Rachel Platten Talks “Fight Song,” Making A Difference And Her Long Road To The Top: Idolator Interview

Mike Wass | April 20, 2015 8:30 am
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With “Fight Song” exploding at radio and rapidly climbing iTunes, you would be forgiven for deeming Rachel Platten an overnight success. That description, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. The 33-year-old singer/songwriter has been working towards this moment since 2003 — the year she decided to forgo a career in international relations in favor or bringing people together via music.

I recently caught up with Rachel to discuss her longer than usual road to the top. She talked about the various twists and turns that her career took over the past 12 (or so) years and explained the evolution of “Fight Song.” The late bloomer also opened up about her incredible connection with fans, upcoming EP and internal battle to process her massive success. Read our Q&A below.

You’ve been doing your own thing for a long time, but now you’re signed to a major label and have a hit song. Does it seem real yet?
This has felt like a complete fairy tale. But a fairy tale that is 12 years in the making. I grinded and worked so hard for so long and got to the point of… I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought I might need to figure something else out. That moment bred “Fight Song.” So that song came because I had to make a decision, “Am I going to keep going or am I going to give up on myself?”

I came up with the answer to the decision, I guess through writing the song, I didn’t even realize it was happening, but through writing the song I made the decision to not give up on myself. Even if it’s only getting to play to a handful of people a night, that’s enough. At least I get to spread this message. Then funnily enough, by releasing the song, I got this amazing opportunity. I can’t believe what’s happening right now. I don’t have words for it, I’m so grateful.

I was reading that you have a degree in international relations. Was that the back-up plan?
I’m an international relations major, I really wanted to be a diplomat.

You’ll be traveling the world in a different capacity soon.
Yes. But it’s not that different. I thought about it and I was like, “Are these so wildly different?” But they’re not because really what I want to do with music is bring people together. I want to travel the world, and I want to unite people, that was what I wanted to do in college too, in a different way.

When did you decide to concentrate on music instead of diplomacy?
I have a very specific moment for you. I was studying in Trinidad, because I was interning at the diplomat’s office there, but also interning at a record label. I’ve always loved music, I had this tiny, little, crazy idea in my head that was like, “Maybe, maybe.” But I was afraid to follow it. In Trinidad, music is the pulse of their society, so I went knowing that I was going to be infused with music somehow.

How long were you there for?
Seven or eight months. When I was there, there’s a thing called International Soca Monarch finals, and it’s during Carnival, and a friend’s band, who was at the record label I was interning for — he needed a keyboard player and a back-up singer. I was like, “I can do it.” They’re like, “You’ll do, we have no one else. That’s fine.” So I was on stage for the first time in front of 80,000 people.

It just felt like, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life.” This huge moment of clarity, so that was when I decided to switch.

Was that when you released your first independent album?
That was in 2003, so yeah. It was so long ago. I went home and I put together a little album in college and it was just ragtag. I had a bunch of friends in Connecticut, where I was at school, and we recorded it quickly.

So what happened over the next 12 or so years?!
Just a lot of accepting any and every gig. Playing 1am until 4am in New York City with friends on Bleaker St. Playing cover gigs, traveling the country in my mom’s SUV. Putting out independent things and getting fired from a lot of jobs. Eating a lot of cereal, no milk. Yeah, I mean I was trying this whole time, you know, I’ve been trying. About two years ago, I decided I needed to stop trying to warm myself at everyone else’s fire, and just focus on my own, in building my own. That gave me the focus that I might have been lacking.

When did you start to feel the momentum shift? Your songs started appearing in a lot of TV shows.
When I say there was nothing going on, that isn’t true. There were things going on, there were things that were… I have a publisher who is incredible and they were pitching these songs. So there were little sparks of things that were making me feel like, “Okay, it’s not crazy to have faith in myself, it’s not crazy to still keep going.” I was still able to sort of make a living from it. It was also validating in that my writing was growing. I was watching how the songs I wrote were more relatable and people were more attracted to them online.

That takes us to “Fight Song.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the song been out for a while now?
Not wrong. I put it out in June and nothing really happened. I put it online, on YouTube, and… that’s not true. Nothing happened in the sense of the industry, no one was paying attention. But there were people paying attention. There were these strong fan reactions, really strong.

One really intense incredible one was this woman named Christine Luckenbaugh, have you seen the video on YouTube? It’s called “Fight Song for Christine Luckenbaugh.” Basically this woman had heard the song and decided to have it become her anthem as she was going through tumors returning that had been in remission for 15 years.

That’s amazing.
So she sent out this email to 150 of her friends and family saying, “Unfortunately I have a couple months to live, which is awful, but I found this song and I want you to know how I’m feeling. Which is strong and empowered.” Her friends and family reached out to me and were like, “You’ve changed someone’s life.” Then we went and did this surprise for her, this surprise performance, and had all her friends and family learn the song.

There were these things like that. It wasn’t only Christine, it was several other things that were making me feel like, “Oh this is good, this is important. It doesn’t matter if this is reaching the world, this is reaching the people that need to hear it.”

