Unbound & Unabashed
Aaron Lee Tasjan finds his place in the crowd
The scruffy kid at the bar, hunched over a plate of eggs, is easy to miss. A funky hat, an oversized coat, a limp T-shirt, he’s a little too much of a bright shiny penny to be some jaundiced, sarcastic songwriter, someone biting the nuevo-hipster onslaught pouring into East Nashville. Indeed, the slight 20-something at the bar quietly eating his breakfast is probably part of this sudden immigration problem.
After a string of texts, the guy with the oversized black glasses looks around, makes eye contact, and waves. Aaron Lee Tasjan, it seems, is far sweeter than songs like “Bitch Can’t Sing,” “American Tan,” and “East Nashville Song About A Train” might suggest.
If his songs skewer and his pictures show a lank, fairly road-worn guy who desperately needs to wash his hair, Aaron Lee Tasjan in person — plate of eggs in hand and crossing The Family Wash — is more adorable urchin than deviant fringe dweller. Smiling, he nods a few times, then says, half-charm/half-disarm and a little aw shucks apologetic, “I was kinda hungry, so I went ahead.”
If the young guitarist who won the Essentially Ellington Competition at Lincoln Center leading to a scholarship at Berklee College of Music has been the luckiest musical drifter, he’s also been driven by a relentless curiosity and will to explore. Morphing into a self-described “indie folk grit” practitioner — evoking John Prine, Steve Goodman, and even Kris Kristofferson — Tasjan is miles from his former lives. First, there was the stint as principle guitarist-songwriter in the outlandish industrial dance/glam/punks Semi Precious Weapons. He would go on to record “I Believe in Elvis Presley” with SPW manager (and one-time Led Zeppelin publicist) BP Fallon; the track produced by Jack White would be released on Third Man Records. Then he would serve as hired gun stand-in for Johnny Thunders in one of David Johansen’s latter incarnations of the New York Dolls.
“I don’t think anyone expected me to do anything,” he confesses. “I see myself through the lens of my friends, and how they deal with things. No one expects very much of most people. I like that element of not throwing everything in everybody’s face. Have a little mystery. Let the music do some of the talking.”
The kids in this town don’t have a clue
They’re as white as the collar they painted blue
— “East Nashville Song About A Train”
When you ask Tasjan about “ENSAAT,” an NPR Songs We Love, his wryly ironic assessment is, “That’s some eternal truth to drop on a changing Nashville landscape.” He understands the double down of a song calling out hipsters as poseurs for the inauthenticity of their suburban desire to write a rambling song of that ilk.
“Look, I’m talking about myself as much as anyone,” he levels, both intimate and sly. “I’m pointing out my own hypocrisy, the idea of moving here and writing a song about trains! It seemed a lot of people might be doing that, so it was interesting to comment on, because I had thought about it — and how it would look to someone who’s a native Nashvillian, trying to relate to that world about me.
“But it’s me, you know, taking that stance with myself as much as anyone. To me, it’s [a little more honorable] for one of us to say it before someone like Rodney Crowell does. I think if we [as a generation] can recognize that potential shortcoming and write about it in a way that shows a respect for what came before, that’s being honest. I think that’s pretty important.”
Tasjan, in a faded Duane Allman Skydog T-shirt, isn’t trying to weasel around the obvious. His finger-picking on “ENSAAT” is clean, the melody winsome and bittersweet, suggesting the Carter Family’s purity. And the lyrics? Well, they put a hollow point through the obvious reality of (sub)urban kids faking authenticity.
“You can’t replicate what was. Maybe you can be part of the conversation of what was and where do we go, who we are, what it means,” he offers, trying to ground his view as something more than truculent millennial. “With all due respect to those people in ‘Heartworn Highways Revisited,’ that isn’t true — it’s all calculated. East Nashville Tonight is more realistic in its portrayal of this moment than the update on ‘Heartworn Highways.’
“Let’s be honest: there is no new John Prine, no new Guy Clark,” Tasjan continues. “They made the art, and they made that time. They weren’t chasing anybody else, that made them special. Well, that and the quality of the songs.”
Tasjan doesn’t think he writes in their company, looks away when it’s suggested his satire and commentary brush against Prine’s and the late Goodman’s. He is a seeker, which made him continually move on. He’s also a kid from New Albany, Ohio — as small town and flyover as it gets — and knows there’s more to life than Main Street and making your military- turned-academic dad proud.
