When the phone rings and a rock star’s on the line

Once a month, the Daily Herald gives a look behind the curtain at what goes into getting a story. Here’s what it’s like stepping outside of our local-scene comfort zone.

I’m not sure Tom Higgenson’s grandma realizes exactly how famous he really is.

Come February, we on the Daily Herald copy desk look forward to an email from her asking us to include her grandson — the frontman for the DuPage-born rock band Plain White T’s — in our celebrity birthday listings on the Back Page. She reminds us who he is, what his band has done and what her favorite songs are.

I’ve had several opportunities to chat with Higgenson; he’s warm, affable and truly genuine, but the fact that he’s always in the middle of a crowd at shows makes it hard to forget he’s an internationally known celebrity.

And even though we’ve struck up a friendship over the last few years, it doesn’t mean the “famous-person anxiety” doesn’t start creeping in when we’re about to hop on a call or a video chat.

When I started music writing for the Daily Herald’s entertainment section a few years ago, my goal was to shine a spotlight on the local scene. But the job also has afforded the chance to get on the phone with some of the bigger names on my playlists as they prepared to come to town.

*Cue the famous-person butterflies*

This past December, when actor Zooey Deschanel and her musical partner Matt Ward brought their “A Very She & Him Christmas” to the Chicago Theatre, Ward was the more grounded of the two after a full day of press calls. Deschanel, on the other hand, was bubbly and animated — exactly what you’d expect if you’ve seen her in any of her movies or television shows, only amped up by candy canes and Christmas spirit.

Rock violinist and dancer Lindsey Stirling was the same way. In the right mood, I can zip around like a squirrel on espresso, and it perfectly matched Stirling’s energy as she excitedly and charmingly answered all my questions and then some, recounting her history, her struggles and pandemic-paused projects she was about to unleash on tour.

But not every interview has gone that smoothly. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right button to open the door.

Jared Followill seemed happy to be hitting the road again with Kings of Leon last summer, but I could tell he was also worn down from a day packed with interviews. But when the conversation veered to their earlier hits, he perked up and his passion for his craft came out clearly.

A few months later, actor and musician Dennis Quaid spoke matter-of-factly about getting back on stage with his guitar late last year, until he pulled up at the gate of a golf course and introduced himself to the security staff. I overheard the interaction, and when he got back to me, I teased him about probably not having to tell people who he is. He laughed and peppered the rest of the interview with jokes and fun stories from his past.

And sometimes interviews are charming reminders about perceptions — they may be famous, but they’re not terribly different from those of us typing away in our pajamas.

Dan Konopka, drummer for Chicago-born indie rock band OK Go, loved talking about his family and how his kids were weathering the early days of the pandemic. Northbrook rising pop star Jordy and his mom are still thrilled every time he sees his name in the newspaper. And Better Than Ezra frontman Kevin Griffin chatted with me from the parking lot as he was picking up kids from school and giving them snacks.

So, to Tom Higgenson’s grandma, he’s probably just Tommy, the grandson she loves to brag about.

“His own personal PR person,” he joked, when I once told him about it. But you better believe the “famous-person butterflies” were there when I did.

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