Interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan on East Nashville, Willie Nelson and the New York Dolls

He is a guitar player with impeccable influences and can channel the best of classic pop to push americana boundaries

Throughout the history of most artistic movements, be it music, painting or literature, there has always been centres of excellence such as the Bloomsbury Group of the first half of the 20th century, Paris in the early 20th century and in music, Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s. Something similar is happening in East Nashville with the open and supportive community of musicians taking advantage of the cost of property and the abundance of like-minded individuals and the local music business infrastructure. Aaron Lee Tasjan is a musician who in some ways epitomises the East Nashville musician of the 21st century. He is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who is influenced by the classic pop of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was even a member of the latter-day New York Dolls, who is also influenced by jazz guitar great Freddie Green and modern-day americana guitar legend Buddy Miller and Nashville sound architect Chet Atkins. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Aaron Lee Tasjan in his East Nashville home to discuss his new album ‘Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!’, co-hosting a show with Buddy Miller showcasing new East Nashville talent and his views on social media and appearing on a live stream with his personal hero Willie Nelson which did not quite work out as planned, particularly for a cat.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

Luckily everyone has been fine.

How is America after the recent events in Washington?

It is kind of heartbreaking in a lot of ways because I felt after what happened at the capital on January 6th that there seemed to be an almost weird parting of the clouds, and I felt that for some reason the leaders of the GOP were going to try and hold Trump accountable after the insurrection. It felt like something that everyone could agree was just wrong, but it is clear now that those same people who were critical of him are now pivoting back to him with these ridiculous, circular logic kind of things like “people were being mean to him before he was in office, then they were mean to him while he was in office and now they are just being mean to him when he is out of office”. No man, this guy attacked our country, our democracy, if we don’t hold him accountable we are leaving the door open for someone else to walk right on in and do the same thing in the future.  You have to hope that some semblance of sanity finds its way into the room and there is a clear message that if you don’t value our democracy then you are not welcome to participate.

It was truly shocking in the UK as well. Let’s hope sanity does eventually prevail. Hey, on a brighter note you have a new album coming out. Tell me about the title, why did you feel the need to shout out your name, haha?

Because I have an ego problem haha. You know what, a lot of my previous lyric writing was maybe more observational while these new songs are more personal, even though my earlier lyrics still contained a lot of me. I think a lot of people who heard the new record, people from my label and management and stuff, really felt like it had to be a self-titled album, and there were a lot of suggestions to that end and I am just not capable of doing anything in a normal fashion, so I had to come up with my own version of a self-titled album and I just liked “Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!”. I guess if there was a goal on this record it was to try and be the most me I have ever been on a record, and I just felt I was cheering myself on to that, you know.

I was wondering whether you saw this as a continuation of your last album, 2018’s ‘Karma For Cheap’. You have been a bit of a chameleon in terms of your previous records. Are we beginning to see the whole Aaron Lee Tasjan with this album?

I will tell you. It has always been that way for me, and it started like that when I was very young as a child. When I was 16 years old I wrote a song called ‘The Gift’ that made its way to Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, who invited me to sing with him and perform my own music as an opening act for him. We became friends and I sang harmony with him on ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and stuff, and later that same year, as a member of the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra, I went to New York City to participate in a jazz music competition for high school students called The Essentially Ellington Competition, which took place at Lincoln Center. It was adjudicated by Wynton Marsalis, and people like that, and I won the award for Outstanding Guitarist. I was the only guy there who didn’t take a solo and I didn’t even play through an amp, I insisted on following my hero Freddie Green from the Count Basie Orchestra, and did it acoustic with big giant strings and playing rhythm, you know. I think they respected my effort being true to the form, you know, over people who were playing really fancy solos and stuff like that. When you think about that, it is kind of a perfect metaphor for what I am as an artist man. The same year I was writing songs that Peter Yarrow was hearing and feeling excited about, I was winning a national award as a jazz guitar player. This is just who I am, I am all of these things, and I always will be all of these things and I will be more than these things, and that is what I am showing everyone, people are more than one thing.

Do you think it would have been easier in the ‘60s and ‘70s?

No, I don’t. I think that anything I’m doing has already been done in the ‘60s and ‘70s by people like David Bowie, Marc Bolan. I don’t think it is anything new, but the fact that in America, at least, we are still dealing with a lot of homophobia and transphobia even now is proof right there man that this music is still relevant and these things are still relevant. We have to see each other if we want to move forward and be honest about who we are.

‘Computer Of Love’ has caused a few ripples, and it has an excellent video. Why did you write that song?

