Community & Karma
Five years in, Aaron Lee Tasjan still finds his heart's desire in his own backyard
Photography: Stacie Huckeba
On a warm May evening, Aaron Lee Tasjan was hanging out at producer Joe Costa’s studio when they heard what sounded like fireworks. Minutes later, Costa’s phone lit up with a text: Was he safe? There was a shooting a little over a block away, at Straightway and 16th Street in East Nashville. Tasjan knew that block, too. It’s where photographer, writer, public speaker, and friend to all manner of East Side musicians Stacie Huckeba lives.
“I’ve been over to Stacie’s house a million times,” Tasjan says about a month later, that night still vivid in his memory. “I’ve dog sat for her when she’s out of town on photo shoots. My first thought was to call her and see if she was all right.”
Huckeba was safe but shaken. She’d witnessed a man with an AR-15 firing dozens of rounds down the street. Two neighbors had non-critical injuries, and police officers were on the scene.
Tasjan jumped in his van and tried to drive down Straightway to check on his friend, but police had the street taped off at the railroad tracks.
“I couldn’t go down the street,” he says. “When I tried to turn around it was really dark, and I accidentally put the back tire of my van over the train tracks and got stuck. These dudes came out of the house by the tracks with a chain and pulled me off the tracks. I finally remembered the alley behind Stacie’s house, so I made it there and we sat on the porch and talked about how fucked up what happened was.
“When something like that happens it’s just good to be able to talk about it. We all have each other’s back in East Nashville. I’ve lived in Ohio, California, New York, Boston, and Nashville. This is the only place I’ve lived that I’ve had a real sense my friends would help me out if it really came down to it.
EAST NASHVILLE’S MUSICAL FOUNDATION
Devotion to community and seriousness of purpose, combined with an eye for the absurd, run deep in Tasjan. Since moving to the Music City five years ago, and specifically East Nashville, Tasjan’s heart, talent, and humor have become deeply driven into the East Side’s musical foundation.
His first album, In the Blazes (2015), fit neatly into Nashville’s roots-music mash-up corral, while also sparking with lyrical sharpness and a sardonic sense of self-awareness that pushed it to the head of the Americana herd. His second long player, Silver Tears (2016), followed the same mulligan stew recipe — roots music vegetables and spiced lyrical meat — while expanding his sonic palate to new horizons.
Tasjan’s new album, Karma for Cheap (out August 31), continues down the same path, featuring a blend of styles and influences that have brought comparisons to other unclassifiable singer-songwriters, including Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. Tasjan views those associations with a slightly embarrassed chuckle.
“It’s a nice comparison,” Tasjan says. “But to be honest, I certainly don’t feel like I’m on the same level with them in terms of anything I’ve made yet. I would like to be. I would love to write an album as good as Newman’s Good Old Boys or make a record as great as Nilsson Schmilsson, or any number of things they’ve done. But I’m still trying to find my own way. If I had to guess why people say that, it’s something on a surface level — like a lot of my songs are funny.”
Silver Tears songs like “Hard Life” and “12 Bar Blues” offer echoes of Nilsson’s and Newman’s subversion of classical pop instrumentation and subject matter, combined with satirical character studies. But Tasjan’s music has never presented itself as imitative or derivative, even as he wears his influences on his sleeve. The comparisons may simply arise from critics asking, “What is this guy?” As with Newman and Nilsson, Tasjan’s music is a uniquely shaped peg that doesn’t fit a round hole, or a square one, or any of the genre cavities augered into the landscape of popular music over the last 100 years.
‘A PLACE WHERE I COULD BE AN ORIGINAL’
Tasjan’s rollercoaster musical career prepared him well for defying easy categorization.
Born in New Albany, Ohio, Tasjan began playing guitar at age 11. At 16, he won the Outstanding Guitarist Award in the Essentially Ellington Competition, sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Moving to Brooklyn at 20, Tasjan co-founded the glam-garage rock band Semi Precious Weapons. After two years of glam, glitter, and rock with SPW, Tasjan scored touring stints with Drivin’ N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney and original glam-punk godfathers the New York Dolls. Three years, three EPs, and one album with the Brooklyn-based Americana indie rockers the Madison Square Gardeners followed.
In 2013, at the age of 27, Tasjan embarked on a full-fledged solo career. Packing his guitar case, he headed south to the new Americana music mecca, East Nashville.
“What I knew about East Nashville was that people like Todd Snider, Chuck Mead, Elizabeth Cook, and Dan Baird lived here,” Tasjan says. “I really didn’t have any concept of the ‘old’ or ‘new’ Nashville. I came here thinking those guys seem cool because they’re making music that breaks the conventional rules, and I was looking for a place where I could be an original.
“I had gotten to New York when many said the rock scene was over. Some people would say it was long over, but there was still something that was kind of bubbling underneath that was a little dangerous and off the mark in a good way. When I got here, I thought East Nashville had that, too. I liked the chances that people here were taking with their music.”
