Aaron Lee Tasjan Talks New Album ‘Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!’, Musical Identity, Artists He Loves & More (INTERVIEW)

If you’ve been following the career of Aaron Lee Tasjan, there is one thing that has been a constant and that is his constant evolution as an artist. From playing guitar in rock bands to emerging as a solo troubadour in an Americana vein, to a full-fledged psychedelic ringleader a la Tom Petty, Tasjan has never let himself be pigeonholed into one sound or persona. This may be frustrating to some fans who have sentimental attachment to a particular album or point in his career, but there are just as many if not more fans who are along for the ride and are eager to see what he will do next.

Releasing this Friday, February 5th on New West Records, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! (PRE-ORDER) is unquestionably his most ambitious and sprawling record to date and one that will surely excite longtime fans while grabbing plenty of new ones. The record finds Tasjan embracing a sunny, harmony-heavy sound that feels simultaneously rooted in melodic pop of acts like the Beatles and Electric Light Orchestra while also coming across as some sort of futuristic glam rock. Linking it all together is a guitar-driven, unbelievably catchy rock and roll sound. Lyrically, the album finds Tasjan baring himself like never before as he sings about the dangers of social media, the worries that plague him, his wild experiences in life, sexuality, and general vulnerabilities. The album may be Tasjan’s strongest record to date, with every song feeling like a radio hit from another era and the kind of effortless cool confidence possessed by few artists these days.

Recently, Tasjan spoke with me about staying busy and creative during the past year, translating his personal worries and life experiences into upbeat songs, making an album before getting approval from his label, the artists he loves, and more.

2020 was a surprisingly prolific year for great albums. It seems like a lot of artists have just shut down while others have managed to put out a ton of material. How has this period been creatively for you?

I’ve done a couple of different things that have been really fun. One thing that I did that was really cool was when I lived in New York, I had made a record with my buddy, Chris Masterson, who plays guitar Steve Earle and the Dukes and, of course, has his wonderful band the Mastersons. He had produced this record of mine back in like 2009 or something like that and the record just never came out for whatever reason. The record had been finished and mastered and everything, and we were able to get some artwork together for it and release the album. Instead of just releasing a full-length, we released it as two EPs and just called them Found Songs. That was really cool to be able to put something out that, who knows when it would have come out? Sometimes that stuff just stays unreleased because there’s just never a time in the schedule where it makes sense or whatever, so being able to put something out that wouldn’t otherwise probably come out felt really cool.

I’ve also been writing new stuff. There was a time, you know, a little earlier in the year when it was safer to travel, where I went to Michigan and started working on my next album with my friends David Vandervelde and Elijah Thomson, who play with Father John Misty. So I already have three songs recorded for the next record and it just felt right, it’s the only way that I can think to describe it. I think this is part of rock and roll, you’ve got to shake off the shame and just fucking go for it. I just drove up to Michigan and wrote and recorded three songs for a new album for like four days and then came home. It was an act of like, you know, I’m not gonna be defeated by this, I’m gonna keep going no matter what. That’s just part of rock and roll, your willingness to create something in the face your livelihood potentially disappearing.

Yeah, it’s that resilience.

Yes.

That being said, how much of your new album was written and recorded before everything was shut down?

We had not mixed yet. So we recorded everything, we tracked everything. But we started mixing the record in April. So not long after everything shut down. And that was great, because we had something to work on as we were slowly beginning to realize like, okay, this is not gonna be like a little three-month blip, this is going to be like a sustained, long-term hiatus from regular life for everybody. So, having a new album to be mixing during that time, I was grateful for it, honestly, because it took my mind off of how scary that felt.

I read a quote from you where you said that the three things you worry about most in life are your health, being alone, and money. These days those are things that probably everybody’s dealing with in some way or another, so how are you keeping those things together and keeping your worries at bay?

I think sometimes you can’t keep those worries at bay. We’ve really been taught to see vulnerability as a weakness in society and I just think that’s a bad thing because vulnerability is like this two-way door. You’re allowing something that’s really scary to come in, but you’re also allowing things that are really beautiful to come in. So not being afraid of that and in fact realizing that that’s an act of courage and an act of bravery. I find ways to be brave with my vulnerability because that’s all I can do. At some point, I’m gonna probably have a really tough day and I might even break down and cry or something like that, but it’s having the courage to be okay with it that can be empowering.

But a lot of that I feel like is on me to do the best that I can to make sure that the perception that I have is based in reality, and love and fun, sex, and good genuine positivity however I can. That might be smoking a joint sitting on the roof and looking at the moon, it might be writing a great song that I’m excited about, or it might be going on a walk or calling a friend and just having a really great conversation. You just look for it wherever you can find it.

It seems like, at least with some of the songs on the new album, that you took those worries and sort of turned them around into positivity. It seems like there’s a lot of songs that are about vulnerability but the music is uplifting and upbeat.

