrote that line, “I have sailed a thousand ships to you”. It wasn’t until afterwards that I was like “oh man, that’s what I was talking about!” It wasn’t conscious. I wrote those words at 3:00 in the morning in my hotel room in Sweden in a half-daze. I needed to have the words by the next day because I had one day to record the vocals before I left Sweden. They just kind of came out. I know people say this, but it really did just happen with that song. I don’t feel like I wrote it, I feel like I caught it, in a way. I feel like I put out this net and was able to catch it. It came so quickly and so easily.

TR: Critics say you seem comfortable on stage. Has that always been the case?
RP: Yeah, I think it always has been. I love it. I love performing and I’ve always loved performing…. I did musicals when I was younger and did plays when I was younger and I’ve always loved it. I felt this energy from the audience. I just feel electrified when I’m on stage. I think being on stage has always been the easiest part. It’s kind of like what I go back to when the other stuff gets hard and when I was having a hard time when I first started following this dream, that was always the thing – being on stage – that was the thing that restored my faith and my belief in myself. It was like “Wait a second, I can do this! This is all that it’s about. It’s about performing tonight and being in the moment onstage”. So yeah, that’s always been something I’ve been blessed to have come easily. It’s the other stuff that was harder that I had to work at.

TR: You note your performance in Trinidad at the Soca Monarch Final as a big performance in your career. Can you tell us a little more about that day?
RP: I had been singing backup with this soca band and they asked me to join them like a week before the Soca Monarch Finals so we didn’t really rehearse. I learned the songs maybe a week before, at the most and practiced them a couple times so I was so nervous. We got to the stadium – like an outdoor park with a hundred thousand people. It was incredible. Trinidad and Carnival is something that would take hours to try to explain. It’s nothing like what we have in America for concerts. It’s like this wild, crazy, thing that’s packed with emotion because Carnival is not only about the music, it’s about the culture and the music represents the culture. I don’t know how to explain it, really. Basically, there’s all this energy there that may not be in a normal performance… that day was amazing. I got backstage and there was just this crazy, crazy mesh of people running around in crazy costumes because they’re all wearing Carnival costumes. Getting onstage was amazing. I got out there and couldn’t even see anyone. I could see like the first 20 rows and behind that was that was just a sea of people, and sparklers, and flags flying, and I just felt this light jolt up my system that was like “this is EXACTLY what I’m supposed to be doing” and I’ve been trying to chase those 100,000 people ever since.

TR: Your upcoming tour kicks off on Jan. 13 at the House of Blues in San Diego. What can you tell us about this tour?
RP: I am beyond stoked to be opening for Andy Grammar. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, we did two shows in Ohio and he’s such a talented performer. This is our first time (for a lot of us) on a bus. We’re all gonna be on a bus together so that’ll be amazing. The San Diego show is the first stop on the tour so we’ll all be fresh, and clean, and showered. I’ll be playing with my drummer. We have a couple of new songs and we’re really excited to debut those. One of them is gonna be the song that I just wrote, the theme song for an ABC Family show called “Work of Art” and we’re gonna be playing that one live, so I’m excited to see how that goes over.