Befriending East Nashville music scene icon Todd Snider and many of the artists that drew him here, Tasjan not only found his place in the current East Nashville scene, but began to learn about the legacy and inimitability of the Nashville experience for a young musician.
“One day I woke up and had an email from Todd Snider,” Tasjan says. “It said, ‘Whatever you’re doing today, cancel it and come over to Blackbird Studios.’ [Snider’s band] the Hard Working Americans were recording a Guy Clark song, and Guy was there to play and sing on the song. Todd hadn’t told me. I walked in and heard Guy Clark finishing up a story. I sat there the whole afternoon, listening to him do takes of the song with Todd, who was wearing one of my concert T-shirts. For a dude like me that was just starting out and trying to do anything like what those guys have done, where else was that going to happen?”
‘THE WORK WILL NEVER FAIL YOU’
Although meeting current and legendary musical heroes is a thrill for any young artist, Tasjan views his Nashville experience as something far bigger than marking the spaces of his personal musical-icon bingo card.
“Meeting people like Guy Clark and others made me think about the craft of songwriting more,” Tasjan says. “I think there’s a great reverence for people like Guy Clark and John Prine who write the kind of songs where you say, ‘There’s no holes in that. That does everything it’s supposed to do and then some.’ There’s always a level of aspiration to try and write like this particular artist or that particular artist, but, how can you?
“That’s the thing that’s funny about my generation: A lot of singers seem to court comparisons to legacy artists. It’s like they want to be a legacy artist even though they’ve only made an album or two. You can’t just set a goal of creating a legacy. You have to concentrate on the work. The work will never fail you. If you do the work, you’ll be able to continue to do it. That’s what all of those guys did. John Prine never said, ‘I wrote this album Common Sense, and it’s amazing.’ And then felt like he had achieved something great that would be his legacy. Finishing that album just meant it was time to make another one.”
Absorbing influences, finding a personal voice, and working to create something original has always been challenging for most artists. But for millennials like Tasjan, the ability to transcend influences presents a greater challenge.
John Prine recorded his first album in 1971 with roughly 50 years of recorded popular music dragging behind him, and many of those recordings were inaccessible to the average consumer. For artists like Tasjan, the history of recorded music now includes roughly 100 years and the information revolution provides a huge percentage of it to anyone with a wifi connection. Overcoming the 800-pound gorilla of imitation is daunting, but according to Tasjan, the Nashville music scene is uniquely suited to address it.
“In New York there’s not a lot of reverence for people like John Prine or Tom Petty, certainly not in the Brooklyn scene. The bands that were really popular when I lived there were hipster, synth-rock type stuff. Just being a guy that liked Tom Petty was enough to make you stand out there. You didn’t really have to do anything other than that. In Nashville, the question is, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ The scene here doesn’t need another person doing songs like whoever. The East Nashville community has influenced me to not be defined by any singular sound that I find interesting in the moment. I always want to try and scare myself a little. Not be ashamed of anything, but maybe slightly embarrassed by a few things.
GOING FURTHER DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Tasjan’s desire to continuously push his own musical boundaries, his matter-of-fact commitment to “doing the work,” and his sardonic wit are evident across the Karma for Cheap canvas. Throughout its 10 tracks, Tasjan explores varied and individualistic lyrical avenues while maintaining the coherency of his musical neighborhood. A fan of the Traveling Wilburys — the 1980s supergroup featuring Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty — Tasjan picks up on a similar mix of pop, folk, rock, glamour, and grit while spicing it with self-aware absurdist humor and irresistible pop hooks.
“I’ve always enjoyed those albums where every song is different but it all fits together somehow,” Tasjan says. “To me that’s an interesting record. I was excited about some of the places I was getting to on Silver Tears. I wanted to see if it was possible to take that and go further down the rabbit hole with them and get to that place where you’re in the water but not quite touching the bottom anymore.”
After initial sessions at Nashville’s historic Sound Emporium studio and Sheryl Crow’s Brentwood studio proved unsatisfactory, Tasjan brought Karma for Cheap back to the East Side.
“We had to come back to East Nashville to ground it and ended up recording the album in [local producer and songwriter] Greg Lattimer’s garage,” Tasjan says. “[The other studios] were nice, big, and fancy but it didn’t feel like our record until we were all crammed together in a small room together looking at each other and playing the takes that way. All of a sudden it felt like we were doing it live. That was the goal, and I think we did it in a fun way that was also surprising to me. I kept saying along the way, that was kind of like Nilsson meets Nuggets — slightly ornate pop songs but done in a trashy-garagey sort of way. It worked out like sound captured as a Polaroid picture. The details are there, but it’s all a little bit fuzzy.”
