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Months before the rest of the world shut itself indoors to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, Tristen Gaspadarek found herself at home in Madison, practicing her own form of isolation.
She’d recently given birth to her first child — a son, Julian, now a 2-year-old — and was already staring down the barrel of another due date: the deadline for her fourth album, Aquatic Flowers.
Her previous record, Sneaker Waves, released in 2017, was full of glittering pop songs that made room for Laurel Canyon jangle, Brill Building bounce, and garage rock grit. Now it was time for something new — something that not only built upon the sound she’d spent the past decade constructing but nodded to the life-changing experience of becoming a mom, too.
Making good use of the home studio that occupies the ground floor of the 1960s brick bungalow she shares with her husband, co-producer, and longtime collaborator, Buddy Hughen, Tristen finished Aquatic Flowers during brief moments of calm. It was a stop-and-go effort.
“We began recording when Julian was in my belly,” she remembers. “He was in a breech position, so his head was up against my lungs, and I couldn’t catch my breath as fast.”
Songs like “Say Goodnight” were tracked during the final stretch of her third trimester, lending a breathless urgency to an album whose characters grapple with love, loathing, and life’s ever-present obstacles. Meanwhile, the track “Julian” — a lilting lullaby for her son co-written with Pebe Sebert, punctuated by twinkling piano and weightless refrains that drift skyward — was written on the other side of her pregnancy, while her infant slept in her arms.
Ushering a new life and a new record into the world at the same time was not for the faint of heart. Luckily, Tristen and Buddy had spent the past decade refining their creative approach, which minimized the pair’s time in the studio. After recruiting Jeremy Ferguson to produce Tristen’s career-launching debut, Charlatans at the Garden Gate, and tapping synth-pop legend Stephen Hague to mix 2013’s Caves, they began keeping things in-house — literally — with Sneaker Waves.
Aquatic Waves found them refining Sneaker Waves’ made-at-home approach even further. Surrounded by houseplants, analog gear, and the familiar comforts of home, they recorded one song at a time in the Madison bungalow, often within a day or two of the song’s creation. Working as co-producers and multi-instrumentalists, they only needed to reach out to a small number of friends — bassist Linwood Regensburg, formerly of Those Darlins; drummer Andy Spore, from the electro-glam act How I Became the Bomb; Nashville staple James Haggerty, known to friends (and readers of this magazine) as “Hags”; and Ryan Brewer, a veteran of Ben Kweller’s and Robyn Hitchcock’s touring bands — to beef up the rhythm tracks. The process kept things smooth and efficient, a must for sleep-deprived new parents.
“We’ve made four records together,” says Tristen, who met Buddy not long after moving to town in 2007. “The process has been figured out. We have a different attitude about simplifying our arrangements these days, because you’ve got to be able to play these things live. The songs on Aquatic Flowers were based around Buddy and me playing instruments at the same time. We’d build a track around that, and we would finish each song entirely before moving on to something new.”
“We used to have arguments about the songs, a long time ago,” she adds. “Buddy went to Berklee, so he has a certain toolkit and a certain kind training that makes him someone I need. But he also used to say, ‘You can’t play that chord and sing that note at the same time,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes I can, because it sounds weird and good.’ I don’t have that kind of training, so I’m just relying on instincts. It’s a good partnership. We work well together.”
Aquatic Flowers may have been created indoors, but the album still brings a blast of floral color to the greyscale days of COVID-19. Due for a June 4 release, it’s full of classic, left-of-center pop songs for the modern world, rooted in brainy lyrics — including deep dives into human analysis, psychology, and Greek mythology — that don’t give a damn about the mainstream.
Tristen isn’t chasing somebody else’s idea of a hit album. Instead, she’s following her own muse, chasing it from the Merseybeat melodies of “I Need Your Love” — which unfolds like a one-woman girl group single — to the woozy, ’70s-influenced psychedelia of “Die 4 Love.” If that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d hear from a Nashville artist … well, that’s sort of the point.
“I wouldn’t be the best songwriter to work with if you wanted to write a pop hit, because I’d probably be trying to write a song about mall walkers or something,” Tristen says. “I don’t sound like anything, and I don’t really fit anywhere, but I don’t know how to be any other way. I just make my records at home, using a process that works for me, and then I do my best to get people to hear those records. I’ve never given much thought to the things I’d need to do in order to be commercially viable.”
With self-deprecating humor, she adds, “I have a joke I’ve been using a lot lately. It goes, ‘Having a baby didn’t ruin my career. I already did that myself.’ ”
All jokes aside, this isn’t what a ruined career looks like. Tristen is a member of Nashville’s millennial old guard, having graduated from the hectic hustle of the late-aughts, back when she cut her teeth at venues like The 5 Spot and Mercy Lounge, often playing every gig that was offered to her. Now she's the sort of local luminary whose hometown shows are major events.
Four years ago, she brought balloons, a professional audio crew, and an oversized crowd to the American Legion for Sneaker Waves’ release party, which she dubbed “Tristen the Night Away.” She’ll throw a similar event in support of Aquatic Flowers, adapting to the times by presenting an all-star livestream, “Tristen the Night Away 2,” on June 11 at The 5 Spot. The musical guest list is stacked, including such marquee names as Jenny Lewis, Vanessa Carlton, Robyn Hitchcock, the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Lillie Mae. Comedian Chris Crofton will reprise his role as the evening’s emcee.
