Metro Weekly

Aaron Lee Tasjan is hitting the road with his queer-tinged album “Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!”

Tasjan's rich, pop-infused music incorporates an LGBTQ sensibility, but is as difficult to label as the artist himself

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Photo: Michael Weintrob
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Photo: Michael Weintrob

Until this year, Aaron Lee Tasjan was flying under the LGBTQ radar. Although the singer-songwriter has long dated both men and women, he’s mostly refrained from singing about it. His lyrics instead have tended toward wry non-personal observations and amusing asides about life. It’s not that he hasn’t been out — he’s considered himself a member of the LGBTQ community for years — he just hasn’t exactly been out in public about it. He’s been hiding in plain sight, so to speak, disguised by virtue of his identity falling on the LGBTQ spectrum but being hard to label and even harder to define.

And yet, three albums into his solo career, Tasjan decided to take on that very challenge with his latest release. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is a remarkable and wide-ranging album that finds the singer-songwriter confidently swinging from rootsy country to glitzy glam rock to moody synth-pop, with a little Americana, folk, psychedelic-pop, progressive rock, and blues thrown in for good measure.

What really sets the album apart from the others in Tasjan’s impressive repertoire is the way in which he embraces his identity. Three of the album’s 11 songs feature lyrics touching on LGBTQ themes from his life — all playfully relayed, more suggestive than revealing, with a sense of intrigue making you want to know more about this Nashville-based artist who amusingly characterizes himself in “Feminine Walk” as one who “rolled out from New York City, like metropolitan Conway Twitty.” On the very next track, “Dada Bois,” he takes a stab at capturing his Catholic approach to love: “My heart is wild, but it’s true, I love anyone it tells me to.”

Tasjan got his start as a founding member of the glam-rock band Semi Precious Weapons. After leaving the group, he went on to become a New York-based session musician and freelance guitarist who toured or collaborated with everyone from the New York Dolls and Marc Cohn to Drivin N Cryin, as well as one-off stints with, among others, Jack White. It wasn’t until he moved to Nashville seven years ago that he launched his solo career.

Currently on his first tour since the pandemic, Tasjan will come through the area on Tuesday, August 31, to perform as the opener for Todd Snider at the Birchmere. He is planning to return for his own solo concert in early November, but the venue has not yet been officially announced. Both concerts are solo acoustic affairs, though Tasjan promises “you’ll see a lot of energy” from him at both. The multi-instrumentalist further notes that the November date could find him playing “various guitars, a piano, and maybe some other weird instruments, if I can figure out how to play them by then.”

Tasjan hopes there’s a notable queer presence in the audience his shows, a natural outgrowth of what has happened since the February 2021 release of Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, which he refers to as a “catalyst” that sparked new fans from the LGBTQ community, a sizable number of whom have reached out to him on social media. “Up All Night,” the album’s first single and one of the three songs with LGBTQ content. It includes specific instrumentation, such as sub-bass and kickdrum, that Tasjan added in subtle tribute to signature sounds heard at gay dance clubs the world over.

Tasjan explains the new album’s self-referential title was a creative work-around to what everyone around him said should be, simply, “the self-titled album.”

“I can’t do anything stock,” he says. “I have to find some weird way to do it, so I did. I imagined myself as the opposite of my actual high school experience. What if I was the quarterback of the football team, and everyone was in the gymnasium at the pep rally, chanting my last name as a cheer or something?”

The more autobiographical nature and brighter, sharper sound of Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! developed from a confluence of factors, both personal and cultural. A greater sense of self and identity helped give the 37-year-old artist more confidence to get personal, and he was further compelled to speak up and stand out as an LGBTQ-identified singer-songwriter at a time when too many members of the community are subjected to violence due to internalized homophobia and anti-LGBTQ stigma.

“This stuff feels important to sing about because there’s still just this tremendous fight to normalize real love,” he says, proceeding to reference the Arkansas man recently sentenced to prison for killing his ex, a young trans woman, after she wanted to go public with their relationship.