The mix of observational wit and attitude-laden fuzz is evident in the album’s opening song, “If Not Now When,” which begins with a soaring and glistening fuzzy guitar- hook, and Tasjan delivering his whimsical take on the crazy but intoxicating hamster wheel of chasing stardom.
You sound like a radio station.
You’re looking for a standing ovation.
You look like you could use a vacation.
“Being a musician is like trying to find your way to a treasure without a treasure map,” Tasjan says. “I get to do a lot of the things that famous people get to do, but I’m not famous at all and I’m certainly not rich.”
That song is one of several co-writes on Karma for Cheap — a change from the solitary writing on Tasjan’s first two albums. He collaborated with musician and producer Dexter Green on “If Not Now When,” and East Side guitar god Audley Freed lent a hand on the rocker “Crawling at Your Feet.” For the pop-rock stomper “Set You Free,” Americana duo the Mastersons (Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore) and British singer/ songwriter Yola Carter provided authorial assistance. All three songs were impromptu collaborations, a product of just being in the neighborhood.
“We didn’t get together to write songs,” Tasjan says. “We didn’t do it properly, at 11 a.m. in the writer’s room like you’re supposed to in Nashville. People just stopped by while I was on the porch having a beer and trying to get an album together.”
A loose sense of flowing creativity also infuses Karma’s other songs: the Tom Petty-ish rocker “Heart Slows Down”; the ethereal and Orbison-ish “Strange Shadows”; the delicate and sweet “Dream Dreamer.”
“‘Dream Dreamer’ came to me after I heard [fellow East Sider/country voice] Josh Hedley singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ one night,” Tasjan says. “I thought, ‘I wonder if it’s possible to write a song like that now?’ And I found out that it’s really hard, but I’m happy with what I came up with.”
The many stylistic twists and turns of Karma for Cheap are summed up by the final number, “Song Bird,” closing the thematic loop of the album with another look at the absurdist situation surrounding a life devoted to making music.
“‘Song Bird’ is a little bit of a warning and a little bit of a reckoning with some of the emotional pitfalls of being on tour,” Tasjan says. “Even though you’re around all these people all the time, it’s a really solitary existence. All the lines like, ‘One more guy will say something strange,’ are about how people will think they’re complimenting you, but if you think about it too long you can really obsess over what other people say and twist it into something crazy. In that song I’m trying to remind myself not to focus on those petty things, but rather to be present in the moment and enjoy the very luxurious situation of being able to make music at all.”
A WHEEL THAT KEEPS ON TURNING
Along with the appreciation for a musical career, Tasjan feels a personal obligation to strive for the new and different. Creating music isn’t a matter of where you’ve been and what you’ve done, it’s always a matter of where you’re headed next.
“It’s a daunting task to be original, but that’s my goal,” Tasjan says. “I love the new record we made, but I think this is the last album I’m going to do of retro-influenced music. You have to learn the rules in order to be able to break them, and I felt like I needed to make some albums where I could learn the essence and qualities of what it’s like to write songs and see them through to their most realized place. I had to do that, and feel that, and know what that’s like, so I could then go back in and try to innovate in whatever way is possible.
“The most important part of art is finishing — finishing so you can move on to something else. I was reading an old interview with Neil Young, and he was talking about On the Beach. They asked him if he viewed the album as a failure because it wasn’t selling as well as Harvest. He said, ‘No, I feel that it’s a success because it’s not my last record.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, man, there it is.’”
Five years into his East Nashville quest for originality, Tasjan is experiencing the odd realization that new arrivals look to him in the same manner that he once looked at Todd Snider and others. Tasjan quickly explains he hasn’t soared to an exalted position but rather it’s the inevitable result of a wheel that keeps on turning.
“I’ve just gotten to touch a little piece of what’s special about this town, and now I’m passing it on to others,” Tasjan says. “I still spend a lot of time at the Basement, the Five Spot, the Cobra, seeing new bands, and there’s always something else that’s coming along. It feels really good and cool because I am such a fan and a cheerleader for the people in this town.”
It’s that East Nashville devotion to community and friends, along with an eagerness to share with others, that Tasjan discovered and fully embraced when he moved to the Music City. The East Side spirit isn’t rooted in particular buildings, or nightclubs, or institutions, but in the people. People create a place where originality is encouraged and accepted, a place where a stranger will pull some goofy musician’s van off the train tracks in the dark, a place where friends drop by on a summer night to drink a few beers and help finish a song, a place where friends have your back when the horror and tragedy of the modern world intrudes, and a place to be grounded physically, even as your muse leads you to new artistic and musical horizons.
“I don’t know where else I would go at this point,” Tasjan says. “Once you’ve found your footing in a place where you’re allowed to do whatever you want, it becomes hard to defy gravity. East Nashville still feels like a place where you can make your own little world, but you’re not cutting yourself off from the rest of the world either. It’s a place where you can live inside your head and among the friends you love.”