Record of the Week: Tristen’s ‘Aquatic Flowers’

Nashville artist Tristen, whose fourth full-length, Aquatic Flowers is out June 4, has been making music at the intersection of indie folk, pop and rock for more than a decade and is refreshingly up-front about her motives and methodology as a songwriter. When asked about the album’s dichotomy of mostly light and happy sounds paired with heavy subject matter — patterned neuroses, sexism, narcissism — Tristen says it’s her intention to deliver “dense ideas and dark realities of life” through a “digestible, pillowy sounding song as a way to broaden the conversation, in hopes you can reach people with lyrics.” And the approach works.

With this collection of 11 tracks, including early singles “Complex” and “Wrong With You,” Tristen wheels in a Trojan horse of delightful melodies that, on closer listen, deliver a sneak attack in Jungian analysis of our smallness and our unconscious motives. “We think we’re in control but we’re really not,” she told me matter-of-factly. And yet Tristen did have total control over this project, self-producing with her husband and musical collaborator Buddy Hughen in their home studio dubbed “Tight Squeeze” last year. She just knows when to leave well enough alone, making certain not to “overcook” an idea, as she put it, even if she had the time and resources to do so.

Tristen took a less obsessive approach to writing, recording and finalizing each track on Aquatic Flowers, as exemplified by the punchy, percussive “I Need Your Love,” which sounds just right clocking in at slightly over two minutes. Her delicate soprano and lush instrumentation illustrate stories of characters you might not otherwise come across in pop music, but that exist around us, and within us, such as “Athena,” who Tristen highlights as the tough and wise warrior goddess overlooked in a world of sexualized Aphrodites.

There was another good reason for Tristen’s economical approach. She’s a bit of a Renaissance woman: a collaborator to other accomplished artists, including Vanessa Carlton and Jenny Lewis, as well as a lifelong learner, educator, community organizer and small business owner, regularly launching new (ad)ventures between album cycles. But since her last album, 2017’s Sneaker Waves, Tristen and Buddy became parents; their now-two-year-old gets his own darling love song (“Julian”) on the album.

Operating on “toddler time” made the working mom even more deliberate about the creation of Aquatic Flowers, and the result is superbly efficient and still glorious tunes from an artist constantly clarifying her sound. From the self-pitying opening stanza of jaunty “Complex” (“I’m a drag to be around”) to the swaying, Rodgers and Hammerstein-worthy closer “Say Goodnight,” this album identifies our humanness in all its mess, but also its capacity for enrichment.

Click here to enter to win tickets to Tristen The Night Away 2 at The 5 Spot, June 11.

On the Record: A Q&A With Tristen

Celia Gregory: You’ve had a whole lot happening in the last couple of years since your last record. This is the first since you became a parent, and little Julian even has his own track on the album. It’s also the first since you started a business with your sister, Anaconda Vintage behind Grimey’s. Am I right in thinking that a lot more than just a quarantine year went into the making of these songs?

Tristen Gaspadarek: Absolutely. I’m one of those people who puts out a record and then does something else entirely for about a year or two. It’s interesting to be at a point where you can recognize your own pattern. I don’t think I do any of it consciously. I did Jenny Lewis’ band for a year, then put out a record, so there’s always some other direction I go in for about a year while I’m figuring out what I want to do next—while writing, of course, always. So, yeah, there were a lot of things happening outside of my own music between Sneaker Waves in 2017 and what brings us here, in 2021, for Aquatic Flowers. I co-wrote the Vanessa Carlton album Love is an Art that came out literally as the pandemic was sweeping the nation.

CG: Could you could you describe how your artistry has changed since Sneaker Waves, going into the making of this record?

TG: It’s really hard to look at yourself and say, “Oh, I’ve changed this way or that way.” That’s almost something that I like to let other people tell me: “Oh, I can see that.” That’s what I love about really great music journalism, where you really feel like someone told you what you did and you’re like, “I didn’t know I was doing that. But yes, yes, I think that is what I was doing.”