Do you remember that Tom Waits quote? It was something about, like, beautiful melodies telling me terrible things or something like that. It’s sort of that kind of concept. These moments, when I’m reflecting on them as I write lyrics about them, are pictures in my mind, like they all feel somewhat cinematic. The experience of writing for me is always one of trying to find ways to express my vulnerabilities in a way that will make people either think about or consider their own.

Yeah, it makes sense. That brings to mind one of the most interesting songs on the album, “Feminine Walk,” which stands out to me because it seems to be autobiographical but it also has all these crazy pop culture references that I was surprised to hear someone even work into a song. Can you maybe talk about where the idea for that song came from? How do you as a songwriter work in all of these characters and experiences and have it all be cohesive?

This is gonna probably sound crazy, but that song is true. Like, every word of that song is true. This woman that I dated in New York, her boyfriend before me was Sean Parker and I remember meeting Sean, and I remember him telling me about Spotify [and] that it was coming to America and all this kind of stuff. I just kept thinking, how are we going to get paid?

My time in New York was sort of this crazy fairy tale period of this kind of stuff, and so I just basically [about] wrote all those experiences and then added into that moving to Nashville. Since I’ve [moved] and kind of shifted my career into being more of an artist and a full-time recording artist and singer-songwriter, it’s only gotten more of that. I just thought that I wanted to write about all of those things, because I wanted to let people know that it happened and those are my experiences. Hopefully, anybody that listens to that song, knows what I’m talking about on the chorus.

I remember vividly sitting on the corner with my dad, we were on vacation in Wisconsin. I was like nine years old, and an older, really cool looking guy [who] was maybe 16 or something [and] was dressed kind of like a punk rock skater walked up to me and my dad and pointed at me and said to my dad, ‘Hey, man, is that a boy or a girl?’

The experience of seeing this person approach you that you sort of suddenly admire but you don’t really know why and then they point at you and say is that a boy or a girl to your dad, who laughs, and then you grow up and you’re someone like me, who just falls in love with people. A part of you just goes, how did they know?

I was just standing around on the street corner probably in like some Umbro soccer shorts and like a No Fear t-shirt, you know? [I had] a Dorothy Hamill type, 1970s kind of tennis star haircut. I’m just trying to find ways to write the truth, but when I write the truth, whether people know that it’s true or not is irrelevant, I know that it’s true. You know what I mean? So when I stand up there to sing, I know that I’m telling people something that’s real, and then I never have to fake it because what I’m saying is real.

It’s seems like it’s kind of a vivid way to say you don’t care if you’re judged. And you’re embracing all sides of things.

Yeah, exactly. Like, there’s those cards that [Brian Eno] made for recording sessions where you can just like pick up a card and turn it over when you’re stuck on, like, how to mix a song or whatever. But I love the cards, like they say all these different kinds of things, but like one of the cards says, take the thing in the mix that makes you the least comfortable and make it the loudest. So it’s kind of like that a little bit. Not being willing to allow the perception of others to color your world.

Right. And talking about those recording techniques, one of the things that song and really the whole album captures is that you’ve been through all these stages as an artist and each album is almost a complete change of your sound. When you started making music, was this always a conscious idea and goal to just like, never be set on one thing?

Definitely. I think albums that I loved growing up definitely had that kind of quality. Particularly The Beatles ones that I listened to, because you have four people singing songs in that band so it’s gonna feel like that. The Traveling Wilburys would be another one. I just always loved these albums that had those kinds of different styles and they were basically genre-less. There was something about that, that really attracted me. To me, there was no reason why that same concept that was working on a record so well couldn’t work just as sort of an artistic aesthetic, to just do things that really moved me to try to tie each piece of work together so that it stands as a representation of a moment in time. [To] really explore things that felt exciting and felt a little dangerous maybe I might be getting into some territory where I don’t quite know, I can’t quite touch the bottom of the pool or something. I’m wanting to do that to keep myself as present as possible, because I really just want to be in the moment. I feel like when I’m in the moment, that’s when I can create something that I didn’t expect, and that’s when it feels like, something exciting happens.

The influences that come through on this album are varied. You mentioned the Beatles and the Traveling Wilburys, but were there other specific artists or albums that were a touch point and lit the fuse for the sound you were going for?

Lots of harmony stuff. There was a weird Beach Boys record that’s called [Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”] and there’s that song “Marcella,” and it has all these sections and all the great Beach Boys harmonies, but it’s also kind of got this great country rock, like steady driving acoustic-driven feel to it. But really the way that influences were thought of on the record was more of like taking ideas I have enjoyed. I like what I’ve heard [St. Vincent’s] Annie Clark doing like on guitar the last couple of years and I’ve enjoyed how she kind of takes the guitar and is putting it in a little bit of a different place sonically. So I wanted to borrow from that same concept on this record and create some guitar sounds that were not the usual guitar sounds. This is very much a guitar-based record. But a lot of the things sometimes that people are hearing on the record that sounds like a synthesizer or a keyboard is actually a guitar.

I wanted to ask about that. As a guitar player, how do you kind of challenge yourself and get into that approach of like, I’m going do all of these crazy adventurous techniques and new things that take me outside my comfort zone?

