“People forget that there is such a thing as having a difficult conversation,” says Aaron Lee Tasjan, calling Rolling Stone Country from the road, where he’s touring with Social Distortion. “In real life, you can’t just delete the thread.”
It’s a lot harder, even, to delete a song, something that the East Nashville-based songwriter thought a lot about as he wrote the music that would become Karma for Cheap, his third album: about the value of speaking out, reaching across the aisle and doing the work in hopes of a better, more kind future. He also pondered the importance of acting now, not later, on “If Not Now When,” the LP’s opening track premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country.
“So many people are feeling right now that the desire for change is so prevalent, myself included,” says Tasjan, who wrote the record after Trump was elected under a sense of growing unease. “But it’s on the tip of your tongue and in the air, and we can almost feel it happening. We’re just waiting for the boulder to get pushed off the cliff, so it can roll down into the valley. And that song felt like a good opening statement: ‘Hey man, let’s get on the bandwagon and party one more time, because if we don’t make all that can be made from this moment, I think we’ll look back and feel truly bad about it.'”
“Working some holes in your shoes, trying to get over the news,” Tasjan sings before breaking into a riff that evokes classic Beatles guitar work like that of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” “It’s nothing but a reason to lose.” Tasjan’s no closet Beatles fan – the Fab Four shaped his youth and inspired him to be an artist – and it’s no accident that Karma for Cheap conjures up the John Lennon classic “Instant Karma!” either. Here, Tasjan lets those influences, along with a background in glam-rock bands like Semi Precious Weapons and New York Dolls, form something dreamy and determined, anchored in experimental and psychedelic rock & roll.
“I wanted to try and be a cheerleader to the people who are on the front lines of all this stuff.”
And as with “If Not Now When,” Karma for Cheap strives to cut a balance between rallying cry and sonic escapism, finding a sweet spot that focuses on how to handle and digest the here and now. Songs like “The Truth Is So Hard to Believe” contemplate our terrifying reality where something doesn’t have to be true to be worthy of retweets, and “Crawling at Your Feet” grasps at whatever sense of danger weighs us down. It’s not explicit protest music, but it’s not shutting up and singing, either. “How can you do both at the same time anyway,” Tasjan says. “To shut up and sing would be to defy the laws of physics! If someone can figure that out, they should definitely put a patent on it.”
Tasjan would never heed to “shut up and sing,” anyway, but Karma for Cheap is less about tearing things down than building them up, and giving a voice to those working tirelessly for change. “I wanted to work really hard lyrically to create a record that wasn’t drawing lines in the sand from a humanitarian point of view,” says Tasjan. “Trying to say something that’s more of a comfort, and to try and be a cheerleader to the people who are on the front lines of all this stuff. To my gay friends, to my transgender friends, to my friends who are women, to my friends of various ethnicities. I wanted to make a record that had some good in it, and to try and do something that could help to comfort somebody or uplift somebody.”
Tasjan recorded Karma for Cheap at a studio in his friend Gregory Lattimer’s Nashville house, with whom he also co-produced the record alongside Jeff Trott. He tried out some fancier, more traditional studios first, including one at Sheryl Crow’s house, but nothing seemed quite right. “I guess I feel more comfortable in a dirty garage,” Tasjan says.
On his last record, 2016’s Silver Tears, Tasjan pushed for room for “subversive art” in Americana music, and Karma for Cheap is even less concerned with genre borders, finding inspiration from Tom Petty, David Bowie and, yes, the Beatles. Tasjan’s encouraged by how little the Nashville creative community seems to care about making music that fits neatly into boxes, and recalls recently talking to Margo Price about how free she felt to make whatever sort of record the muse might lead her to, even if it veered more rock & roll.
“It’s refreshing to know those people are out there, and a lot of them seem to be coming from Nashville,” says Tasjan. “The ones making those breakthrough records and then not being afraid to go back on the next record and change their sound, and write about something different.”
Tasjan’s certainly not afraid to push his sound, nor explore difficult subjects: like karma, which never comes cheap. “It’s the golden rule, ‘do onto others as you would have them do unto you,'” he says. “You can’t achieve that by giving your email out, and you can’t get that at a discount in some easy way. But that’s why it’s worth doing, damn it.”
Karma for Cheap will be available August 31st via New West, with Tasjan kicking off the Karma for Cheap Tour in September. Here are Tasjan’s announced tour dates.
June 22 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues Chicago *
June 23 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues Chicago *
June 24 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues Chicago *
June 27 – Columbus, OH @ Express LIVE *
June 28 – Sauget, IL @ Pop’s Concert Venue *
June 29 – Milwaukee, WI @ Summerfest *
June 30 – Lawrence, KS @ Middle of the Map Fest *
July 2 – Lincoln, NE @ The Bourbon *
July 4 – Denver, CO @ The Odgen *
July 6 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot *
July 7 – Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory *
July 8 – Bend, OR @ Midtown Bend *
July 10 – Spokane, WA @ Knitting Factory *
July 11 & 12 – Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater *
July 14 – Victoria, BC @ Rock the Shores *
July 17 – Sacramento, CA @ Ace of Spades *
July 19 – Sacramento, CA @ Ace of Spades *
July 20 – Avila Beach CA @ Avila Beach Resort Amphitheatre *
July 25 – Cleveland, OH @ Jacob’s Pavillion (w/ Jason Isbell)
August 5 – Little Rock @ White Water Tavern
August 7 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Jones Assembly
August 11 – Park City, UT @ Mountain Town Music
August 14 – Council Grove, KS @ Glass House
August 15 – St. Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
September 6 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge – (Solo Show w/ The Jayhawks)
September 22 – Franklin, TN @ Pilgrimage Music Festival
September 23 – Indianapolis, IN @ Holler in the Hill
October 3 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
*w/ Social Distortion