Tristen Gaspadarek, who simply goes by Tristen on stage, is a Chicago native turned Nashville songsmith who began making waves (no pun intended), with the release of 2011’s Charlatan’s of the Garden Gate. In 2013, she followed up with her sophomore album, C A V E S — an album in which Tristen’s noted influences such as Tom Petty and the Eurythmics can be heard on songs such as “Catalyst” and “Easy Out.” Her summer album, Sneaker Waves, released 7/7/17, is no less of a sonic and lyrical masterpiece than its predecessors. The first single, “Glass Jar,” features Jenny Lewis, whom Tristen toured with previously. The album is woven together with intricate musicianship and profound lyricism, and is wrapped up sweetly and melodically by Tristen’s uniquely delicate, yet sometimes awesomely gritty voice. Tristen is a poet, which is hard to find in today’s ever-competitive, algorithm-obsessed music world. If she’s not already on your radar, she should be.
When you initially moved to Nashville, you didn’t have any real intention of recording an album, and after listening to your entire discography, that blows my mind.
When I moved to Nashville, I just wanted to be a songwriter, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just moved to town and start meeting all kinds of musicians and seeing all kinds of great music, and I quickly decided, “I just need to play shows. That’s what I need to do.” I started trying to put bands together and play shows, and then at the same time, I started recording – right in the beginning of being able to have a home studio for like 500 bucks, not really too expensive – so I began writing songs and demoing them by myself. I really learned how to play instruments – I learned as a child, but I really learned how to play my instruments by recording them myself to a metronome.
Listening to your records, seeing you live – you don’t really stick to a specific genre. At first, I thought, “Oh, she’s kind of rockabilly,” but then your set ventures into pop, it ventures into folk. You haven’t really backed yourself into a corner genre-wise.
I’ve been called a genre-bender before. Here’s the thing: I write songs – especially for the record I’m putting out – and I let the songs decide what they’re going to be. I listen to all kinds of music. I write songs, then I think about the drum beats, and then I think about, like, “I love the production on this song! Maybe we can do something like that.” For me, the song is the body form and the production is the outfit, and there are limitless outfits. I don’t stick to a genre. It might be confusing, but I’m not concerned about whether or not I’m being clear. To me, it’s one part engaging with other people, and then the other part is what I want to do [laughs]. And with the internet the way it is, and you know, I’m a child of the internet, and being able to look up any music you want at any time, it broadens the vocabulary. I don’t think – I never approach what I’m doing creatively – I don’t have a defined idea of who I am. It changes.
You write really compelling and poetic lyrics over genius, catchy melodies.
I feel like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, so sometimes I like to balance – you know, you’re playing these songs for people at night, in a bar, and you still want joy and excitement. But we live in this crazy world, so the things you want to write about, the ideas that I have are usually pretty intense. I try to package it up in a way that feels right to me, but also, I love lyrics. I love Joni Mitchell. I do think that something happened, and this is getting pretty deep, but I do think something has happened. The record has been around for about a hundred years, and that’s how music started to be sold – as a record. In the beginning, word on the street was guys were just funding these records, and getting these songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan to come and make a record, and these people were making these records, and they were live bands, so they knew how to play this stuff live, and then they would record and put it out, and then this process – it’s not just in music, it’s happened everywhere – people began to measure how things sell, and they began to measure human behavior, like, “We know if it says this word in it, it will sell.” They started putting math on magic. You have these giant corporate record sellers, major labels, focusing on a thing they know they can sell, artists that are malleable. We sort of lost sight of “What responsibility do we have to our culture to make things popular that challenge people?” I think if you put the most challenging music on the radio every day and play that on repeat, then everybody would like that. I think you’re fed a plate of food, and you decide what you like best, but if it all has poison in it, then it all has poison in it, and you’re going to die nonetheless. I guess the idea is to, as a culture, decide we aren’t going to sell massive amounts of poisonous food, or massive amounts of vapid, repressive music that reinforced the status quo. I mean, this is how the world works in my mind.
It’s crazy to think about, too, because we have Bob Dylan who just won a Nobel Prize for literature, and he’s a songwriter. Are we going to have that 40 years from now?
