The Optimistic Outsider Describes His Inclusive Vision and Reveals His Shopping Secrets
by Dale Henry Geist
We were thrilled when, just days after firing up the Country Queer Twitter account, we saw “Aaron Lee Tasjan followed you” in our notifications. I’ve been following Aaron’s career since his name first popped up in No Depression (the roots music magazine) when I worked there several years ago: I admired the way he bucked the standard Americana trucker hat/flannel shirt/jeans/workboots uniform that prevailed at the time, and how his music, too, pushed the boundaries of the form, bringing in elements of glam and psychedelia.
I caught Aaron in the green room of Hopmonk Tavern in Novato, California, during his recent Western tour, just before he played a brilliant set to an appreciative crowd. He looked like Willy Wonka’s mellower brother in round, tinted glasses, a black-on-black vertical-striped suit, black-velvet Cuban-heeled boots, and black-and-white houndstooth-checked newsboy cap. We were eager to hear what he had to say…
DG: You jumped on our deal pretty early. What was it about what we’re doing that was interesting to you?
ALT: When I was eight or nine years old my dad took me to see James Brown. I was obsessed with capes at the time, Superman and Batman and all that stuff. I even had a couple of capes that I’d wear to school, and kids would tease me, but I loved capes. And they came out at the end of James’ show and put that cape on him and this light went off in my mind – “Ah, a singer, man! I can be a singer and wear a cape!” And everybody would think it was amazing. I’d never considered it outside of the context of being a superhero before. So it just made it very real.
In that respect, I think I’ve always been writing from the perspective of the underdog. People are so obsessed with labeling things, and that’s not just in music, that’s in your entire life. I vividly remember moving to New York City as a teenager to play in a band called Semiprecious Weapons. I came from a small town, New Albany, Ohio, and all of my friends all of a sudden were these super fabulous gay men in NYC. I mean the singer in our band had been on the cover of a New York gay magazine before our band even started! And the first show I ever did with them was a [New York City comedian and drag king entertainer] Murray Hill show at the Knitting Factory. So all of a sudden I was immersed in queer culture.
All of my friends were saying “You need to tell everybody who you are, and you need to tell your family who you are,” and this whole concept of there’s a structure and an order to this; I was confronted with all of this at the same time, as a teenager. So it was very disorienting, and you were going into this world that was completely new to you and being presented with a structure and being told, this is the way things are. And I knew who I was and had known who I was for a long time at that point. But it was a brand new experience to have people who I love and admired almost admonishing me for not having made up my mind or something, in this very specific way.
So when I see anything that is coming from that side, of social constructs and cultural constructs, and being presented in a way that feels very inclusive, I’m automatically just, “Yes, I like this.” I liked the idea of people feeling like the world that we live in is a safe place for them to be who they are. It crushes me on a daily basis to see things like this guy who ran this gay conversion camp forever, coming out, “Oh, by the way, I’m gay,” and, well, first of all, of course. But secondly, it breaks my heart that we live in a world where people are feeling like there’s parts of who they are that they have to hide away or protect from some outside influence. I just don’t like that. And so I saw you guys pop up and I looked at the stuff that you were saying, and where it was coming from seemed to be a place of acceptance and that’s, I think, what we’re all looking for, ultimately.
DG: The seed of this [Country Queer] goes back to a few years ago when I was working at No Depression, and I was also starting to play out more. There seemed to be this very narrow range of what you could look like and how you could present your music within the Americana world. And I became interested in that and what I could do as a performer, but also just generally thinking, “This has to change.” There have to be other people out here that are interested in doing things differently. And it seemed like around the same time, you were really dealing with a lot of the same stuff, kind of looking at the Americana world and determining to do things differently. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
ALT: It’s just like anything else – human beings love to label things. There becomes an archetype at a certain point, this thing that is supposed to be ideal and when you know for a fact that that’s not what you are, that can be really discouraging. Even if you’re not confronted with it in your life every day, internally, there’s something about it where you’re just like, “Should I even be doing this? Is anybody even going to give me a chance to do this?” So I’ve always tried really hard to ultimately come from a place of gratitude. But that can be really challenging when it feels like everybody’s looking for this thing that you are not! [LAUGHS]
DG: Did it feel like you had to push up against it as you were trying to make your way in the Americana world?
ALT: It became very clear to me from the very beginning. ‘Cause, for instance, I went to play a show in St Louis one time, and we had the posters from the Silver Tears album cover. So it was me in the crazy sequined suit and it was soundcheck and I went to use the restroom. And somebody had written on my poster! Like, are you fucking kidding me? I’d also opened shows for some people who have a very specific audience, and I wasn’t going up there in a fucking Liberace bolo, I was just being myself, but I could tell they were sort of bothered by it. And I always feel like there’s two things that you can do with that. You can hold on to that feeling and it will eventually manifest into some angry, resentful, negative emotions, or, my thinking along those lines was always, “I’m just gonna turn it into rocket fuel.” You know, this is going to become the thing that fuels the engine.
So I didn’t want to change who I was. But I felt like there was a place for what I was doing. Even though there was nothing really at the time that would’ve suggested that.
DG: When you say “I didn’t want to change who I was,” that seems like a really key element. It feels like you knew who you were and you had a sort of bedrock commitment to remaining that, even though the musical world that you were playing in didn’t have a model for it.
ALT: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
DG: So you were just going to go ahead and do it.
