Analogue Music | Aaron Lee Tasjan

Aaron Lee Tasjan

By Matt Conner

Aaron Lee Tasjan knows it's only been a year. It just feels like a lifetime.

In 2018, Tasjan released his latest studio album Karma for Cheap, an LP that earned significant acclaim from the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone. Exactly one year later, Karma for Cheap Reincarnated was just released, the same set of songs completely reinvented and largely subdued. If that feels too soon for such a re-treatment, remember this: it's been a lifetime.

To hear Tasjan talk about the songs on Karma for Cheap, whether original or remade, is to hear him muse on a range of topics from disposable culture to personal healing. These tunes aren't just curated snapshots from a segment of time. They are transformative pieces that began their work in the artist and, he hopes, they continue to weave their magic on others in these new "reincarnated" forms.

Reincarnated is not the repackaged industry move you might believe it to be. Instead its an artist so appreciative of this set of songs that he wants to let them breathe in defiance of our hear today, gone tomorrow culture. They've healed him. They've connected him with others. Now he's given them new life as a way of returning the favor.

Analogue: Most artists I talk to are almost already sick of their latest songs they're out to promote because they're already on to something else. Those songs have been written and recorded for some time. Yet here you are coming back to songs that you just released last year. The inference here is that you're actually quite proud of these songs and happy to have them around for a while.

Aaron Lee Tasjan: Yeah, you know I try really hard or make a conscious effort anyway not to release or even record everything that I write—although I do record a lot of what I write. I think a big part of the process of creativity for me is about seeing what pieces of the work that I'm doing speak to me after some time has passed.

That kind of perspective feels valuable in terms of choosing the songs and stuff I try to present to people. So I try to write as much as I can and give myself some amount of distance between the creation or what I was making and the process of actually recording it. There are certain songs that will stick with you over time. That's a signpost for me saying this is worth investing in.

Karma for Cheap Reincarnated cover
Karma for Cheap Reincarnated cover

One thing that definitely happened during the recording process of Karma For Cheap was that the record became what the live versions of those songs were like when I played them with my band. So many times with music nowadays, it just feels like the album "cycle" gets shorter and shorter. I thought it would be interesting to re-present those songs in the way they were originally formed, which is me sitting in my bedroom or on my porch or whatever with an acoustic guitar or at the piano.

It struck me how quicky we're filtering through things these days. Just the news cycle, stories that would have been around for weeks are gone within a couple hours or a day. It's interesting to me that we're in a time where we're sort of examining and re-examining things but there's also that disposable aspect of our culture. I thought it would be interesting to re-present the songs in this way. It's also possible that this could be the first way some people hear these songs as well.

Analogue: You could have repackaged this in any number of ways with acoustic outtakes, an EP with a new song plus a few reimagined, etc. How do you land on this packaging?

ALT: I think these songs became valuable for me in the process of singing and touring them every night. Living in them, they've come to mean something more to me than just the guy who wrote them. They've helped me connect with people over the last year in a way that often feels hard to do now. There's so much artifice to the way we kind of communicate with each other. I feel I got to have really genuine conversations with people I agree with and people I disagree with. I learned a lot as a result of making the record.

I was cathartic for me to revisit these songs and relive some of those moments but also see how some of the songs really went from almost being these arena rock type of songs to being these really intimate meditations where the harmony or melody got restructured. While I'm at a totally different place in my life from when I wrote these, they still have meaning for me now in a completely different way.

I also wanted to reignite the idea and discussion that a song that holds up to the harsh light of day, so to speak, can be done in any number of ways. It's going to come across. So it was fun, too, in that way to test these songs out. It's like, "All right. I'm doing this as a waltz now. Will it still hold up?" [Laughs] That was scary in a way but it was of value to me as a songwriter and artist.

Analogue: I love that you said the songs allowed you to connect with fans in ways you hadn't before. Can you take us inside that a bit or provide an example?