That’s so moving. How does it make you feel to know you’ve touched someone’s life like that?
I don’t know if I can give you an honest… I feel like I don’t really have words for it. It’s like, I feel like words are to small for it somehow, you know? It’s overwhelming and it’s empowering and it’s validating, I don’t know. It’s really big, it feels really incredible and it moves me to tears a lot. In the van after shows, I’ll be reading messages and my drummer or someone in my band will be like, “Rach, put the phone down.” Because I’ll be in tears and it’s a lot.

A lot people first heard the song on Pretty Little Liars. Is that when everything went crazy?
This is crazy but I had a feeling that the song was supposed to be bigger. I just had this feeling that it was meant for more people. When the Pretty Little Liars sync was announced, I had a feeling that that was going to be the thing that sent it over the edge. But when the show actually happened, it wasn’t, it was like a little blip. It sold, maybe, it sold a lot of copies, but I thought it was going to be this huge reaction, and it wasn’t.

Ironically that was really heartbreaking because it was just my ego, I thought, “Oh, this is going to make it work.” Then it did and it didn’t. I kind of collapsed on my floor, which is ridiculous. But I did, I collapsed on my floor like, “I don’t know how else to get this song out there!” It was the biggest moment and I thought more would happen.

Everyone is entitled to be a little dramatic occasionally!
I called my friend the next day and was like, “That was all my ego, huh?” I needed to let it go. Like at that moment, I was so attached to the song being huge… I needed to let that go. As soon as I made that decision, it seemed like things happened so fast. The next day it was top 100 on Itunes, and several days after that the Baltimore radio station decided to start playing it. So ironically it did explode from the sync, but not in the moment that I thought it was going to.

The song is now top 40 on iTunes and blowing up on radio. Are you scared of what’s next?
Yeah, a little bit. I mean, scared is not the right word. If I’m being completely honest, it’s a lot — all of a sudden. It’s amazing and it’s exciting, it’s everything that I’ve ever dreamed of. I feel very ready for it and I’m working on feeling deserving of it, you know? That’s the part that is a little confusing right now, because it’s happened so quickly.

Everything that I’ve ever dreamed of is happening so quickly that I’m like, “Wait, do I deserve all of this?” It’s confusing. I’m right in this sense of like, which one is it — I’m either completely worthy of everything that’s happening or this is all a shock and a dream and I’m just lucky. I’m like right in the middle of there, trying to work on feeling deserving of it.

You’ve definitely put in the hard yards.
If you really dig and talk to anyone about their story, everyone’s put in this work. Maybe it was from a much younger starting point. But I feel like anyone who’s really incredible with what they do, has had to put in the hours and has had to put in the work. Maybe they don’t talk about it because its really fun for us to think that people get lucky. Even those instant success TV shows, I think those people put in the work before the TV show.

Have you filmed a video yet?
Making the video continued this fairy tale. It was a four-day shoot, and it was a road trip. It was incredible and the team was amazing and we kind of decided it was like summer camp. We all loved each other, and the director and rep from Columbia and my manager were trying to instill in me, “Rachel, this is not normally the way a video shoot goes.” It was incredible!

I’ll give you one little tidbit, at the very end, I had to jump into an ice cold waterfall and it felt like a combination of everything I’ve been doing. I was so afraid and it was freezing and who wants to wear a bikini in front of the world? No one does. So it was just thing of like, “Be brave you can do it.” I’m walking in trying to be graceful and I just bite it, and plunge into the freezing water.

Is there an album or EP on the way?
I don’t know if I’m supposed to say, but I know that there’s an EP. We’re doing an EP first and then an album’s going to be released after that. It’s going to be songs that have pretty much been written. I’ve been preforming some of the songs live.

Will it include any of the song you released independently?
What do you mean independently?

The songs you have released over the past couple of years.
That’s yet to be determined, I wrote over 100 songs. Maybe 120, so there’s a lot to pick from and it’s exciting. Right now we’re in the process of like, “Okay what do we want? How do we want to present this to the world.”

A lot of your songs are very emotional and intense. Will you show a lighter side on the album?
I hope that it does a little of both because I have that side of me — my mom’s a therapist — and I love to listen to friends, and I love to support people. I’m also silly and I love to have fun and I love to party once in a while, and go dancing. I’m hoping that there’s a mix of both. It’s the album you listen to when you’re going through something, but it’s also the album that you can roll your windows down and be like blasting it with your friends in the car.

Are there going to be any collaborations?
I don’t know about collaborations yet, awesome question. I hope that there are. The producer I’m working with as of now, is going to be the producer who did “Fight Song.” His name is Jon Levine, and he’s incredibly talented and he helped me realize the potential of “Fight Song” and helped me figure out how to make my voice really strong in the song. I’m really excited to see what he does with the rest of the songs.

In a parallel universe, where “Fight Song” doesn’t explode, would you still keep going?
Oh god no. No, part of this decision that I made after that little silly ego incident, was I’m doing this no matter what. I’m meant to do this. Even if it’s only reaching five or 10 people a night, that is more that enough. Those five or 10 people need that message and I’ve been blessed to give it to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s on any bigger scale. I would absolutely keep doing it.

Where did you discover Rachel Platten? Let us know in the comments below.

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