Soy lattes and the literal dream song: An oral history of Train's 'Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)'

It's been 20 years since Train became a Grammy-winning band thanks to a last-minute addition to their sophomore album. EW looks back at how the 2001 hit almost didn't happen.

Everyone knows the lyrics to Train's "Drops of Jupiter." It doesn't matter if you're the San Francisco rock band's biggest fan or someone who never listens to the radio — when the opening piano notes hit, it's like those cosmic lines take on a life of their own. Lead singer Pat Monahan's words about a woman being "back in the atmosphere, with drops of Jupiter in her hair" catapulted the group to global superstardom back in 2001. And in the 20 years since it debuted, the single's celestial lyrics and soaring melody have yet to lose any of their original spark (even as the band's lineup changed, with only Monahan remaining from the original members).

But "Drops of Jupiter" almost never existed, and the circumstances surrounding the song's origins are equal parts tragic, coincidental, and labored. EW looks back on the song that helped solidify Train — all thanks to a dream.

Did you make it to the Milky Way?

PAT MONAHAN (lead singer and songwriter, 1994-present): Somebody once asked me, "Isn't it nice that a song that means so much to you personally is kind of what created your career, instead of some fluke that wasn't meaningful?" I never really thought of it like that, but yeah, it definitely feels good that the song means as much to my livelihood as it does to my heart.

JIMMY STAFFORD (guitarist, 1994-2016): I am one of the original five members who started the band in '94 and who knows what would have happened to the band had that song not been on that record. And it almost wasn't.

DON IENNER (former president of Columbia Records): It's a classic song, and the process of getting there was incredibly frustrating for Pat. Every one of these songs has its own backstory — this one is a little different than most because it was torturous.

The band's self-titled, self-produced debut album came out in 1998, and their single "Meet Virginia" reached No. 20 on the charts, effectively launching their career. But Monahan had issues following it up with another hit — until he found his literal dream song.

MONAHAN: At the time, the second album was called Something More. That was the song we believed in the most.

SCOTT UNDERWOOD (drummer, 1994-2014): We had really high hopes. The single that they were leaning toward was a song called "Something More," and that was the first song that I wrote with Pat. I was like, "Holy crap, my song is going to be the one leading this record off." I was really proud of that; it's a huge deal for me, especially being the drummer.

BRENDAN O'BRIEN (record producer): I was their producer for that album, and we had pretty much in our minds finished the album. It was completed, turned in. Nobody wanted to hear that we needed one more song. [Laughs] But that's what happened. It went on for a while, like three or four months, maybe longer. I was already off making another record.

MONAHAN: Columbia Records didn't consider us to have a first single yet…. There was a lot of pressure on us to write a song that was a hit, and I don't know how to do that.

IENNER: In those days, if you didn't come out of the chutes with a big hit, the band would have been over then, literally. That's just the way it was. I pressed Pat to write what I thought would be a first single. I bet he swore that he hated me, that he didn't want to do it. He must have turned in 20 or 30 songs, all of which I rejected. But I said to him, "If you want to put the album out now, we'll support it 100 percent if this is your vision. But if you want my two cents, it's going to not be as successful as we all want it to be, and I don't think you're going to have the career that you want." The stakes were so high.

O'BRIEN: That was a tough pill to swallow. But they were totally right. The reality is when you're part of a big label, the reason you're there is because you want them to do what they do. If the guy who's running the whole thing says, "I'm not quite feeling it yet," well [laughs], you need to find some way for that guy to feel it. 

STAFFORD: They call it the sophomore slump, I guess. Pat always wrote the lyrics and melodies to our songs, and he had just lost his mother to cancer. We were on tour that entire time, touring the debut album, and it was really rough for him.

MONAHAN: I lost my mother, and then I woke up from a dream and wrote all the melodies and lyrics to "Drops of Jupiter" in about 15 minutes. I made a demo of it the next day, and it happened to be about two days before Columbia Records was calling a meeting for me to break the rules within the band and start working with other people.

The night of the life-changing dream about his late mother, Monahan was in Erie, Penn.