“It’s just absolutely heart-wrenching to see this kind of stuff happening, so it feels important to me to try and sing about who I am, as far as that kind of stuff is concerned, because peoples’ lives are being threatened everyday over this kind of stuff. It’s just something that I feel is a responsibility, as a person who isn’t hetero or ‘normal,’ to say who I really am, because we need to continue to be champions for each other.”

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Photo: Michael Weintrob
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Photo: Michael Weintrob

METRO WEEKLY: You recently resumed performing live, in-person shows on tour. How’s it all going?

AARON LEE TASJAN: The tour has been wonderful so far. We’re basically like a country band — go out on a Thursday, come home on a Sunday — as opposed to going out how we used to do. There were times where we’d go out for six weeks at a time, and do big, long tours. The current tour is three weeks long. That seems long right now to me.

MW: Have you felt safe? Are people being respectful and responsible in terms of adhering to various social distancing measures?

TASJAN: It seems like it. The venues have been changing their protocol to require vaccinations and negative tests. I saw people in the audience last night wearing masks. I wear a mask, and I’m vaccinated, and I wash my hands. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I don’t want to get sick. I’m doing everything I can to keep myself, the people I travel with, and the audience, safe.

MW: What can people expect on the tour — mainly new material, or a mix of everything?

TASJAN: I play songs from all the records. There are a few songs on each record that people always seem to want to hear, and I don’t have any problem with that. I worked really hard on the songs to try and make them so that I would never get bored of them — or at least make the songs fluid enough that I can kind of reinvent them a little bit live, which I do.

I grew up in the ’90s, so I love the album format, and I still make records that way. But really you’re just trying to write a song that maybe someone will sing around a campfire someday. That’s the goal — to write a modern standard, if you will.

MW: What songs do people tend to request more than others?

TASJAN: It’s always “The Trouble With Drinkin’,” “Don’t Walk Away,” “Little Movies,” “Memphis Rain,” and “Heart Slows Down.” And off the new record, the main two that people have been asking for so far are “Up All Night” and “Feminine Walk.” I’m just over the moon that there are songs that people dig.

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Photo: Michael Weintrob
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Photo: Michael Weintrob

MW: Let’s talk about your roots. Where are you from originally?

TASJAN: I was born in Wilmington, Delaware. Then my family moved when I was 10 years old to Orange County, California. I lived there until I was in the seventh grade, and then I went to boarding school for a year [until] my family moved to Ohio.

All my friends are from there, and I still have some family in Northern Ohio, so that’s mostly where I grew up. I moved to New York right after I graduated from high school, and then went to Boston to go to college for six months, then back to New York for 10 years. And then I moved to Nashville seven years ago. During most of that time, I was a guitar player-for-hire. And I played on studio sessions and in all these wildly different kinds of bands, everything from Marc Cohn to the New York Dolls.

I also had an original band that I started with Justin Tranter called Semi Precious Weapons. We were produced by Tony Visconti. Tony and [our manager] BP Fallon brought a few of the New York Dolls to see us play one time. When their guitar player needed to take some time off, they called me, having remembered me from the show, and asked if I could do it. It was just a tour and a couple of promotional shows in America, but it was great to work with them and a huge honor. One of the greatest and most influential bands of all time. They should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I’m glad that I got to do it, but it was one of about a thousand things that I cycled through during that period. And I was always writing lots of songs, I just never really thought much of them, or tried to do much with them. And then when I moved to Nashville, the town’s kind of based more around songwriting than anything. So I was like, “Well, I guess I have a lot of songs.” And I started playing them around town.

The way I got a record deal, I was playing a show with my buddy John Moreland at The 5 Spot in Nashville. Every label in town came to see John play, and I was there playing my songs, too. So somebody signed me based off of that, but they didn’t plan to, you know? It’s kind of cool in a way. I accidentally got the job that I always dreamed of having, but never really knew how to go about getting it.

