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Aaron Lee Tasjan brings 'Karma' to town

Celebrated songwriter and musician comes to Savannah for a show presented by Savannah Stopover

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SINGER, SONGWRITER, and guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan has had some pretty high profile gigs, including stints with the New York Dolls and Drivin’ N Cryin’. Over the past few years, however, he’s established himself as a force to be reckoned with as a solo artist – releasing three critically-acclaimed albums along the way. He’s poised to keep rising in the ranks of stellar and inventive guitar players, and his ear for layered, emotive, and complex song craft makes him a songwriter to pay close attention to.

Tasjan, who’s currently touring behind his latest release Karma For Cheap, is set to swing through town for Savannah Stopover's Season Kickoff Party at El Rocko Lounge on Sat., Nov. 10. Stopover will be celebrating the kickoff by giving away a pair of three-day passes to the 2019 Stopover Festival.

Ahead of the show, sponsored by Connect Savannah, we talked to Tasjan about his early influences, the new album, and what inspires him as a writer.

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Tell me about your early days as a guitar player. Who were some of your influences when you started, and who or what do you think has informed your playing style the most? 

ALT: I was 11 years old when I started playing guitar. My first public performance was for my 5th grade art class at St Margaret’s Episcopal School in Orange County, California. I played the song “One Hand In My Pocket” by Alanis Morrissette. My second live performance was during all school chapel service on a Tuesday morning. I played “One of Us” by Joan Osbourne in a Civil War soldier’s uniform. The uniform part was tied into a class project somehow.

From there, I got What’s The Story Morning Glory by Oasis and learned every song on the record. Then came The Beatles and Tom Petty. Those were my initial influences. My 8th grade year I transferred to Idylwild Arts Academy to study Spanish Classical guitar. Around the same time, I started playing along with a live Maynard Ferguson record, teaching myself jazz harmony and phrasing. My guitar hero as an adolescent soon became Freddy Green of the Count Basie Orchestra.

When did songwriting begin for you, and who were you looking to for inspiration as a writer early on?

ALT: By the time I got to high school, I was getting bored of the guitar and recording and songwriting became my main interests. I had a Yamaha 1680 recorder and wanted to write songs like Petty or Prine but couldn’t figure it out. Really, I think I was just a privileged middle class white kid who hadn’t seen a damn thing outside of my little neighborhood in New Albany, Ohio.

When I graduated, I moved to NYC and life got hard quickly and I found myself with things to write about. Striking out on my own, forgetting what I knew of family life and abandoning what I’d seen of the world until that point allowed me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be. I am forever grateful for those tough and dirty times in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The new record is really amazing - there’s a pretty amazing evolution in the production, and to my ear a lot of it has the energy and vibe of T-Rex and the glam era. What kind of record did you go in wanting to make, and how did it evolve conceptually during recording? In what ways is it most similar to your original vision?

ALT: Thank you! I do write songs that have traditional forms so what you’re onto here is not entirely inaccurate. But there was no specific pinpoint for the production style other than I wanted a record that felt fresh but also like it had been here all along. A tricky walk. I have learned through the years that exciting records are made out of your imagination and not the playbook of other artists or records you love. So I made a conscious effort not to consider those last two things and trust that the songs were right and that the marriage of traditional forms and more aggressive, modern sounding production would be an interesting record to me. I’m still really happy with how it all came together. 

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You’ve worked as a guitar player and as a solo artist. Do you prefer one over the other? Is songwriting and doing your own thing where you feel most comfortable? 

ALT: I never wanted to be a guitar player I just had to pay my bills and I wanted it to be with music. Doing my own thing was very elusive to me for a long time. I’m grateful that I waited though. It felt like when I finally took that step, I could do it with a clear vision and my heart in the right place. I don’t see any competition in music. I can only best myself. Artists who act as though they’re above other artists are imitators in my opinion. Certainly we all get jealous and that’s natural but you need a certain self-awareness to move past all that. Kindness and love are the ways in which we should treat ourselves and others.

As a guitar player, you’ve worked with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ and New York Dolls. What was the biggest takeaway from those experiences? Can you pinpoint anything that you took away from those gigs that informed your subsequent solo venture?

ALT: Working with Kevn is always fascinating. I’m actually producing a new Drivin N Cryin record right now. He is a true artist. A poet and a prophet. David Johansson and Sylvain Sylvain are the same but cast a different shadow. Kevn is wild and unpredictable. You’ll play 5 songs you’ve never heard in his set out of the clear blue sky. He never makes a set list, either. David and Syl have developed an iconic legacy you’re walking into. Pretty intimidating as a 24 year old kid. I learned a lot from both but mostly I learned that magic is real.

Making music is like believing in Santa Claus. You have to see what’s not really there and be prepared to be judged for that. A lot of people will say “Who are you to believe in yourself? That’s a shameful ideal to hold onto.” But those moments are critical. You have to decide to have unrelenting faith in the unproven and the unknown. It will wear on you and isolate you but it will also give you life when others would just roll over and die.

As a lyricist, what speaks to you the most? What kind of things do you find yourself writing about most often?

ALT: I write a lot about keeping myself between the ditches. Staying healthy mentally, physically. Confronting the truth and painting a picture slowly and lovingly. Every word matters. Prine is my gold standard for lyrics. Right behind him would be Petty, Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams, Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry. I think about lyrical ideas for months - even years. The right things will appear in good time. I want to write how I talk but also distill it into something simple and memorable. Humor is a great vehicle for that. Especially when you’re singing about something sad or scary or dark. 

You’ve lived all over - has Nashville been a good experience for you? What about it do you connect with the most in terms of being an artist? Do you find that it’s easy to carve out a space for yourself there as a musician considering how much of the industry is there? 

ALT: I love East Nashville. It’s my favorite place I’ve lived. It’s affordable and not too gentrified yet, though it’s headed that way. I have never had a challenge sticking out in any regard. Quite the opposite. I am constantly told I don’t fit into this or that. But that’s the price of originality. No one is going to understand. You have to provide a constant stream of opportunities for them to consider your work.

I relish those chances and work my way through them with an open heart and a steadfast belief in Rock’n’Roll. You don’t hear much of it anymore, Rock’n’Roll. But I’ve played with and spent time with a lot of the luminaries and have learned to pick it out when it comes along. In a way, I’ve been able not only to have a belief in the unseen but to also know it to be true.

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