Interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan turns the mirror on himself on 4th solo LP

Aaron Lee Tasjan, Semi Precious Weapons

Aaron Lee Tasjan, Courtesy: Curtis Wayne.

There’s a song on Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, the new solo album by singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, that speaks to some of his serendipitous, yet totally true experiences. “Feminine Walk” chronicles him at various parts in his life, from the time he got a regular gig playing at a coffee house in San Juan Capistrano as a 12-year-old, to moving to New York after dropping out of the Berklee College of Music, to dating a girl who’d just broken up with Napster founder Sean Parker (called the “sugar daddy with dollar sign eyes”)—who’d pitched Tasjan on Spotify, which wasn’t yet in the U.S.

Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!
Aaron Lee Tasjan
New West Records, Feb. 5

“Feminine Walk” follows Aaron Lee Tasjan, cofounder of glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons, to Nashville, where he was mentored by musician Todd Snider (lovingly referred to as Tin Pan Todd) and would eventually arrive at a personal album full of vignettes about his life; stopping at various points along the way and looking back at himself.

“As I was singing about stuff that was more personal and more direct on this record, it made sense within the context of [“Feminine Walk”] to also celebrate the people who I felt had helped me like get to a place where I could do that,” Tasjan said in a video call from his kitchen.

Tasjan’s path, both in music and in life, has been a circuitous one. His love of music was a constant in an otherwise shifting landscape, as his family moved from Delaware to Southern California before finally settling in Ohio. At a high school jazz music competition, the guitarist earned high marks from judges, which led him to getting a Berklee scholarship. But he quit after six months, dropped everything and moved to New York instead.

“I honestly I don’t know why exactly I went to New York,” he said. “I was going there from Ohio, so Nashville would have been a much closer choice; seems like maybe even for the style of music that I do, a more obvious choice. There was something about New York.”

There, he bounced around a lot as a musician for hire until a big break alongside Justin Pranter in Semi Precious Weapons in 2006. The band had numerous hits and is also known for helping to give a fellow glam artist her start: Lady Gaga opened for the band on numerous occasions, including at Lollapalooza. It was the band’s manager, musician BP Fallon, who had discovered Gaga, at the time performing as a duo, said Tasjan, with a caveat:

“I smoked a lot more weed than the rest of our band. I would like to say with full disclosure that I may not be recalling the precise sequence of events, but this is how I remember it,” he said. “It was Stefani as Lady Gaga, and then she had a friend who she performed with whose name was Lady Starlight, and she kind of played keys and synthesizer, and Gaga would sing and do her cool dance moves. They had cool outfits and the whole nine yards. She had a song about ice cream that I remember. But I can’t remember ‘Poker Face’ or anything like that at the time. … I can’t sit here and say I knew she was going to be the biggest pop star, but she definitely affected the room when she came in, even for a bunch of dudes like us who were already like trying to do some molecule rearranging of our own.”

During his time in New York and elsewhere in his music career, Aaron Lee Tasjan has found himself sharing moments with a Forrest-Gump-sized field of artists from the New York Dolls to Yoko Ono, Lydia Lunch to Interscope Records cofounder Jimmy Iovine, who told him, “guys in make-up don’t sell records.”

While high on mushrooms at an Irish music festival, Tasjan was once told by Bono that his dancing to a Patty Smith performance of “People Have the Power” reminded him of “freedom,” before the rock star pulled him and Fallon away to watch Sigur Rós play.

Tasjan looks fondly on his time in New York, but he eventually left Semi Precious Weapons in order to chase his own dreams. While he was a big part of the band, he wanted to pursue his own musician vision.

“When people talk about music careers, one thing that they don’t always remember is that for a lot of artists, there’s whole parts of their careers where they have to do something because it allows them to survive,” he said of his journeyman image. “That’s basically what being a guitarist was for me in New York. It was a way to be able to eat a sandwich. I certainly put every bit of musicality I could muster into the job when I was there, but it was never the goal. … Nothing was planned, but the plan to end up where I am [now] was always somewhere in my mind.”

