With his lime-green suit, matching bowler hat and round-rimmed mirrored sunglasses, guitarist and songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan owned the Rhythm N’ Blooms stage a couple of years ago.
During an afternoon slot on the Cripple Creek stage beneath the James White Parkway, he strutted, swaggered and laid down a blistering set of East Nashville rawk, playing as if the crowd before him numbered 10,000 instead of 100, banging power chords off the bridge abutments like a wrecking crew foreman driving a 12,000 pound steel ball through masonry.
It was the cape, however — lime green, just like the threads — that, in some ways, made it all possible. Tasjan had worn them before, and he’s donned them on occasions since, but no matter how old he gets, he told Blank Newspaper recently, a cape paired with an electric guitar takes him back to his childhood and turns him into the rock ‘n’ roll superhero he was always meant to be.
“When I was 9 years old, my dad took me to see James Brown, and I’d never been to a concert before,” said Tasjan, who returns to East Tennessee on Aug. 18 to headline the Second Bell Music Festival, presented by this publication. “First of all, that was obviously incredible, but he closed his set and that show with ‘Please Please Please,’ and Mr. (Bobby) Byrd came out and put that cape on him, that was it.
“I was obsessed with capes at that point — Batman, Superman — and when he put that cape on him at the end of that song, I just thought, ‘This is what I want to do; be a singer, man, and get to wear a cape!’ At the time, I wore one to school, and I got made fun of a little bit, but here they put a cape on this guy, and people were clapping for him and giving him a standing ovation. That told me everything: Put a cape on, and people will clap for you.”
Granted, Tasjan does more than just look pretty in a cape. An Ohio boy, he started playing guitar around the age of 11, and while his bio would have readers believe he started out to “sing Oasis songs and get middle-school chicks,” there’s a little more depth to the guy than that. Around the same time, he recalled, he was discovering the power of the written word through his mother’s poetry books, particularly avant garde writers like ee cummings.
It took a while on the singer-songwriter circuit in New York, however, for him to figure out his own path. A stoic style never fit his innate personality, and playing earnest folk felt a little pretentious to the budding songwriter, who slowly began to experiment as a solo artist while making his bones as a sideman. He put in time in a number of different projects — the rock band Semi-Precious Weapons; playing lead guitar for The New York Dolls; playing with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ — and by 2013, he’d relocated to Nashville. Two years later, he released his debut full-length, 2015’s “In the Blazes,” and “Silver Tears” followed a year later. Earlier this month, he put out “Karma for Cheap,” an album that shifts gears and finds Tasjan dabbling in everything from R&B crooning on “Dream Dreamer” to R.E.M.-inspired jangle pop on “Heart Slows Down” to garage rock-meets-Strawberry Alarm Clock on the opening track, “If Not Now When.”
“I was writing a lot for a new record, and I’d written some stuff that was kind of more along the ‘Memphis Rain’ side of ‘Silver Tears’ — the country side — when I started to feel like that the stuff that was really exciting to me on ‘Silver Tears’ was the stuff that was more like ‘Little Movies’ or ‘Till the Town Goes Dark,’” he said. “The stuff that was a little less inherently rootsy, if you will. I love the Traveling Wilburys; they’re one of my all time favorites, and I think the stuff that I was feeling was a little more along those lines, and I wanted to explore those sounds a little bit more.
“I had songs that were leaning that way, and I just kind of went ahead and went all the way. What I kept saying when we were making the record was that I wanted it to sound like Harry Nilsson meets ‘Nuggets’ (the compilation album series) — that kind of old, great, American garage rock stuff. We were in a garage recording it, too, so I guess that kind of helped, but I wanted to get back to that sort of version of American rock ‘n’ roll because, to me, that’s Americana, too — just a different version of it. I was just exploring those kinds of sounds and really just honestly trying to have fun.”
In that regard, he added, he’s an ardent believer in that famous quote by Country Music Hall of Famer “Cowboy” Jack Clement: “We’re in the fun business. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.” The guys that inspired him when he first fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll seemed to be doing just that, and Tasjan hasn’t found any need or desire to reinvent the wheel.
“I think the rock ‘n’ roll that I really love, from Tom Petty to Thin Lizzy, all those guys were kind of like a cartoon to me,” he said. “I think of Tom, and he’s got his top hat and his mirrored sunglasses, and he’s real skinny and got his long hair and giant teeth, and he always looked like a cartoon to me. I think that allowed him to kind of entertain in a way that wasn’t a gimmick; he just looked kind of like a superhero.
“And through that channel, it took on a whole other thing when I saw it live. He was doing something live to give people a reason to do something more than just listen to the record. Sometimes you go see bands, and they play the music, and it’s exactly like it is on the record, and that’s cool. But for me, I really enjoy it when artists take it somewhere else and go somewhere else with it. That gives me a different perspective into what they’re doing, and that’s what I want to do.
“I want to show people another side, to keep them engaged and interested and wondering what else is there,” he added. “It’s not a stage persona, but you really are bringing out those parts of your personality that are really big and kind of cartoonish, so that people feel like they’re seeing a rock ‘n’ roll show.”
Since moving to Music City, he’s picked the right mentors — guys like Todd Snider and Dan Baird and Chuck Mead, who were doing things in East Nashville that were far more interesting than anything he found in New York at the time, he said. He took it upon himself when he arrived to follow those individuals around, to post up in places like the Five Spot or The Basement or The Basement East, and in soaking up the vibes, he found inspiration for his own material — and for the mission, however nebulous it might be, that he hopes will define his music career.
“That’s really what I was looking for, I think; to be around a bunch of people who had an affinity for music that was real,” he said. “In New York, I ran into a lot of bands where certain elements of it seemed to be really important to them — the sounds they were getting, the styles they had — but the people in East Nashville had it all. It felt like I could come further out of my shell and be on the forefront of anything, because people in the community pushed me to get better and do better and be the best version of myself that I could possibly be.
“And if I didn’t do that, I knew I was going to feel like I was disrespecting this beautiful thing that had been there for a long time. I try not to think too much about where I fall in terms of the business part of it, if you will — who’s the most popular, who’s the most well-known — but I do always think about doing the work of it, and the work will never fail you. If you put in the time to be good and make sure there are no holes in your songs and you record something that seems exciting to you and maybe even a little bit scary to you, that’s rock ‘n’ roll, man.
“Look at guys like Little Richard — in his time, he was one of the wildest things you could ever see, and that was a huge catalyst for so many artists,” he added. “I think that’s the thing: If I could be anything, that’s who I would love to be: a guy who inspires people to make more art and put more art into the world, because if you share a piece of your heart with people, it makes them think it might be OK to do the same thing.”