MW: When did you first pick up the guitar?

TASJAN: When I was 11 years old in California, I was grocery shopping with my mom. And I swear to God, we went to Vons grocery store and next door was a guitar store called Americana Music. And in the window there was a sign that read, “Guitar lessons. First lesson free.” And I talked my mom into it. I was like, “Well, let me just take one lesson. It’s free. It won’t cost us anything.” And she went for it.

MW: Did your parents encourage your interest in music?

TASJAN: Yeah. Even before I started playing, back when we lived in Delaware, I vividly remember my mom started her own company at one point, and just for fun, she wrote a song when she was first getting going but struggling. She wrote her own song about it called “The No Business Blues.” I was eight years old, I walked into my mom’s office, and she was just sitting there singing this song, and she told me she wrote it. That was kind of like, “Oh, okay. You can write songs and stuff. That’s interesting.” So I wrote a bunch of songs when I was eight, about the moon and shit like that.

MW: Did you record those?

TASJAN: No. The very first day that I finally bought my own guitar, I took it home and wrote a song for my friend back in Delaware who was having a hard time. People were really bullying him in school and being mean to him, so I wrote a song for him that I recorded with a RadioShack tape machine, and I sent him the tape in the mail. So he might have that somewhere. That would be the first recording that I ever did.

Playing guitar just became an obsession, a full-time endeavor. I did it after school, before school, and then eventually I brought it to school and played it during lunch. A church hired me to play for the church bazaar. They hired me to play on the hayride. I used the money that they paid me to buy that RadioShack machine, a four-track tape player. I had a tiny little closet in my bedroom, and I set up the machine on the floor, beneath all my clothes, and would sit in there with my guitar and make little four-track recordings, and then went on the computer and made full album artwork for them.

I remember coming home from school in the sixth grade and asking my mom, “Is there any way I could quit school and just do this? Is there any chance?” And she was like, “No.”

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Photo: Michael Weintrob
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Photo: Michael Weintrob

MW: How do you identify along the LGBTQ spectrum? I understand that remains something of a challenge for you to label.

TASJAN: Bisexual is probably what most people would say, based on my dating history. But the labels are an interesting thing to me. In some ways, I always felt like I wasn’t gay enough for some people, and then I was too straight for others. And so it was tough. “Where do I fit into all this? Or do I fit into all this? Am I just weird?”

I just have a soft place in my heart for people trying to figure out who they are and what it all means. I’m not rushing to call myself anything other than a human being who falls in love with people. And I’ve fallen in love with all kinds of people. I get attracted to people based on who they are. And I think that’s the experience a lot of people have. For some people, it’s important to label yourself, and I totally respect that. That’s just not really something I think about that much.

MW: Do you remember when you initially became aware of your own same-sex attraction?

TASJAN: It was at a very young age. There was a kid in my class — I guess it was maybe about the third grade — and we connected on a lot of levels. I think Boyz II Men was the first thing that brought us together — we both really loved that song “End of the Road.” We used to walk around school holding hands, and I remember feeling like, “Oh man, this guy, he’s a beautiful person, but he’s also really beautiful.” But I never thought too much about it other than that.

My parents were well-educated people, and they told me and my sister one time, just kind of randomly, “Hey, if either of you two feels like you’re attracted to the same sex or whatever, that’s cool with us. We’re fine with that.” It only really had any negative connotations once I grew up a little bit and when that was on kids’ minds. I remember one time when I was in school in New Albany, Ohio, a kid came into our morning study center really upset because he’d seen one of the younger classmen out in his car putting some makeup on before he came into school. I just remember thinking, “Why does that upset you? What, are you afraid of handsome gentlemen walking around the hallway? What on Earth?”

