Glam-rock folk-singer Aaron Lee Tasjan's 'Stellar' achievement

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday May 7, 2024
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Singer/songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan
Singer/songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan

An early contender for one of the best albums of 2024, "Stellar Evolution" (Blue Élan) by queer singer/songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan is modern pop perfection. For his captivating and varied fourth, full-length solo album (available on orange vinyl!), Tasjan expertly navigates meaningful subject matter in songs that reveal something new with every listen.

From the accessible experimentation of "The Drugs Did Me" and "Alien Space Queen," to the new wave nods "Horror of It All," and "Dylan Shades," to club banger "Nightmare" and gorgeous numbers including "Young" and "Ocean Drive," Tasjan never fails to keep us mesmerized and enchanted.

Singer/songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan (photo: Curtis Wayne Millard)  

Gregg Shapiro: I'd like to begin with something from your musical past, your membership in the band Semi Precious Weapons. When you look back on your time with that band, what do you recall about the experience?
Aaron Lee Tasjan: It was a great experience for me. I was much younger than everyone else in the group. I had been going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and Nate at Rear Window Recording in Boston had recorded some of Justin's solo records. He was the one who suggested that Justin and I get together.

Obviously, Justin would have their own perspective on this and everything, but from my vantage, it was when the two of us came together that the crux of Semi Precious Weapons was formed. The song "Rock'n'Roll Never Looked So Beautiful" and the eponymous Semi Precious Weapons song were all songs that Justin and I wrote together. In the early days that was kind of what the band centered around; the songs we were writing together.

I left the group in 2008 right before the debut record came out on (the) Razor & Tie (label). I left for personal reasons that had had more to do with the romantic relationship that Justin and I had had than anything to do with the band. Obviously, those kinds of things get messy and complicated sometimes.

But what I feel was a good thing, and continues to be a good thing, about our relationship is that at no point in time did we ever, or at least I never felt, any animosity towards him. I've always had the most tremendous respect for Justin as an artist, and as a songwriter, and always will. I will say to this day, Justin is one of the most talented songwriters I've ever met in my entire life. I've gotten lucky to know a few great ones, and they are one of the very best.

Gregory Lattimer, with whom you co-produced your new album, "Stellar Evolution," also co-wrote two of the songs, "The Drugs Did Me" and "Horror of it All." What makes him a good collaborator?
A lot of times when I am co-writing on songs for my record, I'm really coming to my co-writer with a fairly fleshed-out song. I'm kind of asking them to cross my Ts and dot my Is, anything that I might have missed, anything that seems unclear, any of those kinds of things that can be helpful to have an outside perspective on.

One of the things that makes Gregory so great in particular is his ability to add something. And this is why I would consider what he's doing just as much songwriting as production. To me, if you add something to my song, or make a suggestion about my song even, that changes the way that I perform it every time I do it, that's songwriting.

On "The Drugs Did Me," for example, the original demo of that song is just me on an acoustic guitar, it sounds completely different than how it ended up on the record. It almost sounds like a Nick Lowe song from 1978 or something, the way that I had done it originally.

Gregory was hearing more with the sort of 808 thing and pulled that up. As we were going through it, it felt more natural to start talking the lyrics, more like a talking blues kind of thing. In just making that little suggestion, he influenced the whole approach that I was taking to even performing this song.

To me, that felt like songwriting. I was compelled to credit him as a songwriter because he was changing not just a little thing about the sound of the song in the studio or something like that, but literally changing the way that I was even performing the song based on the way that he was hearing it.

He's a very crucial collaborator in that way because what he does is transparent enough that the essence of me as an artist still is shining through, but it's helping push me and push my music into places that I haven't been before. That always feels exciting to me.

You and Nashville legend Kim Richey co-wrote the song "Bird" on "Stellar Evolution" and then you also perform on Kim's upcoming new album "Every New Beginning."
Kim is another one, like Justin (Tranter), who is one of the very finest singers and songwriters I've encountered in my time. We have the Ohio connection, which is groovy. That was cool to find out. Funny enough, we were across the alley neighbors in Nashville. I was a huge fan and didn't even realize she lived over there. One day she was packing some stuff into her truck to go to a gig or something, and my friend, who was visiting at my house, recognized her.

