Music

Aaron Lee Tasjan Reinvents 'Karma For Cheap' and Talks Songwriting (premiere + interview)

Photo: Curtis Wayne Millard / New West Records

Americana's Aaron Lee Tasjan has created a re-recorded version of 2018's Karma For Cheap to which he's added a new song. The accomplished artist discusses songwriting, performing, influences, and his latest work in this wide-ranging interview.

Aaron Lee Tasjan releases Karma for Cheap: Reincarnated on 30 August. The 10-song collection is a completely re-recorded and re-imagined version of 2018's Karma For Cheap. Tasjan has added one brand-new song, "My Whole Life Is Over (All Over Again)".

"I recorded that for Karma For Cheap," he recalls, "several different versions. I didn't particularly feel like any of them really captured what I wanted. The song wasn't speaking for itself. It was a challenge for me to get out of the way of. We tried it in different time signatures. We tried it fast. We tried it slow. All different ways. Every version seemed to cloud what was really there. When it came time to do this record, I decided to just sing it with the piano, which I hadn't done. What you're hearing is the first take."

Lyrically, he notes, the song is one of optimism even in the darkest moments. "I've had times in my life where I thought everything was over. But it's really just the ending of one thing that leads to the beginning of another."

The understated piano figures and Tasjan's unadorned vocal performance are beautifully autumnal with glimmers of humor and a deep sense of warmth prevailing. It sits nicely alongside the tracks previously heard on Karma For Cheap, including "Heart Slows Down", for which there is a new video. Sort of new.

The song had been intended as the radio single from Karma For Cheap. Then the radio department at New West changed their mind. He'd already shot a promo clip for "Heart Slows Down", but it had to be shelved. "We had to make another video," he says. "Suddenly that video wasn't getting used. I really thought it captured the song. The acoustic version was much more sparse, and the track could be matched to the video. It may be even better than the first time. It was a complete accident and total luck of the draw situation."

Tasjan will be on tour throughout the summer and fall (tour dates below). He spoke with PopMatters about the origins of Karma for Cheap: Reincarnated during a stopover in Richmond, Virginia.

* * *

Was this reimagining of the album something that was in your pocket the whole time or something you decided on after?

It occurred to me that the ideas of genres in music are becoming less and less relevant. A lot of times when people ask me what kind of music we play and I say, "All kinds of music," that seems to be confusing to them. I thought this could be an interesting way to point to the many ways that I not only perform live but also conceive songs. I think they're versions where it's just really about getting the songs across.

What inspired you to release it now?

A lot of people have been releasing demo versions of songs from their record. Jim James did that with his most recent solo record [Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity]. My friend Erin Rae put out some four-track versions of songs from her album Putting on Airs. There wasn't that much thought put into it, honestly. I thought the recordings sounded cool and that maybe people would enjoy hearing them. There was no real impetus to do it other than that. It was about putting more music out into the world that hopefully someone would hear and enjoy.

Is this material the result of a particular set of experiences? Were you thinking about where you were in your career?

As Tom Petty would say, "If you're thinking about your career, that probably means that you don't have one." [Laughs.] I tend to stray away from any other consideration than, "Hey, is this something that I believe in?" Songs are like a mantra, you have to sing them every night, so they have to be something that you can believe in. Something that feels good to say over and over again. That's the most thought that I put into it. After that, it's really about putting it out there and letting people find their own stories in it. Hopefully, enough people are finding themselves in your songs that you can continue to make records.

Songwriting is something that I have a very deep connection with. Music is a very healing thing for me and always has been. It's gone from being a thing that healed me when I listened to other peoples' music to something where I can do that for myself when I'm writing songs and recording them and performing them for people every night.

What was it like for you the first time you made a record? Did you have that sense of, "I'm on the other side now. I've crossed the line"?

I never fully released the first couple of things that I made. I may have released a few of them on Bandcamp. I think I had a healthy perspective on where I was, and I think I still do. I don't feel the need to flood the marketplace with songs unless I believe that they're worthy of being there. It's got to pass a bit of a test with me first before I can convince myself that it's worth putting out.

