Over the last couple of years, it’s been hard to talk about art without talking about politics. Art and politics have always been intertwined, of course, but in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, conversations about the politics of art have become more frequent and more involved.
A lot of these conversations consider the role of the artist during times of political unrest. Do they exist to entertain us, to offer comfort in the face of troubling times? Or are they obligated to face the issues head on?
Aaron Lee Tasjan would say yes to both questions. On his new album Karma For Cheap, he attempts to make sense of recent political and social events that have challenged his worldview, but does so in a way that encourages compassion, empathy, and hope during a time dominated by anything but. Tasjan began writing Karma For Cheap just after the election, while he was out on tour with Lydia Loveless.
“It was an interesting time to be trying to entertain people,” he says, speaking via phone from a tour stop in Chicago. “I noticed, and I guess it was a little surprising to me in a lot of ways, but I noticed how many people at my shows were probably, if they hadn’t cast their vote for Donald Trump, they seemed to be sympathetic in some way to his cause, if you will.”
Feeling that the beliefs of many of his audience members ran counter to his own, Tasjan wound up doing some soul-searching through song. He resisted the temptation to draw a line in the sand, instead exploring current events in a way that would strike a chord with like-minded fans while also inviting in new listeners.
“My parents were well educated,” he says. “My mom was a teacher. My dad worked at Ohio State. So I came from this house where I was taught things like racism, sexism, homophobia, all that kind of stuff. That was an old outdated way of thinking. It was no longer relevant. I guess that’s what you get when you’re this young, white dude living in suburbia Ohio where you don’t really encounter a lot of that kind of stuff. Certainly there were things about George W. Bush’s presidency as a young man that I was like, I don’t know if I agree with that. I think what really struck me was how much all of these issues seemed to come really front and center when Donald Trump was elected.”
Tasjan himself says Karma For Cheap “is not an overtly political record,” but the day’s headlines did have a profound impact on his songwriting. Rather than write songs directed at politicians and policy, though, he sought to make a record that listeners who shared his confusion and frustration could relate to and, ideally, grow from.
“It’s just meant to give voice and be a cheerleader to the people who are really on the front lines of all that’s happening right now,” he says. “I think that this current set of songs really stems from my wanting to add some reinforcement that yes, we need to change, but to try and do it as positively and as in an uplifting way that I can, that hopefully doesn’t make people feel alienated, in one sense, but maybe helps to encourage them to consider things like empathy and generosity and kindness. I think that’s something we could all use a lot of right now no matter where we fall on the scale of what we believe.”
The album opens with “If Not Now When,” a jangly, Beatles-indebted slice of glam rock that brings to frenetic life the very 2018 (or 2016-2017, for that matter) problem of “working some holes in your shoes trying to get over the news.” He likens trying to make sense of today’s climate to “looking for a standing ovation” and “try[ing] to pin a tail on the wind,” describing a phenomenon that plays out in real life and also on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. The song’s arrangement mirrors its dizzying subject matter with “Helter Skelter’-esque guitar and psychedelic flourishes.
Following track “The Truth Is So Hard To Believe,” which began as a joke, charts both the difficulties of living in the fake news era as well as the overwhelming sense one can get while watching the news that headlines have become so ridiculous so as not to seem real anymore. “Set You Free” tackles similar themes, likening living in a “smokescreen scene” of lies and alternative facts to taking one’s hands off the steering wheel and hoping for the best.
“My way of dealing with situations is to find the sense of humor. I thought that ‘the truth is so hard to believe’ was really a funny thing to say,” he says. “As time went on, I was like, you know what, this song is more a comment on things than I even thought it could be. I just thought I was being funny and maybe being a little bit of a barb or thorn in the side of people who want to try and hold up untruths as truths with a capital-T.”
There’s certainly social commentary on Karma For Cheap, but its most powerful moments are those that seek connection over dissection. “Heart Slows Down,” with an arrangement reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, offers “Honey, if your heart slows down, I will always be around” following a laundry list of dire situations, including “call[ing] out the instigator” and a “dealer’s dirty fingers reaching for your money.”
“Once things start to scare you a little bit, that’s when you know that you’re really starting to move the needle,” he says of venturing into Karma For Cheap’s difficult emotional territory.