MONAHAN: That's where I'm from. That's where my mom passed away. It was the winter. It was just one night, one dream, done. I haven't had any other songs come [from a dream] like that, but I'd like to — I wouldn't want to lose anybody else in my life, though. My dream was basically my mother coming back and saying, "This is what it's like." She was swimming through the planets, and that's what the whole part of having "drops of Jupiter in her hair" is from, because everything is what you want it to be when you're gone from this life. I really didn't think of it as anything but a really long song. At the time I was so worried about, "You need a three-minute single that goes like this and does all these things," and "Drops of Jupiter" to me is the opposite of that. It was just a love song that was built around the fact that I had lost basically the love of my life, because a boy who loses his mom is a pretty big deal. I was really surprised that people would care as much as they did — or do.

UNDERWOOD: I found [Monahan writing this song from a dream] mysterious and interesting and cool. I don't know how that works. We all knew each other before success so I never looked at Pat as like this super-talent, but this just showed me how incredibly talented he really is.

STAFFORD: We were on the road, I think we were in St. Paul, Minn., and Pat brought me a tape; he wanted me to listen and hear what I thought. Now, the record was finished. The second album was already recorded and had a title that wasn't Drops of Jupiter, there was a release date already scheduled, press lined up, the whole thing, when Pat sat down on the bus and played me this song. And I flipped over it.

UNDERWOOD: Everyone thought it was f---ing amazing. [Laughs] But I was one of the few, maybe the only one, who didn't hear a big hit song when I heard that rough demo.

STAFFORD: It was just him playing piano with two fingers — as best he could [laughs] — just so he could sing the melody along to something, but he didn't even really need the piano. Just him singing those words, and that melody, I was floored. He had already played it for our manager and the record company and they flipped over it, but he didn't tell me that at the time. In the early days the band was very democratic, and I don't think he wanted to think that he went around us and went to the record company with this song. [Laughs] But he kind of did.

IENNER: One night, he comes up to my office about 9 o'clock. We had a glass of wine. And he says, "Don, I don't have anything. And I really want to put the album out. I'm working on this idea. Do you mind if I play it for you?" Probably 60 or 70 seconds went by. I stopped it and I said, "This is your first single. This is your Grammy."

MONAHAN: It was thankfully at a time when the movie Almost Famous was out.

IENNER: I had just seen Almost Famous about a week or two earlier. Cameron Crowe is a very good friend of ours, and I went to a screening of it with Cameron and it just blew my mind.

MONAHAN: So when Donnie heard this song, he freaked out. He said, "Paul Buckmaster has to do a string arrangement," because he had just seen the movie with [Elton John's] "Tiny Dancer" and everything in it, and it was a perfect storm, I guess. He immediately called it "the song of the year."

IENNER: This song to me could have been an Elton song. And I somehow just heard the cellos in it during every single one of the breaks, and in the way it was written, I knew that Paul was the perfect person to do that record. I told Pat, "We are going to hire Paul Buckmaster, who did the arrangement on 'Tiny Dancer,' and we're going to mimic that song the best that we can without ripping it off. We will make a top 10, if not a No. 1 song, that will launch your career forever." And I thought he was going to start crying, which he may have done and I may have done because I was so taken by the song in every way. I thought it was about a lost love. I had no idea it was about his mother until after. But at 60 to 70 seconds, we were done. I knew at that point we had what we wanted. To me it wasn't a song, it was a movie. 

STAFFORD: So we had to postpone the release date of the album so that we could go back into the studio and record this one last song.

O'BRIEN: I know there was a lot of frustration going on, and I got a call from Donnie himself saying, "I just got this demo from Pat, and this song is great. Let's do this. This is the one." That's all I needed to hear.

Pat Monahan
"Had I not lost my mother, the song probably would not have been written," says Train frontman Pat Monahan | Credit: Mike Corrado

The best soy latte that you ever had, and me

The song's unique, poetic lyrics instantly connected with fans — but everyone had tried to get Monahan to change a few key lines when he was recording the vocals.

MONAHAN: It was a very strange time. Every word that I wrote felt like the right word. Even "soy latte" — it was when Starbucks was starting to become a big deal, and everybody in my band would all drink soy lattes. I didn't even drink coffee! They were just things that were supposed to be there. But people wanted me to change it.

