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Live & Direct: Aaron Lee Tasjan

WYEP welcomed Aaron Lee Tasjan to our studios for a Live & Direct Session on Monday, April 8.

The Nashville songwriter is releasing Stellar Evolution later this month, and stopped by to talk to Kyle Smith and play some songs from the new release.

Set list:
I Love America Better Than You
The Drugs Did Me
Horror of It All

Host: Kyle Smith
Engineers: Tom Hurley, Thomas Cipollone
Note: Strings broke on the guitar during the final song.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

Kyle Smith: And we are Live and Direct here this afternoon. I'm with a room full of WYEP members and they're here applauding because Aaron Lee Tasjan is here, who's a Nashville based musician. His fifth studio record is coming out on Friday called “Stellar Evolution.” And Aaron, welcome to you and welcome to Pittsburgh.

Aaron Lee Tasjan: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Smith: He's played here before and he's not playing in town tonight, but hopefully we'll have you here with a full band sometime later this year. But congrats on the fifth album. And why don't we start out with a song?


Smith: A little preview of a song that's going to be on the album that'll be out on Friday, called ‘Stellar Evolution,’ the fifth album from Aaron Lee Tasjan who is here, and ‘Nightmare,’ the name of that song. And we got to talk a little bit before going on air about that song and, a little insight, into the lyrics here. First of all, was most of the writing on this new album autobiographical?

Tasjan: It is. Yeah.

Smith: Can you give us a little background on the song?

Tasjan: Sure. All right. Yeah. A lot of that song was written from a memory that I had in high school. I was a senior in high school, and I came into school one morning and there was another boy in my class who was really upset. I grew up in a little town in Ohio. Well, it's not so little anymore. It’s called New Albany. I was going to New Albany High School, and, this boy came into class one morning. He was very upset. He had seen the only out gay kid at our school who was in the one grade lower than us putting some makeup on in his car before he came into school, and he didn't know what to do with that.

I remember sitting in the class as a not-out queer kid, knowing that I was one wanting so badly to defend him, and being so afraid of what everyone would think of me for it. And I never forgot that. So I wrote that song, you know, in part because of that. And then also, I've been living in Nashville for 10 years, and I've watched the lawmakers down there do everything that they possibly can to make it illegal for people like me to even exist. So, I just couldn't sit back and not say anything about all of that while I was watching it happen.

Smith: You've written some pretty powerful songs on your other four albums, and there are some great ones that have come out so far. We've been playing ‘Horror of It All’ for a few weeks here. But as far as moving to Nashville and finding, supportive community, I know that the city itself is growing by leaps and bounds daily, but have you found a real supportive music community there that you've been able to dive into?

Tasjan: The best one I've ever found anywhere. I feel so lucky to be there, you know? I mean, there's just this incredible group of artists, it's all led by the artists, you know, and they all support each other. I mean, when my first record came out, I think the first person to tweet about the single was called ‘Little Movies.’ And the first person to tweet about it was Jason Isbell, who said, ‘Hey, you guys should check this out.’ You know what I mean? I mean, that was huge for me. And other other folks that I've really enjoyed meeting, working with, they're in Nashville, people like Yola and Allison Russell. It's a really great musical community that's led by the artists. They lead by example of supporting each other.

Smith: It's beautiful. It seems like you've really gotten into collaborating as well because you were nominated for a Grammy for writing ‘Diamond Studded Shoes’ with Yola, who was here in our studios about five years ago.

Tasjan: She's one of the very best, in my opinion.

Smith It always seems like something is always coming out of Nashville, like, weekly. As far as new music goes and things. But it's interesting to go back. And I was doing some research and reading about you. I didn't know that you were connected to the band Drive & Cry, who've been around since the 1980s — and Kevn Kinney, who's I guess the guy behind that. So, he did some touring with them. You've toured with Yola and the North Mississippi All-Stars and, I would imagine that those connections have led to a lot of different places.