They were complaining about this to the teacher, and the teacher turned to me specifically and said, “Aaron, what do you think about this? Do you think it’s weird that a boy was putting on makeup?” I was like, “Nah, man, I wear makeup all the time around the house.” Which was true, I did. I used to get in trouble with my sister Rachel for stealing some of hers. She would complain to mom, “Aaron stole my makeup again. Come on, Mom, you can’t let him do that.” She was right, I should’ve asked. But when you’re a young person like that and you’re not sure, sometimes you do things secretly to yourself to just kind of try it out.

MW: Were you raised in a particular religion or faith tradition?

TASJAN: We were Episcopalian. There were times in our family, when I was younger, that it seemed really important. We went every Sunday and we went every holiday, and I had to go to Sunday school and I had to go to Vacation Bible School and all this kind of stuff. But then as we got older, it became weirdly less important to my parents.

Then I got a few music jobs playing in churches. I even became the music director at Nativity Lutheran Church in New Albany, Ohio. It was an interesting thing to be a part of as a young person, before I had made up my mind on what I thought about things. When I look back on it, there are parts of the experience that I’m grateful for, but there are also parts of it that were flawed. I’m happy to have the perspective I do, because it can be one of those things where, for some people, it can be easy to just sort of blindly follow it at all costs. I feel lucky that I knew better than that.

MW: It sounds like you were spared from hearing preachers rail from the pulpit against homosexuality, and those who engage in such “abominable” and “amoral” acts.

TASJAN: Actually I did hear some people say stuff like that. And it was heartbreaking, because even as a young person, I knew that it was wrong. It made me mad, it got me angry at them, because I felt it was hypocrisy, which of course it is.

For someone in that position, trying to bring people together and show them how to care for each other, that’s a very hypocritical thing, drawing a line in the sand and deciding it was okay to exclude people. I just found that to be infuriating, really.

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Photo: Michael Weintrob
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Photo: Michael Weintrob

MW: You mentioned your friend who was bullied. Were you ever bullied?

TASJAN: Yeah, I was bullied for all kinds of reasons. I really kept to myself, I was kind of shy in a lot of ways. I was aware, “I’m not part of this group, but I’m not part of that group, and I don’t know if I’m part of any group really, I’m just sort of here.” I was one of those kids.

People would tape signs to my back. One time, I remember there was this kid, and I turned around and asked him, “Why are you so mean to me all the time? What’s the purpose of all this? We don’t have to be friends or whatever, but why can’t we just be cool with each other?” And he was just like, “I don’t know.” He didn’t care. And I think he choked me after that, put his hand around my neck and slammed me into a locker. So yeah, I got my fair share of that stuff.

I always thought to myself, “Right now these guys just know me as this kid that’s too skinny, and plays the tuba in the marching band, and has acne, and wears the same Country Music Hall of Fame t-shirt that says ‘Honor Thy Music’ every day to school. If I try really hard, maybe one day people will know me for my music instead.”

MW: It’s interesting that you weren’t compelled by your own experience of being bullied to write a song, yet you were in response to a friend’s.

TASJAN: That’s just always how I’ve been. I’ve had to work through this with therapists. Oftentimes I will downplay my own situation to try to give energy to somebody else’s. Even my label’s been mad at me a few times, where they’re like, “You post on social media, but it’s always about somebody else.” That’s how I’ve always been comfortable, ultimately, but I’ve had to learn how to not always take that position in life, because I see now there have been times where it has been detrimental, or unhealthy, or held me back in some way.

MW: Speaking of social media, when did Twitter become the useful tool it is now for you in terms of actively engaging with fans, colleagues, and friends?

TASJAN: I had it for a long time. And for a long time, I really didn’t use it much. I guess I started using it more when I started going on tour and playing my own shows. That would have been around 2014, 2015.

MW: Is it essential to promote yourself, especially as a solo musician?

TASJAN: People say that you have to do it, yeah. I mean, I haven’t tried not doing it, so I don’t know if that’s true or not for me, but it seems like it.