O'BRIEN: It wasn't "people," it was me. I did. [Laughs] I just, soy latte was — I don't know about that, man. Really? Come on. It was that lyric in particular.

UNDERWOOD: I was like, "What's the problem? Dude, we drink soy lattes! That was your initial idea, man. This is your lyric. This is you expressing yourself. Don't change a thing."

IENNER: I never liked the latte line. I thought it was cheesy. But people loved it. I thought there was another way that he could have written it, and he was really adamant about soy lattes.

MONAHAN: [The record label] said, "You only say 'Drops of Jupiter' once in the song, so it should be called 'Tell Me.'" "Nobody wants to hear about soy lattes." "Fried chicken is racist." What?! When it was being recorded and people were trying to talk me out of certain things, I'm really not the kind of artist that swims upstream. I don't fight the current. In this particular case I was like, "I'm just going to sing what I wrote and I'm not going to worry about it." It was less fighting with people and more just doing what I was going to do. I knew I was right. By the time we recorded it, I was like, "I'm not doing anything different."

IENNER: At that particular point I had tortured him enough that I said, "Oh, just leave it in, no problem."

STAFFORD: I would get in the producer's ear, like, "Dude, you've got to say something about this lyric. [Laughs] You've got to stop him, he's gone mad!" But even a producer can only get so far, because he'd like to work on the next record too. He's not going to push it too far where he loses his job. So Pat's gotten away with some stuff, let's just say that. And on that song he got away with it in a really big, Grammy-winning way.

With the lyrics set, the music came next. At the time, Train consisted of Monahan, Stafford, Underwood, Rob Hotchkiss, and Charlie Colin.

O'BRIEN: My only thought was, "How are we going to approach this?" It didn't have a traditional chorus. It started with the title of the song and it doesn't say it again after that. It had a sort of bridge. It wasn't a traditional arrangement. It didn't have an ending. It's a piano-driven song, and up to that point on the record most of the keyboards were played by either me or Rob, who was the guitar player at the time. I did a lot of the heavy lifting, but we needed to get a real piano player to play this because I don't know if I can hold the line on this. [Laughs]. And I know the guy we needed to bring in.

STAFFORD: Brendan O'Brien had been a dream producer of ours — with the success of "Meet Virginia," I remember our manager asking us, "If you guys could work with anybody, any producer, who would you want?" We all were like, "Brendan O'Brien!" We didn't think he'd really do it. [Laughs] But he did. And since none of us were really piano players, I suggested, "Well, we got Brendan O'Brien to produce the record, and who thought we could do that? Let's get Elton John to play the piano on this song."

O'BRIEN: I don't know if the Elton John conversation got much past that. That would make it a Train song featuring Elton John doing basically an Elton John song at that point. I'm not sure that would have had the same impact.

STAFFORD: We never asked Elton to do the piano, but we did get Chuck Leavell, a legend in his own right.

O'BRIEN: He was great and everybody played great because he's great. Nobody wants to disappoint the guy who used to play in the Allman Brothers and now plays for the Rolling Stones. And I felt so proud of myself because I was right about him.

MONAHAN: The demo was basic piano chords, and then when Chuck Leavell played the actual piano on the album, the song took on a whole new life. He has such a bounce and swing in his playing. He was absolutely the best choice you could ever want to play piano on your record.

STAFFORD: I'll never forget sitting in the studio watching him from the control room and he just started playing the song. Nothing else had been recorded yet and we all just looked at each other and smiled. You could just sense the magic already.

Credit: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

But Ienner was also committed to his original idea of bringing in Buckmaster to orchestrate a string arrangement.

IENNER: Paul did Madman Across the Water, all those great albums by Elton. It just seemed to me like the exact right thing to do. We built the track and then we had Paul come in to orchestrate it. He was thrilled that I had suggested him for this, because he didn't really know about Train. If I'd seen Almost Famous even just a week later? I don't know that I would have immediately thought of Buckmaster. But everything happens for a reason. Every break in that song where a string arrangement would have been, I knew Paul would have filled it with a credible, deep, dark, sort of minor-chord arrangement the song needed. It was all magical lyrics, and you needed to have a balance between light and dark, and I thought Paul would give it the dark side and lift it.