Some lessons were learned the hard way, things achieved most people strenuously work towards and can’t attain. In the gap between here and there, he’s run into the unthinkable. In that triangle, Tasjan — having shown tremendous native talent as a guitarist attracted the attention of his band director, who manifested his interest in the young teenager by molesting him — was forced to come to terms with some difficult choices.
What do you do when you’re young and impressionable, when the grown-up who’s your teacher does something wrong? But even more so, how do you give up on something that’s almost like breathing? Because — for Tasjan — making music was the most potent and powerful thing he’d found.
Quitting the school band for self-preservation, he faced intense parental pressure and disappointment. Knowing his father, an Army man who became the VP of university relations for Ohio State, wasn’t going to take to his son walking away quietly, the sensitive young man cast about for other ways to foster his talents. He eventually found himself onstage at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, being named the winner of the wildly competitive Essentially Ellington jazz guitar competition.
If he’d redeemed himself to his father in terms of not squandering his talent, the full ride to the prestigious Berklee College of Music reinforced his father’s notion of what his son’s education should be. For the mostly taciturn kid who lived in his head, the regimentation and pressure didn’t feel where his heart was drawn; but dutifully, off Aaron Lee went to Boston.
The trouble with drinking is it ain’t no trouble at all…
Unless I’m low on money, or too high on the weed
— “The Trouble with Drinking”
Whether Berklee was meant for Tasjan or not, he found kindred spirits: genius kids with jagged musical ideas. They also had a propensity for drugs, partying, wild living, jettisoning authority, living beyond the law — or at least rules. It wasn’t long before the skinny kid from Ohio found himself in Williamsburg, sifting songs and guitar tones with his Berklee buddies.
“In Brooklyn, there was a shit ton of young people moving into these apartment buildings that grown-ups with real jobs couldn’t pay for; they had trust funds and parents paying for everything. That was the death rattle for New York, a place where artists who wanted to be artists could live on nothing and do their art. You want to transcend the thought patterns of tradition, but live this rebellion your family’s paying for?”
But more than garden variety rebellion, Tasjan and friends found a way to shove a finger in the eye of all things Midwestern. Sure, the guitarist was part of the Hootenanny post-alt-roots Madison Square Gardeners — deemed “the best NYC has to offer” in 2008 by The Village Voice — but it was Semi Precious Weapons that pushed every button and boundary that existed.
“When I was in Semi Precious Weapons, people didn’t know what to make of it,” he says.
It’s weeks later in the back bar of Tenn Sixteen. Dressed in a Lilly Hiatt T-shirt “that Lilly gave me, which makes me feel connected,” a super-old pair of boots, a flannel shirt he bought out on the road — things, he says, “Mean something to me” — Tasjan still looks like the definition of AnyShaggyYoungHipster, one more kid coming to the Land of Dreams ’n’ Hot Chicken. But A.L.T. has a pretty vast past, and it’s about to be sifted.
“People didn’t know it was a gay band,” he explains of SPW, the most glam band since the New York Dolls broke up. “It was outrageous. We had a song called ‘That’s Kunt,’ another called ‘She Only Wants to Fuck Jesus.’ …”
Our eyes meet. There is that moment when pushing buttons becomes sheer shock for people who can’t get the job done in more subtle ways. Justin Tranter, the wildly charismatic platinum blond fashionista frontman (who would go on to be a wildy successful songwriter in his own right,) was as brazen and full-tilt a gender-shattering persona as Johansen or Bowie, but even more aggressively radical in his sex-forward reality.
Like a Sherman tank in spike heels, fishnets, and excessive eyeliner, Tranter’s seductive power bleeds across art into life. “Magnetic Baby,” which unapologetically taunts a girl whose party dress he looks better in, lured no less a showwoman than Lady Gaga — and for a time, Tranter was Tasjan’s inamorata.
“I was in a romantic relationship with the lead singer of that band,” Tasjan says a little shyly. It’s not fear of confessing driving the hush of the revelation, but more the reticence of kissing and telling. But like so many things about Tasjan, what’s beneath the surface will surprise you.
“That was always in me, but I’d really kept to myself,” he says. “I came up against it, and was trying to figure it out. That band, then dealing with all the stuff that came with the rest of it. Trying to figure out ‘Was I gay?’ It was an interesting time.”
Some people come into the bar, stop and say “hi.” The conversation is simple, easy. They head to the bar, and Tasjan returns the gaze. “You know I don’t care what you want to label me as, I’m going to be who I am. I’m gonna fall in love with the people my heart feels — and I’m going to party ’cause it feels good.”