He moved to Nashville in 2015, after a decade in New York, to play in a band that never coalesced. Instead, he signed with New West Records and released his first solo album two years later. He connects the move, and the city, to becoming his own artist (rather than only a guitarist or a musician for hire). The city gave Tasjan a new start and a new vision.

Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is his fourth solo album. Blending breezy Laurel Canyon vibes with ‘70s and ‘60s psychedelic rock, Tasjan revealed he had another sonic mission: to create a guitar-driven record where the guitars didn’t sound like guitars.

“A lot of the things that people are hearing on this record that sound like synthesizers, keyboards or even percussion, sometimes are actually just guitars that I made sound that way,” he said. “I’m not really trying to recreate something that sounds like the ‘60s or do something that sounds wholly modern. I’m just trying to do something that sounds exciting to me right now.”

In fact, he said, he performed the songs in numerous styles before settling on his favorite versions and recording.

The musical influences come from the likes of Top Petty, Jeff Lynne and the Beach Boys. Tasjan points to the Beach Boys’ “Marcella,” off 1972 album Carl and the Passions, as a particular inspiration.

“It combined so many interesting styles to me,” he said. “On one level, it’s got all these great Beach-Boy-style harmonies, but it also sort of has this really driving, acoustic country rock guitar and rhythm section behind it. The lead vocal isn’t layered at all.”

Tasjan began recording the album in secret with producer Gregory Lattimer after his label told him it wouldn’t support him serving as a co-producer, something he was adamant on doing. He didn’t accept the decision and risked his own money making an album that New West wouldn’t release.

Halfway through, he ended up sending some finished songs to label executives, who surprisingly changed their minds and let him pursue his project.

“Even though they didn’t see me as a producer, when I did send them the music, they gave it a real shot,” he said. “They listened to it with an open ear. … I just thought it was a cool thing because everybody was really honest with each other, but everybody was also really cool about receiving that honesty with giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.”

The album is full of poignant self-observations. On ELO-evoking single “Up All Night,” for example, Tasjan sings about a drag performer he dated, as well as three things that routinely cause him anxiety at night: his health, finances and the fear of being left alone.

Elsewhere, his mental health, as well as his perception of himself in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity pops up here and there.

“When human beings are perceiving something, that is oftentimes colored by the experiences that we’ve had,” he said. “The way in which we’ll view it—or sometimes even view ourselves—is based on these other experiences that we’ve had in our life and how we’ve related to this same feeling, previously. I had things that throughout my life sort of color my perception of myself in a sometimes really negative way. Over time and through working on it, by reading about these things and reflecting on them and doing therapy and things like that, I have been able to see them differently than I did before.”

Two stories immediately come to mind for Aaron Lee Tasjan. The first is of a Christian summer camp dance when he was about 10 years old. He remembers hanging out with a girl but being more interested in her T-shirt picturing glam rock band T. Rex’s Marc Bolan.

“I remember feeling attracted to Marc Bolan and understanding that he was a man and weirdly also thinking that I should have been attracted to the girl in the T-shirt,” he said. “Thinking and trying to put that together, like, ‘Well, what does this mean?’”

The second memory is from a summer or two earlier. He and his father were standing on a street corner when an older kid walked up to the two.

“I had a bowl haircut, like a Dorothy Hamill kind of vibe, 1970s roller-skate or tennis star kind of haircut,” he said. “[He] walked up to us and pointed to me and said to my dad, ‘Hey man, is that a boy or a girl?’ These things kind of stick with you as you’re figuring out like who you are, and they sort of become these instances of your life where, as a young person, you’re sort of forced to consider them.”

Both of his parents were caring and understanding, he said. They taught him to understand what being gay meant, as well as prepared him to deal with closed-minded, prejudiced people. He grew up in a home that allowed him to have those thoughts. At the same time, he heard a conflicting message at home and school. The songs look at that conflict through the lens of time.

Still, the album was an attempt to tell personal stories rather than make any one specific statement, he said. The desire to be involved with playing many of the instruments himself and being involved in the production was related to that, he said.

“My goal was to be as honestly myself, as authentically myself as I could be on these songs in the context of this record,” Tasjan said. “I don’t know what kind of a statement that ultimately is. … I’m just trying to express the desire to be seen and the desire to see that communication, the connection.”

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