It was just my experience with social media, man. I have had generally positive experiences on social media. My feed was always just full of really nice people and I didn’t know how terrible it really was, and then the last four years I feel as if I have really found out. It has just emboldened people, the Trump Administration, to say whatever outlandish thing they want to and I found it shocking, I always felt I was trying to be the diet soda of Twitter, you know just trying to say something sweet. I found I couldn’t really do that anymore because I was just constantly being confronted by people who were really mad. Sometimes it seemed they were mad at me for having a point of view, for having an opinion or whatever, because as an entertainer you are not supposed to do that, you should just feign you are not paying attention or something like that. That is not how I live my life, my music is thoughtful music and I was trying to be more thoughtful with my social media. That song was just born out of a bunch of people screaming with pitchforks into a tiny plastic thing in front of their faces.

How did you hook up with Curtis Wayne Millard for the video and did you get to keep the flying BMW?

Curtis still has the car, I didn’t get to keep the car. I met Curtis fortunately in New York City in a really great bar for musicians, called the 11th Street Bar with is on 11th Street between Avenues A and B. It was just a random meet and he didn’t look like anybody you would normally see in New York City. Do you remember that movie ‘Easy Rider’, that is kind of what he looks like, haha, a headband on, denim cut-off shirt and jeans, boots and a big belt buckle. He looked like a character out of a movie and then I learnt that he made movies and then I was just I’ve gotta hang out with this guy.

It is an impressive video. How did you record the record, was it recorded pre-lockdown and who played on it?

It took seemingly longer to record than it actually did because what happened was I would go out on tour, write three or four songs, come home and record them, go back out on tour and write a couple more songs and so on. That lasted from the end of 2018 to the beginning of 2020. I was on the road the whole time, I never really came off tour, but I had to do it that way and it ended up working great because, under those circumstances, I couldn’t overthink it as I was due to go back out on the road. I amassed this collection of about 22 songs recorded over that time and I chose 11 songs based on what felt exciting to me, and they turned out to be ones where I was writing more about me.

The process was just very much call up some friends in the neighbourhood and get them to come over and play. East Nashville is just full of tremendous musicians and there are 5 different drummers on the record, some songs have 2 drummers on them at the same time which was really fun to do and we cut a lot of that stuff live which was super fun. We did it in my buddy Greg Lattimer’s backyard. Greg is a long-time friend who is one of my favourite producers who produced the first record from The Strokes, and he was a great co-producer and engineer. The folks we have on the record are Jon Radford on drums, Dom Billet on drums, Devon Ashley drums, Fred Eltringham also on drums who plays in Sheryl Crow’s band and I met him years ago when he was playing with Jacob Dylan, my friend Dylan Sevey who has played in my live band on drums, I play some of the bass and also on bass is Tommy Scifres from my road band, we then had special guest bass player Keith Christopher from Lynyrd Skynyrd on ‘Up All Night’ and I play pretty much everything else that is on the record and do most of the singing. A lot of the instrumentation that sounds like keyboards are actually guitars that I made to sound like synthesizers.

That is a bit arse about-face, in the ‘80s everyone was trying to make synthesizers sound like guitars.

Haha. I just really wanted to piss off Eric Clapton. It already feels like the guitar is dead so I may as well kill it. The guitar has always been a central part of my sound and I think I just wanted to find something else to do with it sonically. I have been really inspired by guitar players like Annie Erin Clark, who plays under the name St Vincent, I just think there are still people who are taking it and putting it in another place and so I wanted to try my own hand at that a little bit this time around. It was great fun to do, a lot of time was just spent laughing at how hilariously bad some of the sounds were but then you find a good one, you know, and it is all worth it, haha.

You mentioned East Nashville. It has quite a mixed artistic and musical community. How long have you lived there and how long do plan to live there?

I do feel like Nashville is home. I got here in 2014 so this is going on my seventh year here and it is a really great community of people, and the music scene is just really, really full of other musicians who get excited if you do something that turns them on, unlike New York which felt like there was a musician’s club you had to try and join. East Nashville is like this nurturing environment and people want to do their best work because other people will be inspired by it. It is perfect for songwriters because we are all so jealous, you hear somebody’s really great song and you are like, shit, I  really want to do one of my own.

Did the tornado pass you by?

It did. In fact, I was so tornado ignorant that I walked outside of our house and was looking at what was going on, and then I heard what I think was hail coming and I thought I had better go back inside. It went a couple of blocks over from us and basically passed through. We were close enough to really hear it and it was a terrifying sounding to be quite honest. We had some friends whose property was damaged, fortunately, it was able to be repaired, but we also have some businesses that are never going to come back. Nashville has had a really tough year, but Mike Grimey, who owns our local record store, said look we are going to get through this we have already talked about it, it was a joke that it has happened so many times that we know we are going to bounce back because they haven’t been able to keep us down yet.