MONAHAN: Donnie personally called him. Paul is not with us anymore [he passed away in 2017], but he was a super-weird, quirky guy and his brain just knew how to make classical instruments make pop music tremendously better. We tried him on a couple of other things, but the magic was really on "Drops of Jupiter."

O'BRIEN: I had a lot of back and forth with Paul about the arrangement. That's just the way Paul worked. He was very [laughs] — he had a very creative process and needed a lot of input and a lot of discussion about what was going to happen. And then actually doing the session took a while to put together the string section, and then the postproduction and mixing and everything. It cost a lot of money to make that song because we had to hire an orchestra and there was a lot of pressure on — "This is going to be the single that we're going to either sink or swim with" — so it took longer than usual.

STAFFORD: Paul had never been nominated for a Grammy, believe it or not. And then he did the string arrangement on this song, and a year or so later he was nominated for a Grammy and he won Best String Arrangement. I was really happy for him, that after all that great work that he had done in the '70s that he'd never been recognized for by the Grammys, he finally got a Grammy with us. That was really special.

MONAHAN: [The strings] added emotion. It's such a weird thing to talk about, but it does create so many feelings. I just remember tearing up when the string arrangement was being recorded because this was so much bigger than me. I don't know how to process this kind of love and attention that all of these people would be trying to help me express this one moment. It was pretty massive and a big deal for me because I don't come from much.

O'BRIEN: After all the drama involved, finishing it and hearing it, I loved it. It sounded like a hit to me.

"I pressed Pat to write what I thought would be a first single," says then-Columbia Records head Don Ienner, of Train's sophomore record. Monahan returned with "Drops of Jupiter" | Credit: Sony Music

Was it everything you wanted to find?

When the band listened to the final version of the song for the first time, they knew they'd struck gold.

STAFFORD: We were back on the road and we were sent a mix to listen to.

MONAHAN: It's better than my dream was.

UNDERWOOD: It trumped the song I wrote with Pat for the initial single. Had the song that I wrote with Pat been the single, we probably wouldn't be talking right now.

IENNER: Chills. Just chills. I turned it up as loud as I could. Anybody that was in the building I had walk into my office and played it for them. I must have played it 50 times that day, and I got more into it, and I never got tired of it. It's one of those magical moments that you work your entire life for.

MONAHAN: The challenge was then how do you get a four-minute ballad with strings on the radio at a time when Justin Timberlake was popular, "Beautiful Day" was a big rock song, Alicia Keys had a big song out… It was difficult to get this four-minute ballad on the radio, but that wasn't my job.

IENNER: I went to a bunch of radio stations myself and I spoke to the programmers that I knew for 20-30 years. I played them the song and there's not one person that I spoke to that didn't completely flip out when they heard it the first time. Not one. So I didn't anticipate any issues, but you just never know what the public's going to end up thinking.

Tracing her way through the constellation

It was a long road, but the time finally came to release "Drops of Jupiter."

MONAHAN: The first time we performed it was for a radio show in Chicago, a Christmas show. I just announced it as a song that was going to be on the next album. It was the only song we have ever played that no one's ever heard before where they stood up afterwards and they were like, "Holy s---. That song. Wow!" I was moved. I did not expect that.

O'BRIEN: As soon as the song came out, it did well right away. It started doing well on pop radio, which we weren't really counting on, and it started doing very well kind of everywhere. And it just kept going.

MONAHAN: I don't remember really caring about the charts. What mattered to me was I wanted to get to Europe, I wanted to go to Germany and Paris, and this was the way to do it. We were seeing trends in Europe that were moving in a positive way, and that affected me more than anything. That's all I wanted: How do I go see people in Glasgow? This was the only way, and it worked.

IENNER: Train was really an American thing. They weren't really selling elsewhere in the world until "Drops of Jupiter," and then they sold everywhere around the world, in all the English-speaking territories. It was a top song almost weirdly immediately.

