Aaron Lee Tasjan on Enlisting Lafemmebear for a Pride Month Remix of ‘Nightmare,’ and Helping the Queer Community Feel Seen With ‘Dance/Americana’ Songs

Aaron Lee Tasjan has covered a lot of musical territory in his career, from glam-rock (he was a member of Semi-Precious Weapons, alongside Justin Tranter, and a touring member of the New York Dolls) to rootsier singer-songwriter music (he was twice nominated for the Americana Honors & Awards). His new album, “Stellar Evolution,” covers an even wider stylistic ground, from ’80s synth-pop to balladic power-pop gorgeousness, with a fair share of rock glitter still mixed in. But Tasjan’s got a thing for contemporary electronic sounds, too — as evidenced in his enlisting Lafemmebear to remix and sing on a fresh version of the recent album’s “Nightmare,” premiering today with a Pride Month peg.

Tasjan is one of the great rising talents making records right now, and his musical gifts are so great, and his songs sometimes so subtle, that “queer” is not even something that always pops up as a qualifier in the first paragraph of everything written about him. (Sometimes, it holds for the second paragraph.) Yet, even though he’s never been shy about that aspect of his identity being part of his songwriting or public persona, he’ll allow that it may come to the fore more in “Stellar Evolution,” and not just in “Nightmare.” That song, in any case, is an all-too-apropos one for this or any moment, as it describes the anxiety that LGBTQIA people may feel in public, not feeling certain they’re going to make it to their gathering unscathed. Tasjan tells Variety why the feelings in that song may especially resonate in his current home base of Nashville, where the political tide has turned so much against that community, and why it was important to add a trans icon’s musical and lyrical perspective to the remix.

Did you have it in mind to do a remix that you could have in your arsenal for Pride Month?

For sure. But you know, honestly, it originally came from the idea to just do some sort of collaboration with Lafemmebear. When I heard her version of “I’m a Survivor” by Reba McIntire, I was so floored, and through that became a huge fan of Lafemmebear’s own music as well. A lot of the themes of my record are centered around community, and I’m always interested in reaching out to folks to collaborate where it might be a little unexpected. I basically just sent her everything and was like, “Look, I just am a huge fan of yours. Just reimagine this, however you would reimagine it — just go full Lafemmebear on it. If you want to sing on it, that’d awesome.” And of course she added an incredible verse to the song, so that was really thrilling. I think it started with just a mutual admiration and definitely a big admiration on my part of what she was doing. And it just seemed so perfect for Pride month, once we were done with the track, when she finished it at the beginning of May. So yeah, partially timing, and then partially just being a huge fan of Lafemmebear.

How did the verse she added complement what you had already developed in that song?

That song obviously speaks to some pretty heavy subject matter within the queer community. She was able to even take it a a step further, as a trans person, speaking to her own experiences and how she relates to what she’s seeing. That certainly was a thought in my mind, wanting to collaborate with people who are the voices that will absolutely be inspiring musically, but then also the voices that we really need to hear from that we don’t hear enough from. Her perspective on the track I think made the song kind of even more of a full picture. There’s so much dehumanization happening in the world across the board right now. We really want to do something that speaks to that, but also is a message of love and hope for our people during this time.

I was trying to decide if her remix changes the tone of the song at all. Obviously with a title like “Nightmare,” you’re not describing a positive thing, but the melody of the song almost flirts with cheerfulness, even though there is a fearful element to it.

That’s interesting. I suppose in a lot of ways, my favorite kind of songs are like what Tom Waits describes it as “beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

You say in the song that the “nightmare” queer people face represents someone else’s dream… meaning, maybe, a riff on the American dream that for people on the far right would represent some kind of purification. We see it very overtly in the political sphere — people of power and influence aren’t hiding their biases or even hatreds right now.

