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Interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan

Aaron Lee Tasjan
22 February 2021

Photo by Curtis Wayne Millard

Whether it’s as a solo artist, forming bands (Semi Precious Weapons, The Madison Square Gardeners), or playing hired gun (New York Dolls, Drivin, N’ Cryin’, Everest), Aaron Lee Tasjan’s never been one who can be easily pigeonholed. While his earliest solo work was in the singer/songwriter vein with Americana-flavor, since signing with New West Records in 2016, Tasjan’s released some infectious pop records with ’70s glam rock overtones and a style to match. You’ll hear as much Jeff Lynne as Tom Petty, as much John Lennon as Cheap Trick in Tasjan’s perfectly-crafted songs.

Like so many other artists, Tasjan released his lastest album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, in the midst of a global pandemic and is anxiously awaiting the day where he can get back to doing what he loves, playing live shows in front of people whether he’s standing by himself on a stage with a guitar plugged into an amp or rocking out with a full band.

The always charming Tasjan hopped on a Zoom call just a few hours after playing a 3-song virtual set that streamed live on Amoeba Records’ Instagram account.

The album reflects what I know about you – you’re not real easy to categorize or put into a box. My initial thought of you and who you were was as an Americana/alt-country artist but you’re not like that today.

AARON: Artists are many things. The many things that I am is reflected in my work. Even though the lyrical tone on previous records was more observational, they were still songs I was writing to myself. A lot of where the impetus of where to write comes from is the desire to have a connection but also the desire to grow as a person and see if I can do it any better. In a lot of ways, these records and songs are snapshots of who I am in that moment. That’s one of the cool things about artists, for some, not all, their work is little pieces of who they are. And then when you see all the different pieces, you get this impression of “Okay, I kind of get where this person is pulling from here and from there,” but you don’t see that until there’s a scope of work to look at.

I remember, as a kid, playing with my Star Wars figures and making them into a band. And, I had this running storyline where they put out one record that was heavy metal and one that was pop and one that was country. They reinvented themselves the way actors do. I’ve always wondered why bands aren’t always afforded that opportunity, like, why can’t Kiss make a country album? I think it’s cool that your music seems to bounce around and reflects where you are in your life.

AARON: I think there’s validity to being AC/DC and making a music that has this very identifiable sonic brand to it. And then I think there’s also, obviously, validity to being an artist like Prince who just gave us different style after different style, different look after different look, had many different types of recordings with many different types of bands that made many different sonic impressions but they were all Prince. That’s the genius of Prince. He found a way through the quality of his musicianship and songwriting and singing to tie it all together by just being Prince. Not everybody is Prince. And, by the same token, not everybody is AC/DC.

I think my work has touchstones, they’re the way in which I approach writing a set of lyrics or the way in which I employ the guitar in my music or the sense of melodicism, they are more kind of general touchstones than, “Man, I can tell this band’s main influence is clearly Cheap Trick.” People do try to do that with me sometimes, I do get … I hate to pick on anybody but it’s usually the same kind of person that does this, but people will listen to a couple of my songs and they usually either say, “This guy sounds so much like Rodney Crowell, it’s almost too much” or “This guy sounds so much like Tom Petty, it’s almost too much,” which is interesting to me but that kind of conversation is never part of the creative process for me. I suppose, in a way, they’re partially trying to define who they are by defining me. That’s part of the experience for them. I would never want them to not have that experience. It’s interesting that somebody can listen to two songs by an artist and be like, “Oh yeah, they’re like this.”

I’ve seen this in a few of the reviews of Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! , people are saying that some of the songs, particularly “Up All Night,” is the best ELO song that Jeff Lynne never wrote.

AARON: It is accurate, though maybe not always the most obvious ELO stuff. I love a song like “Secret Lives,” for example, that’s from the ’80s period of that band. That song starts out sounding like the beginning of a ’90s sitcom. And then it gets into this marvelously perfect pop chorus with these great palm-muted electric guitars and these swirling synthesizers and then his beautiful melodicness. His sense of melody is incredible. So, in that way, absolutely, there’s an ELO influence. But, there’s also the ELO influence in that I love the Randy Newman album Born Again and there’s a song on there that he wrote about ELO called “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band.” It’s almost sort of meta in a way how Randy’s doing it. That really appeals to me. ELO is involved in many different ways, but necessarily in the way that I love them so much that I learned to play all of their songs.

When you’re playing as a sideman in a band – I’ve seen you with Everest and I know you’d played guitar in a few other bands – is the band getting the real you or are you getting into the band’s aesthetic and working your way into that?