ALT: Yeah, ‘cause I’d already done that once. You know, Semiprecious Weapons was the same thing. I mean, when we came out it was 2005, 2006. There wasn’t even Clay Aiken yet, and there was no Adam Lambert, there was nobody. Our singer Justin, a lot of where he was getting his stage persona was drag clubs that we were going to. And I remember vividly my mom having the RuPaul tape when I was a very young man and just loving it, and as a cis white suburban woman in the Midwest, just going crazy for this RuPaul stuff. So I remember thinking, “This can reach people and this is an important story to tell,” because who are the heroes for these kids growing up in a town like I grew up, where it feels like you’re living a secret life?
So you know, in that band there was no context for that when we came out. And there was no context for the kind of presentation that I felt like I was doing when I started doing it. But in very short order – and I was aware even before the recent explosion with The Highwomen and so forth – there were these artists like Brandi Carlile doing it and doing it really well and gaining respect within the music business for just being really, really good at what they were doing. And I was like, okay, this can be done, and, like so many things, don’t make it about what it’s about. Make it about the work, make it about building a catalog of great songs and albums and, for me, each album having its own look and feel – all of that is very much a part of that.
DG: So, you touched on this a little bit, but have you tried to stake out any territory in your music itself that was intended to gain more acceptance for a nonstandard way of being in Americana?
ALT: It’s taken me a long time to figure out musically how to present that in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of preachy position to take on a pedestal or something. I ultimately want to feel like my story is something that anybody could relate to even though I know it’s a very specific story. And it’s really been just the songs that I’ve been writing for my newest album, which will hopefully be out next spring or summer. One of the songs I have is called “Feminine Walk.” “I’ve got a feminine walk,” is how the chorus goes. And every single word, it’s an entirely autobiographical song. I trace my history from growing up and wanting to be a musician, to moving to New York, to moving to Nashville, and all the stuff that’s happened along the way. And what’s so funny to me is, it’s such a specific song, but I’ve been playing it and people go crazy for it.
DG: That’s what you want, right?
DG: So let me ask you about a specific lyric, ‘cause you did get specific about queerness a couple albums ago in “Hard Life.” You’ve got a verse that says, “There’s a redneck bummer in an H2 Hummer and he sure does hate the queers / I guess some life choices are cries for help that nobody ever hears.” The way that I’m hearing this is you’re maybe commenting on his life choices, and that that might be a cry for help because there’s…
ALT: This was probably 2009 or ’10. I’d come back to Ohio to play a show. I was in the band van and one of the guys in the band was like, let’s hit this Taco Bell, so we pull up to the Taco Bell. And it’s a long van, it’s hard to even see who’s in the van, you know? But I was driving, so I was closest to the drive-through thing so I had to order. So I’m ordering out the window. And before I could even get the order out, there’s a truck of obviously football kind of teenager kids behind us. And the kid – it made me laugh out loud, it makes me laugh even now to think of it – but he just goes, “Dick’s not on the menu faggot,” like, I’m trying to order a taco and this guy yells that out! And I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot to grab onto from somebody leaning out of the window of a van for three seconds to order a quesadilla.” I mean, he was just waiting for something to come along. So that very visceral experience ended up making it into that song because it was such a true-to-life moment.
DG: It makes you think more about him than…
ALT: Yeah, exactly. You’re just like, okay, where’s this guy coming from? What’s his situation at home? Because we all know this is taught, it’s not something that somebody is born with, rather it’s something that they’re born into, and something that they learn somewhere along the way.
So it’s, “God, where is this coming from?” That’s the first place that I always go with it. It used to just terrify me, but now I really am learning to have empathy for it, which is also a strange sensation. It’s like, let me figure out a way to identify with this thing that sure feels 180 degrees from what my reaction would be.
DG: I went to Steve Earle’s songwriting camp five years ago and he stood up there and he goes, [bad Steve Earle impression] “Your job as an artist is empathy,”
ALT: Right? Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
DG: I just want to ask you one more question. Your clothes and accessories are fucking fabulous. Where do you get them?
ALT: Oh, God. All over the place. Yeah. It’s like writing songs for me. I’m always looking. Every time I pull into a town, as we’re driving through the streets I’m looking around to see if there’s a yard sale or a weird looking thrift store. Any of that kind of stuff. I got to live in New York city for 10 years, which was amazing. But I learned very valuable lessons about where to find the best stuff. It’s not always in the place that looks like it’s going to be.
DG: Look at this! [points at own shirt] I just got this at TJ Maxx for fricking $12.99. They had a whole bunch of these!
ALT: It’s fabulous. I do Target, too. I do Target and I do Walmart. The women’s section. The women’s section at both Walmart and Target always has fantastic stuff.
DG: All right. I’ll have to check it out. And then lastly, is there anything else that you want to tell our readers?
ALT: Don’t be afraid, it’s a terrifying world –
DG [rudely interrupting]: It’s National Coming Out Day today, did you know that?
ALT: Right. That’s right. God, it is. Which is so cool. And I’m glad that we’re recognizing stuff like that. It’s so important. Don’t be afraid to be who you are. I know that it feels like the world is designed for someone else, but it’s really not, and there’s so much power and it’s so inspiring to others when you live your life as yourself. And I think that’s a tough thing, even if you’re not a queer person. I think that’s a tough thing for anybody. But I think it’s particularly tough for us because there’s examples all the time in the media of people who’ve endured terrible violence. And certainly if you know the history of being gay in America, it’s really tough, but be courageous, be who you are. Don’t be afraid. There’s so many doors that will open for you the second that you decide to step into that light.
Be sure to get more information on Aaron Lee Tasjan, his upcoming shows, and his music over at https://www.aaronleetasjan.com/