How Aaron Lee Tasjan went from hired gun to a new Nashville voice
Since a very early age, there was never any doubt that Aaron Lee Tasjan would become a “rock star” in the grandest sense of the word.
“I was 16 or 17 and playing in bars at gigs. I would sneak a few beers, and then fall asleep in math class the next day,” says Tasjan. “I didn’t see it as being hungover in math class. I saw it as an investment in my future.”
And oh, what a future has come to pass. The road that led to the Aaron Lee Tasjan we now see showcased on late night television—the cosmic troubadour clad in a mirror-balled Nudie suit and Stetson—was certainly in rock’s trenches, albeit many of those trenches were crusted in diamonds and gold.
What Tasjan categorized as “working” through his 20s was the kind of fantasy his teenage self would have sold his soul to have. Out of high school, he was offered a full ride to Berklee College of Music but declined, instead joining Semi Precious Weapons and then recording a debut with the legendary Tony Visconti (Bowie, Badfinger, T. Rex) for Interscope Records. Oh yeah, then he went on to a stint in the “new” New York Dolls, an underrated side project in the Madison Square Gardeners; and eventually Everest, a band signed by Neil Young.
None of it, though—no matter how surreal it must have been to be tour support for Lady Gaga—had Tasjan’s signature or the bulk of his heart.
“I took whatever job I could get and I don’t think I could have ever planned the gigs that I got back then,” says Tasjan. “I was living in New York, so there was rent to pay.”
Tasjan, who is only 30 but speaks with the wisdom of a guy who has weathered through enough egos and bad deals to accumulate a storied career in the music business, eventually had his fill of session gigs and buried album credits and moved to Nashville in 2013. There he was able to explore the same environs that nurtured his heroes like John Prine and Todd Snider; he could mix with other artists who were bending the genre of country music without feeling cheap. Above all, he thought the city a fertile landscape to start cultivating the voice he’d been hiding in his decadent “green” years.
“I always felt like back then I didn’t have anything to say,” he recalls. “I wrote songs but they didn’t say anything. If you are going to be a solo songwriter, you have to have some kind of artistry. You’re allowed to not like Ke$ha’s music all that you want, but at least she has something to say.”
The move certainly inspired Tasjan to finally step out on his own. He signed with New West —a label that takes that name literally, releasing everything from Rodney Crowell to All Them Witches—and released In the Blazes to acclaim in 2015. But it’s his recent effort, Silver Tears, a collaboration of Tasjan producer/friend Eli Thompson, that’s finally locked him into a new class of artist. It’s a dense rumination on lost love, wanderlust, and modern Nashville, which owes as much to the traditionalists as it does Ween. “Little Movies,” the stunning lead single, is itself a prismatic evocation of Tasjan’s desire to maintain the current revival of country while simultaneously keeping it relevant with echoes of Oasis or Radiohead. It’s whimsical, orchestrated folk that never takes itself too seriously. After all, it’s coming from a place where chaps and boots are still the required uniform.
“Moving to Nashville helped me to poke some holes and see behind the curtain a bit,” says Tasjan. “I got to see the hypocrisy in it. In order to take Nashville seriously, you have to admit that it’s a funny thing. By titans of the music industry, the scene that I’m a part of is viewed as the farm club for country music. It doesn’t sell as much as Kenny Chesney, but it thrives and survives there.”
Given Tasjan’s lengthy and illustrious CV, one would expect him to be an artist who thinks he has it all figured out. But he seems genuinely modest about his success—a reward for hard work, perseverance and constant touring. A settlement in country music is fitting for a kid from New Albany, who once learned from local jazzbos like Derek Dicenzo and Stan Smith, and was a hired gun for most of his career. If Silver Tears was an exclamation, it would be Tasjan giving a long, well-deserved exhale. And his star is unlikely to stop rising any time soon, with heralded slots at Nelsonville and Bonnaroo, the rhinestone cowboy will be on the road indefinitely.
“I love playing shows. I love writing songs. And I love the recording process,” says Tasjan, “but it’s not easy work. That said, even if the travel is hard, the interviews, meeting with people who are asking how to market what I do, being able to do this every day is worth all of that.”
See Aaron Lee Tasjan at the Nelsonville Music Festival (6.1 – 6.4). Visit aaronleetasjan.com for more information.