They’re still out there, and they’re still doing it, and some of them break through, but it takes a really long time. Nowadays, there are so many people making things. We’re in this age of mass creation, where everyone can create. You have to sift through a lot of it, as consumers, and music lovers, we have to go out and find it. It’s not going to come to you on your radio, probably not going to be on TV – there are exceptions, but they’re exceptions. You really have to go out there and figure out what kind of music you like. You can look at your favorite artists and see which artists they’re helping, or listening to. A lot of it comes from these communities that come up together in certain places and time periods.
You’ve co-written with a lot of people; you’ve been on other artists’ tours. What do you learn from that – from going from a more collaborative situation, to forefront on stage?
I started on my own. I was very used to just doing whatever I wanted, and being the one running the show. You have to figure out how to do all these things – touring and all that. In 2015, when Jenny asked me to be in her band, I was actually ready for a break from being in charge of all of that stuff, so it was really nice. I got to be a supportive role, and it’s a lot easier in certain ways because there’s no pressure. You can just come in and say “Hey boss, what do you want? Oh cool, let me do that.” Touring with Jenny was very luxurious, I was just taken care of and we were playing for a lot of people every night. I learned so much about – for example, I’ve always been a minimalist, and been very obsessed with the most minimal form of the idea. When there’s a lot going on musically, I like to carve it out, and she’s the same way. Watching her be the same way, I felt reinforced. You can only learn from watching someone else do it, you know? Ultimately, I committed to doing that for one break. I love singing and being a songwriter, and I’m really happy when I do it, so I had to force myself to walk away from an easier gig, maybe, so I can do what I feel I need to do spiritually.
When you went into the studio, though, for Sneaker Waves, you went in with over 30 songs. That’s significant when you consider how many songs end up on an album. And you said earlier that you went in with no concept for it, but when you go in with that many songs, does that album end up conceptualizing itself?
Yeah, I think what happened was, I went in with 30 songs that were demos because I write them, and then I kind of come up with stuff [in the studio]. So they have melodic ideas and drum beats and stuff like that. Basically, it’s just a weeding process for me. The songs that are going to come together, they just do. There’s a lot of back and forth. At the end of the record, we have 11 on the record, one that’s a B side, and, like, eight that need to be finished that will be B sides, or maybe come out on something separate. It’s a constant process of me writing things, and then sorting it out and figuring out what the record is going to be. You have to think about how songs relate to each other, and the song order, and all of those things I pay special attention to because I think it’s really important. For me, it’s really interesting because I’ve been through this process three times now, so I get to this place where I feel it’s right. I’ve gotten to places where I’ve felt like, “I think we need a couple more of this type of song,” so we wrote a couple and added them. It’s really funny – of the 30 we started with, I feel like 22 of them aren’t done yet, or need to be redone, or never made it, or weren’t complete ideas to begin with. It’s survival of the fittest. If you can make it to the record, bless you.
And the album name – Sneaker Waves – can you explain the meaning behind the title?
We did a little tour of the Northwest last year in June, and I was walking along the ocean. We went to Rockaway Beach, and there are all these signs for sneaker waves, which are unanticipated coastal waves, and it’s bigger in size than the waves preceding it. It can potentially just suck you into the wave and take you out to sea and you’re done. I just thought, “Well isn’t that life?” You know, you’re walking along one day and things happen, and you don’t know when the time will be, so the sneaker wave — I just thought that was a good idea for an album title.
What’s something you never really talk about in interviews that you really enjoy talking about?
I love poetry. One of the things — like this election was really upsetting for me, and instead of blaming it on anybody, I sort of felt like it was — you know those mirrors at hotels sometimes that make you look weird? I had that feeling. Like, looking at the American people, like, “Do we really look like this?” I think it’s a good wakeup call. When I’m feeling stressed or disillusioned, I like to look to poetry, and I talk about this at my show. I definitely love looking to poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And Edgar Allen Poe’s “Dream Within a Dream,” which is a song we covered. That’s a poem that perfectly describes death. There’s a metaphor in it where the grains of sand slip through everyone’s fingers. All of this ties back into Sneaker Waves. Maybe we all need a healthy dose of knowing we’re going to die.
I never understood greed or letting your bank account stack up. I never understood the obsession with money. The one thing more important to me is time. That’s the universal currency. We only have however much time we get here. How we spend our time is the real value.