Let’s take you back through the mists of time to early 2001, when a band called Train were not yet the mega-selling, hit-cranking machine that they would come to be for the next two decades. After a debut album that succeeded in spite of record company indifference, they still needed a breakout single for their next LP. And then came “Drops Of Jupiter (Tell Me),” released 20 years ago this week on its way to Top 5, Grammy-winning, modern classic status.
Lead singer Pat Monahan’s composition pristinely captured the gutting feeling of one left behind by an ex who’s off to find themselves. Little did most listeners understand that the inspiration for the song was far different. Nor did they know the ironic backstory of how Train worked like crazy to get to the precipice of their big break, only to finally achieve it thanks to a dream. In an interview with American Songwriter in honor of the songs 20th anniversary, Monahan revealed the real story behind this unforgettable song.
American Songwriter: Can you start by walking me through the story of how you came to the point of writing and recording “Drops Of Jupiter”?
Pat Monahan: I have to go back because it’s important to the story. When we were in San Francisco, we were using the Counting Crows’ rehearsal space in Emeryville in East Bay. Every day, we would rehearse and we would talk about our goals and everything. And all that we wanted was to get a record deal. So we finally had a manager and we finally met some people from Columbia records and they were like, “You’re the band. All you have to do is fly to New York and you’re gonna get signed to Columbia.” Columbia spent the money to get us from San Francisco to New York. We performed and the main guy there, Donnie Ienner, said, “I don’t see anything special about this band.” When we went back to San Francisco without a record deal, those rehearsals changed. Because it was like, well, what are we doing? Once this group of people passes on you, it seems like everybody in the business will do the same. It’s a very small community.
So we changed our goal, and the goal became we just wanted to make an album, a real one. We raised our own money, $25,000 from some of our family and some of our friends. Curtis Mathewson was a friend of our bass player who basically recorded it for free. And then Columbia Records heard it and there were the songs “Meet Virginia” and “Free” that made it to this compilation on Aware Records, and that started to get some response. Then Columbia Records was like, OK, cool, now we’ll sign this band and we’ll use this record and we did feel special, because we took the initiative to move forward.
That guy, Donnie Ienner, was a big part of it, where he stayed invisible during the whole thing and we sold a million albums with “Meet Virginia” and worked hard to do it. Selling a million albums was still no slouch. On the second record, Donnie got way more involved. He listened to our album at the time and “Drops Of Jupiter” was not on it at the time. He wanted to call a meeting with me. As a band, we had a rule where we were not allowed to write outside of the band, which was a mistake, but that’s what kids do is make mistakes. But Donnie Ienner was meeting with me and telling me that I don’t have a choice, that I’ve got to get in the room with other writers.
About two days before I was supposed to fly to New York, I was living back where I’m from in Erie, Pennsylvania, and my mother had passed away not so long before this. I fell asleep and woke up maybe ten minutes later and I had the entire “Drops Of Jupiter” lyrics and melody, that I went downstairs and wrote the whole thing in 15 minutes. The next day, I demoed it.
The third day was my trip to New York, and I had this little disc in my pocket. He (Donnie) was playing me all these songs and, basically, he was walking me through this is what you have to do to get this next album right. I said, “Hey, I got this song that I wrote from a dream.” And he said, “These are the ones. These are the special ones.” He put it in and we all listened and right on the part where it went, “Plain old Jane told a story…,” he just went, “Whoa! Fucking song of the year.”
It was the whole shift, because what he was, was passionate. He was as passionate about “Your record sucks” as he was about “This song will be the Song of the Year if it’s the last thing I do.” He really worked hard to make sure that people heard that song. So I owe him a great deal of respect. I played golf with him about three years ago just so I could tell him how much I had appreciated it.
AS: When you completed the song, before you got this reaction from Ienner, did you feel it was something special?
PM: Any song that’s ever done well I had no idea. “Meet Virginia” sounded really weird. “Drops Of Jupiter,” this is like a 45-minute song with strings. It has no chance. “Hey Soul Sister” was like me and a ukulele, that’s got no chance. Everything that’s ever been successful. Like “Marry Me,” there’s no way that people are ever going to let that be on the radio when there’s Justin Bieber songs with Auto-Tune. But it worked, so I don’t know.
AS: What’s interesting is that if you had consciously tried to write a tribute to your mother, you might have struggled with it, whereas your subconscious said everything you needed to say.
PM: Honestly, it feels like she wrote it. Like “Hey, this is what it’s like, and it’s OK.” And she was able to swim through the planets and she had drops of Jupiter in her hair. But then I turned it into a love song, because that’s people wanted to hear. And that’s what I wanted to hear too. I needed it. There are so many songs that are about real things, but we as artists have to make them appealing to the listener. It’s like a movie. You have to figure out how to get people to care about it.
AS: Count me as one of those people that was fooled and thought it was about a romantic relationship. Like the line about the scar, where you were referring to an actual scar that you have, I thought it was about the figurative scars of a jilted lover.
PM: It’s supposed to do all that. That’s the best part of coming up with something that actually works.
AS: It’s an interesting recording, because it has the strings and all that, but it’s not just your typical plink-plunk ballad. There is a great groove in there. What do you remember about balancing those elements in the recording?
PM: The best part about the recording of it was that we had Chuck Leavell play the piano and he’s the one that made it bounce like that. Chuck is such a gifted piano player, and I’m not sure if anybody else would have been able to make it move, like it needed to, like Chuck did.
AS: How did you end up with Paul Buckmaster arranging the strings?
PM: That was funny, because at the time that I played that demo for Donnie, Almost Famous was a big movie. And because of all the Elton John songs that are in that movie, Donny was like “We have to get Paul Buckmaster to write this string arrangement.” That was all there was to it.
AS: So you’ve got the record company behind the song and other people telling you how special it is by this time. But could you foresee just how big it was going to be, even with all that?
PM: I don’t know anybody who expects anything. Who knows what’s going to happen with anything that’s creative? I remember when I heard it the first time, it was like 11 o’clock at night on some college station in Pennsylvania. And it kind of scared me because it was so long of a song. That’s all I kept thinking about the whole time, instead of how beautiful it was or whatever the thing was. “Nobody’s going to care about this; it’s just too long.” That’s what I had been conditioned to think at the time. Three minutes, that’s it. But it worked out. And I’ve been trying to write that song again ever since.
AS: A lot of people write hit singles that don’t mean anything in particular but make a big difference in their career. But how special is it that “Drops Of Jupiter (Tell Me)”, which came from such a personal place, has meant so much, not just to you and your career, but to so many fans for the last twenty years?
PM: I couldn’t be more grateful and proud that this song that does mean so much to me is why Train has continued to do well. And not just for me, but my band and my crew and the people that are close. We survive to put our kids through school and buy cars and everything because music has been good to us. What a great feeling to be able to respect the road that got you there and the songs that did it. It’s pretty cool. And it’s cool for my people too to think about the work that I’ve done with or without them, and they love and respect it. That’s a pretty cool feeling for them to be able to go to work and play that song and be proud to do that.