That can take me a few tries. Sometimes I find that I've written the same song three or four times. Which one says what I want to say? I'm pretty careful with my output once a song is done. I try to be as careless as I possibly can when I'm writing them. I feel that if you figure you have it too figured out you can get yourself into trouble. You wind up writing lines that are too on-the-nose or give too much away. I think a little bit of mystery is important in a song.

For me, creativity is really messy.

Sure.

In high school, my teachers would assign research projects and tell me they needed an outline. I'd go off and write the paper first and then do the outline.

[Laughs.]

I figured that knowing the structure would be restrictive. And I still feel that way.

Totally, man! I think it's important to get it out without thinking about it too much. Without judging yourself before it's done. I edit lyrics until I'm singing them in the studio. I don't want to waste any words. I think words are actually becoming important again. I want to be as thoughtful as I can with mine.

I think when I first started writing, it was very much, "I'll write this weekend," but now it's something where I get up in the morning and say, "What story am I going to tell today?" Is it like that for you with songs?

For a long time, I thought I had to court the inspiration. I had all sorts of terrible methods, none of which were particularly effective. Now it's about communing with the spirit of creativity on a daily basis. I have to go back and reinvest in it because that's the only way that it's going to continue to grow. When you keep your box of tools right next to your bed, and you can get up in the morning and go to work [that's great].

There's this beautiful clarity in the morning. Your mind hasn't run away with all the troubles of the day yet. You can be more reflective and be a reflection of what's around you and what's inside you rather than trying to say something clever or something important, any of that kind of stuff. That's really just more of your ego talking. Those are the places that I need to put my mind in order to be the most effective writer. It's almost like I have to set a trap in my mind for a song to be created. [Laughs.]

Photo: Curtis Wayne Millard / New West Records

Being in a bad mood and creating can go either way. Sometimes it can be cathartic and I feel myself restored at the end.

Yes!

Other times it can be a block.

Absolutely. And those are the moments when it's OK to put limitations on what you're doing. I'll set a timer on my phone and say, "All I want to do is just do a little something. It doesn't have to be anything I'm going to put on an album or sing for the rest of my life. I'm just going to give myself 10 minutes to write anything at all." Those moments can be revealing in their way.

My friend Keith Christopher, who wrote a song that Ray Charles sang, talked about writing through the bad ones. You have to write the bad ones out of your system to get to the good ones sometimes.

For me, there is something about going back to it every day and being in service of the gracious situation of being able to write something, share it with people, have it resonate with them in some way and be able to fill your gas tank doing that. Put a roof over your head. There is that sort of art and commerce argument. But I believe that commerce will take care of itself when the art is at a high level. The best way for me to get it there is to go back to it every day and be grateful that I have it at all.

I recently heard an interview with Mick Box of the band Uriah Heep. He's 72 and writes something every day, whether it's something for the band's website or the seed of a song. I thought, "I still want that when I'm that age."

Amen, man. I look at my friend Ray Wylie Hubbard who is also in his 70s, and I think he's doing the best work that he's ever done. I think John Prine is the same way. Those kinds of people inspire me to continue. It's a long way from here to there but the time isn't the point. It's the Guy Clark idea of, "The work will never fail you." If you put the time in, you'll have something.

You mentioned this idea of songs going out in the world, finding their audience. Have there been times when you've been surprised by how people have received your work?

Pretty much any time somebody says that my work means something to them I'm surprised! [Laughs.] It's not that I don't think that it's possible for them to resonate with people. I think that we talk ourselves into feeling that we are the only person who feels a certain way. I don't think that's true. I think that there are so many shared experiences happening under the radar. I think it's those little things, those little details in those songs that are the things that end up connecting us all. I might be surprised by the particular line is that somebody pulled out that really resonated with them. But it's their experience.

Photo: Curtis Wayne Millard / New West Records

Right.

