Keeping it Real- A.L.T., The Rocking Folk Singer November 19 2014, 1 Comment
Underrated and somewhat underappreciated, Aaron Lee Tasjan (A.L.T. for short) has spent the last decade making a career on his own terms. Incorporating humorous, half-true stories into his unique blend of folk rock, Aaron Lee lays it all on the line, weaving artful tales into wonderfully melodic tunes.
A.L.T. primarily grew up in New Albany, Ohio. In his middle school years, he reportedly started a dog walking business to fund his first guitar/lessons purchase which proved to be a fruitful venture for by age 16 he was named a recipient of the Outstanding Guitarist Award in The Essentially Ellington Competition at Lincoln Center. Forgoing the offer of a music scholarship, he moved to New York straight out of high school. He gained recognition playing with the Semi-Precious Weapons and went on to perform with (among others) the NY Dolls, Drivin’ & Cryin’ and The Madison Square Gardeners.
According to Fallon, "Aaron Lee Tasjan is a one-off. His guitar-playing, both electric and acoustic, is spectacular. His own songwriting is perceptive and enormously soulful, with melodies that seduce you and words that say hello to your heart. I love doing what we call 'tuneage' with him ~ 'I Believe In Elvis Presley' was the very first song we wrote together. To have Aaron as a member of BP Fallon & The Bandits and doing additional projects with him too is a pleasure and a joy. There are many, many talented people on this battered but still magic planet and Aaron is one of them, a Main Man. But more importantly, he's a great person, a man so warm you could make toast from his aura. I'm blessed to have him as my friend and musical collaborator".
A.L.T. is a modern day poet. In 2013 he was recognized by ASCAP as a Next Generation Songwriter. He doesn’t let any of this go to his head though- for Aaron, it’s all about the music.
Fresh on the heels of his utterly addicting March 2014 EP release, Crooked River Burning (Rockwood Music Hall Recordings), Aaron can currently be found playing as many shows as possible while also working on his upcoming album, ‘In The Blazes’. I managed to catch up with him in between doing what he does best and he was oh so kind to field my numerous inquiries.
Aaron Lee Tasjan- A.L.T.- you are certainly well known among fellow musicians in the ‘inner circle’. For those who may not yet be familiar, you have described your sound as “one part true Hollywood stories, one part fuzz pedal, one part Arlo Guthrie.” A far cry from some of your previous band experience, how did you evolve from the garage glam of Semi-Precious Weapons to the indie folk rockster of present day?
Photo Courtesy of Rick Edwards
It's funny...people ask me that question often...the truth is I was making folk rock music in my basement in Ohio when I was 16 years old...If you look up a band called Autumn Under Echoes on Spotify etc, you will find an EP (The Smile & Nod EP) I made in 2005 before SPW ever started...those songs were the real me...some still are...Semi Precious Weapons was more or less me playing a role...I was leaning on my weak side to be in that band...I'm great at lyrics and flat picking and saying funny sh*t on stage...I did write those songs with Justin and I'm proud of them...but the truth is, Justin and I both loved Lucinda Williams way more than any of the bands we were citing as influences during my time in SPW. I did indeed love Nirvana but even so, it was their Unplugged album that really knocked me out the most...I did love some rock'n'roll pre SPW...particularly Oasis...I knew all of their songs but Wonderwall was my favorite...my Dad even started calling me Wonderwall because I played it in our house over and over and over when I was about 13. While in High School, my friend's Dad played me Alice's Restaurant Massacre...I thought...this is what I should do...make up songs that are funny but not a joke and stand on their own as great songs and stuff....When I was 18, I discovered Kevn Kinney's solo records and Wilco at the same time...it changed everything for me...I had a John Prine tape my friend had given me too...Prime Prine. I learned Paradise and Please Don't Bury Me and started playing them at my gigs...I tried to sing Alice's Restaurant a few times too but could never remember it all.
Forgoing a full ride scholarship to Berklee College of Music, you had a fairly true Rock Star intro into the music world, basically kicking off your career by touring with one of your own personal musical heroes, Kevin Kinney. What did that experience teach you and how did it make you a better musician? Did it change your outlook on the possibilities of supporting yourself as an artist? Do you think the musical education you’ve received on the road is comparable to one you may have been taught in a public education setting?
I'm as well educated as any college level dropout in America...and being around Kevn Kinney is definitely part of the education I've received and am still receiving....but I also went to a great high school in New Albany, Ohio. I had a few teachers there who didn't teach me about the Civil War or how to use a bunsen burner...they taught me HOW to learn and to love learning...The Berklee thing wasn't a long term thing for me because I wasn't in the mind set to be there...I wanted a Kerouac adventure...I knew I wanted to write songs about a life I wasn't living and I NEEDED to be living it and it wasn't gonna happen for me while I was throwing up in a dorm room at Northeastern University while my poor girlfriend held my hair back....I needed to break my own heart over and over...Kevn showed me how to do it and how to survive it...and it was nothing he said to me in conversation...he showed me...he showed be by calling me out on my bullsh*t...on my lies and my untrue songs that were fake...he made me get real with myself and I will never forget him and every day I think of him and am grateful he is my best friend and mentor...Kevn is a dirty, rock'n'roll angel from hell sent to bring heaven to earth...there will never be anyone like him and no one can touch him on songs except the greats like Dylan, Waits etc.
