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Aaron Lee Tasjan Employs 'A Little More Empathy' And A Lot More Freedom In New Music

Sep 5, 2018
Originally published on September 5, 2018 7:18 pm

On the coffee table of his cozy East Nashville apartment, Aaron Lee Tasjan has a notebook open to autobiographical scrawling — it's a kind of cheat sheet to his musical past, which he prepared, with his mother's help, just in case he forgot anything during his interview with NPR. To be fair, it isn't all that simple to retrace his weaving, winding musical path. The singer-songwriter tried out a variety of musical niches, cities and scenes before landing in Nashville.

Tasjan grew up in suburban Ohio, obsessing over Tom Petty and The Beatles. During his junior high years in Orange County, Calif., he spent lunchtime in the music room, hiding from bullies and strumming his first songs. By the end of high school, he was mimicking Freddie Green, the guitarist in the Count Basie Orchestra. Tasjan caught the judges' ears at a national competition for high school jazz bands.

"I was the only kid there who didn't play through an amp and didn't play a guitar solo," Tasjan marvels. "And they gave me the award."

He came away with a scholarship to study jazz guitar at Boston's Berklee College of Music, but left after just six months. Tasjan then moved to Brooklyn, where he co-founded the glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons, who sometimes shared the stage with Lady Gaga and whose lead singer, Justin Tranter, made the most of his theatrical, androgynous persona. At the same time, Tasjan was also working on his own roots-rock material. On the recommendation of the bohemian, folksinging yarn-spinner Todd Snider, Tasjan relocated to Nashville and released his debut album under his own name three years ago. It seemed like the work of an artist who fit right in among the clever troubadours in his East Nashville neighborhood, but Tasjan would soon decide that he was ready to do more of his own thing.

"I try to have a little more empathy for myself and try to encourage these things that I'm naturally thinking and feeling, rather than thinking, 'That's too weird if I do that. Everyone's gonna think I'm weird.' It's like, 'Well, everyone already thinks that I'm weird 'cause I am weird,'" he says.

That certainly hasn't kept Tasjan from making lots of musician friends in Nashville. One of those friends is Elizabeth Cook, a longtime fixture of the Americana scene who hired him to play guitar. She found that he was one of the few in her circle who liked to dress as colorfully as she did.

"He does dress wild and have a little bit more of that as part of his art, his exterior and how he presents himself," Cook says. "That is sort of forging new territory within the singer-songwriter roots scene, which is awesome. He's so the guy to do it."

Tasjan felt the freedom to be himself and fully embrace his influences on his latest album, Karma For Cheap, released Aug. 31. "For me, it's as Americana as it gets — Tom Petty and The Beatles and the Traveling Wilburys and David Bowie, they're the same thing for me," he explains. "They're my Loretta Lynn."

Tasjan's new music may not have the rootsiest sound, but Cook recognizes a kinship to folk tradition in his songwriting. "I think one thing that helps bridge that gap for him is that he has a social conscience, which is tradition in roots music," she says. "That's in his lyrics. There's often, I think, a heavy social message or a heavy heart about sort of the human condition in his songs."

When Tasjan received an Americana award nomination last year, he took it as a sign of affirmation.

"I'd never really been given any sort of congratulations for being myself," he says, again with a chuckle. "I'd been given lots of congratulations for playing guitar for this band or for that band or winning a jazz award or that kind of stuff. But no one had ever really been invested in me and what I was personally bringing to the table and saying, 'Hey man, we think that what you did is cool and we appreciate you adding it to the conversation that's happening about all this stuff.'"

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you had to guess where Aaron Lee Tasjan's music came from, you might land a few miles wide of the correct answer. He's tried out a few different musical styles - jazz and glam rock - and different cities, too, before landing in the Nashville scene. That's where Jewly Hight interviewed him and sent this profile.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: There's a notebook on the coffee table of Aaron Lee Tasjan's cozy East Nashville apartment. Its pages are open to autobiographical scrawling. He's made himself a cheat sheet for the interview.

AARON LEE TASJAN: Because it's like you want to remember all of this stuff because even the stuff that wasn't good that happened, like, all served some kind of purpose.

HIGHT: Well, what did you have to consult?

TASJAN: My mom (laughter).

