Aaron Lee Tasjan: Conscious Evolution

Dean Budnick on June 12, 2024
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Conscious Evolution

“I would say the story of the record is the inevitability of change. That change comes whether we desire it or not, and oftentimes the way those changes take hold in our lives can be affected by the way we receive the change itself,” Aaron Lee Tasjan says of the central theme that informs his new studio album. “The title of the record, Stellar Evolution, is a specific scientific term that talks about the life arc of a star and how the star changes and morphs over the cycle of its life. To me, what all of these songs have in common is they’re a reflection of the ways in which change came into my life and gave me a different perspective.”

He illustrates this point by referencing “Young,” the moving piano ballad that closes out the record. “Even with that song, where I’m talking very specifically about what it’s like to be a young person in love, I was only able to write that song because I’m not that person anymore. I grew, I became older and I had different kinds of relationships in my life that came about because the world kept turning. I was onboard the spaceship at the time, so I had to go with the gravity. I had to allow the change to take place, and I had to choose how I was going to react to that.”

While the concept of transformation reverberates across the 12 original compositions, Tasjan points to other ideas that animate the work. “‘Alien Space Queen’ is a love song to my trans community and my queer community,” he explains. “I’ll be 40 in August of this year. I’ve been alive long enough to see several different versions of how America views queer people and all that kind of stuff. I’ve seen that change over time, and all of it gets reflected in a song like that. I think about the ways in which our modern climate in America has influenced the ways we think about queer people and trans people. A lot of people who are anti-trans don’t even know the history of trans. They think it’s some new woke thing that’s just popped up the last couple of years. They don’t understand that these people have been an important part of society since recorded human history.”

Tasjan then considers the scope of his musical career, as he notes, “Over time, my desire for self-expression has morphed into a need to be a voice for my community. Particularly as a queer person living in the South, it’s really become important to me to create things that speak to that and support that community during a time when it feels like people are trying to make it illegal for us to exist.”

The musician moved to East Nashville just over a decade ago, following an extended period in New York. The Ohio native had previously settled in Brooklyn during the mid-aughts, where he co-founded glam-rock band Semi Precious Weapons. During that era, he also toured for a stretch as the guitarist in the New York Dolls. After relocating to Tennessee, he recorded his solo debut, 2015’s In the Blazes, followed by Silver Tears (2016), Karma for Cheap (2018) and 2021’s Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, each of which successively amplified the artist’s renown. He also extended his wings as a songwriter, receiving a Grammy nomination for his work on Yola’s “Diamond Studded Shoes.” On the new album, Tasjan draws on all of these experiences and modes of expression, while applying his sharp wit and deep empathy across a sonic palette that references indie rock, hyperpop and ‘80s synth sounds.

Although Stellar Evolution is a personal work, Tasjan aspires to connect with a multiplicity of listeners. “As much as I have these very specific intentions with this record, it’s also important to me that people see themselves reflected in the music,” he affirms. “I know from having been on the road a little bit this year playing some of these new songs that it’s definitely happening with queer folks, with people of color and with trans folks. But we just played the 30a Songwriters Festival in Florida and I don’t even know how half the room ended up at our concert—I would’ve thought it was some sort of fraternity party. But we got off the stage and all these visor-wearing, beer-drinking folks really loved it.

“For people like me, for queer folks and folks from marginalized groups, I think there’s a chance to share our stories and realize that our stories are not just unique to our community. You hear terms like queer country, but I think you should just call it country because country music contains everyone’s stories. I think specifically, in that context, our stories are everybody’s stories. They’re universal.”

The music on Stellar Evolution touches on many aspects of your life and career. Was there a moment when you made a conscious decision to bring all of these elements together?

I think what I’ve been able to do is become my own genre. So someone can’t say, “Oh, it’s exactly like this” or “It’s exactly like that.”

There came a point when I realized that I didn’t have to be anything. I could follow the parts of my expression that felt the most honest, the most exciting and that represented me in a way where I felt a genuine connection.

Genre wasn’t really a consideration in any of that because I have never thought of music as genres. I mean, at eight years old, I had Boyz II Men, Green Day, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Tom Chapin in rotation on my cassette tapes. I was listening to all kinds of stuff as a young person and there was no distinction made between any of it. To me, it was all just great music.

It’s not about not having influences, it’s about having so many influences that no one can just call it this or that. I think that as an artist over time with the arc of the work that you’ve done, you refine what you do and it becomes more and more you as you go along. That’s regardless of genre or harmonic structure or musical influences that people can point to. That’s just a process of doing the work. You become more of who you are.

So I got comfortable not belonging to anything—not belonging to rock-and-roll, not belonging to pop, not belonging to Americana, not belonging to country. I just made music that was a genuine reflection of my life experience and my listening experience, which is really varied. I think people connect with that because they can tell it’s genuine.

