Feature interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan at Nelsonville Music Fest

Joel Oliphint

“I sing jokes and call them songs; nobody knows where they belong,” Aaron Lee Tasjan sings to open “On Your Side” off his 2016 album Silver Tears (New West Records).

While Tasjan's brand of East Nashville outsider Americana is no joke, his sense of humor comes through often in irreverent tracks like “12 Bar Blues,” in which Tasjan meanders from bar to bar in spoken-word verses filled with witty references and one-liners (“How many roads must a man walk down … to find an affordable bar in the city of Los Angeles,” he drolly intones).

“Rock 'n' roll should be somewhat laughable,” Tasjan said recently by phone from the road. “To me, that adds to the danger of it — the fact that for some people it could be a joke, and for other people it could be everything. It's a natural part of my personality, so it feels right to put that into the songs. I want to sing to people how I would talk to somebody.”

For years, Tasjan was known mostly for his impressive guitar work, leaving his hometown of New Albany to play in bands like the New York Dolls, Alberta Cross, Semi Precious Weapons, Drivin' n Cryin', Everest and the Madison Square Gardeners. But when he moved from New York City to Nashville in 2013, he began writing songs for himself.

“If you're trying to be good at something, it helps to go where there's other people who are really good at it,” Tasjan said. “If I'm at a bar, and I hear my friend play some song that just blows me away, it makes me want to go home and pick up my guitar. … I'm a dude who, when I get my ass handed to me, I feel very inspired.”

In makingSilver Tears, some of Tasjan's songwriting inspiration also came via a psychedelic experience. He ended up writing four songs on the album in one day while microdosing LSD.

“I've never done it since, and it wasn't a purposeful thing,” he said. “My roommate was out of town. This guy had given me some acid at a show, and I just thought, well, I won't be bothering anybody if I'm all weird and tripped out. ... I'd gotten up early for whatever reason, and I don't think I ever went to bed. I just stayed up because it was so much fun. It reminded me of being a kid, with my Fostex tape recorder in my closet, staying in there for hours making songs.”

“When you're in a state of mental and emotional suspension,” he continued, “it helps with perspective. I think that's why people do psychedelics to begin with — to gain some perspective. Or to party.”

East Nashville now feels like home to Tasjan, who performs on the Nelsonville Music Festival's main stage at 2 p.m., plus an unplugged set at 8:15 p.m. in the intimate (and sweaty) No-Fi Cabin, on Friday, June 2. His early years in New Albany seem like a world away, but he can still relate to how he felt growing up there.

“A lot of the stuff that happened when I was a kid I still use in my shows,” he said. “When I was in high school, we had this guy who was kind of like Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dazed and Confused.' He'd graduated earlier than us but he was still hanging around. He'd get us beer. He played baseball, so we used to call him Baseball Fred.

“I still use a lot of Baseball Fred anecdotes in my show, because he was such a funny, wacky dude. And anyone can relate to high school kids desperate to get their hands on some Natural Light beer.”

Nelsonville Music Festival

Thursday, June 1 to Sunday, June 4

Robbins Crossing at Hocking College

3301 Hocking Pkwy., Nelsonville