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Aaron Lee Tasjan Employs 'A Little More Empathy' And A Lot More Freedom In New Music

"I try to have a little more empathy for myself and try to encourage these things that I'm naturally thinking and feeling, rather than thinking, 'That's too weird if I do that,'" Aaron Lee Tasjan says.
"I try to have a little more empathy for myself and try to encourage these things that I'm naturally thinking and feeling, rather than thinking, 'That's too weird if I do that,'" Aaron Lee Tasjan says.

On the coffee table of his cozy East Nashville apartment, Aaron Lee Tasjan has a notebook open to autobiographical scrawling — it's a kind of cheat sheet to his musical past, which he prepared, with his mother's help, just in case he forgot anything during his interview with NPR. To be fair, it isn't all that simple to retrace his weaving, winding musical path. The singer-songwriter tried out a variety of musical niches, cities and scenes before landing in Nashville.

Tasjan grew up in suburban Ohio, obsessing over Tom Petty and The Beatles. During his junior high years in Orange County, Calif., he spent lunchtime in the music room, hiding from bullies and strumming his first songs. By the end of high school, he was mimicking Freddie Green, the guitarist in the Count Basie Orchestra. Tasjan caught the judges' ears at a national competition for high school jazz bands.

"I was the only kid there who didn't play through an amp and didn't play a guitar solo," Tasjan marvels. "And they gave me the award."

He came away with a scholarship to study jazz guitar at Boston's Berklee College of Music, but left after just six months. Tasjan then moved to Brooklyn, where he co-founded the glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons, who sometimes shared the stage with Lady Gaga and whose lead singer, Justin Tranter, made the most of his theatrical, androgynous persona. At the same time, Tasjan was also working on his own roots-rock material. On the recommendation of the bohemian, folksinging yarn-spinner Todd Snider, Tasjan relocated to Nashville and released his debut album under his own name three years ago. It seemed like the work of an artist who fit right in among the clever troubadours in his East Nashville neighborhood, but Tasjan would soon decide that he was ready to do more of his own thing.

"I try to have a little more empathy for myself and try to encourage these things that I'm naturally thinking and feeling, rather than thinking, 'That's too weird if I do that. Everyone's gonna think I'm weird.' It's like, 'Well, everyone already thinks that I'm weird 'cause I am weird,'" he says.

That certainly hasn't kept Tasjan from making lots of musician friends in Nashville. One of those friends is Elizabeth Cook, a longtime fixture of the Americana scene who hired him to play guitar. She found that he was one of the few in her circle who liked to dress as colorfully as she did.

"He does dress wild and have a little bit more of that as part of his art, his exterior and how he presents himself," Cook says. "That is sort of forging new territory within the singer-songwriter roots scene, which is awesome. He's so the guy to do it."

Tasjan felt the freedom to be himself and fully embrace his influences on his latest album, Karma For Cheap,released Aug. 31. "For me, it's as Americana as it gets — Tom Petty and The Beatles and the Traveling Wilburys and David Bowie, they're the same thing for me," he explains. "They're my Loretta Lynn."

Tasjan's new music may not have the rootsiest sound, but Cook recognizes a kinship to folk tradition in his songwriting. "I think one thing that helps bridge that gap for him is that he has a social conscience, which is tradition in roots music," she says. "That's in his lyrics. There's often, I think, a heavy social message or a heavy heart about sort of the human condition in his songs."

When Tasjan received an Americana award nomination last year, he took it as a sign of affirmation.

"I'd never really been given any sort of congratulations for being myself," he says, again with a chuckle. "I'd been given lots of congratulations for playing guitar for this band or for that band or winning a jazz award or that kind of stuff. But no one had ever really been invested in me and what I was personally bringing to the table and saying, 'Hey man, we think that what you did is cool and we appreciate you adding it to the conversation that's happening about all this stuff.'"

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