Tristen Gaspadarek first began recording music at age 14, and it was around the same time that she decided to drop her Polish last name professionally. “I was probably a little, at that point, afraid that people wouldn’t understand my last name,” she says now. “... When you’re 14, you’re like, ‘OK, I like Jewel and Madonna and I’m just going to cut my un-show-business-like last name out of the picture.” And in funny ways, the influence of both of those female artists are still felt in the now-26-year-old’s music. The lyrics on Tristen’s bright, mildly twangy, string-swept Deceivers Are Achievers EP (out now) were clearly written by a young woman who has never considered being a damsel in distress, who knows she would be doing both herself and everyone else a disservice if she wrote about little more than pining after lost love. Instead, lines like “Tame that nasty shrew ‘cause she knows what you’re up to / You gotta keep her thin and hungry, so she’s eager for your love” (on the deceptively-sweetly-titled”Eager For Your Love”) are more her style. Tristen recently took a break from mixing her upcoming full-length, Charlatans At The Garden Gate (coming later this year), to talk to Paste about making music as a kid, as a college graduate and as a woman.
Paste: You were 14 when you started recording. I was wondering what it was like to start a career, pretty much, at that young age?
Tristen Gaspadarek: It’s kind of funny because I was just a singer as a kid and into acting and stuff. I started writing songs because I kind of could. My father is a musician so he always had a recording studio in the house. We never had a family room or a den—we had my dad’s recording studio, which was nothing fancy or anything, but it was just kind of a place to play music. So it kind of made it easy when I had songs—my dad would record them for me. I’d go play little coffeehouses. I mean, I started when I was 14 just playing shows, really. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really have an idea of what kind of music I wanted to make. I was just writing songs like a 14-year-old would. They’re really funny. I don’t think I really started the career at that age—I kind of just started the motions of what it takes to be a performer and making records. I started learning how to make records at a really young age, just sort of something that my dad instilled in me, you know—all you need to do is just worry about making great records and putting on great shows, and that’s all. I’ve always liked to be on stage. It’s this weird thing. I just like people paying attention to me or something.
Paste: So when did it become something a little more serious? When did it really click for you?
Gaspadarek: I don’t know if there was a definitive moment when it clicked. I think when I graduated college and I stopped focusing on other things and I really decided that I wanted to be an artist and I figured it out what it was going to take as far as putting all of your energy into your work and into writing songs and developing a work ethic… I guess it’s just not having any other distractions. I was in college and I was really, really into studying things in college. I think once I got out of college and sort of said, “Hey, I’m going to try to do this music thing all the time.” And I moved to Nashville a year after that choice… I learned how to be completely self-sufficient, recording by myself, working by myself all the time.
Paste: What did you study in college? What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
Gaspadarek: I’d probably still be in college. I studied relational group and organizational theories of communication, so I would probably have gone into some sort of social science research degree. I probably would have stayed and done all that for a long time. I’m an academic person.
Paste: I’m wrapping up a sociology major now, so that’s really interesting to me.
Gaspadarek: You, then, know how much writing is involved with that sort of degree. My life was really wrapped up in learning about people and how people communicate. It’s heavily into philosophy. I was really, really fulfilled by doing that for a long time and got a lot of my writing out in writing papers and just generally discussing human nature. So that’s what’s kind of cool about this record that I’m putting out now. If you listen to my music at all, it takes all of that. I kind of touch topics—mostly love topics, topics of love. That’s what I was really interested in, in college, theories of love, how people in relationships communicate. I’m fascinated.
It’s finding patterns in life. If you’re writing a song and you’re trying to appeal to people and get people thinking about something, it’s really nice to have thought about how people act in relationships. What are the same issues that women of our generation are coming to [deal with now that] we have a sort of [an] institution of marriage that’s not really needed anymore because women are starting to be able to provide for themselves? Do we need marriage? Yeah, sure, we still kind of need marriage because it’s a lot cheaper to survive as a unit. It’s easier. And also, you know, scientifically, a lot of different animals pair off [but] now, women and men don’t need to do that. There’s not as much pressure. So now what happens is all this dating that goes on and misdirected expectations for the relationship. I don’t know, there’s lots of things you could think about. And I am a female—it’s funny because a lot of females relate to my music. It’s really overwhelming. Men like it too, which is good, but females can really relate to the lyrics because I am a girl and it’s a female perspective. So it’s cool.
