Aaron Lee Tasjan: Pop Goes the Rock
No, the stoney country legend didn’t request that Tasjan toss his instrument; rather, the singer-songwriter had a petulant pandemic freak-out during an April livestream, marched outside, and dumped his guitar into the trash.
“Right before you play [on the Come and Toke It stream], you do a little interview with Willie, then he introduces you; it’s virtual, but you kinda get to hang with Willie,” Tasjan tells SPIN over the phone from his Nashville home. “That’s the coolest gig I’ve ever heard of in my life. I decided to play electric guitar for some reason. This is my first time ever meeting Willie Nelson, probably the only time he’s ever heard my music. During the stream, you can see people responding to whatever is happening. One woman watching the livestream, her cat is apparently just so upset about the sound of my electric guitar that it’s running around the house, howling and screaming.”
As Tasjan is playing for Nelson, he’s watching the cat go nuts. “I was so upset afterward,” he confesses. “I shouldn’t have been. I think under normal circumstances I would have honestly been able to find the humor in something like that.”
But — you know — the pandemic.
“Yes, I guess it was just me slipping into that part of the pandemic experience that feels really frustrating and can be anger-inducing, and I kind of lost my shit. I actually took my guitar outside our house and threw it into my trash can.” He returned to the house to sulk… before sneaking outside to shamefacedly pluck his instrument from the bin. Back in the house, he bucked up, using an Eeyore voice to tell himself, ‘oooh, I just need to stop feeling sorry for myself.’”
Tasjan needs no sympathy for his new record, only accolades for Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! the title meant to be a motivating personal rallying cry. The 11-song album is lyrically clever, poignant, and amusing — as is his wont — with shades of Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan, and charming, bold introspection. Bouncy and cheerful-seeming tunes often belie fraught lyrical subject matter. The album was written between tours, piecemeal, and finished before the pandemic shut down the States.
But the genesis of many of the songs goes further back.
“Feminine Walk,” for example, hearkens back to childhood. Tasjan casts his mind when he was 11 or 12, visiting his grandmother in the Wisconsin Dells during the summer. Standing on a Madison street corner with his father, the pre-teen Tasjan spotted a cool kid. “An older boy, a teenager who looked like a cool skater. I kind of admire this dude already. And then he pointed to me and said to my dad, ‘Hey, man, is that a boy or a girl?’”
Tasjan recalls his vibe as a pre-teen: “I probably was just wearing some soccer shorts and a No Fear T-shirt. I probably had a Lloyd Christmas [Jim Carrey] Dumb and Dumber bowl kind of haircut, like a ‘70s tennis star. I feel like male tennis stars and female tennis stars in the ’70s looked sort of similar haircut-wise.”
The odd, cringe-worthy encounter stuck with the singer-songwriter.
“I didn’t know why I was sort of being drawn to this person as they were approaching us; I had this feeling of random admiration for them somehow.” It brought up “such a strange mix of emotions all in one fell swoop that I think that never left,” Tasjan admits. “It stuck with me. I never really put any of that into a song. Until that phrase [“you have a feminine walk”] hit me; I just thought like, ‘maybe he just saw me walking down the street.’ And knowing who I am now, as an adult person, there’s a part of me that’s also like, ‘man, how did he know?’”
Indeed, every aspect of his life — musically, personally, sexual preference-wise — seems to be fluid and growing, as he jokes on social media. “Call me country. Call me Rock’n’roll. Call me Americana. Call me folk. Call me freak. Just call me!!!”
Not that the venture into artistic nakedness didn’t give Tasjan pause as he submitted the first few songs from the album to his manager. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, like I’m singing about me in this really direct way. I haven’t really that done before,” he says.
Tasjan is musically wearing his fallible humanity on his sleeve for all to see, noting, “It’s our way to put our hands up and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you.’ That felt exciting and like something new. And a little scary, honestly. But, you know, I think that’s just part of the deal.”