Nashville resident and Chicago native Tristen Gaspadarek returns with her third full-length album, Sneaker Waves which she produced and recorded at her studio in Nashville with husband Buddy Hughen. Sneaker Waves (Edit: Known as a King Wave in Australia, 'an unanticipated coastal wave that is much greater in force and height than the waves preceding it') is a beautiful collection of snappy pop songs that sound both modern and timeless, all delivered with Tristen’s seemingly non-chalant elegance, like an American version of a Jeanne Moreau character that beguiles the listeners within seconds. But like the grande dame of French film, such easy exuberance is but a hat trick. Behind the enterprise is a discerning and demanding connoisseur of sound.
Over 30 songs were recorded for Sneaker Waves and while we can only imagine the riches left behind, the album undoubtedly benefited both from Tristen’s expert choices and the freedom to record more than one might use. Unlike so many rising stars in Nashville who find themselves marooned on an island between opposing seas of art and commerce, Tristen has punked the process and emerged independent and highly motivated. Both her father (“he’s a monster guitar player—he bought me my Casino”) and her grandmother (“great piano player”) are musicians. But Tristen alone had the itch to try Nashville. She still believes making a great record—even a good one—is the ultimate test for an artist.
We spoke outside behind one of East Nashville’s hip coffee joints, which was inexplicably full of seemingly jobless 20-year olds without a care in the world and all imbibing $6 cups of coffee. Tristen had lots to say about Music City USA (“It’s over!” she whispered conspiratorially), the pricing-out of its artistic class, and the philosophy behind her record-making. (Photography by Kristy Benjamin courtesy of the aritst.)
It’s great to see you again, Tristen. Tell me about Sneaker Waves.
It’s about all kinds of things…very diverse group of topics.
When we last spoke, you were finishing your second album Caves and you were looking to take control over all the elements of your career: record label, publicity, recording…
Oh, it was a terrible idea. Disaster! (Laughs) Because music is collaborative and to deny that you are getting help—ugh! No matter what I do, I have help. Here’s the thing: after that album, I needed a break from me—I had a “me” hangover. I toured in Jenny (Lewis’) band for a year and I didn’t wrap a cable. I just traveled and read and hung out and played great shows and had a great time. And then I came back. Of course no matter what, you’re the navigator, you’re at the helm. You can’t rely on business people. An artist always has a better idea of how you want to be presented. So for me, I’m very hands-on in everything creative. If it’s a music video, if it’s a picture that’s coming out, I find people who are creative to help me so I have a team. I look for people who are smart and want to help with the day-to-day coordinating of everything.
Was that your process for making Sneaker Waves?
The live band was there already. And the band was dictated by four seats in the car: drums, bass, Buddy--my husband who is my collaborator and engineer in the band--and we decided that instead of spending a bunch of money in a studio, we were gonna buy gear for our studio for this record so I could record 30 songs. I didn’t have time constraints and I could bring in every drummer I loved.
So we went in with 30 songs and we added things along the way. But mostly it was about the process of going from start to finish without any help. So this record, except for one song, everything was recorded and mixed in our house. The living room, the dining room…I don’t have a living room and a dining room (laughs)! It’s just my studio. And then we pretend like we live in New York and we have two other rooms but everything else in the house is the studio.
But if you wanted to take a break from “me”—yourself, isn’t having a studio in your home like living in a hall of mirrors?
Oh, I can’t leave me (laughs). I think that for me because I’m a homebody and I like my house and my garden and I like everything about being home, there actually is a give and take. The good thing about having a studio in your house is your have no time constraints. And then the bad part about it is you have no time constraints. So it is hard to get motivated: “So today we’re gonna spend a week…”
It’s never like that. It’s more if someone gives me a deadline, we’ll push into those wee hours to finish. But also, I decided to write a song and put it out over the holidays and I just did it. And then it was done.
That freedom of not needing to pay somebody to mix and not needing a huge budget was what I was craving. A painter doesn’t have to pay $200 to go paint a day. For me, I wanted to be able to create and produce records in my house by myself with my husband and be self sufficient because in today’s music business, you’re just not getting good budgets. Maybe control is the wrong word. Maybe it’s “freedom” to make things in-house and not have to rely on other people’s schedules and money anymore. Any of those things that can drag out the process. I don’t wish my process on anybody. But I have a process and it works for me.
The business—especially for entrepreneurs like yourself—is changing very fast. How has the business of getting music to fans changed since Caves?
A couple things I’ve noticed. When you’re a new artist, the press doesn’t know what’s going to happen to you. You always get the new artist treatment. What I hear from people in public relations is there used to be more album reviews. When my first record came out, everyone reviewed the album. They don’t do that anymore. Now press outlets just want to know how many followers you have and they just want to cross promote. They are looking at your numbers.
I would say when it comes to the successful press of my first record: that’s all fine and well but you have to remember we’re from the Nashville perspective. So I moved to town, the press starts here, I get attention here, I’m working my way through the scene here. Everyone is excited, and then I bust through and I get a national press campaign and it’s great. Now, where to go from there? That’s something I had to learn on my own and I think I have. There are a lot of reasons why Caves
wasn’t as widely received and a lot of them are very boring reasons. They are business reasons and they are boring as hell. That record is a masterpiece. I don’t regret anything I did. I will never be able to make that record again. I fully believe in it.
The sad part of the music business is if you have a team that doesn't work on it--you can have the best manager in the world--but if they’re not working on your @&** every day, you’re gonna get buried. I just want people to hear my record. How can I get people to hear it? It takes a lot of moving parts, it’s a lot of work, and that’s why I like to focus on what I’m working on into an LP. There’s always a rumor of a trend. But what’s not a trend? Record collectors. These are the people that matter. It’s hard to do it. We’re all distressed. No one is making any money. Everyone is financially burdened. How am I gonna finance my next project? That’s all I care about. I have a great team of people who are most passionate about music and that’s what’s most important to me. I consider that to be a blessing.
I see your Casino is still your main instrument…
Oh--the Casino! I just love it. I can’t play another guitar. Guitar and pianos are my main songwriting instruments.
What are you listening to and how is that impacting how you go about your work?
Everything. I’m obsessed with the new Kendrick Lamar. He’s the Prince of our era. I was listening to Irma Thomas yesterday. I’m listening to all kinds of things. I’m reading a lot—reading James Hollis and people who wrote about Carl Jung. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. He’s so clear. I’m obsessed with cultural sicknesses—broad truth. I’m journaling every day.
I'm not trying to be massively successful. I’m trying to make something I like and communicate something to people that is important. And I think that will resonate. I’m just trying to get my record in their hands. I don't think you need to go through those proper channels. They still exist and they're very powerful. But the internet has broken that wide open. But it’s actually more powerful to be respected by artists that broke through those channels. When those people like your music and share it, that’s more powerful than any traditional press outlet.