You kind of have to close your eyes and swing for the fences and hope you hit something. It is very much like a process of trial and error, and a lot of times when you’re experimenting like that, the way that you have to play it to get it to translate to tape is different than what would do intuitively. It just takes time for me, because I have to just think about the approach as well. Like, after I have the sound together, I also have to consider the approach of how to play it so that it fits into the track the right way, because a lot of time when you’re turning on these sounds, they can have these weird saturations that can almost be hard to control. So you’re sort of knowingly playing this thing that’s kind of out of control, and you’re kind of trying to tame a wildfire a little bit. But that adds an element of adrenaline while you’re doing it, [and] it makes for some exciting-sounding parts.

You’ve said that your label was questioning your direction with this album. Can you talk about that interaction with your label and how you evolved out of that to be able to actually make the album? Was the album actually made in secret from the label?

What basically happened was, I did the Karma for Cheap album, and I did the Karma for Reincarnated acoustic version of that record. Then everybody was like, alright, it’s time for the next record, what do you want to do? And I was just feeling really compelled [to produce it myself], and it wasn’t because I have some amazing track record as a producer or anything like that. I was just feeling compelled to do this for myself, [to] realize my own music in a way that I felt like only I could. I felt like I maybe needed a co-producer who could engineer and have ideas of their own certainly, but also be able tell me the sounds that I have in my mind [and] how it might be achievable.

The label just didn’t see this as the greatest idea they’d ever heard. I don’t think they thought it was a nightmare idea, but they basically were just kind of like, well, you haven’t really produced [and we don’t know if] we really see you as like a producer. I was like, that’s fair enough, but I still really wanted to do it. Rather than trying to argue with them or find some sort of way to talk them into it I just decided, ‘you know man, like, I’ve been touring a bunch and I could probably pay for this out of my own pocket for now.’ It’s a risk because if they don’t like it, I’m just going to have these recordings that they don’t want to put out, you know?

But I’m going to try to just put my money where my mouth is and just go record this without telling them basically, and then maybe if I can show them some sort of finished or close to finished song, the proof will be in the pudding and buy this project. So that’s what I did, and I recorded that way [for about] a year. I think the first couple things that I sent to Kim Buie was “Another Lonely Day,” “Sunday Women” and “Don’t Overthink It.” because I know those songs have harmonies and Kim really likes harmonies and I just thought that would be a good way to get them started. To their credit, they listened to it with an open mind and ultimately said, we think this is cool and you should rock on with this because we like what you’re doing. In a way, it was a really cool situation because, yes, they were critical of my lack of experience to do it as a producer, initially, but I didn’t let that shut me down. It was a really cool thing that happened.

So, it all worked out. In the end, there was no bad blood.

No! They’re ultimately in the position of, where if they feel like I’ve turned in a bad song, they have to be able to say to me, we don’t like this song. I’m in the position where I can certainly say, well, I don’t agree with you or whatever, but it’s very much a two-way street man. I remember reading an interview about the Tom Petty record Wildflowers [where] he was talking about how it was originally supposed to be a double album. Then the label kind of, said, let’s make it a single album. I felt like, for a guy like Tom Petty to be listening to anybody at that point in his career just speaks volumes about his character and his willingness to never be afraid to look at himself. I just think that’s cool, that willingness to have that vulnerability again, like as an act of courage. I think as a result of the label, and I being able to be really honest with each other, but also still staying open to each other, I think we created something that feels really good and that we’re both really excited about. So that’s awesome.

That’s good to hear. I was worried when I read about it that was there a blowout or something?

You never know man, but no, not me and those dudes. We’re having a good time together.

That’s good. You posted recently about taking it seriously when journalists asked you what new artists you like and I’m genuinely curious to hear about some, because you’re a guy that touches on so many different styles of music, and it’s always good to hear your perspective on it.

Man, wow, that’s such a cool question. I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to give some space for something. There’s an album that came out this year that has just been a constant for me like in so many different ways because it just gives me so much to think about with the songwriting. The artist’s name is Kyshona and the album is called Listen. I think it’s a perfect record, honestly. It’s so good and the songs are so good. It’s really soulful and just [makes me feel] good things and faith in humanity. So that’s definitely one that I haven’t been able to put down.

Another band from here in Nashville that I feel like is just waiting for somebody to come along [and discover is Microwave Mountain]. I would go ahead and call them the greatest stoner rock band in America. The record is not out yet but there are a couple singles If you’re if you’re a fan of the genre, I cannot recommend the stoner rock band Microwave Mountain highly enough, so so good. There’s an artist named Erica Blinn. I’ve known her for like ten years at this point. Her music has always been kind of cool Americana and it always reminded me of super early Bonnie Raitt. But she’s made a new album that’s like entirely different than that, and it sounds like 1970s like Detroit Rock and Roll that’s like fronted by Joan Jett. It sounds like Joan Jett if she was like fronting the Stooges or like MC5 or something. It’s so amazingly good. She sent me three songs that she’s mastered from the record so far and I can’t stop listening to them and it’s just like, blowing my mind.

Photo credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

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