I personally discovered you via your association with BP Fallon. You’ve also played with a handful of renowned bands- The NY Dolls, Drivin’ & Cryin’ to name a few- yet you remain very humble and appreciative of your opportunities. How do you maintain such a down-to-earth outlook when you’re working with and surrounded by such heavy hitters?
First off, I love BP Fallon...the man is truly brilliant...I don't need to stay down to earth because I know who I am and I know where I am...I have a strong sense of these things and of where I'd like to go...there's no time to think I'm awesome or special or any of that stuff...I have a job to do...and my job is to help people and keep my soul clean...I can do that with songs and singing every night...I have been down far enough to know what it's like to not have a place to call home and I have been abandoned and misunderstood and been considered irrelevant and unqualified blah blah blah...I have been abused and I have been an abuser and I can sing all that stuff from my guts because it's my truth...I just want to be a light and reflect and levitate and stuff...I will never do that if I think for one second that I'm some great guy or some significant talent...I'm a guy with a guitar and my skin hangs on me inside out for everyone to see what's in my heart...and it's all because I believe in myself and I believe in others.
Along those same lines, what have been some of your best musical moments to date?
Playing Straight To Hell with John Paul Jones in Mexico...playing guitar with Todd Snider at a country club in Pennsylvania...singing anything at all with Elizabeth Cook...having a song I co-wrote produced by Jack White...putting out Crooked River Burning...getting invited to sing at The Kennedy Center...singing for the guys at Street Roots before they went out to sell their papers...and crying sometimes because I look over on stage and Kevn Kinney is singing a song and I'm in the f*cking band!
Let’s talk about your EP that was released in March 2014, Crooked River Burning… It’s my understanding that you had some rules when assembling this project- The first being that every song could only have three chords, the second that only one song out of however many you recorded for the EP could have a bridge. Did that hinder or help your song selection process when putting that album together? Do you normally impose confines like that on yourself?
It's funny...whoever put that on Wikipedia about those rules was confused...I was actually discussing another EP I had just made with the Madison Square Gardeners that's still unreleased in that interview...all the songs on Crooked River Burning were the most real, honest things I had ever written in my whole life...and I was absolutely terrified of people hearing them...I thought they were fine songs but I was so scared of what people would think of me which is bullsh*t because I want to be as good at songs as Kevn Kinney or Todd Snider or Elizabeth Cook or Jason Isbell...and those people bare their whole soul to the world and they are more brave than any Senator or Congressman or Congresswoman we have in this country...and if I'm going to sit here and tell you that I aspire to do that, I have to be fearless and relentlessly honest in my songs...great art should be either loved or hated...BP Fallon said that...he also said the most important part of art is finishing and he's damn right about both of those things.
I am so endeared to your lyrical stylings and I love that you maintain humor and irony above all else. I read that you began performing because that’s how you’d ‘decided you wanted to talk to people’. Do you find that with the direction you’ve taken in your solo work people are more responsive to your message?
Well, it's the first time in my life that I've ever had anything to say...because I've started to live as my true self...and I don't care what people think of my relationships I've had or the way I live because I'm out there doing it and triumphing with it...but yes, people give me hugs after shows or tell me how happy it made them and thank me for saying what I believe but the truth is I am the one thanking them because they are the heroes...I can string words together and point at stuff and say, "look at how beautiful this is!" or "look at how unfair and f*cked up this is..." but at the end of the day, the people living in this country, real, American people who aren't rich and are trying to figure out how to make themselves and their families happy inspire me to want to talk to them...because I am one of them and I relate to their struggles and their victories the same way they relate to mine...we're here for each other and no one can take it away from us and they can't even understand what it's like anyway.
When you are in the midst of songwriting, what generally tends to inspire you?
I write songs everyday...every single day i write a song...most of them no one will ever hear...the good ones sneak up on me and sometimes i have no idea until i sing them for my friends Clay or Curtis or something...but also Leonard Cohen said, "Inspiration is for the amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work." I like that and he knows more about songs than anybody.
What’s your preferred equipment set up?
I love my Loar LH-200 acoustic guitars...they are all I play at my solo shows...I love ES 335s and small Fender amps...I love my Diamond J-Drive pedal and I love Vox amps too...the Beatles played those things...will anyone be as good as the Beatles? hell no...but we can play on amps that looked like theirs and pretend and feel cool till our 45 minutes is up.
You recently moved from New York, where gentrification has out priced artist communities, to Nashville, a city that is rapidly expanding due to a wide array of folks relocating there. An inevitable fall out of growth, this trend is now creating the same affect in the artist communities of Nashville and Austin. Overall do you feel this helps to foster and create art? Or do you find it a hindrance to opportunity and creative growth?
