It seems like forever ago that we were calling Tristen one of our favorite new artists.
In 2011, the Nashville songwriter charmed us with her debut LP, Charlatans at the Garden Gate, and her live show. Then, in 2013, she impressed us again with C A V E S, a rich and ambitious record that saw her take a completely different trajectory.
For a lot of musicians (and music blogs), three or four years can be a long time. Band members get sweet office jobs, writers can be forgetful, things happen. Not so with the consummately creative Tristen, though: she has been working hard and earning awards this whole time. She has also remained one of our favorite artists.
That’s why we were so stoked to see that she’d be returning to San Diego this week. In anticipation of her November 22 show at The Loft, Tristen did a brief email back-and-forth with us. In the interview, we discuss her process for writing songs, her sax-playing grandma(!), her latest project, and more. Check it out:
Owl and Bear: You broke through with 2011’s Charlatans At The Garden Gate, which had a kind of traditional rock/folk rock sound. Then, a couple years later, you hit us with C A V E S, which had layers of synth, electronic drums, and dancey beats. When you were writing and recording C A V E S, did you set out to reinvent your sound, or did it happen during the process?
Tristen: A combination of both I think. I had started writing songs and making demos on synthesizer and an Alesis HR-16 drum machine. At the heart of it all, I’m a songwriter. So making a record becomes a way to release a collection of songs. This then becomes an attempt to create a sonic landscape to connect them all and challenge myself as a producer.
I love recording and being in the studio. When the song is a mannequin with good shape and form it can wear any outfit. So there are a lot of choices to make. I don’t identify whether I enjoy a piece of music with its genre, like most people, I like all kinds of music. Identification tends puts an end to creative understanding. Genre is dead.
Owl and Bear: How did you get started with writing and playing music?
Tristen: I started singing as soon as I could talk. I could memorize lyrics at a young age with no problem. My father plays guitar and my grandmother plays piano and saxophone as well. By the time I was a teenager, I was singing any time I could. I could play a little piano and guitar, but before I was very good at either, I began writing songs. The songs were not good but I kept writing. I went to college, had access to a real education for the first time. Right around that time I discovered David Bowie and my mind exploded, I decided to give being a songwriter a shot. So I moved to Nashville in 2007 to put together a band and play shows.
Owl and Bear: Lyrics take a prominent role in your songs. What lyricists do you look to as influences?
Tristen: Lyrics are half of the song to me and the other half is music, which is comprised of melody and rhythm. I look to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, the usual suspects, for lyrical inspiration. I also really love classic country music for this reason Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn; these songs tell stories about the human experience in a way anyone can understand. I also look to poets for inspiration: Richard Brautigan, Howard Nemerov, Anne Sexton, Carl Sandburg, Boris Pasternak, the list goes on.
The only unique perspective I can have as a writer, is what I know, in the context I am living in, as a reporter for my time. The cool thing about music is that you don’t have to be literal or heavy handed. You can allow the listener to infer. If you have a couple hundred words in a song, why not try to say something, create some image or feeling, or connect the words to music in some way? Oh ya and they have to sound good too. That’s the puzzle and there is no right way to do it.
Owl and Bear: What are you working on now?
Tristen: I’m in the middle of making a new record. My partner, guitar/engineer wiz Buddy Hughen, and I started in August with 40 songs. It’s the first time I’ll be creating a record in its entirety at my home studio, truly DIY style, and it’s going swimmingly.