“I sing jokes and call ’em songs,” country-folk rocker Aaron Lee Tasjan sings on his second solo album, Silver Tears. “Nobody knows where they belong.”
As a Nashville-based songwriter, Tasjan blends wit and poignancy with a brand of freewheeling efficiency that he first wielded as a guitarist across genres, rubbing elbows with the greats—like a musical Forrest Gump. And he’s just 30 years old.
“I don’t think you could plan out the kind of musical existence that I’ve been having for myself the past several years, so I just did whatever came up and honestly tried to care,” Tasjan says. “I just wanted to be a good musician and do whatever I thought it would take to become one.”
He started as an Ohio kid whose high school jazz band competed in the Essentially Ellington competition at Lincoln Center, with Wynton Marsalis handing Tasjan the Outstanding Guitarist award for his Freddie Green-inspired chording. He studied jazz guitar on a Berklee scholarship for six months before he bolted for New York and began a career that included stints with Southern rockers Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, U.K. roots outfit Alberta Cross and the Neil Young-signed Everest. But his pivotal break came as a member of scuzzy glam-rockers Semi Precious Weapons, a manic foursome that recorded with David Bowie producer Tony Visconti and met the New York Dolls, who drafted Tasjan as their tour guitarist.
A YouTube search for Semi Precious Weapons reveals a wailing Tasjan, spinning on his back like AC/DC’s Angus Young. “It was four people onstage all playing like they were the frontman of the band, which when it worked was quite charming. And when it didn’t, it was cacophonous,” Tasjan says. “But we sucked nobly.”
YouTube even yields an orgy-themed original video for “Magnetic Baby” with a cameo by the band’s opening act, Lady Gaga. “She was really funny and kind of outrageous,” he says. “I don’t think any of us ever thought, ‘This is going to be the next biggest pop star since Madonna,’ or whatever. But she wasn’t singing any of those songs either. She didn’t have anything like ‘Poker Face’ yet.”
Neither did Tasjan. His colorful past certainly didn’t foreshadow the graceful craftsmanship of Silver Tears, released in October and supported with shows at Great Scott on March 23 and Newport Folk Festival on July 28. The album nods to his appreciation for songwriters John Prine and Guy Clark, though its rich songs (subtly orchestrated with horns and steel guitar) more closely evoke the Traveling Wilburys sound of Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison.
“It’s about creating something that people can get a feeling from,” Tasjan says of his songs, and humor plays a key role. Silver Tears opens with the Harry Nilsson-tinged “Hard Life,” where Tasjan playfully rhymes, “Smokin’ dope is dopey, gets you busted by old smokey, and it’s no way to love Jesus or yourself. Well, I guess that’s why I do it, I’m trying to get through it.” He wrote the romantic “Memphis Rain” after facing a combative woman at a bar whom he later saw arguing with her biker boyfriend outside the window in the rain, and “12 Bar Blues,” about a dozen memorable watering holes, recalls a ragtime version of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”
“You either find a way to laugh at these things, or you have a very stoic, serious existence,” Tasjan says, supporting the former. “It just gets me through in a way that I never feel overwhelmed. I just want to be zen.” Open-minded to that end, he wrote four of the album’s songs in a day while microdosing on acid that someone had gifted him at a show. “It was just another instance of my life, like ‘This is interesting. I’ll just follow this through and see what happens.’ ”
Onstage, he’s known for sporting cowboy hats and shiny jackets, which Tasjan credits to honoring a stage aesthetic that goes back to Bowie, as well as honky-tonk icons Webb Pierce and Hank Williams. “I like to dress up,” he says. “The clothing part is just another way of expressing that I want to levitate.”
Aaron Lee Tasjan plays Great Scott on March 23.