Hopefully, the second half of 2021 is going to be a lot better.

Yeah, that is the hope.

Songs are lyrics and tunes. Where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics from?

Tom Waits said one time “It is kind of like setting a trap for a song.”, which I agree with. I am similar, I write from what I visualise as pictures in my mind, kind of, and that is how I write the lyrics. In order to do that, I have to spend a couple of days, or whatever, figuring out what the song is about, and that is just singing random things into this ether, black hole, and seeing if anything sticks. Once I figure out what it is, I then have to think about it and I don’t write anything. I can imagine myself writing something and these sometimes become the words but I don’t do any writing for a few days, then it is literally when you are driving to get some groceries, or you are standing in the shower or something, and all of a sudden a line appears or the right way to tie up the chorus just appears. Once one part feels solidified, to me, it is easy to finish the rest, but it is a several-step process.

Do you see yourself primarily as a performer or songwriter?

I think the two art forms are separate. I would say since there is not a lot of performing to be done at the moment I am a songwriter, haha. Overall I think I have an approach to both things that feels like me to me.

I want to go back in time now, what was it like being a member of the New York Dolls?

That was just incredible, incredible. It was kind of like a whirlwind. They called me up and asked me if I could do it. Really, they called me up and asked if my hair was still really wild. Initially, it was Steve Conte who was playing the Johnny Thunders stuff in the Dolls, and he was the one who was going to go on hiatus from the group because he and his wife were having their first child, and he thought of me because when Tony Visconti had produced Semi Precious Weapons Tony had brought Sylvain and Steve Conte to see our band because he said that we had reminded him of the Dolls. Both of them loved our band and because I was the guitar player and they were guitar players, those were the guys I ended up talking to about stuff that night. We had a nice conversation and found we were all coming from the same kind of place, but yes, Steve called up and basically said “Hey man, I haven’t seen you in a while, but does your hair still look real wild, do you still wear all those wild clothes and stuff?” and I was yeah man, that is who I am. He then said he had some Dolls tours coming up that he couldn’t do and he was wondering whether I would think about filling in.

I learnt 35 New York Doll’s songs, from memory, and went to a rehearsal space with David Johansen and Sylvian Sylvian, and the only person I had ever met was Sylvian. We played about a verse and a chorus of each of those songs, just so I think that David could feel I knew how they went, or something like that, because he would sing the first chorus and then go “OK, fine. Stop”. So we never really played a full song. I got on a plane the next day, we flew to South America and played a gig with the B-52s at the Estadio Nacional which is the soccer stadium in Lima, Peru. We are on our way over to the gig and David said to the promoter “Did we sell any tickets tonight?” and the promoter said, “Yes, I think you are up to 35,000.”. I thought OK, at least there will be somebody there when I fall on my face, you know. I haven’t played one of these songs all the way through once, but whatever, here we go. It was an amazing experience, they were wonderful to work with, incredible artists, I learnt a ton, a legendary band, you can’t go wrong really.

What did you learn from the experience?

I think I learnt a lot about what it takes to be in the music business for that length of time. These guys could talk about people who had ripped them off in 1970 whatever, but they had a sense of humour about it so that felt like a lesson. Alright man, if you are going to stay in this thing you are going to have to find a way to deal with the parts of it that are going to be really tough and feel really bad because those are inevitable in the music business, you know.

Another legend, what is this about you doing a live stream with Willie Nelson and ending up throwing your guitar in the trash can?

Man, that was just that the pandemic had just kind of started, I think I was just realising that this wasn’t going to be something that was going to be over in  a couple of months and then we are out of it, this was going to be for at least the next year of our lives. I was trying to wrap my mind around that and you get on these things and you expect that technology is not going to be amazing with the live streaming thing, and this was in the early days of it so they hadn’t even got it as good as it is now, but the sound quality wasn’t super great and one of the people who was watching it, haha, her cat was apparently like being driven insane by my guitar. The cat has like howling and running around the room and this is all unfolding as I’m playing a song for Willie Nelson, my hero. I just got really upset afterwards because I felt like, man, this is what life is now. It is meeting one of your absolute, most revered musical heroes one minute, and then bang, all the way back down to the bottom of the mountain, and maybe even lower haha, this lady’s cat can’t even stand you and she has to tell everybody. That felt like peak 2020 for me.

That story is going to run, and as you say a perfect example of 2020. What else have you done in lockdown?

