Analogue Music | Tristen


By Matt Conner

This musical cycle is almost over for Tristen.

Sneaker Waves released last July, and the Nashville-based songstress spent the better part of the ensuing year or more on the road in support. Tour dates with Robyn Hitchcock and Vanessa Carlton coupled with headlining runs of her own are nearly complete. To hear Tristen tell it: "I'm ready to kind of crawl into my hole."

But before she rounds out these last dates in the Twin Cities and along the East Coast, we recently sat down with Tristen to ask her about the roller coaster of an artist's life, her creative calling and her hopes to put out another poetry book.

Analogue: You're on the road right now. Do you have a long stretch in front of you?

Tristen: SXSW is a strange beast of a thing to tour around, so we’re doing like 9 hours a day, which is usually way more than I like to schedule in a day. I like to do 5 or 6 hours. Usually, we’re able to do that. It’s kind of nice that way. You know, I’ve been touring a long time, so it’s kind of set up so we have these little towns we can hit. But SXSW is strange, because you don’t really get paid to do it, so I try to keep it really short. Two days there, playing there three days, and two days back. 

Analogue: Is it worth it for the artist to do that inconvenient and free blitz?

Tristen: You know, I only will do it right after I put out a record. I put out Sneaker Waves in July, and so it’s a good date to go there. My label is in Austin. I’m on Modern Outsider, and they do like a celebration, so I’m meeting my labelmates. So that’s really why I’m going, because of my label. Do I think it’s worth it? I think it’s worth it for you when you’re first starting out, and I think it’s worth it to go every few years if it works out, but I would not do SXSW instead of a real tour. Last year, I was actually opening for Vanessa Carlton on tour, and we played Austin the week after SXSW, but yeah, it wouldn’t be worth it. I also wouldn’t do a crowdfunding fundraiser to get there. It’s not going to change your life. I wouldn’t lose money in it.

Tristen Danielle Holbert
Tristen Danielle Holbert

Analogue: You certainly see those campaigns.

Tristen: And I cringe, because I think that it’s kind of like wanting to open a restaurant but not wanting to cook. You have to start touring, figure out how to get that far, by doing it regionally. I think you have to kind of keep it local and small in the beginning and branch out. I wouldn’t advise going into debt to get into SXSW. I don’t really think it’s worth it.

It’s harder to stand out at SXSW if you aren’t sort of established. I remember the last time I went there, I was so broke that I had to borrow money to get the gas money to get there. I had a big, sponsored gig that was paying for the whole thing, so I ended up getting enough money to pay my band and get home safely. But there have been some times when you get in these weird situations where you’re like, 'I really need money. How do I figure this one out?' 

Analogue: Does that purify things for you as an artist, to really make you say, why am I doing this?

Tristen: Yes, because here’s the thing: it’s a roller coaster ride. No matter where you are, you have to come back to making art for art’s sake. Nothing makes you feel good for more than, like, a shot of dopamine. Any success you have, it’s fleeting. There is no moment that you reach the top of the mountain and go, 'I have arrived.' It doesn’t exist. 

I’ve been doing it long enough to have these ups and downs, and have learned to be down when you’re down, so you can create again. There’s an advantage to being at home and to clearing your head and reading and thinking about what you want to make and what you want to do. So yeah, I feel like no matter what I do, I always come back to the same idea, which is that I really enjoy making records and writing songs and creating, and then I really enjoy performing, too. So I’ll then get the itch to go out and play live and play with the band and collaborate with live music. 

At the end of the day, everything is so grueling. I toured in Jenny Lewis’ band, and it was very cush, you know? We were on a bus playing for thousands of people every night, and everything was taken care of. But even then it’s a grueling process. It’s very exhausting. It’s work. So you have to really enjoy it, because it is a job. 

It’s a great job, and I feel very lucky to have work that I’m passionate about, because I think that’s really hard to find. And I’m very lucky I’ve never had a boss. I work for myself and I make my own schedule, and I feel like I live the dream every day. At the end of the day, you are always brought back. I think fame and celebrity can be exciting for people and it can help and give you more money, but I’m not really necessarily sure that those people don’t have that same struggle. Because no matter how famous you get, no matter how successful you are, you always want the next thing if that’s your mindset. There’s always more and better.

