It’s been a hot summer, but inside Dose Cafe & Dram Bar at Riverside Village, the AC is working overtime. All morning long, customers have been sitting at their tables in jeans and hoodies, sucking down espresso like it’s early January.
Tristen came prepared, ignoring the 90-degree heat outside and showing up in a long-sleeved shirt. After pulling up her chair to one of the cafe’s four-tops, though, she still crosses her arms for warmth. “It’s cold,” she says. “If you’d like, we can go to a secret spot outside in the back, which used to be a community garden.”
A Nashville resident for more than a decade, Tristen knows her way around the city’s forgotten places. She moved here from the suburbs of Chicago, hitting town several years before the gold rush of $12 cocktail menus and rocketing rent prices.
In 2011, Tristen released her debut, Charlatans At The Garden Gate. Mixing indie-folk guitars with the stacked harmonies and swooning hooks of 1960s pop, it sounded like a vintage album for the iPhone generation, cooly current one minute and old-school the next. People listened, including those far beyond the Davidson County limits. When Tristen hit the road in support of the record’s release, she did so as the opening act for Justin Townes Earle, who was still in the midst of his promo cycle for Harlem River Blues. Shows were played, fans were made, and Tristen became one of East Nashville’s first musical exports of the 2010s.
A half-dozen or so years later, she’s hitting the road again, this time to whip up buzz for Sneaker Waves. It’s her third album, filled with wry observations about the modern world — a place warped by technology and digital voyeurism, where enemies like the titular character in “Psychic Vampire” wage war with their “cryptic emojis” — and recorded on either side of a year-long stint as a member of Jenny Lewis’ touring band. Lewis even lends her vocals to “Glass Jar,” a bubblegummy blast of chiming guitars and pop melody that brings to mind The Byrds and The Magnetic Fields.
“Jenny and I sang together for a year,” she says. Tristen’s time with Lewis’ band included gigs in Australia, Japan, Canada, and a blur of stateside shows, and although she was hired to play keyboards and rhythm guitar, her biggest contribution proved to be background harmonies, which she shared with bandmate (and fellow Nashvillian) Megan McCormick. Together, the two women slotted their voices alongside Lewis’ alto during songs like “She’s Not Me” and “The Voyager.” The results were lovely. When the band swung through Tristen’s hometown for a show at the Vic Theatre in May 2015, the Chicago Tribune praised their “harmony-enriched melody.”
“It was one of the most amazing, natural, magical things,” she says of the trio’s vocal blend. “When you connect that closely with someone’s voice, it’s like a physical relationship. The closest thing to it, I think, is having sex. When you’re recording harmonies in the studio, and it’s all the same voice, a lot of treatment goes into making backing vocals sound different from a lead vocal. So when Jenny was in town, she just came over and sang her part. I loved that. I always appreciate bringing in other people to spice it up.”
Other guests lend their own spice to Sneaker Waves. Linwood Regensburg, a longtime member of Those Darlins, plays bass on “Partyin’ is Such Sweet Sorrow,” while Emmylou Harris’ drummer, Jerry Roe, keeps time during the gorgeous “NYC.” On an album filled with local star power, though, Tristen shines the brightest, juggling the roles of frontwoman, songwriter, producer, string arranger, keyboardist, and occasional guitarist along the way.
She recorded Sneaker Waves at home, teaming up with husband and main collaborator Buddy Hughen. The pair had previously worked together on her 2013 release, Caves, whose synth-pop sound bore a stamp of approval from one of the genre’s original architects, Stephen Hague. “He’s an innovator in synth-pop,” Tristen says of Hague, who mixed Caves’ 11 songs. “I looked through my records and approached all these huge mixers whose work I liked, and he took a liking to me, too. He worked with New Order and Pet Shop Boys. Once we had him on board, we were on cloud nine.”
This time, though, Tristen and Hughes kept things largely in-house. They began tracking Sneaker Waves in 2014, then took a year-long break once Tristen landed the Jenny Lewis gig, with progress resuming in 2016. Able to record without the constraints of a budget or a producer’s busy schedule, they worked whenever they pleased. Hughen bounced between multiple roles, too, serving as head mixer and engineer while handling most of the guitar duties — from the Reagan-era shimmer of “Alone Tonight,” which could double as a Cyndi Lauper tune, to the Quentin Tarantinoesque haze of “Frozen.”
“If you wanna get really particular about your sound and your aesthetic, it can be hard to explain that vision to somebody else,” Tristen explains. “That’s why a lot of people get into a creative relationship with a certain producer and stay with that producer for several records. You want to find someone who pulls from the same fabric as you. You don’t want to work with someone who only makes pop records for pop radio, because they’re not going to understand why this Television record is so amazing. Really great creators have great teams, and I think it’s all about finding people who inspire you, and building a good team so you can collaborate. Buddy and I have that.”