For Buddy and I, we felt extremely grateful when the pandemic hit and we were in lockdown, because we work out of our house and we have a home studio, and every record has been sort of an experimentation on how far we could get all on our own. We bring in musicians, of course, to play on the record, play the instruments. But learning how to engineer, my husband learned how to mix records. We’ve always had my project to really hone in on those skills, the things that we needed to be able to do to stick to our vision. Because when you collaborate, you make space for magic and the beautiful thing that many people can do together, but you also have to compromise and you have to go with the flow. You know, control gets a bad rap, but I think it’s ownership of the entire process from start to finish. A lot of that is tied into when you’re touring around the country in a van, and you have your little operation that sets up every night and tears down, show business, as they call it. We sort of wanted to have that same kind of autonomy, which is probably the better word, autonomy, when it came to making our recordings and making them sound exactly how we wanted them to sound.

CG: I was actually going to ask if your songwriting was different, knowing that you could and would self-produce at home. Did it change the editing process, how these songs evolved because you maybe had more time at home to work with them?

TG: It’s so interesting; time is on your side and then against you. The downside of going into a studio is the “OK, I have two weeks to record all these songs I’ve been working on for years. And I hope I get everything right and I hope everything works out in that two weeks.” There’s the pressure there that can be a good thing or a bad thing. But when you work from home, you have no pressure, which could be a good and a bad thing to write. If you want to sit there and rework and rework, you can.

This is the first record I made where I was able to write the songs and then record them and finish them. And I didn’t tackle all of the songs I had written over a couple of years in just one sitting — I would write the song and I would start working on it immediately, kind of bridging the gap between what my demos were sounding like and what I was doing with my studio albums. I was trying to record the song in the moment of inspiration and finish it, maybe not the mixing, but get it to a place where it was done before I moved on to the next one. So that’s a big, key difference between the process of how I made the record this time. But I would also say the pressure of having a kid was that needed deadline. Recording at home, you really have no pressure—you could do it all the time—but then you introduce a child and then you are relegated to working when the babysitter gets there and having four hours and doing as much as you can or sneaking down for the two hours of a nap time or crawling down after you put them to bed at 8:30 and finishing up what you want to do at night. So there’s the pressure and the deadline. But now, instead of it being imposed by a studio, it’s imposed by a toddler.

CG: Aquatic Flowers is timestamped based on Julian Time. You’ve always written songs that it’s like, you know when to stop. “I Need Your Love” is probably my favorite song on the record because it is just tight and perfect and, yes, hook-y. You said on Twitter recently that you appreciate the compliment, the description of your songs as hook-y, but you really don’t know how else to make music — that is just how you write. Did the new parameters on your time have an impact on that at all?

TG: Well, you don’t want to overcook an idea, and you can sit there and you can build up and tear down over and over again, and one song can look a million different ways — there’s no one, right way to do anything in any kind of art. So you do have to know when to say, “That’s good. Let’s finish there.” The most important thing, the thing that I will stop and remember, is the melody that I think is a good melody. And so “hook,” I think, is synonymous with good melody. For me, that’s where the song starts: with a good melody and a clever lyric. That’s what I do. There are two kinds of music, the kind you remember and the kind you don’t. So for me, if it’s a good melody, it stays. To write good melodies, that’s something where they fall out of the sky and you have to be like waiting with your arms open to catch them, write it down and save it.

CG: Some of the singles that you’ve already released off this album strike me as featuring really strong female protagonists. But I never want to assume that it’s you that you’re talking about yourself, whether it’s “Complex” or “Wrong With You.” “Athena,” of course, seems to be about a humbled warrior goddess who’s outshone by the Aphrodites of the world. I might be overthinking that. Why did you uphold Athena as some relatable character who might, you know, “disrupt the party with her feelings”?

TG: I, of course, write myself into these songs because of what I choose to write about. When you choose to write about something, you’re already biased, right? That’s what you’re interested in. I’m writing from my experience, from the experience of people around me, and I’m writing these characters and then I’m making choices about, well, who is this character going to be? And a lot of times there is an agenda on my part.

For example, with the song “Athena,” I feel like that’s an overlooked archetype in women. It’s very prevalent. When I look around me in the real world and then I look to talk about something, I’m trying to find a story that hasn’t been told before. I’m trying to kind of use the space that I have to make things and to shine light upon different ideas, interesting things that haven’t been covered before. It’s not necessarily an emotional catharsis for me to write a song like, “I’m so depressed, my boyfriend broke up for me.” That was probably the person I was in my 20s. At this point, I’m thinking more of what’s going on with the kid who is raised by a pastor in a really restrictive environment. Like, that could be a story about a song, and you could call it “Cult Kid,” right? There are ideas that come to me about people and the human condition and showing some of these stories that you haven’t seen before or that you would like. Like Toni Morrison says, she was always trying to write the book she wanted to read. And so for me, I’m looking around saying, “Where are all the really interesting people that you don’t hear from or see?”