Even if I do something that’s a different style than people might expect from me, they can always hear my voice in it. I’ve only been able to establish that over a long period of time by making five records, where you can trace the parts of it that are uniquely mine and see where those parts exist in something that people haven’t heard before.

So that process of not defining myself initially was what allowed me to create a genre of music that’s just sort of Aaron Lee Tasjan music. You can’t really get it anywhere else, for better or worse. [Laughs.]

Charlie Parker said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The idea that truth resonates.

I think at the end of the day, telling the truth in song is an act of noble vulnerability. I also think vulnerability is something that’s become an interesting emotion to express in our society. These days, because of things like TikTok, when some people are having this difficult emotional moment, for some reason their first instinct is to film themselves doing it. They’ll put it up on one of those platforms, where a video of that sort might have a better chance of getting a reaction.

I find that genuine vulnerability almost feels more sacred to me for that reason. So I look for the places where it exists, and one of the most noble places that I feel it exists is in the context of songwriting.

The difference between a song that’s written by a person and a song that’s written by a machine is that there’s a noble vulnerability being expressed by the person that just could never be replicated in the same way. It’s like how you listen to a vinyl record and the sound of the needle scratching the record is mixed in with some music. The vulnerability that’s mixed in when it’s created by a person is palpable. You can’t quite put your finger on exactly what it is that’s making you feel that, but you know you feel it. That sort of vulnerability is a purely human expression.

It’s one thing to write a song and it’s another thing to bring it into the studio and translate that initial expression into another form. When you were writing “Alien Space Queen,” did you envision the way it would eventually sound with the synths, for instance?

I had originally written it on an acoustic guitar, and I was playing it very quietly with my thumb, almost like an Elliott Smith song. When I was writing the lyrics I was running a lot of the stuff by my partner Erica Blinn, so she has a co-write on that record. We collaborated on some of the lyrical content together because I really wanted the tone of it to feel right. She’s also a queer person and has a lot of sensibilities and sensitivities around that. So I knew she would be a great person to bounce it off of.

It initially started as a little folk ditty. The way that it ended up musically was a result of me wanting to push the boundaries of where I felt like I had been previously, almost to see if the song would break under the pressure of doing the exact opposite with it that I had done when I started.

There’s no acoustic guitar on that song anywhere. It’s two electric guitars, bass, drums, vocals and the synths. There was that desire to break free of where I’d been previously. There was also the influence of my producer, Gregory Lattimer, who was helping me to craft something on each song that was a step away from where I had been previously, but was still recognizable as me.

The guitar is such an integral part of who I am. We were able to use the electric guitars on that song in a way where neither one of them is playing any chords at any time. They’re playing these single-note lines, but when you put the two guitars together, the single note things that they’re playing form the chords of the song when they’re played at the same time.

So it was also a bit of a challenge to identify some things that I can do, some ways that I can employ the guitar that will feel more unique or interesting to me than things I’ve done previously. That idea of two guitars, each playing a single-note line that, when they’re played back together, form these major and minor triads seemed really interesting to me. I had heard bands do things similar to that before, like Television or even some of the stuff on The Strokes’ records, but I had never done that specifically in my own music. That song just fit the bill perfectly for it. It was one of those things where you’re experimenting and there’s a chance that it may not work, but for whatever reason it just does.

I would imagine a very spare reading of the song “Nightmare” [which has a dance-club beat yet expresses apprehension about being the victim of a hate crime] would carry a different sort of weight.

You’re kind of spot-on in the sense that the song did start out very spare. My demo of it is just me and a guitar. The reason that it ended up the way that it did was that, musically speaking, I was trying to interject a style and a production of the music that felt like a reflection of the community that the song was about. So lyrically, the song is speaking to what it feels like to be afraid as a trans person, as a queer person, to walk down the street on your way out for a good time on a Friday night because a lot of times those folks are getting attacked. As a result of those attacks, they’re being hospitalized or dying, and sometimes it doesn’t even make the news.

So the music had to reflect queer culture. You sort of counter the starkness of those lyrics and the seriousness of the subject matter with the joy that you get going to a queer nightclub and dancing and experiencing what it’s like to be in that very joyful, open, beautiful space. I needed the music to counter the heaviness of the subject matter of the lyric because I didn’t want it to be something that just landed with a thud.

I certainly want people to feel the weight of what I’m singing about, but I also want the joy and the resilience of my community to be reflected in the song because I feel like in supporting queer people, trans people, we’re not asking for anyone’s pity. We’re just asking them to see us, and we’re not a beaten down, hopeless people. We’re people who are very resilient. So I wanted that to be reflected in the music that the lyric was being presented over.

Last June, you performed “I Love America Better Than You,” which appears on the new record, during a formal meeting of Nashville’s Metro Arts Council. How did that come about and what did you have in mind?