She said, "Oh my God, I think that's Kim Richey."

I was like, "No way, that's not Kim Richey!"

And she went over there and said, "I'm so sorry to bother you [laughs] but are you by any chance Kim Richey?"

Of course, it was! We started becoming neighborly at first, taking each other's mail in and that kind of thing. I wanted so badly to write with her, but I was nervous to suggest that for whatever reason. Luckily for me, she did at one point say, "Let's write some songs together."

Part of the reason that we work well together is a very natural sense of who we are as artists. I think when not overthinking that part of it and being, "I'm this kind of artist and therefore have to do this and that and be creative in these specific ways," it opens you up to collaboration in a way that can be fruitful. When it's with someone like Kim, who's an endless stream of incredible melodies and beautiful, poignant, harmony, and lyricism, you would want to be open to receiving as much of that as you possibly can as a collaborator. The fact that we're both grounded in who we are helps us bring out the best in each other.

"Horror of It All" perfectly encapsulates the complexity of adolescence, while also managing to maintain a sense of humor. To my ears, it sounds like a message of reassurance for those of us who experienced something similar, while also being a kind of gentle cautionary tale for the next generation. In other words, you are not alone, no matter your age.
Definitely! I knew from a very young age, as a lot of us do, that I was a queer person. That I was a little different that way than some of my classmates. Sometimes those first experiences that you have as a young person, when you're a queer person there's that added layer of...

Drama! Right? There's no other way to say it. It is what it is. You don't know what can happen on a day-to-day basis, especially in an environment like school. I remember being at summer camp, when I was eight or nine years old, and my friend Hayden Stewart and I were just friends, but we were oftentimes walking around holding hands at camp, which I didn't think anything of as an eight-or-nine-year-old. But the older kids in camp were merciless about making fun of us for it. It wasn't even anything romantic. I suppose I probably internalized it even deeper knowing that I was attracted to the other boys [laughs].

This has an added sting to it because there was an underlying truth that I haven't even really been able to tell anybody about myself. I was also trying to capture some of the feeling of what it's like to grow up as a person in an environment like school where you are a little different and there are those added layers of complexity to all your social interactions and tap into that a little bit. But as you were saying, it is still a very universal sort of feeling in that way and something that, in one way or another, we all experience in life.

"Nightmare" is a full-fledged dance floor banger. What would it mean to you to become a disco diva and to have the song spun at tea dance?
Oh my God, that would be amazing [laughs]! That would be one of the greatest things that I could possibly imagine. I love the club scene. I love dancing. There are some great places here in Nashville to go and do that and be a part of that scene. That's probably one of my most treasured memories from my time in New York in my 20s. Getting to be a part of that scene. Going to Michael T's parties and being a part of that whole amazing scene. There's nothing like it. The infectiousness and energy of queer joy in those spaces is so powerful. If that song somehow became [laughs] one of those, I would be for thrilled to death.

"The Drugs Did Me" is both sonically daring in the way that it addresses your quest for sobriety.
In 2018, I had a medical incident while I was on tour where I lost consciousness for a period of time. I had to go to the emergency room. I didn't even realize what had happened until the next morning because I was taking very little into my body that were things my body could use. [Laughs] (Putting) a lot of things into my body that were creating problems for me.

I saw several different kinds of doctors, trying to get a full grip on what was happening and what I had to do to course correct and all those things. In the process of that, I asked myself, "Do you want to be an artist and a singer or do you want to be a person that just parties all the time?"

The choice at that point was very clear to me. I knew that I wanted to be an artist and a singer more than anything in the world. That's what I've wanted to do since I was 11 years old.

In that moment, I couldn't believe that I allowed myself to lose track of that. That seems like such an important thing to remember and focus on. In the process of being on the road all the time and wanting to enjoy it, I maybe went a little far down the wrong road there for a little while [laughs], I think. It's funny, I don't think I ever could have written that song when I was doing all that. I had to stop and take a couple of years to get a full perspective on what was happening there. Almost every line of that song is straight out of direct personal experience.