For Tristen, whose full-band performance of Aquatic Flowers will mark the livestream’s main event, “Tristen the Night Away 2” represents a return to the collaborative projects that filled her pre-pandemic years. When Jenny Lewis released The Voyager in 2014, the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman tapped Tristen to play keyboards and electric guitar in her touring band. It was a vote of confidence from an indie rock queen, and the experience sharpened Tristen’s abilities as an instrumentalist.
“I loved being in that band,” she gushes, thinking back to the international tour that took the group across America, Australia, Japan, and Canada. “I was exercising another part of my brain, singing three-part harmonies and learning keyboard parts written by Beck and Benmont Tench. Even something as simple as building a keyboard rig to get those sounds was a challenge, but in a really good way. I’m always up for a challenge.”
Another challenge arrived after Tristen returned home. She’d become friends with Vanessa Carlton, the piano-playing songwriter who’d dominated American airwaves with the pop hit “A Thousand Miles” before moving into Tristen’s neighborhood in January 2015, and Carlton asked her to co-write material for her newest project.
The two worked together during a series of three-hour sessions, creating the songs that would eventually fill Carlton’s 2020 release, Love Is an Art. Like the Jenny Lewis gig, the opportunity whittled Tristen’s skills to a sharper point, teaching her to summon the muse within the confines of a schedule that wasn’t her own. That skill would come in handy later once Julian arrived.
“I was used to the casual co-writes where you get together and goof off for three or four hours, and it’s like speed dating,” Tristen admits. “You’ll go have a beer or something, and everything is chill. But I’d get together with Vanessa, and she’d be like bam bam bam, and we’d finish a third of a song before I knew it. She was so fast. I didn’t understand why, but now that I’m a mother, I absolutely get it. The babysitter was there, her daughter was taking a nap, and she had this pocket of time where she could hustle and get something done.”
When it comes to Tristen’s extracurricular work outside of her solo records, though, nothing tops Anaconda Vintage, the clothing collective that she co-founded with her sister in June 2018. Smartly situated behind Grimey’s on Trinity Lane, the shop includes five employees and twice as many vendors. Tristen credits Fond Object, the now-demolished record store that occupied a corner of Riverside Village for six years, with inspiring the store’s ethos.
“It’s a very socialist model, where we all work one day a week, we all contribute, and we all make what we sell,” she says proudly. “I sold vintage clothes at Fond Object for years before they closed. My sister was selling online, and we decided to open a store and create a launchpad for other self-starters. We’ve had three of our vendors open up their own shops in Nashville. I wish show business was like that too. This isn’t about competing with anybody else. Instead, it’s about taking care of someone today, because you know that they’re gonna do the same for you tomorrow.”
Tristen has never been worried about hiding her side hustles. She’s a self-financed musician, and working another job is just part of the gig. “A lot of people are ashamed to admit the reality of their situation,” she says. “They’re like, ‘My van is breaking down and I have three roommates just to be able to afford the rent here, but I have to portray this image of success as an artist.’ If more middle-class musicians would speak up about it, it would become more acceptable.
“The reality is, most people have other hustles. You can technically survive by playing music in the middle tiers, but you can’t be a homeowner. You can’t find stability. That’s why I sell vintage. There’s nothing wrong with having another job. Anybody who doesn’t is probably subsidized by someone else.”
Tristen certainly isn’t taking subsidies. A former waitress, she still makes her living as a server, dishing up ’80s concert raglans to her Anaconda customers, high-minded pop/rock to her audiences, and unreleased poems to her Patreon supporters. It’s a working-class living. Nowhere is that DIY spirit more evident than on albums like Aquatic Flowers, which finds Tristen pulling triple-duty as an artist, co-producer, and studio owner. She’s making records her own way, without exhausting her budget or ceding control to an outside producer who may not understand her vision. These days, she can control every aspect of the creative process itself.
“There used to be a lag between the amount of songs I was writing and the amount of songs I was able to record,” she explains. “A large part of that was a financial barrier. I’m not a trust fund kid. No one funneled money into my career. When I started making music in Nashville, I was waiting tables at 12 South Taproom and touring in my Honda Civic. My first record, Charlatans At The Garden Gate, only happened because [Battle Tapes Recording engineer] Jeremy Ferguson said, ‘This is great; I’m going to record it for free.’ I got people paid in the end, but not nearly enough. It was never enough.”
Things changed as Tristen began taking an active role in her own recordings. “That barrier came down during the course of my creative life, because recording technology became so accessible,” she says. “I bought an Apogee Duet in 2010 and used it to make demos, and I kept learning from there. It feels amazing to close the gap between writing songs and making records. I’m in a place where I can write a song upstairs, then go downstairs and make a track. The creative process has become pretty self-contained, and we can do everything from here. I’m never moving.”
Back home in Madison, Tristen heads outside to tend to her garden. She’s spent the past year turning the backyard into a food-production powerhouse. Kale, lettuce, radishes, peas, cucumbers, basil, and cilantro have started to pop from the soil, in search of sunlight and a drink of water. Like Aquatic Flowers, they’re emblematic of the good things that can come from the housebound challenges of the recent past. Tristen rolls up her sleeves, grabs a watering can, and gets to work.
It’s springtime in Tennessee, and for Tristen, life is in full bloom.
Tristen’s latest album arrives June 4 via Momma Bird Recording Co. She will celebrate its release with the livestream “Tristen the Night Away 2” from The 5 Spot on June 11 at 8 p.m. CDT. The album and tickets for the livestream are available at tristen.com.