And the folks back home? “It seemed like a much more awkward conversation to have for others than for me.”
Like many millennials, he resists labels and refuses to be bound by convention. It explains the ferocity of his electric playing, the blues of bending notes, the fingerpicking songwriter bits. But it also marks how he ventures through life.
“I’ve never been a person to close myself off from my heart,” he ventures. “I have to live with the fragility of what is, but those songs have to come out of something. These things have to be acknowledged outside of me, because to hold it all in . . .
“I don’t want to exist in turmoil. Drawing this stuff out of me — the hypocrisy and the questioning — the songs allow me to do this in a place that’s more solitary, and it gives me more time to think it through instead of some bizarre public forum where there are all these people who aren’t qualified telling you what to do or feel. People just chiming in, which I experienced from the time I started playing. That’s why the songs are like this.”
If he has the smart-mouthed stoner kid market covered — “The Trouble with Drinking,” “Madonna’s from Amerika,” and “Drugs and Junk Food” — there has been a busted romanticism emerging from his rawnerved morning-afters. But there’s been a shift. Even the burner songs on his upcoming The Refuge — like the ambling shuffle “It’s A Hard Life” — have a buzzing undercurrent of social commentary as much as a slinky recasting of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
“I’ve spent a long time feeling bad about the parts of myself that didn’t really measure up to this standard, you know, that myth there’s some kind of way to be. When people start talking about normal, that’s not real.
“So when I started writing, I took all that stuff about myself I wasn’t proud of and I blew it up to try to make it positive, to try to make it something that transcends expectations.
“I know I’m kind of lazy, kind of a slacker. For me, I took that and turned it into good with the songs and music; I wanted to change the perspective. It’s more about trying to embrace the things you want to run away from.”
Success ain’t about being better than everybody else
Success is about being better than yourself
“In some ways,” Tasjan continues later, trying to define his voice and his reason for mattering as an artist, “I’m trying to write [these songs] in such a way, someone who feels like they don’t have so much self-worth, they can see themselves, can sense their value.
“I always felt like all these people [around me] were so ambitious, and all I had was songs. The rest didn’t interest me, all those things everybody was chasing. In life, you sometimes feel like you just care about the wrong stuff, the wrong things that exist in this world. It’s really tricky to not fall into the trap of people telling you what life or success means.”
The man who’s also recorded with The Golden Palominos, Jesse Malin, Pat Green, and Tim Easton has built an intriguing career. Each turn has been a shift, each opportunity providing different windows to look through. As he’s moved through his various incarnations, Tasjan has always tried to absorb new influences.
On Telling Stories to the Wall, Tasjan offers “Not Punk,” a spoken word dustup that evokes the Beats and namechecks Iggy, Dylan, Lenny Kaye, Tom Waits, Steve Jones, and the anti- punk Blink-182. In part, it is a meditation on the roots of his rejectionist folk; it’s also an homage to the rhythms of words and poetry.
“I love Ginsburg and Kerouac; the rhythms of their words are like James Brown, where every instrument is a drum,” he says. “It’s a great way to connect the pieces; the underlying thing that pulls you into a song is that primal rhythm. It’s not just the beat the way a rhythm section plays it. The way Allen Ginsburg reads his own poems is genius.
“So when I wrote ‘Not Punk,’ I was really trying to tap into that beatnik way of speaking those rhythms. Or the way John Prine talks ‘Lake Marie,’ the rhythm [of how the words fall] draws me in even more than the words he’s singing. It’s back to the cave.”
“Not Punk” opens evoking Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets, the 1972 compilation of psychedelic tracks from 1965-68, but it eventually turns to offer a picture of Johansen proclaiming the New York Dolls didn’t invent punk or glam. For Tasjan, it is a declaration that hits close to home.
“For [Johansen], it’s about where the roots come from. In spite of everything [the Dolls did], being managed by (Sex Pistols/Bow Wow Wow impresario) Malcolm McLaren, it’s where the roots come from that mattered to David Johansen. So the song is a great way to get into all that: David loves blues musicians. I remember being in Argentina at the Willie Dixon Blues Club, playing in the Green Room covered in black and white (promo) pictures of all these old blues greats — really obscure people — and David knew them all! Every single one, and he was so thrilled to tell me about them.”