"I Love America Better Than You" is the serious/comic anthem we all need, especially in this most important election of our lifetime. Would you say this is the most political song you've ever written?
I would say so, definitely. It took a long time to write, too. I started writing it in 2015. I thought that I'd finished the song. As the next [laughs] administration and all that played out, I realized that there was a lot more that I needed to say in that song, and fleshed the song out so that each chorus was completely different.

In that way it kind of became, form-wise I suppose, a more traditional kind of protest song, if you will. The protest thing is tricky. If you think of a song like "Ohio" by Neil Young, for example, or something like that, I think that song is a successful protest song in that it felt timely, certainly when it came out, but there are things in that song that still relate to what we're living through today.

That's always the challenge of writing a song like that. The balance I was trying to walk with "I Love America Better Than You" was to create something's part of why I wanted to reference my dad being a Vietnam veteran, to show that these issues we're facing in America we've been facing for a long time, we're still facing them today.

We need to you know find ways to rise to those challenges as best we can. The song is certainly meant in that Mark Twain kind of observational way. Delivering a message about America that maybe speaks to more of the harder truth and complexities that exist within the fabric of our country. But also trying to do that in a way that is conscious of the fact that if we want to change someone's mind, we have to do it through love. That's the only real way to change the way that someone thinks about something. I was trying to strike that balance.

In what ways, if any, are you doing your part to make sure your fans understand the significance of this election?
Here in Nashville, where I'm a resident, we're going to have the Please Vote Nashville folks out at our on May 2nd that we're doing at The Blue Room to try and encourage people to vote. What I keep telling people over and over again, for anyone who may not have thought about this yet, is living in the South I've watched over the course of the Trump administration, people who do have an agenda of bigotry and hatred feel very emboldened to go a long way to pass laws to make it illegal to be a gay person.

And drag bans and all of these things that are blatant and open. What I keep saying is, if they feel that way now, imagine how they would feel having Trump get reelected. I imagine that they would feel even more emboldened to go even further with this kind of stuff.

It wasn't long ago that we were sitting in our house in East Nashville watching a parade of Nazis walk down the street in downtown Nashville on the news. And there was zero police presence. There were more police on hand to watch the mothers of the Covenant School shooting in the statehouse than there were on hand for this parade of Nazis who marched all the way up to the State House and had a little shindig on the steps.

It's heartbreaking in a lot of ways. That's one of my biggest things with people. I understand where folks and particularly young folks, don't always feel 100% satisfied with the way Biden is handling certain things. I think there is a duty that we have to each other, living in a society together, to be looking out for the ones who are marginalized. For the ones who the hammer that falls is going to come down on the hardest. A vote to keep Trump out of office is a vote against all that bigotry, hatred, and messaging.

Finally, your rendition of the late Nanci Griffith's "Late Night Grande Hotel" on the tribute album, "More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith," which features guest vocals by Patty Griffin, is nothing short of breathtaking. Did you have a chance to meet Nanci in Nashville?
I never did. However, the person who introduced me to Nanci's music was Elizabeth Cook. Elizabeth toured with Nanci several times and had a relationship with her. In a way, it was exactly the kind of person who you would want to be showing you that music.

I spent time with Elizabeth, and we even worked up a couple of Nanci's songs that we were singing together in 2014, 2015. Hearing these first-hand accounts from Elizabeth about being on the road with Nanci, and working with Nanci, and watching Nanci, and all those things; I got an inside look at it.

I also was lucky to be managed by Ken Levitan and Kathi Whitley at Vector Management for a long time, and they had worked very closely with Nanci, as well. I had a lot of folks around me who knew her and had known her for a long time. I knew some of the bigger songs that she had done but when I started diving into her catalog...I'll never forget it, it was 2015 I was in Grimey's Records in Nashville, and I found a used copy of the album "Little Love Affairs" on vinyl. I took it home and obsessed over that record for probably that whole year [laughs]. That was probably what I listened to more than anything. Nanci is one of those that when you find her you just buckle up and go as far as the ride will take you. That voice and those songs; there's nothing like it.

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