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The history of the pop-rock hit that’s now found a second life in Everything Everywhere All At Once
ou know ‘Absolutely’, even if you think you don’t. When the drums come crashing in at the end of that opening refrain, you’ll hear it and think, “Oh, it’s that song.” But were you one of the cinemagoers who heard a couple of lines of dialogue in Everything Everywhere All At Once and thought they sounded a little familiar?
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Oscar-tipped action-comedy-drama-science fiction romp is a movie so packed full of stuff that audiences are still combing through the film’s fine details for hidden treasure. Following the adventures of a Chinese-American immigrant and laundromat owner who has to learn to connect with alternative versions of herself in order to save the multiverse, Everything Everywhere is a story of literally infinite possibilities, and so, understandably, there’s a lot to take in. The discovery that Nine Days’ 2000 hit had been woven into the script seemed only to be made by the media a few months after the fact – “Your clothes never wear as well the next day, your hair never falls in quite the same way,” Ke Huy Quan’s character tells his wife. I remember tapping my partner on the arm in the cinema and whispering, “Isn’t that ‘Story Of A Girl’?”
“You got it from the dialogue?!” laughs John Hampson when I tell him this. The song then shows up in a subsequent scene, where two characters sit and talk in a van whilst ‘Absolutely’ plays on the radio – not the song we know and love. Hampson describes how he “kind of redid an entire version”, reimagining the track as a ballad.
“I think it was two years ago in March that my publisher reached out and just said, “Hey, there’s this film, they’re interested in using the song,” Hampson says. “Imagine trying to describe that film to someone in a little blurb. It’s impossible. So I got this brief synopsis of what it was and I’m like, ‘Taxes? A laundry? I don’t understand this. What’s a multiverse?’”
Hampson, a self-professed “huge film guy” was immediately interested when he saw the names attached however – he was well-aware of the Daniels and a huge fan of A24, the production company behind the project. “There was talk about changing the song up, but it wasn’t clear to me what was going to happen, or if I was going to be the one to do it,” he remembers. “At least once or maybe twice a week, I would reach back out to my publisher and say, “Hey, can you just remind them that I’m a huge film fan, and I would love to do the creative on this?” And eventually, they asked me to do it.
“The directive was basically changing the lyrics to kind of literally reflect the scene. Now, normally, I would not be too interested in changing up the lyrics to that song – it’s important, it’s special. But I was so all in on what they were doing.”
Hampson loves ‘Absolutely’. Over two decades later, he’s not tired of talking about it, of being asked about it, of playing it. That’s not just because it’s a great track, but because, as he puts it: “That song changed everything”.
“I wrote the song in, I think, May of 1998,” he says. “25 long years ago. We had literally just gotten out of this production deal, where we were in a studio in New York City, doing demos for some record companies. It was really a frustrating time, because I wasn’t really super excited about the songs we were recording, but I also felt really stifled, so I wasn’t writing. And we finally got out of this year long deal, and all of a sudden these songs just started coming out.”
These new songs were already laying the foundations for some tempting deals with labels. But Hampson recalls the advice given to him by a friend at the time. “He said, ‘don’t take the deals. Just keep writing, you’re gonna write something special…’. A couple of weeks later, ‘Story Of A Girl’ popped out. And that was it.”
The song came from a relationship that Hampson was then in with a girl who sat him down to ask where it was all going. “I mean she literally was like, ‘Sit down’, he laughs. “I don’t remember word for word what she said, but the gist of it was, ‘I’m not really here just to kind of hang out and be your girlfriend. Like, if this isn’t going someplace serious, I’m not interested’. And I remember I just was nodding along and agreeing with her, but in my head, I was just like, “This girl’s out of her mind! I can’t get married!”.
“As terrible as it sounds, the song is really all about how she was kind of looking for the relationship to go to that next place, that engagement ring, and I just was like, ‘Yep, definitely’, but not actually fulfilling my end of the bargain.”
When he sat down to write it, the song flew out.
“If you’re an artist of any kind,” says Hampson, balking at the word, “you’re always looking for something to inspire you. You’re always searching for something. So, for me, songs are in my head every moment of the day. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have songs come really quickly. They just happen, they fall into place. It’s like surfing, riding a wave and you’re just kind of letting it happen. You’re just riding it out. It’s almost like you’re out of it. And with ‘Story Of A Girl’, it was very much out-of-body. I remember this sort of visualisation of it. I felt like the words were just lying around, and I was just kind of grabbing them or swatting them away: ‘no, not that one. Yeah, this one.’ It just happened really fast. I mean, within a half hour I’d written most of the song.”
Easy as it was to get down on paper, Hampson was nervous about the prospect of bringing ‘Absolutely’ into the studio. “This is so pop,” he remembers thinking. “This is so ear-candy catchy. I’m almost not sure how these guys are going to react.” It wasn’t the sound the group had been leaning towards.
“I brought the song in, but I wouldn’t sing it. They had no idea what the melody or the lyrics were. I basically just said, “Look, I’m not going to play you this song until we perfect the music. Then I’ll sing it, and this way the first time you ever hear it the song’s fully done.
“So we spent an hour and a half or something like that learning it. Then when we finally played it through a couple of times, I’m like, ‘Okay, we got this, everybody good? Now I’m gonna sing it…’ I wouldn’t even look at them. I went on the microphone and I started the song with the vocal and everybody kicked in. And when we got done, it was that moment where my eyes are kind of closed, and I’m like, okay, here it comes. They’re either gonna be like, ‘dude, this is terrible’, or ‘this is way too pop’. But they loved it.”
What followed was a huge radio hit for the group, and a whirlwind couple of years. It’s a time in Hampson’s life he won’t ever forget.
“I think it’s true for lots of people. There are periods in your life that, for one reason or another, you remember very, very clearly. And then there are periods where they’re sort of, like, fuzzy, and that period from 1999 through to 2001 is really imprinted in my brain because it was new, it was exciting. It was this kind of explosion.
“We played Madison Square Garden. I grew up in New York, on Long Island. So it doesn’t really get much bigger than that. I just remember playing that song to a sold-out crowd and the whole place was singing. I was up on that stage just thinking in that moment, ‘I have to take this in. I have to stop for a second and really absorb this because this is probably the biggest thing.””
Watching Everything Everywhere All At Once in the cinema was another one of those moments. “Sometimes things happen, and you know the expression, you pinch yourself. There’s no other way to describe it. You sit there and you’re like, ‘how in the world did this happen? How is this happening right now?’”
“It’s never lost on me, you know, how fortunate I’ve been throughout my whole career as a musician,” says Hampson. “Yes, it’s defined by this one song, but that one song has enabled me to do so many other amazing things and to continue to write and play shows and put out records and make music. And then something like this film, which is something I wouldn’t… I might have dreamed of, but certainly not this way. There are no words.”
As to the girl in the song whose story he’s telling? Funnily enough, he did end up marrying her. In fact, they’re still married to this day.
“You know, it’s funny,” he says. “Literally just the other day – I hadn’t asked her this question, we don’t really talk about it – but I asked her the other day. I’m like, ‘Is this weird for you? All these years later, that the song’s still there? It still gets played, it shows up in TV or movies. How does it feel that you’re the girl in this song?” And she was just like, ‘I love it’.”