Fans of The Weepies have grown accustomed to songwriting duo Deb Talan and Steve Tannen’s tug-of-war between love paeans and pains. But none of their records have cut as deep as Sirens, the band’s fifth. That’s because it was born out of sheer survival. At the end of 2013, Deb and Steve were celebrating a decade together as a band and five years of marriage. When the two met in Boston in 2001, Steve, who was then based in New York, had recently released his first record and booked a gig at Boston’s Club Passim. Deb had just released her second record, her songbird-like vocals and moody alternative folk songs establishing her as a Beantown artist to watch. Without a common thread between them except a fondness for each other’s albums, Deb showed up at Steve’s gig and, by all accounts, sparks flew. After dating and moving in together, the pair decided to pool their their songwriting resources and start a band. The Weepies self-released their debut, Happiness, in November 2003, and the record went on to sell 10,000 copies. The couple, who inked a deal with Nettwerk Records in 2005 and married two years later, produced another three well-received albums. They scored a pair of Billboard Top 40s with 2008’s "Hideaway" and 2010’s "Be My Thrill" — and, somewhat astonishingly, have sold more than 1 million records to date. Shortly after the release of Thrill, the band spent the better part of two years on the road in support of it. Afterwards, they took a well-deserved break. By 2012, Deb was pregnant with their third son, and while they were busy writing songs, there were no plans for a new release. Then, in December 2013, their lives were shaken. Deb, who was 45 at the time, says she started feeling discomfort in her right breast, and though she’d made a point of getting health insurance just before the birth of her first child in 2008, she had never gotten a mammogram. “I went in [to the doctor] and can’t say I was expecting anything, but I did have this feeling that I should get this checked out," she tells Refinery29. "And that day, I basically found out I had cancer. It was pretty intense."
The initial diagnosis was Stage 2 breast cancer, but after an MRI and biopsy, it was assessed as Stage 3. Though highly treatable, it required Deb to begin chemotherapy, which would last well into 2014 and be followed by surgery. “There was this weird but understandable burst of work [during] those first few weeks after being diagnosed,” Deb says. “I think it was not knowing what the treatment would hold for me, so whenever there was a spare moment, we would go up to our studio.” The chemo left her physically exhausted, making it hard for her to work or even take part in family activities. She says she did everything in her power to fight off the illness: taking doctor-prescribed meds, doing acupuncture and yoga, and smoking medical marijuana. “I was using everything that was at my disposal,” she says. Then on June 2, 2014, fans saw a promising sign in the form of a picture on The Weepies’ Facebook page. It showed a bald Deb, legs akimbo on her bed, guitar in hand, writing. “As soon as the chemo was over, I bounced back really fast. I feel like I was in the ready-to-sprint position for a couple weeks, and then I just started literally and metaphorically running. Like, let’s get out of Cancerland as fast as we can,” she says. Eight days after the photo was posted and her surgery completed, a simple status update appeared: “Pathology report, Deb cancer free.” *** With the exception of a few songs on Happiness and two covers on the new album, Deb and Steve, who now live in Iowa City, share songwriting credits on all of their material. And while it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read into songs like “My Little Love” or “Gotta Have You” — yes, they’re very much in love — it’s the band’s downhearted numbers that offer the most fodder for interpretation. One such song is “Orbiting” from 2008’s Hideaway, in which the song’s narrator confronts an anonymous subject: “You named me judge/the day that I was born/You asked too much/to fix what you had torn.” More than any other song in the band’s catalog, it will haunt you. When asked what it’s about, Deb starts to answer then freezes. After talking with her husband, she summons the courage to continue. “So, I’m a double-survivor now,” she says. “I survived cancer, and before that, I survived sexual abuse in my family.” She explains that a number of the songs she’s written throughout her career — including “Orbiting,” written for her mother — have contemplated this dark period in her life, one that all but destroyed her relationship with her family. (She hasn’t been in contact with them for 10 years.) “Not all the music’s about it, [and] no, my whole life isn’t about it, but it sure is a part of it, and I’m not going to be quiet about it anymore,” she says. Although Deb completed Sirens while fighting to get her life back in a completely different way, she doesn’t see the album as some travelogue of doom. “There aren’t any songs that feel hopeless to me on this album,” she says. “When we’re revisiting them, I never feel dragged into the center of only something dark.” It might come as a surprise to some, but the couple wrote foreboding numbers like the album openers “River from the Sky” and “No Trouble” well before Deb’s diagnosis. Another that pre-dates her illness, “Sirens,” is the album’s most prescient. Its subject surveys the flotsam and jetsam of life around her, questioning her own mortality. “I hear their voices, sirens, calling out emergency for you...for me,” she sings, fragilely. During chemotherapy, Deb insisted on recording her vocals on a particularly bad day — nailing them in one take, says her husband. Listen to it and you can’t help but feel like you’re hearing a prayer, the kind that got answered.