At this year's Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Aaron Lee Tasjan had considerable buzz as an artist on the rise. Growing up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, he took to guitar in his pre-teens, and moved to New York in 2004 after turning down a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music. Once there, he helped found the glam-punk band Semi Precious Weapons and after departing worked as an in-demand side man.
Since moving to Nashville in 2013, Tasjan has been concentrating on songwriting and leading his own band within the East Nashville music scene. Tasjan's music operates at more of a sly and observational distance than many of the heart-on-sleeve singer songwriters to come out of Nashville recently.
On his new album, Silver Tears, released last week, Tasjan employs a kaleidoscopic approach to the music, drawing from influences such as Tom Petty, Electric Light Orchestra, Elliot Smith, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Harry Nilsson and Roy Orbison.
As a musician who is considered part of the East Nashville music community, what's your experience of it?
It's like every other place where there's ever been a music scene. There are people that are great, their hearts are in it for the right reason and you really root for them and you want them to do well. Then there's people that are putting on the costume of the scene and showing up, doing something that's a little less thought about, intact and together artistically. Any scene is gonna have both of those things and most of it will be the second. But we're lucky in East Nashville cause there's a good, healthy amount of people that fall more in the first category.
Moving from New York three years ago, what impact has it had on you?
I mainly moved here because it's cheaper. That was the number-one thing. I didn't come here 'cause I knew anything about any of the songwriters in the neighborhood, other than the ones that just everybody knows: Todd Snyder, Elizabeth Cook, people like that. When I got to town I didn't want to find my peers. I wanted to find people who are way better than I am, and go try to hang out with them and be around them and see why they were great, try to understand that and apply it. I love it here, but I don't know that I'm a huge participant necessarily of the Nashville Scene. Not to say that I'm separating myself from it but I'm not a country singer. Most of those guys are country singers, and I celebrate that. I love singing that music, but it's really not like what my music is.
As I listen to Silver Tears, it sounds like you have a clear awareness of how you're taking elements of certain styles and genres and reusing them. I've also read that you've been self-via an alternate persona, “Captain Folk,” who’d come out in an opening set and make fun of whom you were “ripping off.”
Everybody's influenced by something, right? That's the basis for how almost everybody that I've ever met has done it. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it's going to play a role in the art itself. I make fun of it more because this is a genre of music that's clouded in earnestness. Earnestness is great, but not everybody is Jason Isbell. That works for him because that's who he really is, and that's why it's good. But I see people mimicking that who aren't really that. And you sort of want to go, “Man, just go up there and be yourself and be a little weirder, and people will probably be more into it.” And that's what our whole circus, when we go play shows and have drag queens and all that, we're encouraging people to go be as true to their real self as they can. Those are the kinds of artists that we need to hear.
The song "Success" feels the most direct statement on the album in terms of a personal philosophy or message (Success ain't about being better than everyone else, it's about being better than yourself) Is that belief central to what you're doing right now?
Definitely, but this is where it gets tricky: I don't really want to get up there and yell at people to do something, or tell them that I think I have some sort of answer for how they should be, 'cause I don't. With that song in particular, I'm just singing to myself about something that has worked very well for me. Nashville's a tough place for this, you can't help it. There's that part of you that goes, "Well this person got this gig, why didn't I get this gig?" or whatever. But I've tried really hard. I came being a songwriter and a singer and a front-man of a band with a very working man's attitude, because that's what I've been my entire life; a working musician, playing guitar for whoever I could play for, for fifty bucks a night, or a hundred, all the way up to gigs that I did with the more well-known bands that I played with.
I don't feel the need to be constantly checking in on how this or that person's career is going and comparing it to my own. I just plod along at my own speed, and that works for me. That song is more of what was actually driving me to do it, because I use all these lessons to basically try to kill my ego every day, and just say, "This is good for me to do, because this is making me a better person." And that goes through every aspect of my life, not just music.
How do you apply it on a day-to-day basis?
I have two things that I go by. The first one is, the work will never fail you. You can hire the wrong publicist, sign to the wrong record label, have a bad manager or a booking agent who might be awesome but doesn't necessarily understand what you do. But I guarantee you this: if you get really good at singing and playing the guitar and writing songs, someone will give you a job to do it somewhere. Always. So I focus on writing songs. And business people in my camp sometimes get mad at me, because I don't really pay attention to a lot of that other stuff. But at the end of the day I think they know that the product they have to sell is better for it.
Also, whatever situation I'm in, I always try to have the feeling that I'm a student. I don't have any of this figured out. And I really believe that, I really do. It's hilarious to me when people ask me to explain the process 'cause you're like, "man, I don't know, how can I explain something to you that I'm just learning myself?"
Now that you're getting some attention, is it an odd place to be? Maybe you don't worry about the success part of it?
Yeah, I mean it's kind of right where I've always been to be honest. I've been fired from bands as a guitar player because I got too much attention. Know what I mean? This is the God's honest truth: all I ever wanted to do was be Keith Richards in somebody's band. And I could never find a singer or a band that was cool enough to let me do it. In Semi Precious Weapons, the singer and me were writing all the songs and coming up with the sound of it all. But when a critic would pick me out it would get on everyone's nerves. It keeps you in this place of not really ever being able to break through to another level. I can sit and contemplate the whys and the whens and hows of that until the cows come home but I'd fuckin' rather just write a song that's going to make people go, "Holy shit man, did you make that up?" And whether people understand me or not, I can make up a good song. I want to be as good of a songwriter as Guy Clark. I don't even know if that's possible, it's probably not. But I would fuckin' love to be and I'll try as hard as I can to do it.
At least one person did it.
That's right. Isn't that cool? Isn't that cool enough? It is to me.