Definitely. To me, one of the scarier parts about the idea of another Trump presidency, almost more so than his policies or anything else, is the way that people who might lean in on those sort of hateful directions feel emboldened by the fact that they feel like they have a leader who might agree with them on it. Certainly in Tennessee, things have really heated up politically over the past… gosh, well, since I’ve been living here the last 10 years, but particularly I feel like in the last five, six years. Our community, the LGBTQIA community, has been at the center of some of it sometimes. So the lyrics of the song speak to that anxiety that marginalized folks live with every day of their life. In those places, whether it’s in your car or at your house or at the venue, for every one of those places where you have your people around you and those places feel safe, there’s a fair amount of space in between where you just kind of don’t know what’s gonna happen. You sort of have to live a little bit on guard, or sometimes a lot on guard. And that creates a certain amount of anxiousness within people. My portion of the lyric really tries to speak to that feeling of what it’s like to be in those in-between spaces and not know (how things might go). You’re hoping that everything will be fine, and a lot of times it is, but it’s the times when you’re just confronted with ugliness…

I’ve had situations, like the time I was at a Taco Bell combination gas station, going through the drive through line, and a truck full of popular-looking teenagers pulled up behind me while I was trying to order, yelling all this stuff at me, like “Dick’s not on the menu, faggot.” I’m trying to order a stupid bean burrito, you know? It just kind of comes out of nowhere like that. Even though you’re sort of on guard for it, it still just hits you in this way that’s like, man, I can’t…well, I can believe this is happening. But the shock kind of never goes away. When you face that sort of thing, you try your best to learn how to transcend that, if you can, because obviously, we have choices about the perceptions we have of the world and of other people. You don’t want to live in a space where you’re just afraid of everyone. But you do have to acknowledge the fact that bad people are out there, and they’re gonna say and do things sometimes that are really hurtful or maybe even dangerous. We can’t be immune to that. But we also don’t want to just live in that head space.

And I think that’s one of the things that I like about the sunnier side of the music that Lafemmebear created in the remix. It does speak to the fact that, in spite of the fact that we’re under attack, we’re still a very joyful community.

You grew up in California and then lived in New York before settling in Nashville. Do you still feel comfortable there with everything that that went on that was publicized a year or two ago?

Being in Nashville, it was my first time where I felt like the local government of the place that I was living was really against somebody like me. When I first moved to town and I was starting to put out records, I was always trying to shake it up a little bit. I was on the cover of the East Nashvillian in a wedding gown that I took a sharpie marker and wrote “Raise hell” on the front of. Stuff like that, just trying to just unabashedly be who I am, knowing that I was gonna rub up against some folks. I had some tough conversations at the time with people in the industry and on my team and stuff like that, saying like, “Hey, we support you, but just so you know, telling people this about yourself is probably gonna make things a little harder.” You know, all those little things that just sort of contribute to this headspace that you can find yourself in of: I guess I’m not really like an acceptable person by some people’s standards, living in a place like this.

I know if I’m feeling that way, there’s other folks who live here too, who feel that, and I want to be visible so that they see that they’re not alone. The value of that as an artist is, not only am I visible to other folks, I’m using my voice to speak to these issues that we’re facing and turn it into an artpiece. I was down at the courthouse last year, singing “I Love America Better Than You” for everybody in the chamber, and it was a very interesting moment, for sure. The song got a standing ovation, but then the guy leading the meeting said something like, “Why don’t you stick around so you can see how democracy really works?” You get the impression sometimes that you’re just being tolerated (at most), which is just not a great feeling.

What I do love is the community that’s here. Outside of the smaller group of folks who seem to have a more narrow-minded view of humanity, there is an incredible community of musicians, and I’ve never experienced any homophobia from any of my peers in any way. So, Nashville is a place that has a lot of layers to it. I choose to, as much as I can, engage with and emphasize the parts of it that I feel are really good, in an effort to show people that there’s more to Nashville than whatever you see somebody like Bill Haggerty saying in the newspaper. In the state of Tennessee as well, there’s a community of people who are deeply invested in humanity evolving and art evolving and building a sense of who we are around forward-thinking ideas, and not trying to get back to some place that never really existed to begin with.