Decades before she met Buddy, Tristen found her team amongst the stage actors of suburban Chicago, where she kicked off her career as a child performer. Her years in Illinois were musical ones, filled with musical theater gigs and the sounds of her parents’ favorite radio station.
“I can sing you any song that was on 104.3 FM in Chicago,” she says, name-checking the town’s oldies station. “That’s all we listened to, and my favorite songwriters are still a lot of those guys from the ’50s and ’60s — The Beatles, Everly Brothers, Burt Bacharach. I’m really into great melodies and sweeping orchestrations.”
Tristen would eventually roll those influences into songs like “Baby Drugs,” her most widely heard tune from Charlatans At The Garden Gate. A love letter from a good woman to a rabble-rousing man, the song reads like a Shirelles tune, with a harmony-drenched chorus straight out of The Ronettes’ catalog. Once an oldies lover, always an oldies lover.
In Chicago, Tristen’s tastes broadened as she grew older. Beginning in sixth grade, she landed roles in community theater productions of Bye Bye Birdie, Carousel, and Crazy for You. These were professional, paying gigs that lasted for months, and they gave her the chance to rub shoulders with those making their living in the arts. She gradually shifted her focus to songwriting, and stopped auditioning for shows by the time she hit high school. Even so, the theater’s influence can still be seen in her behavior onstage. She’ll twist, turn, wave her arms, and crack mischievous smiles, using her whole body — not just her throat — to deliver songs that balance halfway between the dramatic and the driving.
In high school, she dropped her last name, Gaspadarek, and began performing simply as Tristen, booking gigs at any coffee shop that would accept a 14-year-old songwriter. She padded those shows with covers by Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos. “I picked that name because I loved Jewel and I loved Madonna, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to be Tristen, because my name is pretty fucking cool,’ ” she recalls. “It means ‘depressed one.’ I was named after a medieval love story, Tristan and Iseult, where Tristan is actually the male character.”
There wasn’t much time to perform during her undergraduate years at DePaul University, where she balanced a job with her studies in communication theory and Italian. She hit the books hard and made her marks, landing straight A’s. After graduation, though, she flung herself back into the music world, and within a couple of years, had moved to Nashville. There, she fell into a community of young songwriters like Caitlin Rose, Cortney Tidwell, and Jordan Caress. It was a collaborative time for all, full of cowrites, song swaps, and communal trips to venues like Mercy Lounge and The 5 Spot.
“Local bands would play four times a week,” she remembers of those early years in town. “You’d play every show you were offered, opening for anybody. We’d all travel in a big crew, and we’d go to everybody’s shows, every night of the week. If we stayed home one night, we’d be like, ‘Wait, what are we doing?’ I see new bands doing that same thing now, and I think that’s so important. Everyone needs to go through the period where they hustle, explore the local scene, and play every show. Eventually, some bands break out and start touring, and once you do, you kind of look at Nashville like every other town on the map. I love playing here, because you can have a really awesome show with a bunch of guests, but at this stage, I don’t see a point in playing Nashville any more than I play any other city.”
She’s been making her hometown gigs count, though. In July, she celebrated the summertime release of Sneaker Waves with an all-star show at the American Legion. Dubbed “Tristen the Night Away,” the night included an extended set by Tristen and company, as well as shorter performances by guests like Vanessa Carlton, Birdcloud (“the most outlaw country band in the world right now,” she gushes), Jessica Lee Mayfield, and Tristen’s own father, Charlie Gaspadarek. She decked out the place in streamers and oversized balloons, hired an audio team from St. Louis to run the soundboard, and donated the evening’s bar sales to local veterans. By the end of the evening, both the dance floor and stage were packed. More than a mere salute to Sneaker Waves’ release, the night felt like a celebration of the community that’s flourished around left-of-center songwriters like Tristen for the past decade.
“You can’t copy what someone else is doing,” she says. “Copying is not the point. The point is to experience music, enjoy it, eat it up, and be part of the scene that surrounds it; then take time to reflect and create something new based upon what you think is important. That final part of it has to be unique to you.”
Being unique, however, hasn’t always served in her favor. When Caves arrived in 2013, it was met with equal parts adoration and befuddlement. Some outlets praised the album’s ’80s sheen; others wondered what had happened to the folk-rocker who’d cut Charlatans At The Garden Gate.
“That record was beyond anything I could have imagined,” she says, “but the response was, ‘We don’t know how to avatar this woman. She cut her hair. We’re confused.’ It just shows how vapid the music industry can be. I knew what they wanted, but I just wasn’t interested in recreating the first record. I’m not interested in recreating anything over again.”
That means Sneaker Waves, whose mix of pop punch and rock & roll grit Tristen calls “my best work yet,” will eventually give way to something different. She welcomes the change.
“I’ve always followed my own light,” she says. “Almost every one of my friends who’s artistically successful has been the same way. They all have a light within them, and they might be bat-shit crazy, but they know who they are, and they have a purity to what they’re trying to do.”