Interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan Digs Inward to Expose His Truest Self on New Album ‘Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!’
Aaron Lee Tasjan's life in the music industry has, in many ways, been the stuff of dreams.
A Wilmington, Del, native also raised in both California and Ohio, the young musician turned down a full ride to Boston's Berklee College of Music to move to New York City and pursue his career. He co-founded the glammy alt-rock outfit Semi Precious Weapons before stints with legendary punk-rock band the New York Dolls and Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin, for whom he'd later produce an album; he's also rubbed elbows with Bono, Yoko Ono, Jack White and Lady Gaga, among others.
Is it any wonder, then, that he's long opted to focus his songwriting on the world around him?
"Yeah ... I s'pose that is probably true," Tasjan concedes of this suggestion, chuckling.
"I was always fascinated by the world of music before I was ever involved in it. I was definitely a kid who was obsessed with liner notes of albums and going to the library and seeing if there were any books [about these people]," he offers by way of further explanation. "Being a part of that world, I was really taken -- and still am really taken -- by all of it.
"I don't know how you would get to the places I've been on purpose."
"In a lot of ways, I feel like a guy who won Wheel of Fortune or something like that -- like, I'm sort of this guy who kind of ended up where I was by accident or something," Tasjan adds, concluding with a laugh, "I don't know how you would get to the places I've been on purpose."
Such an accidentally dream-come-true lifestyle offers so many -- perhaps too many -- chances to avoid self-examination. With his new album, the aptly titled Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, however, Tasjan finally turns his musical gaze on himself, rooting around and emerging with sonic displays of his truest self.
"I really chose to sing about some stuff that was definitely more personal, and that can be a little bit -- you're not quite sure how that's going to be perceived sometimes," he says, "but it just felt like -- I felt really free and really good when I was doing it."
After three full-length solo albums (2015's In the Blazes, 2016's Silver Tears, 2018's Karma for Cheap), Tasjan found himself facing some tough -- but, he notes, fair -- questions from his record label. They couldn't quite understand where he was headed as an artist.
"Of course it hurt my feelings -- I can't deny that; I think anybody would feel that way -- but I also recognize the difference between someone's honesty hurting my feelings and someone saying something to hurt my feelings," Tasjan says. "You have to gauge someone's intentions: what they say vs. what they're actually saying to you ... and I feel like, ultimately, it was a process that definitely had some growing pains, but at the end of the process, the end result was growth."
Tasjan worked quietly, recording nearly two dozen songs, some in multiple ways, that turned into a final tracklist of 11, released on Friday (Feb. 5). Instead of looking for feedback from his label or a producer, he just went for it.
"I've always had trouble figuring out how to validate myself in a way that felt genuine to me, that didn't just feel like I was just blowing sunshine up my own ass," Tasjan says with a laugh, "and in that way, that experience of being able to make some of those calls for myself, I felt very validated."
That lack of extra opinions also helped Tasjan be extremely open -- including, for the first time on an album, about his sexuality. In his songwriting, he explains, he aimed to do it "with humor, but also with some kindness to myself," and he does so near-perfectly on the back-to-back tracks "Feminine Walk" and "Dada Bois." The former is lightheartedly confessional, while the latter is plinky and just short of grandiose as Tasjan sings, "My heart is wild, but it's true ... I love anyone it tells me to."
"In a lot of ways, it was about me fully embracing and accepting everything that I've been, because people kind of make you feel like, if you're too many things, that's a bad thing: that it's confusing, that they don't know what to do with you ... and so that can feel sort of disheartening," Tasjan says. He's speaking specifically about his varied musical output, though the sentiment is clearly transferrable.
"Being able to fully embrace all of those things on this record meant writing those songs and including them, because it is part of who I am, and putting that on the record and celebrating it felt natural and good," he adds, explaining how his time in Semi Precious Weapons' corner of the music scene meant time surrounded by "incredible and brilliant queer artists" who taught him about communicating through not only music, but also personal appearance and style.
"I didn't know about any of that stuff ... because, you have to understand, when Semi Precious Weapons was happening, there was no Harry Styles," Tasjan says for context. "I mean, there was, like, Clay Aiken, and queerness was very much still sort of pushed out of the mainstream. And so, to see it appearing now just fills me with such hope for the world."
Tasjan knows the work is only just beginning -- in many ways, he's an early adopter within the Americana scene -- "but it's critical," especially as someone who identifies as queer.
"If any of the stuff that I'm singing about on the record resonates, I hope it helps you feel a little more connected and not so alone in this world," Tasjan reflects. "That's really the pure intention of this record.
"That, and," he adds, "if you're, like, a 10-year-old kid and you hear this record and then you start playing the guitar and write a song that blows me out of the water, and everyone else, 10 years from now. Those are the two main goals."
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