The past is as important to the world class guitarist as whatever the future holds. It’s not just Johansen and the mark working with the Dolls left on the guitarist, but the quirky and overlooked everywhere. In The Blazes contains the sweeping twang of “Lucinda’s Room,” a musicians’ homage that evokes the late Texas songwriter Blaze Foley as well as the song’s namesake Williams — weighing the emotional cost of the life of fringe artists who give it all to their art.
Scripture and cocaine would do about the same
Take a line of either and it just might kill the pain
— “Judee Was A Punk”
Blazes also offers “Judee Was A Punk,” a celebration of obscure folkie Judee Sill, best known for The Hollies’ hit “Jesus Was A Crossmaker.” Though she was lost to pop culture — in 1979, The Los Angeles Times failed to run an obituary when the genre-blurring Southern California country-rock precursor died of a drug overdose at 35 — she remains an artist whose shimmeringly pretty melodies those who know of her are madly passionate about.
“It’s hard to find stuff about her, but I fell in love with her whole story — and the way she was this Jesus freak who was bisexual, did drugs, just followed her desires. When she signed with David Geffen as the first artist on Asylum, she was this visionary.
“Her first album didn’t do well, then when she was doing press for Heart Food (the follow- up), she mentioned in a radio interview she was bisexual — and the radio interviewer said, ‘Well, that’s unusual.’ She said, ‘My friends are all like that. The head of my label is …’ And she outed David Geffen, because to her it wasn’t a big deal. That was Judee Sill.
“Look at the way she got arrested: when she was a girl she fell in with a group of kids who wanted to rob a convenience store, and they talked her into holding the gun. When they got caught, she went to prison for it. When I was reading what stuff there was, who knows how much was perfectly true? But her struggle to exist in this world where there wasn’t a readymade place for someone being as honest as she was really makes you think.”
Your conscience becomes thinner than the soles of worn out shoes
You never take a step without your refugee blues
— “Refugee Blues”
For an outlier kid of outsize talent growing up in a midsized Ohio town, it is the odd pegs that capture the imagination. Though Tasjan runs to the more quirky and credible — he namechecks Tom Petty, The Allman Brothers, and Elizabeth Cook in “Florida Man,” and promises he knows he’ll never spell Lynyrd Skynyrd wrong in “Living Proof ” — it is, of all things, Ted Nugent who left an indelible mark on the young teenager.
“Ray Wylie Hubbard likes to tease me about this during ‘Redneck Mother,’ because the first time I saw an electric guitar, it was Ted Nugent at the Ohio State Fair,” Tasjan explains. “When I open for him, he always says, ‘You better think about that Nugent story you tell every time you’re up there.’ I talk about when I was in school, and they put me on this crazy medication and said I had a learning disability, that I was a visual learner.
“Well, imagine seeing Ted Nugent in a loin cloth with an electric guitar? Now that’s something you never forget.”
He’s not being funny, or defensive. Turning his cards over unapologetically, he makes the case for loving the things you do without reservation. “The reason I want people to fall in and follow me is we need to listen more. There’s a lot about how much you can say, especially with all these platforms. That makes certain things have value, but I think it’s really about being able to listen and not just think about your next comment.
“My generation has a lot of greatness to it, a lot of ideas that are good. They take care of things, and want to better the world if they could, but there’s also this problem with the trophy generation. You know, you’ll have that emotional response of playing sports — and that one kid who really goes for it, really kicks ass, then he gets the same trophy as some kid who just shows up.
“You know, you’re supposed to find something to feel special about, not just this blanket thing that gets applied without recognizing the kids who stand out. That trophy doesn’t make anyone feel better.
“And I think that’s why people are afraid to be exposed: they can’t take having their differences out there. I’ve chosen to deal with mine in a head-on way. Let [those things] fall where they fall, and try not to define myself by every moment along the way or every tag that could stick.
“With everything swirling around East Nashville, you can’t help but wonder, ‘Gosh, am I part of the problem?’ I wrestle with that, because I’m sure there are people running around out there thinking ‘I’m the next John Prine.’ But you know, that’s just not possible. …
“You’re not Gram Parsons, whoever you are. None of us are that, and if we’re going to contribute, it’s being the best you you are. Jason Isbell said in an interview, ‘People out there are making bad music and it’s really bad for people to listen to.’ And I agree with that. It gets back to everybody gets a trophy: Just ’cause you think you’re writing songs like John Prine or Gram Parsons, it doesn’t mean you are.”