First published in The Collective magazine, issue 30, February 2016.
Rachel Platten believes that when the universe speaks to you, it’s a mistake not to listen. When the US singer-songwriter, whose 2015 hit “Fight Song” has become the unofficial anthem for anyone on the wrong end of a cosmic battle, was studying abroad during university, an onstage encounter changed the course of her life.
“Growing up, I always sang with my mum and my sister and I took classical piano lessons from when I was five all the way throughout high school but I didn’t consider music as a career because I didn’t think I was talented enough,” she says, her voice, which betrays hints of her Boston upbringing, flitting between honeyed and husky. “When I was at Trinity College, I spent some time studying in Trinidad and I ended up playing backup for a friend’s band – the first time I was on stage, it was in front of 80,000 people and I just remember feeling like lightning had struck. I was so in love with the experience that I wanted to find a way to get to the microphone. After I came back to the States, I moved straight to New York.”
We’re chatting at Sydney’s Pullman Hotel the day before Rachel, who’s wearing a patterned sweater and caramel fedora, is set to perform her hotly anticipated new single Stand By You on Australian breakfast show Sunrise. She’s a study in the electricity that marks out artists who are on the cusp of becoming stars. In the last twelve months, “Fight Song”, a track that combines the life-affirming power of Adele or Kelly Clarkson with a dazzling vulnerability that’s increasingly rare in pop music, has sold over two million copies and reached number one in the UK and the US Adult Contemporary charts. It’s an outcome that could be straight out of a biopic – if wasn’t the high point of a decade-long journey littered with personal sacrifices that are too real to translate on screen.
“I was living in a walk-up in MacDougal Street, in the same building as Bob Dylan and I didn’t have any connections – I was acting like my own booking agent and my own manager, just making it up as I went along,” recalls Rachel, who spent ten years juggling daytime temp work with gigs that stretched into the early hours. “I couldn’t get any attention from labels and was almost signed several times before things would fall through. I was never in bands while I was growing up, so didn’t know what I was doing. It was hard to get attention from anyone who would give me access to anything beyond the indie circuit I was playing in.”
But despite the sinking feeling that her career was going nowhere, Rachel also stumbled upon a secret of artistic longevity – the ability to find a silver lining and let this fuel her work. “At the time, I was doing a lot of charity with an organisation called Musicians on Call, where I’d go and sing bedside to patients – it would negate any discouragement because it was so good for my soul to feel like I was reaching people in a small way,” she smiles. She also assembled a tight-knit community of friends and musical collaborators, who taught her that the markers of external success are no match for the internal rewards being true to your art. “We used to have these magical Tuesday nights where we’d fill out Slane, a tiny bar in Greenwich Village and it was just about being on stage and feeling the love,” she says. By November 2013, Rachel – who had seen her 2011 single “1,000 Ships” hit the US Top 30 – was halfway through writing her second studio album and had almost abandoned hopes of achieving musical recognition. Fate, as it turns out, had other plans.
“My publisher called me a month or two into writing this album and said ‘You’ve been writing and writing and haven’t really told your story or shared your hurt and rejection’ and I told her that I didn’t want to go there or for the hurt to come out that way,” explains Rachel, who spent her summer on a cross-country US tour alongside Colbie Callait and Christina Perri and whose musical influences range from Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone to Robyn and Lauryn Hill. “After that, I went to my friend [record producer] Dave Basset’s house and the chorus for “Fight Song” just poured out of me like it was a gift from the skies. Over the next year and a half, I wrote six different versus and five bridges and it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Writing the song itself was almost as difficult as the fifteen years that came before. But I knew that if I could unlock it, I had something special.”
Enter the hashtag #myfightsong on Instagram and it’s clear that “Fight Song” isn’t just a universal ode to perseverance, it also connects with the personal struggles that shape listener’s lives. From cancer sufferers undergoing treatment to teenage girls facing body issues, the track – which was released by Columbia Records in February – is proof that pop music still has the power to help us tackle our obstacles and remind us that personal strength always wins out. Platten, whose music has made cameos in shows such as One Tree Hill and the Biggest Loser has previously supported Lady Gaga, The Strokes and Regina Spektor, is also finally reaping karmic rewards. Taylor Swift famously pulled Rachel on-stage to perform an exuberant duet of Fight Song in front of a 50,000-strong crowd during her sold-out June 2015 show at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Swift, who’s endorsed Rachel on Twitter, is among her greatest advocates.
“It’s incredible – she’s a really kind and genuine person and good friend,” grins Rachel, whose new album Wildfire includes collaborations with Swift’s producers Jack Antonoff and Joy Williams. “After so many years of feeling like I’m doing this in a tunnel, it feels larger than life.”
But like feeling a telltale lightning bolt during an impromptu performance, it’s the encounters that are easy to overlook that remind her that she’s living her dream.
“When I first released “Fight Song”, I put it on You Tube and someone sent it to her aunt whose tumours had returned after being in remission,” she recalls. “The song made her feel strong and inspired and her family reached out to me so we flew out to Virginia and sang it to her at church in front of everyone she knew.” A smile. “Receiving the plaques for going platinum, singing with Taylor and travelling halfway around the world is incredible. But it’s the moments that make me see the impact my music can have that are my true highlights.”