Analogue: Would you distill this down into a calling, then? 

Tristen: Is what I do a calling? Of course. My spirituality, I would say, is like a series of plug-ins in a rack, like I like to pull from everything. But I would say I have always felt a strong sense of purpose, and I do feel it when I’m creating things. I’m thinking about communicating with people, and communicating things I think are important to learn.

I feel like being an artist is like being a reporter for your time. I think that’s the thing that makes you unique is that you have this context you’re living in, this perspective, and it’s based on a very small part of the puzzle you’ve learned or you’re interested in. And so art, over thousands and thousands of years, becomes this conversation. It’s not a conversation of politics or power, or people who are in power, but rather a conversation of people who create things, and metaphors, and mythology, and all of these human things. 

This is a teaching I learned from the great Robin Hitchcock, who I’m touring with this spring. He’s an awesome guy. He said that Shakespeare, when you read it, is not clear. You can’t immediately comprehend it. You kind of have to decode it. In a thousand years, it’s going to be even harder to decode. Because all the artists over time have pulled and reused and re-explained the conversations, the dilemmas, from his art. We have that continuing conversation that is understood through modern interpretation of it. 

The way I look at my life is that I’m just here to contribute to the river of conversation that art has, and to do the best that I can do to pass on what I know in this very short period of time. That will contribute maybe to five other people, and those five other people will write something that passes on. And that’s kind of how you can establish permanence in an impermanent world. Obviously in a thousand years, you’ll disappear. But somewhere in there is a little bit of you in whatever’s passed on. 

I feel like being an artist is like being a reporter for your time.

Analogue: You said you have a defined sense of purpose. Does that go back early for you?

Tristen: Yes. And part of that was, when I was younger, the ego. When you’re a teenager and early 20s, you think you’re so smart, so great. You know everything. So I think the ego propelled me for the first stretch. I had no confidence as a teenager, and then I went to college and the ego kind of propelled me through my 20s. And then the brick wall around 28 came, and then you’re no longer a child anymore, so those tricks don’t really work. They’re just obnoxious. Eventually you kind of come around to realizing how insignificant you are. The beautiful part of that is it doesn’t scare me to be insignificant. 

I’ve always had a sense of purpose so I’ve always been very driven to get better and to write and to find people that were like me and collaborate. That’s why I moved to Nashville, 2007. I’ve always been like, what’s my next venture? I’ve kind of been brave in that sense. 

Analogue: You released a book of poetry . Is that something that’s still pretty active? Do you ever wrestle with what’s a lyric versus what’s sort of a standalone?

Tristen: Yeah, well, I’ll say this. Writing poetry is very challenging for me, and I don’t know that I’ve gotten to the point where I consider my poems to be more than lyrics. But I know that for poetry, you don’t have to be as repetitive, and you don’t have to think about the content being performed in front of an audience in a bar. People are reading it at home by themselves. I feel more freedom to be a little bit more heavy-handed, whereas music, in my opinion, can’t be too heavy-handed because it’s alienating. So I guess there’s an art form of words that I would like to get better at. Somewhere in there I’d like to write another poetry book. We’ll see how it all plays out.

Analogue: Do you have a good idea what’s on the horizon?

Tristen: I have a bunch of dates in April, and then I’m probably going to chill and make a record unless somebody wants to take me on a tour that’s super awesome. I’ve done all my touring on Sneaker Waves. There are some other things happening next year, but for the most part, I think I’m going to get back into making a record so I can put out a record in 2019. I’m really trying to put out a record every other year, which is surprisingly difficult for me. So we’ll see how it goes.

Analogue: Are you feeling the songs bubbling up to be there for you when you’re ready?

Tristen: Yeah, I’m doing a lot of cowriting right now, so I’m putting all my ideas into those projects, but yeah. I started writing for this record. I have two songs that I think are definitely really good. And I started really writing and demoing last week, so I’m ready to kind of crawl into my hole. But I have to get through these next two months, and then I’ll probably very much be ready to start working on something else. If I could do the other 7 months, I could make another record. For the last record, I wrote 30 songs. So that’s what we’re working with. A lot of material and narrowing it down. If I could do that in 7 months, that will be a miracle. So hopefully.