Singing is something that makes me extremely nervous and uncomfortable. A big part of doing what I do is about me facing my fears and trying to overcome them. If I can find a lyric that feels like a meditation to me that makes it all the easier for me to perform because I can go to that quieter place of inner tranquility.

I find that I speak way more to people as a performer when I'm not trying to go out and get them when I'm just letting it happen. If I'm super anxious, that's hard for me to do. A lot of times I'm looking for lyrics that speak to that for me. Songs that I can sing to myself.

If singing is somewhat anxiety-provoking, how did you wind up doing it?

I lived in New York for ten years before I moved to Nashville. I went there straight out of high school. I loved songs and I loved songwriting and tried my hand at it, but it certainly wasn't going to be a living for me at that point. I was really a guitar player. That's how I made my living. When I came to Nashville, it was to join a band called Everest. I wasn't around in Nashville as a local. Then that band went on hiatus, I came home from those tours, and I didn't know many people in town. I hadn't been doing those things in town that you do as a musician, as a guitar player to ingratiate yourself to other local musicians.

I had the chance to do some co-writing with people who played in Taylor Swift's band, and I wasn't great at it. I would have to go and sit in a room with somebody every day and try to come up with something, and then I'd go home and write on my own. Those songs were about me and were things that were not meant for somebody else to sing.

Right.

That became the catalyst for everything that's come since then. My friend Matt, who ran this bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, called the Well said, "Hey, man, this guy John Moreland's playing. We need an opener. Would you consider coming out and playing a couple of songs before his set?" I did. John's writing absolutely blew me away, but later that night he tweeted out some of my lyrics. They were lines from "East Nashville Song About a Train."

The opening lines of that song are: "The kids in this town don't have a clue / White is the collar that they painted blue."

John connected with that, I guess. Suddenly, this guy that I really revered seemed to have found something of value in the silly little songs that I was writing. That inspired me to try harder! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

I don't have any trouble committing. I was always a great guy to be in a band with because I was always into being in a band, even if it wasn't my own. I was a big cheerleader and always invested in it. When I became invested in myself, the picture became very clear to me. Suddenly there was a map to follow. Gigs to play, songs to write, records to record. It was only at that point that I turned around and said, "Wow! This is absolutely terrifying! I better do something about it!" [Laughs.] I needed to heal myself in a way, and once again, music was right there for me.

I could write songs like "Success" off the Silver Tears record or "If Not Now When" off Karma For Cheap that were these reminders to me to keep going and keep believing. I couldn't get caught up in the idea of how much value it had for somebody else. I had to believe in myself, and that was not something I was used to.

Photo: Curtis Wayne Millard / New West Records

TOUR DATES

July 25th - Newport, RI Newport Blues Cafe (All Newport's Eve Tas-Jam)

July 26th & 27th - Newport, RI Newport Folk Festival Ambassador / Guest Artist

July 28th - Ringwood, NJ Drew's House

July 30th - Pittsburgh, PA Club Cafe

August 10th - Chattanooga, TN Lula Land Trust Benefit

August 11th - Knoxville, TN Ballas Health Foundation Benefit w/ Shovels & Rope

August 31st - Nashville, TN Live On The Green (Karma For Cheap: Reincarnated Release Show)

September 6th & 7th - Sisters, OR Sisters Folk Festival (Acoustic Show)

September 12th - Nashville, TN Americanafest

September 14th - St. Petersburg, FL ((TBA)

September 15th - St. Petersburg, FL Sing Out Loud Fest with St. Paul & The Broken Bones

September 28th - Lexington, VA Devils Backbone Hoopla

October 8th - Seattle, WA Columbia City Theater *

October 10th - Portland, OR The Old Church *

October 11th - Novato, CA Hopmonk Tavern *

October 12th - San Francisco, CA Cafe Du Nord *

October 13th - Felton, CA Felton Music Hall

October 15th - Los Angeles, CA Bootleg Theater

October 17th - Austin, TX Cactus Cafe

October 18th - Houston, TX Mucky Duck

October 19th - Dallas, TX Wild Detectives

October 20th - Little Rock, AR White Water Tavern

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