Front Page Reviews & AIR
Feature Interview - Tristen
I should admit from the outset that I’m not exactly an objective observer when it comes to Tristen. My sister Jordan has been Tristen’s bass player for the last 3 years, so I’ve been enjoying Tristen’s music and following her career for some time now. And I’ve been able to watch her progression from playing small, half-empty venues to her current opening slot on Justin Townes Earle’s tour, playing to sold out theatres and larger clubs. She’s worked hard for every bit of success she’s had, slugging it out in the trenches of an increasingly volatile music industry. So with our theme this month at Mule Variations being “Money,” I thought it made sense to sit down and talk with her about the struggles and satisfactions of being a working musician dealing with the sometimes stark financial realities of the music business on a daily basis. (To hear Tristen's music and learn more abour her, check out her Artist-in-Residence page here at Mule Variations).
Me: Our theme this month at Mule Variations is “Money,” so we’re looking the implications of money on music and the music industry. So I was wondering, in broad terms, how have financial considerations affected your creation of art and your pursuit of a career in music?
Tristen: I think money is freedom, in a sense. Something my dad used to say is, “Everybody’s got problems, but for rich people, money ain’t one of them.” Money limits what I can do. We’re like everybody else, we’re not saving money, we’re just trying to figure out how to get by. It’s just one of those things. It’s been a struggle for us just to see that everybody in the band gets paid, and that everybody has a place to live, and that all those basic needs are met, when it just costs so much money to tour. We avoid a lot of it by staying with people we know when we can, but gas costs a lot of money…
Me: Surveying the landscape for music right now, do you feel like, if you’re willing to put the time and effort in, there are opportunities to make a living playing music?
Me: Do you find it inspiring or depressing talking to the other bands you play with? How does it feel out there?
Tristen: How does it feel? It feels like everyone’s just getting by. And so, for us, it isn’t about how much money we make, it’s about how much money we spend. So, it’s just a matter of sacrificing a lot of the things that people our age have. You have to be willing to have a crappy car, or maybe no car. You have to be willing to buy groceries when you’re at home and not eat out all the time. And it’s worth it to me, because I get to do what I want to do every day. And I get better at it. I feel like it’s hard, but it’s a choice that you make. You have a choice.
Me: Do you feel like, because you’re not answering to some big corporation, that the artistic freedom you have is worth it? Because when you get money from a big record label, they want something in return. They want creative control. They want some say in how you conduct your career. Do you think what you gain in artistic freedom makes up for what you don’t have monetarily?
Tristen: I think you have to make decisions like that based on whether a particular deal is worth it. The last deal I had, I kept creative control, because, you know, that’s how I roll. (Laughs) And I’m not really willing to give that up. Because, like I said earlier, I see money as something that creates freedom. Money creates the touring vehicle. Money creates studio time. You need it. You don’t need a lot of it, but you need some of it. And what comes in goes right back in to the band. We’re still in the mode that everything we make goes right back into the pot, so we can do things better, and increase our comfort level on tour, so we can be more professional. As far as record deals go, I’m not opposed to a bigger record deal, but I’m now in a position where I have enough of a reputation and enough confidence that I don’t need it. So when I go in to negotiate with these people, I’m not willing to compromise everything. I’m not, like, “Oh yeah, I gotta get that record deal so I can feel legitimate.” To me it’s like, “What are you going to do? What are you going to bring to the table? Are you going to elevate this in some fashion? Are you going to give us tour support? What is your team going to do to help us?” There are very specific things that need to happen when you release a record in order to reach people. And so, “What are you going to do? How invested are you?” I realize they have to be able to recoup the money they invest in us, but I’m confident we’ll make anybody their money back because we work so hard. It’s just a matter of going into a negotiation being confident in what you’re doing on your own, and having your small business be strong enough that you don’t need a record deal, so that you’re not willing to give everything away. And the people on the other end have to be willing to tell you what they’re going to do for you. It’s more like a merger. You have to decide, “Are these people the right people? Do they get it?”
Me: How long have you been playing music and touring as your main thing?
Tristen: Well, I began writing songs when I was 14. And I started making records with my father because he had a little Roland VS-880 to record with. And he would help me make recordings. And so I started doing that and playing shows when I was a kid, and then when I went to college I kept playing and writing, but I kept a really, really low profile in college. And then when I finished college I worked for 11 months in high-end retail, making good money selling shoes. But I was always thinking, “This sucks. I hate this. This is terrible. I don’t want to do this anymore.” And then I started making a record in Nashville…
Me: So how long ago was this that you started gravitating towards Nashville?
Tristen: This would be 2006 that I started coming to Nashville to make a record. But, did you know that I was engaged to be married?
Me: Oh, wow.
Tristen: I was on that Midwestern path, you know, settle down and all. But then I started going to Nashville to make a record and I sort of an epiphany that I wasn’t with the right guy and I wanted to move to Nashville and make music. And I ended up breaking off the engagement and moved three weeks later to Nashville to try and do music full-time. And I got a job waiting tables. Actually, I sold shoes first, then I got a job waiting tables—that was kind of my goal when I got there, to get a job waiting tables. In order to make more money so I could work less. One thing I always tell people who are trying to do music: Only work 4 days a week so you have 3 days a week to devote to music, which you should be spending equal time on. And I couldn’t do that making 8 bucks an hour in retail, so I found a job waiting tables. But I didn’t move to Nashville to be a recording artist. I still thought I was going to get a job writing songs, you know, get a publishing deal, because I knew I could write songs.