I also get all kinds of crazy stuff on there — people who claim that they work for the government and that they need to get in touch with Jack White, and stuff like that. Really crazy stuff, but then, also, really meaningful things. More recently, people from the LGBTQ+ community have been reaching out a bunch, which feels great, because I feel like I am a part of the community. It feels good to be able to connect with folks in a positive way. This recent record has been a catalyst for that to happen, which has been really cool.

MW: Back to the crazy stuff for a minute, have you had to deal with any stalkers or trolls?

TASJAN: Yeah. I had a lady graffiti my driveway one time. She drew these pictures of me and her as animals. I was some kind of tiger, or maybe she was a tiger. One of us was a tiger. It was actually pretty good artwork, I have to be honest, but it was also, “Well, this seems like too much.”

MW: Right, because that means she knows where you live, which at the very least has to be a little unnerving.

TASJAN: Yeah. And there’s been stuff that has shown up at the house that we don’t know where it’s from or how it got there. And just things put in our mailbox. It’s a little strange, because I’m not really a famous person. I’m just always like, “Wow, this seems very specific. Whoever’s leaving me things in the mailbox, or on the doorstep, or whatever, are extraordinarily selective when it comes to the people they target.”

MW: In addition to social media, musicians are blessed and cursed by music streaming, which can expand their reach but shrink their earnings. Let’s just ask this bluntly: Have you made any money off Spotify, which shows you having nearly a quarter million followers with a handful of your songs having scored in excess of a million streams apiece?

TASJAN: Not that I’m aware of. Spotify is one of those things that is a grain of sand, really, in the hourglass of the music industry. You notice it over time, as an artist like me for example, and you think, “Well, my songs are getting played. More than a million people are listening to songs off my records.” It seems like that should generate something for me. And the fact that it doesn’t, it just feels morally wrong somehow.

I don’t know a ton about digital service providers, but I know that Daniel Ek [the founder and CEO of Spotify] is definitely not worried about things day-to-day that I’m worried about, because he’s in a much different tax bracket. It feels weird to me that I know that there are people profiting off of it that aren’t me. It really feels like the equity of it is bizarre when the sole writer of the thing that’s generating the income isn’t making anything off it.

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Photo: Michael Weintrob
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Photo: Michael Weintrob

MW: That’s painful to hear as a longtime subscriber. Spotify has helped me discover new artists and songs and stay up-to-date about new releases from my ever-growing list of artists I follow. The fact that they might not be benefiting is worse than infuriating.

TASJAN: There are parts of it that are good, like what you said — and the discovery thing has been great for me. I know people have heard me that wouldn’t have otherwise, because they heard me on Spotify, so there is a part of it that does good stuff.

MW: On a more personal note, are you dating anyone?

TASJAN: Yeah. I have had a partner for the last three years. Her name is Erica Blinn, and she is an artist and a musician, and really, really wonderful. In the song “Feminine Walk,” at the end I talk about, “Then up walks this girl who saved my life, with love that cuts like the Randall Knife,” which is a reference to a Guy Clark song called the “Randall Knife” — and that song cuts really deep to me, so I thought that was a good metaphor for her love, because it definitely cuts deep. She’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever known, bar none.

MW: Has there been any talk of marriage?

TASJAN: Interestingly, neither one of us is into that. We figure that the love that exists is what holds the relationship together, and we’re committed to that. It’s a monogamous relationship so far, but she has expressed interest in reading about polyamorous relationships. She’s like me — attracted to all kinds of different people, so we have that connection, too.

We can talk about that and just be really honest about it. Man, when you have a partner who you can really be honest with, the sex is so much better! If you’re in a place where you are both cool enough with each other to say what you need, and what you want, you’re probably going to have a pretty good time together.

