In a power move for the ages, Taylor Swift said last week she plans to re-record her first five albums, after her back-catalog masters were sold to an industry mogul whom she does not like one bit. If this comes to pass, it will be an interesting exercise in rethinking, reworking and re-hearing some important country/pop albums. But the thing is, songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan already had a similar idea.
Last Friday marked the release of Karma For Cheap: Reincarnated, a newly made, newly sequenced interpretation of an album Tasjan released exactly a year ago, without the semi-colon. The original didn't die and transcend to a higher plane of existence (that remains a frontier for an ambitious artist). While it’s lower-key and lower-volume, it would be a disservice to call the new disc a mere acoustic version of the first. It’s more like an emotional re-mix, a chance to reconcile the spirit of the songs with a year’s worth of personal change.
"A lot can happen in a year,” Tasjan told WMOT last week in an interview that’s posted here in its entirety. “And for me, the journey that I've been on with it, it felt natural to re-investigate (these songs), if only for the fact that how I physically felt two years ago when I was writing them and the way I feel now are almost 180 degrees from each other."
Tasjan is guarded about the precise nature of his struggles in the year after the release of his breakout 2016 album Silver Tears. But he said he was in an unhealthy place generally, and suggested that the sound and feel of Karma For Cheap came about more by default than design as full-bodied psychedelia, grounded in the songs' live arrangements and his twin guitar work with band-mate Brian Wright.
"It was a record that went through some real ups and downs during its creation," he noted. "There were some moments where it was like, 'Wow, are we going to have to completely abandon this record?'" This existential uncertainty was rather invisible to the music world, which received the excellent opus in stride, with NPR for example citing its “new vigor” and “sense of mission.” But something else was going on and Tasjan wanted another whack at the songs, shaped by how they felt over months of performance, or more precisely how they made him feel.
"It occurred to me one day (that) these songs really started, all of them, with me on an acoustic guitar or my piano and there felt like something to that," he said. "I was paying very close attention to how these songs had changed for me over the course of touring on them and performing them."
So on Karma I, the lines "Open up your eyes, You could change the scene, And let it set you free" were, he realized, aspirational, self-care in a time of stress. Singing it over and over actually helped. Even through the Karma II version of “Set You Free” feels moodier, with a floating Lucy In The Sky vibe and a melancholy Elliott Smith falsetto, you’re hearing a more grounded artist singing. "There were no lyrical changes, but the musical approach to the song on the Reincarnated record became more like the feeling that singing the song every night kind of gave me,” Tasjan said.
The very next track further tells the story, as the chiming and striding guitars on "End Of The Day" are reincarnated as a plunky upright piano treated with felt on the strings. This was co-producer Patrick Damphier's idea, Tasjan said. The piano “had this beautifully ornate but muted sound to it." And further, Damphier came up with a way of recording the piano multiple times and stacking notes in production to emulate the particular chord voicings of the original guitars. "It was key,” he said. “I think doing it that way kind of tied that conceptually back into something that's probably more specific to me as an artist."
Aaron Lee Tasjan's artistic story is nothing if not specific. He trained on jazz guitar then wound up as one of New York’s best rock and roll singers and shredders in the 2000s. As a veteran of the New York Dolls, Drivin N Cryin and his own bands, he’s got more superficial kinship with Mick Ronson than Rodney Crowell, yet since he moved to Nashville about six years ago, he’s found a network of roots rocking compatriots and become a signifier of what’s great about East Nashville and a widening Americana scene. The nimbleness and insight required to so thoroughly re-imagine a strong body of work in a short span of time should further burnish his creative credentials.
Aaron Lee Tasjan will play several times during AmericanaFest 2019, including a night-ending showcase at Cannery Ballroom on Thursday, Sept. 12 at 11:30 pm.