By Rachel Cholst, Contributing Writer
You don’t just listen to Aaron Lee Tasjan’s music. You have to experience Aaron Lee Tasjan for yourself. Tasjan delights in creating a sonic and visual experience designed to transport himself and his audience into a parallel universe where anything is possible. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s new album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! does just that: it’s a pop confection with Americana swagger, while managing to be Tasjan’s most personal statement yet.
Even for our humble Zoom interview, Tasjan looked very put-together: a fedora, a tweed blazer with a broad check pattern reminiscent of a sportscaster, a gauzy ascot, and a t-shirt of The Little Prince.
“This is my new favorite t-shirt. This was a gift from a friend named Stuffy Schmidt, who’s a wonderful songwriter here in Nashville. He knows that I’m a huge fan and found this for me. This is the inaugural interview for my Little Prince t-shirt.”
Country Queer is honored to be a part of the t-shirt’s debut.
“The Little Prince was my favorite when I was a kid. I loved the drawings. I remember looking at the way the pants fell over his shoes and just thinking, that’s how I want my pants to look. That guy has got it going on!”
Between performing in the glam rock band Semi-Precious Weapons and a stint with punk icons the New York Dolls, Tasjan has more than lived out his fashion fantasies.
But it all started with folk music. When he was in his mid-teens, Tasjan performed an anti-bullying song for a school assembly on an anniversary of the Columbine shootings. The song was shown on the local news, which then somehow made its way to Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. Yarrow invited the young songwriter to a “safe schools” conference he was set to perform at in Cincinnati.
And that’s how the young songwriter found himself, a teen, duetting with one-third of an iconic folk trio.
Tasjan also found himself in Lincoln Center, thanks to his performance in the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra. The band competed before Winton Marsalis and Victor Goines of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tasjan even brought home some hardware thanks to his guitar playing. And when Marsalis performed in Ohio, he called on the Orchestra to join him.
These experiences shaped Tasjan’s voraciousness as an artist.
“It was like just any kind of music I could touch, that touched me, I wanted to get my hands on it and I wanted to know what it was about and learn the history of it. I had to learn all these different things before I had enough depth of knowledge to come from anywhere doing my own thing, you know?”
(Maybe someday we’ll get an album of Spanish guitar, though for now, Tasjan keeps that to his practice routine.)
For this album, Tasjan wanted to layer as many sounds as possible while maintaining an irresistible beat. But he also wanted to make a statement with his synth-pop. As Tasjan sings about gender bending in these songs, he distorted his guitar to sound like a synthesizer.
“It’s not a concept record, but that was definitely on my mind constantly throughout the record. It’s taking something that exists and presenting it in this other way.”
Tasjan sees this as a tradition in American music, much like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks bent punk rock around country music. “I think we have to accept that this idea of taking old sounds and finding ways to make them new is one of the main cruxes of the art form.”
That self-expression is at the core of Tasjan’s artistry. Tasjan was never in the closet, but he wasn’t out to his audience until roughly 2013, when he moved to Nashville and began to focus on folk and Americana.
“I think anybody that really knew me, knew that about me.” Even though Tasjan received some backlash, overall his coming out was a positive experience. “When you come out publicly, you’re opening the floodgates to everything, you know? But if we wanna move forward in a way that feels more inclusive, step one is, we gotta be honest about what inclusivity really is.”
At the time, there were no nationally touring men in the Americana world who were out as queer. “That occurred to me in some way. And I thought, ‘Well, this just can’t be, though. I can’t be the only one. I know that I’m not.’ So, you know, maybe if I can do my part to make it apparent that this is a world where you do have a chance to be embraced and say honestly what’s in your heart, in your music and not be pushed out for doing that, then maybe it’ll encourage more people to feel like it’s a space where you can do that.”
While Tasjan has written songs about men in the past, this is the first album where he addresses his sexuality so directly.
“I can’t say that it felt like this was a special time to do that. I wanted to make a record that was the most me than I’ve ever been. And I couldn’t omit that part of myself. It was so important to me to get these songs right, that sometimes we would even do three or four different versions, like, whatever it took. I’ve been a fairly observational-style songwriter, whereas this record is much more personal.”
On songs like “Feminine Walk,” Tasjan delights in boasting about his androgynous sense of style.
“When I was a young kid, around 10, I was on vacation with my family. We were in Wisconsin for the summer. I had a grandmother that lived in the Dells and me and my dad were walking around downtown and we were standing on the street corner at one point. And this older kid started walking towards us and I immediately thought ‘This kid looks pretty cool.’ He looked like a skateboarder kind of, and I had like a haircut that was somewhere between John Denver and Billie Jean King. Like a Prince Valiant kind of bowl. This kid walks up and he says to my dad, ‘Hey man.’ And my dad kind of turns around and says, ‘yes?’ He points at me and he goes, ‘I just got to know, is that kid a boy or a girl?’ I was a young kid, but I remember it clearly! I remember thinking, ‘how did he know?’ You know, did he just see me walking down? Was it the way I was carrying myself?”
As any gender non-conforming person can relate to, Tasjan has also had his run-ins with people walking into the bathroom alongside him, and then doing a double-take because they think they walked into the wrong bathroom.
“I just thought maybe it’s in my walk or something, you know? That did feel like a powerful phrase to me because I also grew up idolizing Bowie and Marc Bolan, but also Joan Jett and Grace Jones. Women were hugely important to me and made me feel powerful when I was young.”
Tasjan wrote the song both to cheer himself on, but also as an anthem for those who are watched closely by society, “sometimes for maybe not the right reasons.”
“That’s a flag I can just carry right into the parade or the protest or whatever it is that we’re doing and wave it around and go, ‘Hey man, I’m asking to be seen. And I’m asking to be seen on behalf of all of us who are in that position.”
It would be difficult to get a better education in glam than Tasjan. He joined up with Semi-Precious Weapons right after moving to New York, living out his wildest dreams in the city’s queer nightlife. The band partnered with Tommy Cole and Roy Caires of the clothing boutique Alter.
“I got to sit there with the best seat in the house and watch these guys be intentional with an aesthetic and art and what all of that meant. Then a couple of years later, I was very, very lucky to play guitar for a band called the New York Dolls who had a guy who just passed away. Bless you, Sylvain Sylvain! He had his own clothing company, Truth and Soul. He made his own hats and these incredible leather vests and stuff like that. And these amazing belts and gun holsters and all kinds of insane stuff, you know, and so working with him and then getting to talk to him about that, I just became hugely inspired.”
It’s taken a lot of effort for Tasjan to get to this point in his life: where he can be completely free in both his style and his music. Tasjan hopes he can be an inspiration for others around him. At the end of the day, he’s still sending the message he sent out when he was 15, writing that fateful song that would take him to some of the world’s greatest stages.
“Hold on. These are strange times. These are lonely times. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need help. Don’t be afraid to reach out and check on each other. Never. And don’t be afraid to ask to be seen because I know that’s scary, and I know scary things come along with it, but it’s also the way that we can move forward. It’s our chance to come together, I think more so than politics, or anything else, I think if we can really see each other as people it’s a chance for us to be able to show up for each other moving forward.”
Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is available now at New West Records and on your favorite streaming service.