AARON: That’s a great question. Not a lot of people ask about doing gigs like that. It really depends on the band. I’ve even been in bands where I was one of the key songwriters in the band where, at a certain point, other people in the band started saying that they felt that my aesthetic was not right for the band. If it’s a famous band that you’re being hired to play with, I’m not going to go play my most unique original licks I can come up with when I’m doing the New York Dolls gig. I’m going to play the minor blues note over the major chord on the Chuck Berry lick which was the essence of what Johnny Thunders did. Because that’s the sound of that band, you can’t have that band without some amount of that sound in there. It depends but I would say more often than not people seem to just want you to do what already exists, whether it’s the record or they have a live arrangement that’s already worked out. It’s an issue of what’s comfortable and what they know and what they know works.

Did I read that you worked on the new record but didn’t share much with the label before you turned it in?

AARON: It was at a place where I said, “Look, I think I should produce this myself.” They were like, “We love you and we think you’re a great artist but what have you produced? What is this going to sound like? That feels risky to us.” I think, in the past, I would have been the sort of person who would have been like, “I don’t want to ruffle too many feathers so maybe I’ll just find a way to do this that works for the both of us.” But, for some reason, this time I just thought that I really did need to have a hand in the production of this. I did take a little bit of a risk in that I recorded probably almost an album’s worth of fully-recorded songs and then even kind of pre-mixed them basically to show them to the label because I wanted them to be as impressive to them as they could be. When I did finally send them, they liked the direction and told me to continue. If they hadn’t, I guess I would have been out whatever that cost me to do. Fortunately, that’s not how it went down.

How have things been for you during the pandemic? Not just from a professional level but from a personal level too?

AARON: It has been many things for me. It has been challenging at times. I have gotten myself back into some therapy. I settled into the idea of not going on tour last year with the idea that I would go on tour this year. And now, I think we’re seeing that the reality of that is definitely not a certainty. A possibility? Sure, but at what cost? I’m a person that very much believes that human life is not something to gamble with. The problem is, you just don’t know. You don’t know if the version of the virus you got is going to mean hospitalization. You don’t know if you have it, sometimes, and if you’re spreading it to other people. So these kinds of unknowables, these types of x factors, for a guy like me, they just create too much anxiety around putting on a performance. I’m doing this for all sorts of reasons, some of which I probably don’t even realize. One reason that I’m definitely not doing this is to like ever bring harm to anybody in any sort of capacity. That weighs very heavily on my mind. I think America is in a difficult position so far as coming to a collective place where we can have some sort of response as a country to this because we have created a situation where everyone feels entitled to their own version of the truth and they are mixing that up with the freedoms that they are entitled to as an American. They kind of end up in this immovable place where I think there are a lot of people, on the other side of the political spectrum, that feel like they’d like to see some accountability from a person like Marjorie Taylor Green who seems to have no problem saying anything they feel like at any time in any capacity. The truth is, the kinds of things she’s saying and the context in which she’s saying them, there’s only one person that can really hold Marjorie Taylor Green accountable and that’s her.

What is it you love about Nashville as a city and as a community that you’re part of?

AARON: Nashville is a town that’s full of surprises in a lot of ways. It certainly was for me. I moved to town with a very specific impression and I think felt like I needed to display in certain ways that I could fit in to the community here. What I found, after being in it, is that it’s an extraordinarily diverse community. This idea that Nashville is this country music town, certainly there’s a lot of that history and the industry, of course, is built around that, but in terms of the music that’s being made there and the things that are coming out of the community that I feel the musical community is inspired by and celebrates, those things are incredibly interesting. That’s my favorite part of Nashville is the community of musicians.

Yesterday, I was texting with Margo Price and Sadler Vaden and another friend of mine about how we want to record our friend’s songs because it’s his birthday coming up and we just all want to make a little iPhone recording, each of us, of one of his songs and send it to him for his birthday. It’s that kind of stuff.

I definitely came out of a scene in New York City when I moved to Nashville that I spent the first 5 years of my time there trying to figure out how to be a part of the community. It’s a challenge to penetrate these circles because you’re standing there at the Jim Campilongo show and you’re looking at other people waiting to say “nice show” to Jim and the other people that are waiting are Charley Drayton and George Laks, who played with Lenny Kravitz, and these are just people who are hanging out at the Living Room on a Monday night. You’re just like, “Man, I just got here from New Albany, Ohio” and you’re 19-years-old and trying to figure out how to fit into this world. I don’t think those guys made it hard on me, it was just a very intimidating thing to try and step into. As intimidated as I was to be around Todd Snider, the first few times I was around him, he made me feel like I belonged.

You seem to be connected to a lot of musicians in Nashville. I enjoy watching your friendships on Twitter with people like Margo Price, Lilly Hiatt, Erin Rae …

AARON: I think they are all relationships based on love and respect of music and songs and the power that an artist has to reflect the best parts of themselves to inspire other people. One of the things that maybe is a little different about me is that I am never afraid to say that I love something or to heap praise on something. I don’t think it diminishes what I do or who I am or anything like that. I think it is the opposite, it is an expression of who I am and the kinds of music that move me, which is just good music. Lilly Hiatt and Erin Rae are two completely different styles of artist, but I find inspiration and the enjoyment of being a music fan any time I listen to either one of their records or songs or go see them perform. The community part for me is just as important because my desire is to connect through this music and be seen for who I am through this music.