They were having the budget meeting for the Metro Arts Council, and I have a friend named Chuck who works with the Arts Council. He likes to get artists in as part of the budget meeting, to remind people of the fact that they’re living in a community that’s rich with creative folks. Since that is when they assign a budget to the Metro Arts Council, it means the town is going to benefit from that in some really unique and cool ways.

I took a slightly different approach with my performance. [Laughs.] I viewed it as an opportunity for me to let them know that we the people are still going strong, even though some other people are able to maintain power by gerrymandering the ever-living crap out of the Nashville voting maps. Despite all that, we the people still expect them to serve us. They might be able to use their power to kick the mothers of the Covenant School shooting victims out of the House [at a legislative hearing where they intended to testify in favor of gun control provisions] but that wasn’t going to silence us.

Watching those Representatives take opportunities away from people over and over again, I just thought, “This may not be what they’re going to expect, but I’m going to use my time now to let some of those voices be heard.” That song speaks very clearly to issues that affect every person living in this country. No matter what your politics are or where you come from, we should all be in favor of sensible gun control, for example.

That song speaks to all those things. It was my moment to have a voice within that building, and I wanted to use it to voice the concerns of the people and my community, because living here in Nashville has mostly been a very good thing for me. So I honor that by honoring the people that I live with here.

When you moved to Nashville from New York, you entered a very different political environment. To what extent did you take that into consideration when you made the decision to relocate?

I moved to Tennessee purely for musical reasons. I had been living in New York for about 10 years, and I was at that point successful enough as a touring guitar player to where I wasn’t really home very much. I started to feel like I was spending a lot of money to maintain a residence in New York, where I very rarely was living.

The whole impetus originally for moving to Nashville was its affordability and its location in terms of touring. It’s very centrally located. You can get to Chicago in six hours, you can get to St. Louis in six hours, you can easily get to Atlanta—all the places you want to go to are very drivable from here. That was the initial reason for coming down.

As a person who had spent their 20s and 30s living in New York City, I guess I kind of got more used to the fact that I didn’t have to think about certain things as much. I certainly had experiences there, particularly living in Greenpoint from 2005-2007. There were certain folks in that neighborhood who would see me and my boyfriend walking down the street, get really mad about it and sometimes chase us down the street yelling at us.

I had similar experiences when I went to London, England. I mean, we got thrown out of an HMV basically for just being dressed the way that we were. The security guy came up and told us that they’d be more comfortable if we left the store. [Laughs.]

So you sort of experience those kind of things everywhere, I guess. Getting to be a well-traveled person, I knew that there probably wasn’t anywhere in the world that was completely immune to those sorts of experiences. But still, I was surprised.

I’m speaking now to the things that we see playing out politically here in Tennessee with drag bans. Another town in Central Tennessee recently made being a gay person illegal for a couple of days. It got overturned because that just is completely ridiculous but the boldness with which these sorts of things are being done is alarming.

Making art that speaks to that has become really important. I certainly didn’t realize all that I was in for when I moved to Tennessee, but one thing I love about my community of artist friends, and my community of queer artist friends in particular, is that we stick together. We have already had to rise to so many challenges in our lives. This is just another one, and we are going to rise to it and we are going to speak our truths and we are going to do everything that we can to counter the hatred that we face down here. We’re going to use our art to do it because that’s when we are in our power.

You mentioned your co-producer Gregory Lattimer earlier, with whom you’ve worked on a few albums. Did the two of you come in with a particular approach in mind regarding the sonic landscape, and was there a particular song where you felt like you were on the right track?

We worked on this record for about a year and a half. That’s a long time in this day and age, but we wanted to get it right, so we worked on it until we both agreed that it was right.

Over the course of that time, there were songs I had written and we had fully recorded, which sort of fell by the wayside. One of the things that’s great about working with Gregory is that he’s so open and interested in songs. He himself is a songwriter, so when I send him a song, I’m not just sending a song to a producer. His band, Thin Lizard Dawn, had a really cool moment in the New York indie-rock scene in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. So he has the background and skill set to be able to help me shape the songs. It’s a very collaborative process, but it is only able to be collaborative because both of us are really open to the other’s creativity.

The song “The Drugs Did Me” really came together through this process. When I had written the song originally, the demo was more like a British pub-rock song or a Nick Lowe/Rockpile-type song meets Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” kind of thing. I sent him the demo of it and we recorded a version of it that way. Then he said, “Hey, just for fun, I’m kind of hearing it like this,” and he pulled up this little 808 thing that he had made. That inspired me to do a talking blues-type thing with the lyric instead of singing it.

By the time we had finished that song, we were both listening to it and laughing so hard that we were crying. Anytime that he and I start giggling about what we’re working on, it is always a good sign.

There were times when I was a little nervous about how different it all was for me. But then I thought about it and realized that I’ve listened to so much Beck, I’ve listened to so much OutKast, I’ve listened to so much music that I hear reflected in the sound of this. This is me. This is just a me that I didn’t even know I could be.