Interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan Hopes Fans ‘Find Their Own Truth’ in ‘Karma for Cheap’
Although Aaron Lee Tasjan's newest album, Karma for Cheap, may feel to some listeners like a departure from the folk-inflected, acoustic styles of its predecessor, Silver Tears, the stylistic move hearkens back to Tasjan's early days in Brooklyn, playing the jangly, psychedelic sounds of the glam rock revival. Tasjan came of age in the rock 'n' roll tradition, and he has the existential malaise to prove it.
"We all love things that we're familiar with," Tasjan tells The Boot. "I read an article the other day called 'Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,' and it was saying that what we're really looking for is someone to make us suffer in a way with which we're familiar."
That may sound like a grim observation, but the songwriter quickly clarifies that he sees a lot of beauty in returning to the same old fight, using it as a lens for music -- and life -- more generally.
"I think the struggle of rock 'n' roll is very familiar [to me], and the question of its relevance is always sort of an enticing and interesting one ... I am kind of returning to something that's very comforting because it's a familiar feeling," he explains. "Now is a great time for that, because we're looking at so many of our ideals and traditions and values and morals, as a society, and going, 'Hey, are these things really that important to us?' I think we're making a lot of decisions like that right now. Seems like rock 'n' roll falls right into that."
The music is a way of looking at the world, although Tasjan goes on to say that he doesn't intend it to be a definitive view, or to keep it confined to a single set of issues. He differentiates between Karma for Cheap and a protest album, for example: "It's not necessarily a political album," he explains, "but there are definitely messages on there that are meant to be for anybody that's going through that examination on their own, to help support them through that."
The difference between the messages on Tasjan's record and those of a protest album, he adds, lies in their scope: "To me, a protest singer is, like, Phil Ochs. Joan Baez," he continues. "They're writing songs that oftentimes are aimed at a very specific cause, and that's lyrically evident as soon as the song starts."
"I wouldn't count Bob Dylan as a protest singer; I would count him as a folk singer," Tasjan says. "Because while "Blowin' in the Wind" certainly serves a purpose, it's also a piece that stands on its own ... You can view yourself through the scope of that song and feel better about the world around you. The songs that I was writing for this record certainly were not as good as "Blowin' in the Wind," but that's the blueprint I was trying to follow."
Tasjan points out one such song on Karma for Cheap, "The Truth Is So Hard to Believe," which is easily politicized merely through the words in its title. "Obviously, we're having a time with the truth nowadays," he goes on to say with a laugh. "What is the truth? Are we talking about Truth with a capital T? Or just the truth truth? A lot of people [connect] Donald Trump with that song, for obvious reasons."
"I want people to be able to find their own truth in the songs." -- Aaron Lee Tasjan
However, he continues, the song's real origins are much broader, and much more elemental: "I wrote that song talking about the truths we tell ourselves and don't tell ourselves, and the effect that can have on your mind and state of being," Tasjan shares. "But again, I tried to write it in such a way where all of that could be possible."
The singer had his heroes in mind -- particularly multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Richard Swift -- as he crafted songs that he hoped would pull off that balancing act. "Unfortunately it was a posthumous release, but he put out a record called The Hex," Tasjan says of Swift, who died in July at the age of 41. "I happen to know what a lot of the things he's singing about on the record are, because I know his story and we were friendly. But even if I didn't, the power of what he's saying combined with the way he's choosing to say it is just so personal and universal at the same time."
As a kid, Tasjan says, much of the music that made him love rock 'n' roll in the first place struck that same balance. "I would listen to a song and go, 'This song is about me,'" he recalls. "I knew that it wasn't actually about me, but it felt like it was. If you can give that feeling to somebody, as an artist, that's the coolest thing in the world.
"I want people to be able to find their own truth in the songs," he adds.