Look, great art is made by smart, beautiful (in their soul) people who feel very deeply and love very hard...it doesn't matter where it happens...just because you show up in Nashville or Austin or NYC or where ever doesn't mean you're any good...if you do go, get out of your house and see who is playing in town...challenge yourself to become a positive, uplifting part of whatever community you're in...that is what feeds and creates a strong artistic community...like Seattle in the 90s or Athens in the 80s, aspiring artists will go where great art is happening to try and be a part of the scene...it's a human response to need and needing a feeling of fulfillment...eventually, everything will be gentrified (for lack of a better term) but that is good...we need to learn how to live together and try to understand each other...we need to reach across boundaries of race, social class, sex and sexual orientation and let our brothers and sisters know that we stand behind them...that is progress and no elected official will ever give that to us on a silver platter...we must strive to be more intelligent, well educated and have faith...not Jesus faith...but real faith...we need to start believing in things we can not see with the naked eye again.
You’ve got a new album in the works, ‘In the Blazes’- What can you share with us about this project?
In The Blazes is my debut full length album...the title is from a song of the same name by JP Olsen and the album is dedicated to him because he is one of the greatest living songwriters in America and literally nobody knows it...it will be produced by Eli Thompson who made the record Ode To Sunshine by Delta Spirit...it's one of my favorite albums of all time and I'm so lucky to be working with him and other musicians on it like Dan Bailey or David Vandervelde or Joel Graves or whoever else comes in on it with us....the songs are greatest I have written in my whole life and I couldn't be more excited for people to hear what we're doing on this thing...I hope it will inspire new songs and make people happy and fill them with hope and understanding...I also hope it will help them make babies throw bad ass parties...Touchdown.
It’s my understanding you’re a big Seinfeld fan… so, favorite episode?
My favorite Seinfeld episode is The Chinese Woman...I love it because it makes such an interesting point about our expectations of and reactions to our assumptions as well as just how far people will sometimes take something about themselves that suggests something that isn't really true about them...it's totally genius and as always, absolutely hilarious...I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Jerry Seinfeld has done and created...but my favorite comedian of all time is and forever will be Mtich Hedberg...sorry Jerry! Mitch has even had a pretty big influence on my lyrics and storytelling style.
The Official Five Wax O’s Gotta Know Questions
1) First vinyl memory?
First Vinyl memory: buying Bug by Dinosaur Jr off of ebay and playing it in my old apartment in German Village Ohio...the room was all old wood and my room mate had a kick ass stereo and it sounded like heaven to me.
2) What is an album you regularly spin for your own enjoyment?
Album I regularly spin: I always go back to Deluxe by Harmonia...I don't understand any of the words because they are in German but luckily it's mostly instrumental and it makes me so happy to hear it. They are the Beatles of Kraut Rock.
3) What was the last album you added to your collection?
Last album I bought: Willis Alan Ramsey by Willis Alan Ramsey...it's the best country folk rock I've ever heard...but I have an eye on Commitment by Bobby Darin if I can ever find one that doesn't cost more than $100...I have a feeling that one may rival it.
4) What was your favorite album or new artist from this past year?
Favorite album this past year: I HAVE to give it John Moreland for In The Throes. John is my friend but even if he wasn't he still wins because John's soul is as pure as the driven snow and you hear it on that record. I just love it.
5) What artists are you looking forward to hearing more of over this coming year?
What artists am I looking forward to more from: Can't wait for Moreland's new one...I love Brian Wright's stuff...I think Sadler Vaden is writing good songs...Shovels and Rope keep knocking me out...Nikki Lane is a force to be reckoned with and I think she will keep doing great things...Joe Fletcher is great...Courtney Jaye sent me some songs the other day that were beautiful as only she can write and sing...I look forward to the new Father John Misty album because that dude is f*cking on point and so funny and his give a damn is so broke you couldn't fix it with all the tools in Ace's hardware. Amen to that.
Thanks so much to Aaron Lee Tasjan for participating in this Q&A! A.L.T is currently working on his full-length album ‘In the Blazes’, which will be out early 2015 and is available for pre-order at Indiegogo. He’s got some amazing packages available in exchange for your support, so be sure to check them (and the album!) out.
Coming up in January Aaron Lee Tasjan will be participating in a short tour jaunt along with Caleb Caudle and John Moreland. Don't miss these guys when they hit your town!
January 7, 2015- 5 Spot, Nashville TN
January 8, 2015- White Water Tavern, Little Rock AK
January 10, 2015- Strangebrew Loungeside, Austin TX
January 11, 2015- Natachee’s, Houston TX
January 12, 2015- Thirsty Hippo, Hattiesburg MS
January 13, 2015- Callaghan’s, Mobile AL
January 14, 2015- New World Brewery, Tampa FL
January 15, 2015- Will’s Pub, Orlando FL
January 16 & 17, 2015- 30A Songwriter’s Fest- Santa Rosa Beach FL
January 17, 2015- Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta GA
January 18, 2015 Standard Deluxe Small House, Waverly AL
January 19, 2015- Caledonia Lounge, Athens GA
January 20, 2015- The Evening Muse- Charlotte NC
January 21, 2015- Club 603 House Concert, Baltimore MD
January 22, 2015- Captain Ale House, Richmond VA
January 23, 2015- The Garage, Winston/Salem NC
January 24, 2015- Open Chord Brewery, Knoxville TN