HIGHT: To be fair, it isn't all that simple to retrace the musical path Tasjan traveled to get here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF NOT NOW WHEN")

TASJAN: (Singing) You sound like a radio station. You're looking for a standing ovation. You look like you could use a vacation.

HIGHT: Tasjan started out in suburban Ohio obsessing over Tom Petty and The Beatles. During his junior high years in Orange County, Calif., he spent lunchtime in the music room hiding from bullies and strumming his first songs. By the end of high school, he was mimicking Freddie Green, the guitarist in the Count Basie Orchestra.

TASJAN: Playing jazz seemed like a thing that I did that made my dad really happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGHT: Tasjan caught the judges' ears at a national competition for high school jazz bands.

TASJAN: I was the only kid there who didn't play through an amp and didn't play a guitar solo (laughter). And they gave me the award.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGHT: He came away with a scholarship to study jazz guitar at Boston's Berklee College of Music but left after just six months. Tasjan moved to Brooklyn, where he co-founded the glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGNETIC BABY")

SEMI PRECIOUS WEAPONS: (Singing) It's not my fault I look better in her party dress. It's not my fault that she left a slutty girlfriend. It's not my fault. This is how my mama made me. I've been magnetic since I was a baby. It's not my fault...

HIGHT: The group's lead singer, Justin Tranter, was known for his theatrical, androgynous persona, and the band sometimes shared the stage with Lady Gaga.

TASJAN: I saw Justin and Semi Precious Weapons as a hero for kids like me or just kids who are growing up in small towns in America that know that they're different or feel that they're different in some way.

HIGHT: At the same time, Tasjan was also working on his own roots rock material. He eventually wound up in Nashville and released his first album under his own name three years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROUBLE WITH DRINKIN'")

TASJAN: (Singing) The trouble with drinking is it ain't no trouble at all. I don't have no problem when it comes to alcohol. It's as easy to come by as the air that I breathe unless I'm low on money or too high on the weed.

HIGHT: It seemed like the work of an artist who fit right in among the clever troubadours in his East Nashville neighborhood. But Tasjan soon decided he was ready to do his own thing.

TASJAN: To try to have a little more empathy for myself and try to encourage these things that I'm naturally thinking and feeling rather than thinking, oh, I'm too - that's too weird if I do that. Like, everyone's going to think I'm weird, you know? It's like, well, everyone already thinks that I'm weird 'cause I am weird.

HIGHT: Maybe so, but that certainly hasn't kept Tasjan from making lots of musician friends in Nashville. Tasjan really felt the freedom to be himself on his third and latest album, "Karma For Cheap."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TRUTH IS SO HARD TO BELIEVE")

TASJAN: (Singing) With the sun in your eyes, through the golden haze, yeah, you're doing all right in so many ways. But the truth is so hard, yes, so hard, the truth is so hard to believe.

For me, it's as Americana as it gets. You know, Tom Petty and The Beatles and the Traveling Wilburys and David Bowie - like, they're the same thing for me. You know, they're my Loretta Lynn.

HIGHT: Tasjan's new music may not have the rootsiest sound, but Elizabeth Cook, a longtime fixture of the Americana scene, recognizes a kinship to folk tradition in his songwriting.

ELIZABETH COOK: I think one thing that helps bridge that gap for him is that he has a social conscience, which is tradition in roots music. And that's in his lyrics. So there's often I think a heavy social message in - or a heavy heart about sort of the human condition in his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART SLOWS DOWN")

TASJAN: (Singing) Well, the television psychic says you should've seen it coming. The deal is dirty. Fingers are reaching for your money. Your bones just rattle like a dropped tambourine, and everything sad is a little bit funny.

HIGHT: When Tasjan received an Americana award nomination last year, he took it as a sign of affirmation.

TASJAN: I'd never really been given any sort of congratulations for being myself (laughter). I'd been given lots of congratulations for playing guitar, for this band or for that band. But no one had ever really been saying like, hey, man, we think that what you did is cool, and we appreciate you adding it to the conversation that's happening about all this stuff.

HIGHT: Not once during our conversation did Aaron Lee Tasjan refer to his notes. That's probably because he's absorbed his far-flung interests and experiences into one original identity in Nashville. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART SLOWS DOWN")

TASJAN: (Singing) Honey, if your heart slows down... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.