CG: You mentioned working with Jenny Lewis on the road, and with Vanessa Carlton, as co-writers and neighbors. I reread that Nashville Scene article about you two recording during nap time and just being very efficient with that record as working moms. But you have, including those two, an impressive array of guests at Tristen The Night Away 2 on June 11th, recorded from The 5 Spot and with guests piped in from all over for the stream, which is the benefit of doing a virtual event. Clearly, you’re a trusted peer in music and you’re sort of a pop veteran in a changing Nashville. So how would you describe the evolution of the scene? And forgive me for using even that phrase.

TG: You know, the scene keeps going, whether you’re in it or not. It’s one of those things that always has life, right? Like the gene pool lives forever and it never ends. The Nashville music scene just keeps going on and on and on, and people dip in and dip out. So the way that I see it, living here over the years, I’ve been able to accumulate a ton of friends, whether it was working together on the road, opening for people or sharing the stage or, you know, just friends that I grew up with in the scene here who have gone on to have their own careers. All of those people are the reason that I still live in Nashville. It’s the people. Also, I love the creativity of producing a show, and I got to do that with some of my community organizing work. I got my feet wet producing a telethon for a Democratic senatorial candidate in the last election, Marquita Bradshaw. And I just really enjoyed doing it. I thought it would be cool to pull all of my very, very talented people in. And I just wanted to share it with everyone.

When I did the first Tristen The Night Away, it was the era — talking about the scene — the era of cover shows where you would pick an artist and all the singers would come in, sing a Tom Petty song or something like that. And I thought if I was going to put a show together for my album release, wouldn’t it be fun to have a house band and bring all my favorite songwriter friends up? And they could sing their song with the house band and that’s what we did. And it was three hours long with an amazing show back in 2017. And we’ve kept that format, but now we’re just having everybody kind of turn in the videos with more intimate settings. I enjoy getting to put my energy into producing some kind of big show that’s fun for everybody. And I wanted an excuse to fly Chris Crofton back to town for a couple of weeks. It’s just really fun for me to put that kind of stuff together and have a reason, which is a new album, to call everybody to a party of sorts.

CG: Can you tell me about “Complex,” the song we’ve been playing a lot on WNXP? I love it and I love the video for it, because that too seems to be a lot of imagery about sort of the rat race, about women just “stressersizing” themselves to near exhaustion to just try to grasp feel-good chemicals or whatever, and pretend they’re not stuck in vicious cycles. But the song is fun.

TG: I really enjoy taking very dense ideas, kind of dark realities of life and putting them into a digestible, like, pillowy-sounding song as a way to kind of broaden the conversation a little bit, I guess, in hopes you can reach people with lyrics.

I think that “Complex” was born out of reading A Man and his Symbols, a Carl Jung book. Every problem you have, we always want to externalize the solution. We want to say, “Oh, well, she did this to me. He did that.” [But] almost every solution to personal problems starts from within. And that’s what therapy will do for you. Therapy has, in older generations, sort of a stigma. So people don’t want to say they’re seeing a therapist: stiff upper lip, don’t talk about your problems. But this new generation, you know, people are really accepting the idea of therapy and what therapy is going to teach you more broadly is to look within and figure out how you can solve your problems and how you can emotionally detach from someone who’s causing pain or make you understand, “Well, why do I keep attracting this certain person that’s bad for me?” And realizing that we are mostly operating from unconscious motives that we’re unaware — we think we’re in control, but we’re really not. Whether those be physiological, whether those be playing out some dynamic established when you were really little between you and the parent or lack of parent. I guess that song [“Complex”] is about somebody wanting to love and feeling conflicted because they recognize the pattern in themselves and they’re becoming aware of these emotions. They’re having these things that are holding them back. This is sort of this internal dialog they’re having where they can be really honest with themselves. And then hopefully that translates into them being able to be honest with the person that they want to keep around. But more often than not, it’s difficult to get over our own issues.