I have read Peter Frampton’s book, I read Kathy Valentine’s book, I have been working on a book that is like a Quentin Tarantino movie, it is the same story told from different characters perspective’s in the story over and over again. It is an interesting read, I kind of like stuff like that, that is sometimes a little different that gets you outside of things. I have a collection of Greek Myths that I read every day as well, but we can’t all just stick to just the classics., haha

This your 4th album and third on New West. How supportive has New West been?

You know, I think New West has been able to be honest with me. I feel like I have been able to see their perception of me sometimes and feel that it doesn’t feel authentic to me. On this record, I said I want to produce or co-produce at least, I think it is an important part of me bringing these songs to listeners that I am singing about very personal things, and also having that production element as well. They basically said we don’t see you as a producer, you don’t have any track record as a producer so we don’t know how we feel about that. Rather than me trying to convince them, I just took some of my own money and started the process on my own, and yes that was a risk, but I also felt that New West would give it a shot even if they didn’t think I was a producer, if I turned some music into them I thought they would listen to it, which they absolutely did. To their credit, they came back and said, actually, we think this is great and we want you to continue with this. It was a really teachable moment for me in a way, because maybe in the past I may have said ooh they don’t want me to do that so maybe I shouldn’t. This time I learnt to go, you know man, I respect your view of me and I don’t feel like I have to go change that, but maybe I can prove to them I can do this, and let me give it a shot.

Is this your best album give that you have been able to do exactly what you wanted to do?

Yeah, I think it is. I think I wanted to get further out on ‘Karma For Cheap’ and that was a tough one to do because there was a similar feeling from the label, like are you sure about this? Again, to their credit, they have allowed me to be who I really am ultimately, but they also saw me, when they signed me, as a man on stage by himself with an acoustic guitar, and that was the show that they saw. They signed me based on that show, probably thinking this guy reminds us of some of the troubadour kind of people that Nashville is rich with, which makes sense. I turned in ‘Silver Tears’ and there were songs like ‘Little Movies’ sitting right next door to ‘Memphis Rain’ and they were going that is kind of interesting, I wonder what this means? As I have just pushed further and gone further and further, I think they have started to realise, you know. It has been cool, we have both been on this journey and at a time when there has been friction, I think, honestly, it has made me better, so I can’t really complain about it.

Who are your go-to guitar influences?

Ooh man, Buddy Miller, Johnny Marr, Freddie Green and Chet Atkins.

Have you met Buddy Miller?

I have, yes, I am such a huge fan of his, he is so phenomenal. I’ve met him a few times, in fact, he does a show on SiriusXM with Jim Lauderdale, that he invited me to co-host with him and bring some East Nashville unsigned artists, the Great Unsigned as we call it when I co-host with him. If you are reading this and you are in the music business, and you want to find some new people, check out our episodes of the Great Unsigned because there are really cool artists on there.

That just shows you the strength of East Nashville.

Exactly, that’s it in a nutshell, right there.

What do you hope to be doing in 2021?

I have already started working on new music. Before COVID was really crazy, I went up to Michigan with some of the guys from Father John Misty’s band and started working on new songs, so I have a couple of new songs that are in the process of being recorded and are almost ready to be mixed, So I’m going to keep writing, keep recording and do whatever kind of online performances I can, I guess. All I can really do is just focus on making more music, because one thing I have learnt from making my own records, is the importance of intention and doing things with intention. I’m going to make new music with the intention that I will have another record and I will be able to go back on the road and tour it, haha.

Not a bad idea, haha. At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Absolutely. My latest favourite things, my dear friend Yola released a single earlier this year called ‘Hold On’ which is just a powerful song, and that has been a mainstay and something I’m continuing to listen to and I just love it and her so much. She and I have collaborated on music together as songwriters which has been really interesting and enjoyable this year too. Lily Hiatt put an album out this year called ‘Walking Proof’ which I just can’t put down.

That was a special album, wasn’t it?

I think so. I have always been a Lily Hiatt fan but that record was really a stand-out, I think. My third one is maybe an artist people don’t really know yet. The name of the artist is Erica Blinn and the best way to describe her is like Detroit rock’n’roll, think MC5,  fronted by someone with a Chrissie Hynde pop sensibility. It is like this really cool combination of garage and pop, that really blows me away, and I don’t think any of her new stuff is out yet but she gave me an advance copy of what she is releasing which is an album she made on a four-track cassette machine, where she played every single instrument herself. It is another one I can’t put down.

Finally, do you want to say anything to your UK listeners?

Thank you guys, haha. Thank you from the bottom of my heart man. Honestly, anybody who is listening to my music right now means the world to people like me, so thank you for doing that. We got rid of our guy with terrible hair and I think you guys can do it too, I really do. Hair like that is a clear warning sign.

Photo credits: Curtis Wayne Millard

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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