Because folks from my community have always been here, and we’ve always been doing this work, and we’ve always been a part of the scenes — particularly of country music, Americana, whatever you want to call that. It’s something that has always been, in my mind, overtly queer. I think of even classic country music, back to things that Porter Wagoner wore on stage. I mean, it just screams “drag show” to me — in all of the best ways, you know? I mean that as a high compliment, obviously. So, ultimately, I feel hopeful, and I feel happy to be a part of the community. But I also feel the need as an artist to speak to the realities of what the situation is like, living in the South as a queer person in 2024.

Is queer the term you best use to identify yourself now? Looking at interviews from the distant past, bisexual came up. But language and usage evolve quickly, and your feelings about how you want to be identified probably evolve as well.

Yeah, I mean, I kind of identify with both things. In the reading that I’ve done about sexuality, there tends to be a gray area for people — a spectrum of sexuality that they exist on. I used to say bisexual more. I guess my attraction doesn’t really have a gender, but as we’ve expanded our idea of what gender is, queer feels more realistic to me. I’ve just never been the kind of person who wanted a relationship with somebody based on their genitalia. For me, it’s much more about who the person is and where they’re coming from. So I identify with both, but I think I’ve been using queer more as we’ve just in general expanded our view of what gender means, over the last…  well, how long has humanity been in existence? However long that is.

You’ve never been someone who usually had your sexual identity pop up in the first paragraph of a bio or album review. Yet you’ve been clear about it. It’s come up before in lyrics, but the new album really has a lot of passages that refer to queer experience, even if that is not obviously the dominant theme of the song, like it is with “Nightmare.” Do you feel like you addressed some of these themes any more on this album than before?

You know, I certainly have made references to it on albums past. But I do agree with the observation that those themes are maybe more present in more songs on this record than they have been before. I think part of that is certainly, as we referenced a little earlier in the conversation, a reaction a little bit to living in Nashville, particularly the last 10 years. But I think that ultimately the job of songwriting is to write about sort of your internal life and thoughts and all of those things. And I think these themes were just particularly heavy on my mind, given the political climate, as we’ve discussed, the last few years.

Also, I started to notice, during the process of making the record, when I would post things online on social, like Instagram or Twitter, a lot of times I would get messages in my DMs from young trans people living in Tennessee, or young queer people living in Tennessee, who just were generally appreciative that I was saying something that spoke to them, and that they felt seen in a way by what I was saying. And, you know, I’m getting up there. I’m gonna be 40 in August. So I think like, yeah, I had the experience of being a young, queer person and having older queer folks in my life that were examples and inspirations for me. Now that I’m sort of becoming an elder in the community, it’s always a good thing to try and be as much of a light as you can for the next generation, knowing the experiences that you’ve had and that you’ve been through and how challenging it can feel sometimes to find your place in that way. So I think a lot of it just came down to wanting to be visible for people and wanting to reach out, in a time that felt a little turbulent for our community.

And it was also about wanting to offer something that also has some joy and some fun and all of that to it as well. Because that’s such a big part of who queer folks are a lot of times.

How did your most recent tour dates go?

It was really fun. You know, the new record has sort of turned some of the shows into just kind of all-out dance parties, which is different from what I’m used to. But I feel like the music is doing its job when the people are boogieing, so I’m stoked.

Besides the upbeat moments, you have things like “Ocean Drive,” which almost sounds like the softer, haunting side of Fountains of Wayne when they do a serious, sweet song.

Oh man, that’s awesome. Yeah, like “Hackensack” or something like that — I could listen to that over and over again. I have. … I was heartbroken when Adam (Schlesinger) passed away. When I was living in New York, I got to have some very interesting evenings out with Jody Porter. Man, I love, love, love that band.

The record has many aspects to it, but one thing that can be said about it across the board, for all the heavier things it raises, is that it is defiantly fun and filled with a lot of great hooks. “Pants” brings some old-school light funk to the mix.

I was talking to my friend Bobby Bare Jr. on the phone this morning and he said, “I’ll tell you what, man. Your new record is the best dance/Americana album I’ve ever heard.” I said, “Can I use that quote?”

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