She’s a person I can play songs for, and I really depend on the opinions she gives me. But there’s also support for each other in a way, like family. I’d known her for ten years by the time we got together, and had gotten to a place in my life to heal a lot of the open wounds that I’d had for a long time, to have a point of view of myself, and consider my own role in my own unhappiness, and just what I can do to make that better for myself. To get together with her at the same time as all that was happening, I felt, really for the first time, I had a lot more to offer somebody in a relationship than in previous relationships.

So it’s coincided with a cool part of my personal journey, and I’m really grateful for it. It energizes me, and gives me hope of how people can be with each other.

MW: I’m guessing she inspired the line on “Up All Night” where you make your bisexuality plain, singing, “Broke up with my boyfriend, to go out with my girlfriend.”

TASJAN: She did. I was dating a guy for a while, on and off, before she and I got together. And it just became clear once we started getting together, this is going to be something pretty significant, so I needed to tie up my loose ends, so to speak.

MW: Does she tour with you at all?

TASJAN: She does sometimes, yeah. In fact, when we put out the Karma for Cheap record, she was an opener for that tour. She killed it. She has a really cool set where she plays an acoustic guitar but through an amplifier, and all these weird pedals. It was awesome.

She’s so multi-talented: a great guitar player, a really good bass player, a good drummer, and a phenomenal harmonica player. She learned how to play harmonica from a few people, but one of them was Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band, so she really knows what she’s doing, and can do all the different styles. It’s really cool.

MW: Speaking of your home life, do you have any pets? And would you want to have kids in the future?

TASJAN: I have two cats, Little Prince and Little Monster. They’re rambunctious and a lot of fun. I don’t know about kids, I really don’t. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about, or have a big desire for or anything. I have a lot of friends who are parents, and they’re really good people, so I appreciate them being parents, because I know that they’re raising very cool little human beings that are going to go out into the world and be kind to people and be really cool.

MW: We managed to get to the end of the conversation without any direct discussion about the pandemic and how it’s impacted you overall. Based on what you’ve said so far, I get the sense it wasn’t all bad for you and that there were some positive sides to it?

TASJAN: Absolutely. I had my ups and downs with it. I had some tough moments — I had to do this livestream with Willie Nelson, and it was just so full of technical glitches, I had a meltdown and threw my guitar in the trash can afterwards. I literally went outside, threw my guitar in the trash, came back inside and then sat there and stewed for 20 minutes.

But I also feel like I learned how to do all this stuff on the piano that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I also learned how to build and foster a much more inviting home life. I had spent pretty much my whole life on the road — even when I was a kid, my family moved around so many times, from Delaware, to California, to Ohio, and then I went right from Ohio to New York to Boston, and then back to New York. There’s been a lot of moving around for me. Having the time to have a real home life was something that was good that happened.

MW: At some point in the near future, there will likely be pressure for you to ramp things back up by going out on tours that will take you away for weeks at a time. Are you worried about how that might affect your home life?

TASJAN: I’ve been thinking about that. It used to be a lot easier to leave. Leaving to come on this tour with Todd was a challenge because I felt like I was leaving behind something that really had just become an integral part of my wellbeing, really.

I’ve definitely rolled the dice a few times in my life, as far as just letting myself be as wild as I’ve felt like at any given moment — I don’t really drink anymore, and I really only smoke weed, and occasionally do some mushrooms or something like that, but I had my time with those things where I really went for it. Now, I have that beautiful home life and all these reasons to get up every day and not fall into the places that can make you want to go do those things. Coming out on the road is kind of an open invitation for anything and everything. So it’s a little bit like walking a highwire, and you’ve got to make sure you stay balanced.

There are some challenges for me there, but it’s nothing I can’t deal with. I’ve just got to stay focused on the things that are important to me, and do my best to be in service to those things — and not, you know, in service to the devil.

Aaron Lee Tasjan opens for Todd Snider on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 7:30 p.m. at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $35. Call 703-549-7500 or visit www.birchmere.com.

To learn more about Tasjan and his music, visit www.aaronleetasjan.com.

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