While speaking about writing and recording the album, both of which Tasjan describes as having “heavier moments” than those of earlier releases, he mentions a song that didn’t end up making the album because it was too emotional for him to sing. Titled “My Whole Life Is Over,” the song takes critical stock of how quickly we lose sight of our shared humanity when interacting with one another online. He’s performed the song live a couple of times (“If people are staring at me I can scare myself into getting all the way through it.”), and still hopes to record it one day. Tasjan, who wears his compassion on his sleeve and who speaks with the kind of slow deliberation one rarely encounters, says the song was inspired in part by “being a weird little dude,” vulnerable to assumptions and criticism from strangers because his choices don’t always align with the status quo.
“I get it,” he says of being misunderstood by others. “Not everybody is going to understand why you would want to wear a dress opening for Margo Price, but for me it just made all the sense in the world when I thought about it. Not everybody thinks about [people’s differences] all the time. That’s the thing. So that song really cut into all of that feeling. I think just having dealt with it for so long in my own life and now seeing it be something that so many of my friends and so many people every day in the media are dealing with, it just really cut really close to home.”
Like its themes, the sounds on Karma For Cheap are heavier than those on his previous albums, most recently 2016’s Silver Tears. Where that one delivered lush, sparkling takes on Americana and classic country, Karma For Cheap is more grounded in Tasjan’s earlier work in glam rock, pop, and punk. Tasjan’s sonic decisions were deliberate, and informed both by time spent on the road in support of Silver Tears and by a desire to connect more directly with his listeners.
“The sound that I really wanted to explore was the sound that I felt like I was getting when my band was playing live,” he says. “We were even kind of representing the songs on Silver Tears, at least some of them, a little differently live as well. They had a little bit more of an edge. There was a buzz and a smack there that the record was a little more groovy and a little more laid-back. The fire and brimstone that was happening in the show really seemed to be connecting us to people in a way that was really positive and energetic. That became desirable for me to try and put onto a record.”
Tasjan, his road band, and co-producers Jeff Trott and Gregory Lattimer recorded Karma For Cheap in Nashville in Lattimer’s garage. The recording experience itself was another departure for Tasjan, who had recorded both Silver Tears and its predecessor (2015’s In The Blazes) with Eli Thomson in Los Angeles. “This was the first record that I was making with the guys in my road band, a record that I co-produced with two very close musical friends of mine,” he says. “Just for that alone, it was a completely different vibe.”
Tasjan cites Trott and Lattimer as integral players in helping him translate his band’s raw live energy to tape. As such, Karma For Cheap bristles with life, recalling the Beatles more than once (in addition to “If Not Now When,” see “Crawling At Your Feet” and “Song Bird”) but also Tom Petty (“Heart Slows Down”), the Yardbirds (“Set You Free”), David Bowie (“The Rest Is Yet To Come”), and Brian Wilson (“Dream Dreamer”). There’s still a little twang, too, and the album feels like the perfect amalgamation of Tasjan’s musical history, from his glam days in Semi Precious Weapons to his stint with the New York Dolls to his more recent explorations of psychedelic country and roots music.
Genre boundaries eliminated, Tasjan had access to an expansive enough sonic palette to tackle tough topics with songs, many of which use uplifting arrangements to tell hard truths, that still remind listeners of the healing powers of music. “Because the world feels so heavy, I was trying to make an album that addresses a heavy situation but again tried to keep it light, as well, so that you’re not just overwhelming people with doom and gloom,” he says. “They’re hearing something that they can relate to in this twisted world that we’re living in, but ultimately, hopefully, it leaves them with at least a sense of hope or the idea that things are changing for the better.”
On “If Not Now When,” Tasjan sings, “You can’t buy karma for cheap.” It’s a fitting line to inspire an album that seriously grapples with what it means to be a good person when everyone’s fighting for the moral high ground and no one can agree on just where that high ground even is. Rather than try to pinpoint a spot himself, Tasjan offers empathy, compassion, and a sincere attempt at connecting with others, regardless of where on the political spectrum their beliefs may lie.
“I just try to be a voice that encourages a positive revolution, if there is one to be had. And I think that there is.”