Tasjan: Yeah. I mean, Kevn, once I met Kevin, not long after I'd moved to New York in the basement of a pizza restaurant. It was somebody's birthday party and they were just having different friends sing and Kevn sang after my other friend who I was in a band with at the time, and I played some guitar for them while they were singing, and then Kevin liked my guitar playing. He said, ‘Hey, man, you want to sit in with me?’ Which is, you know, a term we use as musicians to mean just like, ‘Hey, do you want to get up and goof around while I'm singing my songs on your instrument?’

Little did Kevn know I didn't really need to do any goofing around because I was a huge fan, man, and I knew a lot of his stuff already, so I think he thought I was a genius, but really, I was just a big fan of his stuff. I was playing with my band Semi-Precious Weapons. A couple of weeks later, Kevn came to the show and this is exactly what happened: We finished the gig. There was like a rooftop kind of next to the where the show was. And we went out on the rooftop and I was standing there talking to Kevn. He goes, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing next week?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don't know. I think I got to go to the post office or something. Why? What's going on here?’ And then I got this tour of Holland.

Smith: Holland. A week’s notice. That's great.

Tasjan: They got on a plane and went to Schiphol Airport, and Kevn Kinney picked me up and we took the train all over Holland and played music together. It was incredible. My first real tour.

Smith:  It's pretty amazing, all the musical connections that happen once you get out there. And of course, people recognize your talent and quality of performing and playing, as well. The new album comes out on Friday. If we could get you to do a couple of songs back-to-back, and then we'll talk more about the album and some of the songs on the new record.

"I Love America Better Than You"
"The Drugs Did Me"

Smith: Aaron Lee Tasjan is here. The new album ‘Stellar Evolution’ comes out on Friday. And that's a quite a different version than the one that's going to be on the album. It's interesting you're able to adapt that. When you said you were doing that song today, I was like, ‘Wow,’ because it's a lot of sonic things happening in the studio version of that song. So how do you push yourself to kind of create unique versions of your songs sonically as you kind of change from album to album?

Tasjan: I look to inspiration from great artists, you know, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, people like that who push the boundaries of everything they do in every way that they did it. And I listen to their records, and I think about the arc of the work that they've created, and I want to try to make my own work have an arc because I think, you know, the linear experience can be really cool if you're super awesome at it, like ACDC or someone like that. I remember watching Angus Young get interviewed one time and he said, ‘People keep criticizing us because we make, you know, the same album four times in a row, and we haven't made the same album four times in a row. We've made it five times in a row, you know?’ And they're so good at it, you wouldn't want them to do anything else. I like having that arc, where the work kind of goes to different places that you don't expect. Joni Mitchell's another one, but, you know, all of those artists that pushed themselves to do more with what they had maybe than they even realized they could, you know?

Smith: Just thinking about the difference between, like, a song like, Memphis Rain and your single from last, record Up All Night. And just the complete, you know, if you're just checking out a new artist, I mean, if you just listen to the first song I mentioned, you may think you're kind of a folk and blues artist?

Tasjan: Yeah, I think that I think that happens. It interests me greatly how you can sort of track that as a musical historian in real time. You can listen to Beatles’ records, hear what Black artists in America were doing at the time, right before their record came out, and hear John or Paul writing a song, you know, in the vein of that. And it's really cool. I think when those sort of things happen, I mean, art influences art, you know, all the time. And it's always interesting to me. Like, sometimes I feel like nowadays, like people will try to have like a gotcha thing where they'll be like, ‘I know what song you got that from or whatever,’ but it's like, yeah, man, I don't know. I'll go talk to Bob Dylan, see how far that goes.

Smith: So stellar evolution, the process which a is star changes over the time. How is your star changing over time?

Tasjan: You know, I loved that and it felt like such a lot of these songs are about big changes that I've gone through, you know, the past couple of years. And something that occurred to me about changes is that it has an inevitability to it — it happens whether we want it to or not. And so in that way, we're stewards of our emotional reaction, physical reaction, mental reaction to change. We can really guide ourselves into some beautiful places if we can figure out the way to roll with those changes.