ALT: [Pause] You know, there are friends of mine from Indianapolis, I believe, and they always come to the gigs if I play in town. I love seeing them and they have a daughter who has Down Syndrome. It was her birthday and we were playing in town recently. For whatever reason, the way we developed the songs off of Karma for Cheap live, they really inspired me, when I got on stage, to turn the part of my brain off that care what people think of me. It allowed me to be really free and expressive. I found myself really engaging and she was right in the front row. We were playing "Set You Free" and I was able to engage with her in a way I never could before.

Believe it or not, I still get really nervous. It's a very anxious situation. I'm really fighting myself up there a lot. I just had lunch with Mickey Raphael from Willie Nelson's band and he gets nervous before every show. It's just something some people have. It's different than recording in the studio. Anything can happen and the rules go out the window. It's kind of the wild west in a lot of ways.

So I found myself able to engage with this girl in this way that was really personal. It struck me in that moment that in the past, I was a much more closed off type of performer. For some reason, something about these songs allow me to open myself up in this way. They gave me this beautiful connection with this young lady on her birthday. In talking with the family after the show, it was clear it meant a lot to both of us. In such a weird, strange time, it felt great to have such a cool, personal connection with somebody through the music.

Analogue: What song surprised you the most with the new treatment?

ALT: Probably "End of the Day," I guess. Patrick Damphier, who recorded the whole thing with me, had a real vision for that one, which was great because I sort of did but I was winging it a little bit in my concept of what I wanted it to be. When I walked in, he already had the piano treated and he had this concept to find all the notes in the guitar chord and then do six passes on the piano, one for each string. Whatever the note that each string would have in each respective chord in the song, he had me play that note throughout the whole song.

We played six piano takes doing one note on the piano at a time to make the same exact chords as if you were just strumming it on the guitar. It ended up giving it this really cool sound. I just thought it was a really creative approach and certainly nothing I expected to do.

Songs are like mantras. You say them every day so whatever you are singing about, you're communing with that. In a way, you're inviting it into your life.

Analogue: You mentioned that the songs have changed meaning for you earlier...

ALT: You have to be careful at times about the songs that you write because you can become the songs you write. In this case, that was, I think, a little bit of my own subconcious's diabolical plan. I was struggling emotionally and physically when I wrote this record, but I chose to write about where I wanted to be in my mind and spirit and body and just my life and relationships with others.

Songs are like mantras. You say them every day so whatever you are singing about, you're communing with that. In a way, you're inviting it into your life. I tried to invite a lot of self-love and care and positivity and preservation and strength into my life through the lyrics of those songs. I honestly can say that where my head is at and where my spirit is at, I feel like got to that place through the songs on Karma for Cheap. I don't know if I would have gotten there as an artist without having written those songs and making that record.

On top of how I was feeling at the time, it was also a very difficult record to make. We went through a couple different studios and producers and it looked as if maybe the whole thing would fall apart for a second. We turned some mixes into the label and they said it was unusable. I learned so many lessons, but I taught myself a lot about the energy that intent has. I really intended to get better. I intended to be in a better place. Those songs spoke to that at the time and helped me create better and healthier habits in my life.

Analogue: Does the healing process extend then into the live show as you play them out? Even to others?

ALT: Life is pain, right? [Laughs] I think we're forever healing, man. That's the beauty of music is that it can really help in that process, but we're healing for our entire lives. People tend to think sometimes that there's this period in your life that has a beginning and middle and end, but that's not the case. We're suffering heartache and tragedies and sadness and the pain of being human every day for our entire lives. That also means that we're healing our entire lives. We have a choice about the way we can heal and allow ourselves to heal and heal ourselves, really.

For me, music has always been one of those things, but it really became so recognizable to me on this last record—so much so that a revisitation after one year felt like a lifetime of change, even though it only was one year. It just took so much weight off of my shoulders.

VISIT: Aaron Lee Tasjan