MONAHAN: One of the greatest misinterpretations was when the song came out. This was the beginning of the internet and our band website was getting a lot of emails from Van Halen fans wanting me to die because they all thought I was singing "Van Halen is overrated," instead of "and that heaven is overrated." A lot of people who loved Diver Down wanted me dead. It was pretty awesome. The other thing that people still get wrong is that I don't say "fall from a shooting a star," I say "fall for a shooting star." The idea was, did you fall for somebody else? When I have a song about the death of my mother, I also have to make it a love song, and the idea of falling for somebody else who you thought was better. It gets misinterpreted so much. But I just don't take this kind of stuff too seriously. I'm so glad someone thought I said Van Halen, that's hilarious to me.

Lyrical misinterpretations aside, "Drops of Jupiter" hit No. 5 on the Hot 100 and went on to earn five Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year.

UNDERWOOD: That's the moment where I felt like our lives were changing, when the Grammys came up. That's the ultimate dream that I had, and I just didn't know how much I believed that it could really come true. For us to get nominated, it's such a cliché, but that was enough.

MONAHAN: I thought maybe we would get one because when I was in Donnie Ienner's office, he had said, "Song of the Year!" So I thought maybe we would get that. And then there were several others, so that was pretty fun.

STAFFORD: The night of the Grammys, we performed close to our category being announced. They were holding us in the greenroom backstage and Don Henley is in there, and I'm a big Eagles fan. Finally I got up the courage and I was like, "Hey Mr. Henley, I'm Jimmy Stafford, I play guitar with the band Train," and he looked at me and goes, "I know who you are. You guys are really good songwriters. Congratulations on your nomination." I couldn't even believe he talked to me, let alone say that, coming from Mr. "Hotel California." Little did I know at the time that he was going to be presenting our award. And we beat U2!

While "Drops of Jupiter" didn't win for Song of the Year (that award went to Alicia Keys' "Fallin'"), it did win Best Rock Song, as well as Buckmaster's win for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s).

MONAHAN: Honestly, I thought it was a cool Grammy to win, but it wasn't the one that I wanted to win. The one that I wanted was Song of the Year. But hey, they all feel good. It was cool for me to be able to [thank my mom in my acceptance speech].

STAFFORD: Once Don Henley handed me the Grammy [for Best Rock Song], I looked down and U2 is sitting in the front row, looking up at us. [Laughs] And I'll just never forget Bono looked at me and he gave me a thumbs up. When I told that to Pat after we got off stage — "Dude, did you see Bono give me the thumbs up?" — he said, "Yeah, that's him saying, 'You can have this one, we're going to take the next five Grammys.'" [Laughs] And they did. We should have won Best Song but that damn Alicia Keys [laughs]. I mean, talk about out of your league. We're still this baby band and we're there with U2 and Don Henley and the biggest stars. We never really felt like we fit in.

Reminds me that there's room to grow

Thanks to "Drops of Jupiter," Train was now a Grammy-winning band with their first Top 10 album.

UNDERWOOD: Shortly after winning a Grammy, you just want to win another Grammy. It's just like getting high — "Cool, that was fun, I want to get high again." That's what I personally experienced. Pat, Jimmy, Rob, and Charlie, it seems like everybody else handled it really well. It's not like everybody just fell apart and blew up and our egos got the best of us. We kept working, we were underdogs, we appreciated it, and we didn't get jaded yet. And nothing did really get to that level again.

IENNER: When it comes on the radio today, I turn it up to 10. And it still blows my mind. "Meet Virginia" was cool and it was quirky in its own way. This is classic, right down the middle, amazing song, amazing production, amazing arrangement, and amazing lyrics, and those don't come along very often that have legs. Somebody in the next few years is going to cover that song and it's going to be a hit all over again. I absolutely believe that. I think a different take on it, maybe from a female, maybe from a country artist, it will resonate yet again because it's just that good.

MONAHAN: Recently Ariana Grande was singing it in an interview, and she was like, "Don't even get me started, I will sing that whole song." I just thought that was super-cute.

Twenty years later, Monahan is incredibly proud of the single that saved Train.

MONAHAN: "Drops of Jupiter," it's a career song. I don't know that had I not lost my mother that that would have even been a moment for us. Had I not lost my mother, the song probably would not have been written. Had I been forced to write songs with other people, maybe something good could have come of it? But definitely not this.

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