Paste: You don’t meet that many people out there who really recognize or talk about a lot of these things.
Gaspadarek: We live in a society that, from the time we’re little, it’s like, “Work hard, make money. Money, money, money.” You don’t realize until you get out of this country how money-focused everybody is and [how they care about] status symbols and all that. It’s intense. And you almost don’t realize it’s happening to you. Going to college is a privilege and an opportunity to hang out with people that spend their lives learning and studying things. It’s a time for you to figure out what makes you tick, what are you passionate about and how to do it… Now I can take all the things I’m interested in, write songs and actually feel like when the song is finished that there’s some sort of message there. It’s always ambiguous enough to allow the listener to feel like it’s for them or feel like they can relate or think about something or just try to understand it. I’m really into lyrics. That’s, I think, the thing that has helped me get fans. I take it very seriously, the whole package of the song and making sure everything’s perfect. I’m very meticulous. I’m a meticulous sort of person, and I think that all the great artists I respect were like that—very meticulous. It’s making sure that everything you put your hands on is finished when you show it to people.
Paste: Who are those artists? What artists or albums have just really changed your life?
Gaspadarek: Artists that have changed my life or that I will never, ever grow tire of? Pretty much the same that everyone says. [Laughs] I love Dolly Parton, I love Bob Dylan, I love old country music. I love the Louvin Brothers, Loretta Lynn. Country music’s really cool if you go back to the ‘70s and ‘60s because they have these great, iconic women who had amazing careers and made amazing records. In rock ‘n’ roll music, you have your Patti Smith and your Kate Bush and you have, like, the Pretenders. You have your females in rock ‘n’ roll music—there’s a lot, but I feel like in country music, I just love the songwriting style in old country. The lyrics! That’s what’s so great about country music—it’s really lyric-focused.
I like bringing that whole element into a more aggressive, female [sound]. In my band, I have a female bass player and a female cellist and guitar player. My drummer’s a boy, but I think as far as bringing a strong, female-fronted operation, I would hire all women if I could—no, I’m kidding. [Laughs] You know what I mean? That’s what I think we’re lacking. There are some great artists out there today. Like, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are awesome. You definitely see a lot of girls doing it, but I think it’s considered unique, and I’m not deciding that it’s still considered unique. It’s being noticed because it’s unique. You know what I mean? Other people notice that it’s unique and a uniquely female perspective on things, I guess.
Paste: But at the same time, I feel like there are a lot of female singer-songwriters, or at least women who are getting tacked with that title, playing music today. Some might argue that it’s pretty competitive going into that sphere.
Gaspadarek: I had somebody actually tell me—this was a man being frank—they said that women shouldn’t work together because they’re too catty. OK? This came out of an educated man’s mouth, OK? In his fifties. Any time that something happens, like a female singer-songwriter sells a ton of records, the music business fashions a category after what’s already worked. That’s how business works. If something sells, they decide, “That works for females.” And so I think a lot of females just kind of follow that and emulate their heroes—the Emmylou Harris or the Dolly Parton. I feel like that’s kind of where that comes from and why females tend to flock to that category—because that’s the category where women are sort of encouraged, I feel like, just by example, to go.
I don’t feel like music should be competitive unless you’re looking to make a lot of money, and in that sense, there’s all the guys up at the top with their stacks of money that are like, “Hey, come to me and I’ll give you money.” But if you’re just an artist and you’re just making your work and you’re making sure your work is great, the best thing you can do, and you create a body of work, you may never get recognized for it in a whole lifetime. As far as being competitive, it’s really simple: If you make work that people want to listen to and they want to come to your shows and see you perform, you can create anything you want. It has nothing to do with anybody else. There’s not, like, five spots for singer-songwriters. There is if you’re looking for a deal—maybe it’s competitive. But if you’re just doing your thing, really, it’s about who’s the best around me that inspires me and who do I think is awesome and what do they think about that? I’m surrounded by a ton of awesome artists here in town. That’s why I like Nashville, that’s why I think Nashville’s awesome. There’s so many great musicians here and so many great studios. There’s just an underground community of people who care a lot about music and playing music all the time.