To close things out, I want to ask you some questions about the Thank You credits on the album. I will ask a few questions and want you to pick somebody you thanked to answer the question and give a story.

Tasjan Tasjan Tasjan Thank You Credits

Besides family members, who have you had the longest relationship with that you thanked?

AARON: Wow. The longest relationship? That is a good question. This is kind of a fun story. The person that I have known the longest is Adam Block. Adam Block was, for a long time, when I met him, was the vice president of Sony Legacy and then he became the president of Sony Legacy and ran that label for many years before he moved on. He was the very first person I met in the music business.

I met Adam Block when I was 18-years-old because my girlfriend from New Albany High School, her uncle – whose real name was Tom Jones – had played in a recreational rugby league with Adam Block in college. And I had written a song for my high school graduation that I played at the graduation so my ex-girlfriend’s uncle filmed this song, sent it to his buddy at Sony Music and I’m sitting in my apartment in New York, I literally moved to New York from New Albany, Ohio like 3 months before this, and I’m sitting around my apartment one day just listening to Pete Yorn or something. I had a landline and the phone rings and I look down at the phone and it says “Sony Music Entertainment” on the caller ID. I swear to God, I thought these guys are going to try to get me to sign up for a “Record of the Month” club or something like that. So I take the call thinking this will be hilarious, whatever it is, and it’s like, “Hey Aaron, my name is Adam Block. Tom Jones is a long-time friend of mine. He sent me this video of you singing this song. It’s really interesting, do you have anything else by any chance?” I said, “As a matter of fact, I write songs all the time and I’d be happy to come by your office sometime and play them for you.”

He invited me down to 550 Madison Avenue and I went up to the offices there at Columbia Records and I played my songs for him and this guy named Jeff Jones who was the president of Columbia at the time. He’s now the president of Apple Records. Adam loved it, Jeff thought it was good but he was like, “So what all do you have going on?” And I said I had a scholarship to Berklee and he was like, “I think you should go to Berklee.” Adam really believed in me and Adam, in fact, gave me the money to mix and master my very first album, Hard Love and Free Luck and has just continually been a champion for me and a voice for me within the industry, going out of his way to make cool connections for me just because a guy that he played rugby with sent him my song. I just adore Adam. There’s not a lot of people in the music business like that that I’ve run into that care that much about a project that wasn’t even on his own label.

As you were turning the list in, who was the last person that you thought, “I can’t forget to include them”?

AARON: Actually, yeah, it’s a music journalist by the name of Jaan Uhelszki. If anybody doesn’t know who Jaan is, Jaan was one of the originators of Creem magazine and has interviewed so many of my heroes countless times. We were extraordinarily fortunate that Jaan offered to write the bio for this record, which we ended up including in the liner notes just because Jaan is such a magnificent writer and the encouragement of somebody like that that has seen all of the people I revere up close and personally just means the world to me. It felt special to be able to include that on the record but I had to make sure to thank her because it was something that happened at the very last minute. Just as we were getting ready to put the record together, Jaan said. “Oh, by the way …” and we were like, “Are you kidding? Absolutely!”

Is there anybody that you realized after you turned it in that you forgot to thank?

AARON: Yes. This was a different thing but the day the record came out, I did a post that said “We released the record” and album credits are oft overlooked these days so I wanted to credit everybody on my post on social media that had played on the record and I realized I had left out my dear friend Josh Kaler, who played lap steel on “Another Lonely Day” and “Feminine Walk” and piano and drums on another song that didn’t make the record but contributed in many different ways to the record. I realized that I had forgotten to thank him when he texted me to ask if his part had still ended up on the record or if they had ended up on the cutting room floor. I had to say, “No, they absolutely did not end up on the cutting room floor, I’m just a huge asshole and I apologize profusely for forgetting you.” I had literally, as I had been writing it that morning, had a mini panic attack that I was going to forget somebody which, of course, I did.

Who on the list has a story or secret that the two of you share that they would never share with others?

AARON: Some of these people … me and Stacie Huckabe, we gossip with each other a lot. That’s definitely one.

Last one I have. Who is the person who would be your co-star in a buddy cop TV show?

AARON: There’s a lot of good ones for that. I feel like probably the funniest one would be Ray Wylie Hubbard. Ray is so funny and he’s also one of those guys, he’s like Bob Newhart, he can tell you a really funny joke with a super-straight face almost to the point where people don’t understand that he’s telling a joke which I love that sense of humor. I feel like he would be good in the role, but I’m thinking maybe he wouldn’t be good now because I would probably just be laughing at everything and I’d have a hard time acting with him.