90.3 WUTK presents Aaron Lee Tasjan

Thurs 8/29 • 9:00pm • $15 advance/$20 day of show


Singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, band leader, activist, and Grammy nominee.

Aaron Lee Tasjan has been and continues to be all of these things.

Over his past decade plus of writing, recording, producing, Tasjan has released four excellent and critically acclaimed solo albums, toured the world over on his own and as the guitarist in the New York Dolls.  He co-founded and co-wrote all of the material for the band Semi Precious Weapons. In 2021 he was nominated for a Grammy for his writing on Yola’s “Diamond Studded Shoes” and most recently, Tasjan produced Mya Byrne’s album Rhinestone Tomboy (Kill Rock Stars Nashville) which helped to establish her as one of the first openly trans artists in Americana Music.

He’s cultivated a brilliant and outstanding career to date already.  But his forthcoming album Stellar Evolution (Blue Élan Records) is just what the title says.  Tasjan’s new album is truly the sum of all of the parts of his diverse accomplishments to date while clearly heading in a brand-new direction.  You can’t put any labels on Stellar Evolution except for it being a career defining work and a major leap forward for someone who’s never been afraid to push the boundaries of any and all expectations.

As he set out to work on Stellar Evolution, Tasjan knew better than ever what was important to him. He’s been working his way towards a record like this since he first started making solo albums, with 2015’s In the Blazes. He stuck to an alt-country paradigm early in his career, though he knew that all of his favorite artists were the ones who broke out of their own boxes. His approach to that changed when he began to be more open about his queer identity.

“I realized that part of being an artist means building a community. What do you want that community to look like? Who do you want to be a part of that community? As an artist, it’s your job to curate that, and to be a reflection of what you wanna see in the world,” he says. “I gradually got braver to share more and more of myself through each record, and the music just kinda had to follow suit.” Stellar Evolution is a record on which Tasjan’s songwriting is beholden to nothing — no expectations, and certainly no genre. Just the pure sense of wonder and discovery that had made him fall in love with music as a kid in Orange County, devouring it all with no understanding or care for what was “cool.”

As he was writing, times became very dark for the queer community in the South. Bathroom bans and drag bans were enacted in Tennessee, while right-wing rhetoric around LGBT people became uglier and uglier. Tasjan knew this album needed to reflect the vibrant community that has become home to him. “You don’t wanna think that you live in a time where people are still so vocal about the hatred that they have for each other. But it’s something that I think we’re seeing the whole world over,” he says. “I felt like it was really important to let people know that they’re not alone, that we’re all in this fight together and that we see each other, and that we’re gonna do what this community always does, which is come together and have each other’s backs.

“The record became a sort of rallying cry for being who you are in a time when people literally wanna try to make it illegal to do that.”

Opening track “Alien Space Queen” is the perfect introduction to Stellar Evolution’s inclusive, celebratory ethos. Driven by slick, strutting synth, it’s a playful yet heartfelt ode to the brightest-shining weirdos among us. “She drives an old Trans Am in sunset gold / Yeah, she’s transfemme, a demigirl dream,” Tasjan sings, in what he describes as “a song of pure support and love.”

Meanwhile, inside the funky grooves of “Pants” you’ll find perhaps Tasjan’s most life-affirming feat of songwriting. It’s a call for “authentic and righteous” self-expression, against all odds and despite all obstacles. This is a track that started out, in its early demos, as acoustic indie-rock; but the more Tasjan worked on it with co-producer Gregory Lattimer, the more he took it in the joyous and transcendent musical direction that became its final form. “It just didn’t feel right to me until it got to that place,” Tasjan says. “I wanted it to feel like we were all in a giant parade going down the street together, [saying] damn the torpedoes, we’re gonna be who we are and there’s too many of us to stop us.”

Of course, the pursuit of living truthfully always comes with plenty to unpack and reflect on in your own self; and as such, this is also Tasjan’s most vulnerable album. On the lead single “The Horror of It All,” Tasjan reflects on the confusions and humiliations of queer adolescence — letting that pure and enduring pain bloom into a heartland-rock anthem. The woozy and darkly funny “The Drugs Did Me” sees Tasjan laughing so he doesn’t cry at the rocky, substance-laden path he had walked until fairly recently. And “Dylan Shades” is a gorgeous, tender love song, on which Tasjan reflects on the hypothetical idea of his partner deciding to leave him, and movingly explores the love present in letting go. “When I had the opportunity to examine a lot of the fear I have in my life with a therapist, there were times I allowed my brain to wander off and imagine these worst case scenarios in which I lost things or people I loved,” Tasjan explains. “I tried to imagine accepting the loss with a softness and nobility. I wanted to try to make peace with the feeling.”

Two of the album’s most striking songs lie back-to-back near its center. “I Love America Better Than You” is a scathing protest song which took Tasjan eight years to write — and ended up more relevant now than it had been when he started. “I love America better than you / Her dirty water and her hot dogs too,” goes the winking chorus; “First Black president, insurrectionists / I love America better than you.” Then there’s “Nightmare,” a deeply poignant track, which subverts its clubby beat in exploring the ever-present fear of becoming victim to a hate crime. “I want all my friends to know I love ‘em, just in case I should disappear,” Tasjan heartbreakingly sings on the bridge. It’s a document of exhaustion and terror which will ring true to most queer listeners; and it’s a song like this that makes the celebrations elsewhere on the record feel all the more vital.

The album comes to a sweet close with the duo of “Cry Till You’re Laughing”, a Lennon-McCartney-esque romp that calls out for hard-won optimism, and the hushed piano ballad “Young.” The latter track brings the scope of the album back down to something personal and bare. In each verse, Tasjan sings about his perspective of love from a different time of his life; from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. Yet each is tied together with the simple chorus line, almost a prayer: “Holding on to my only one.” “There’s parts of me that feel the same, as well as parts of me that life experience has changed forever,” Tasjan says. “It was another love song that felt a little different than the kind of stuff one usually hears. Maybe I can write one more verse when I’m 70?”

There’s not a wasted word on Stellar Evolution, and that’s deliberate. After everything he’s been through and everything he’s learned, Aaron Lee Tasjan is a more intentional artist than ever before. “When you’re a touring artist, songs are like mantras; you have to say them every night. And so I really wanted those words to be affirming, and for the energy that’s gonna come out of them to create more of what I hope to foster,” he says. It’s another grasp towards the community and connection that matters most to Tasjan. “The role I feel like I can occupy is to say, okay, I’m gonna be in these rooms where people are gonna be paying attention, and somebody’s gonna get lifted up; who’s it gonna be?” That’s an attitude that harkens right back to the 11-year-old Aaron Lee in Orange County, a throughline that Tasjan never loses sight of for a minute across this album. With Stellar Evolution, he honors that kid and every other version of himself — past, present and future.

©2021 Barley's Knoxville. All Rights Reserved.