Aaron Lee Tasjan on Songwriting, Self-Reflection, and Champagne at Denny’s
If I had to answer the question of who my favorite songwriter is today, I would have to answer with Aaron Lee Tasjan. The East Nashville-based songwriter has burrowed his way deep into my heart with his witty lyrics and even more inventive, quick banter on stage … plus the guy is an incredible guitarist. He released two of my favorite projects last year with the four-song, aptly-named-for-a-folk-songwriter, Telling Stories to the Wall, and the absolutely brilliant rocker In the Blazes. The latter put him on the watch lists of many publications, music lovers, and artists.
Tasjan has been known for his brutally honest nature in both his songs and his between-tune ramblings. The man can tell a story, be it talking blues, rock and roll, countrified twang, or straight-faced and staring you dead on.
He makes his way to my neck of the woods this week with a show at Atwoods Tavern in Cambridge, Massachusetts, alongside a truly killer band. Last time I caught Tasjan was by himself, armed with his acoustic guitar and silver tongue, but this time around I am looking forward to his more rock and roll side. I caught up with ALT to talk about the past year, that record that it seems everyone fell in love with, and coming back to the Boston area.
Red Line Roots: Last time we caught up in an interview, it was leading into last year's Newport Folk Festival. A lot has changed since then. We called In the Blazes the best record released in 2015 and that sentiment certainly wasn’t limited to us -- the record got acclaim across the board. How has that impacted you as an artist, for better or for worse?
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Folksingers are like patrons of Denny’s: nobody is expecting champagne. Actually, let me rephrase. Folk singers are patrons of Denny’s.
You also released quite the video for “Don’t Walk Away” that had a throwback vibe. Can you tell me a little bit about the idea for that video and the choices you made with the production? It ends with "To Be Continued" message … so can we expect a follow-up?
I made that video with Curtis Wayne Millard, who is the most genius director I know. [That] doesn’t say much for him, but it’s true. He had the concept for the whole thing and I loved it. … We partied with those bikers a ton. We even went to a strip club mid-shoot. … Did I mention there’s nothing worse than arriving at a strip club when you didn’t know you were going there in the first place? Story of my life. I am forever arriving at a place I don’t want to go.
With the ever-growing popularity of the artist community of East Nashville and “painting their white collars blue” folks moving into town, have you seen a drastic effect on the artist community? (Or any effect?)
I have seen so much beauty -- in the songs and people -- [and] the gravity of that far outweighs the bad parts. There’s a negative side to anything if you want to find it. East Nashville is the new target … to poke fun at certainly, but also we must revel in it’s existence. Todd Snider, Chuck Mead, Elizabeth Cook, Kevin Gordon, and so many others laid the groundwork for people like me to move there and find a place in the crowd. It’s the center of the revolution. Now we got Margo Price, Joe Fletcher, Brian Wright, Darrin Bradbury, and a new guy named Jon Latham who is going to absolutely blow you away.
Part of why I am so drawn to you and your music is that you don’t seem to take yourself too seriously. You are real with yourself, your audience, and your writing. I read the article in The East Nashvillian, where you said of your tune "ENSAAT," “I’m talking about myself as much as anyone.” The music industry and the life of an artist can be such a turbulent and depressing landscape. What advice would you give to folks on the other side of the fence?
I think subconscious songwriting can be a great lesson. If you can allow yourself to be introspective, on a certain level it will reveal turmoil, personality flaws, and assets, and give you a lot to think about. I am interested in learning myself at every turn and trying to get better. Songwriting plays a role in that for me. That includes laughing at myself sometimes.
I’m as guilty as anyone of feeling like I wish I had this or that, but to quote Stephen Wright, “You can’t have everything -- where would you put it?”
My advice is simple: know yourself, don’t be afraid to be intellectual about your approach. Work on your songs until you think they say exactly what you feel, and sing them in such a way that the listener believes you. Never think about how to make your music sell. And wash the dishes after dinner whenever possible.
So who are you listening to right now? Any songwriters you would really like to turn folks onto?
Yes. Zach Schmidt has become a new favorite. I am also really digging Darrin Bradbury’s new album. Jon Latham I mentioned. Cale Tyson is really good. Erica Blinn is one to watch out for too. There’s some great music happening.
Now about Boston. I -- and many other folks up here -- have been hoping you would make your way here for a while. We were pretty close, with you joining Zach Schmidt a few months back. Any initial thoughts about coming to our fair city?
I love Boston. I moved there in 2004 for a girl but it didn’t work out, probably because who would ever want to date someone who goes to Berklee? Not her, that’s for sure. … But man, Dennis Brennan and Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, and so many badasses are there. I can’t wait.
What does the rest of 2016 hold for Aaron Lee Tasjan?
I just did a commercial for Willie Nelson’s new weed company. It’s the only thing I care about right now.