Me: And that’s a huge industry in Nashville, writing songs for other artists to perform.
Tristen: Yeah, I think there is an industry here where people make money doing that, and I think that attracts a lot of people who think that’s a possibility. But for me, anyway, that situation wasn’t easy to find. Instead, I just started playing shows and found that there was a whole rock and roll community here that was just kind of DIY, which was way easier for me to tap into. So I just started playing shows here. I met other people who were doing the same thing. There are a lot of players and songwriters here; it’s just part of the culture. And people kind of rally around songwriters they like.
Me: So has it felt like a slow, steady progression, starting from scratch 5 years ago and now on this last tour you’re playing sold out theatres with a full band of your own, opening for Justin Townes Earle? It seems like you’re on the right trajectory.
Tristen: Yeah, it’s been really slow, but it has been steady. And I always thought that was a good business model. I’ve always been thinking what the underlying things are you have to do, which, if you’re a song writer, is write songs and get them in front of people.
Me: Have you found the slowness of the process frustrating? Or does it feel more natural than just showing up in Nashville and signing a big record deal?
Tristen: Well, I just don’t know if that even happens nowadays. And now that I know what I know about how this whole business works, I would be terrified of anybody who wanted to give me a record deal when I first moved to town. I mean, maybe they have this rare gift of being able to see that you’re going to do something great, but I notice that the people who are really awesome, the people I might want to work with, they want to see that you already have a functioning situation. They want to see that you’re already on tour, that you’ve already taken the initiative to do it yourself. They should want to know that you have enough appeal already that they’ll want to invest in your business. There are so many people who are already doing this on their own who can use help that it never made sense to me that a business person would want to work with an artist who hasn’t figured out any of their shit yet.
Me: Does it make you feel more confident now, when you get approached with opportunities, that you have the last five years under your belt?
Tristen: Yeah, well I have more negotiating power now because I have my own business and it’s running fine, and it’s going to do what it’s going to do without any help from anybody else. And the slow and steady approach has been right for me. Even though when I first got here I was incredibly depressed, because it was frustrating, because it was hard to get the right band together. Finally now, I’ve got Jordan and Buddy, who are great. And it’s one of those things where you stop and look at where you were the year before and you say yes, it’s much better. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when things are moving slowly that they’re moving. But now doing this tour with Justin, it’s awesome, and we’re happy, and we feel grateful every night because we played for nobody for so long. We’ve done entire tours where we played 17 dates and only Boston, L.A., and Seattle were good, or something like that. But you might play your first show somewhere for 10 people. Then you go back next time and there are 15 people. Then it’s 30, and then it’s 60. And then you’re starting to feel happy, because 60 people is great. I always enjoy touring. I’ve always enjoyed the work of touring. I’ve always felt the most purpose when I’m touring. So I was motivated to do it even when it was painful.
Me: So now that you’ve been working on your music career for five years, where do you see yourself five years from now? Creatively, financially, all of that…
Tristen: I would definitely like to be touring in Europe. That was one of my goals for this year, to get overseas. I studied abroad in college, and I haven’t been back, and it’s something I really want to do. I love travelling the U.S., and it’s totally fun and great and wonderful, but I’d like to get across the pond. And then I have a trajectory of the kind of records I want to make. This last record, most of the songs were written on organ, so it’s more of a pop record, I think.
Me: The one that you’ve just finished making that has yet to be released?
Tristen: Yeah. And the next record I make, I want to do more of a soul record. So I have a trajectory in mind for what I want to do. I’d like to be able to add a keyboard player, but I think that’s still a ways off, honestly. We’re just now at the point where we’re breaking even, so we’re able to afford a hotel in towns where we don’t know anybody. So the next step is probably getting a more comfortable in this configuration, so everybody can get their gear up to par, maybe spending another year doing what we’re doing now but not struggling as much to do it. But five years from now? I don’t know, it’s so up and down; this business is so weird. I’ve met people who are over their record deal, and I’ve met people who are bedazzled by the fact that anyone would want to try and sign them. There are so many ways to interpret this whole thing. But ideally, I would just like to feel comfortable and record year round, you know, find a really comfortable recording situation, whether it’s my studio or having access to somebody else’s. That’s my next couple of years: keyboard player, going to Europe, and having a studio to record in when I want. Those are my goals. I like to kind of keep my goals within what would make me happy immediately, and I think that’s part of getting your own work in line before you start working with a manager or any of that crap. I had manager when I was 18 who said, “I can get you a record deal. You don’t need to play shows. Forget it. We’ll showcase you…” And all that bullshit. It’s just like running in a herd with other people who have some talent but haven’t put the work in, all running toward this little hole and everyone’s trying to squeeze in. To me, that seems way harder than what I’m actually doing. And now that I’m in a position where people want to help me, I’m so confident in what I’m doing that I’m not relying on a record deal to feel successful. Because I feel successful when I write a song. That means more to me than anything. I don’t need money or press or anything. Though it does feel good in a certain way when you’re parents are like, “Oh my God!” My mom didn’t call me crying when she heard my record for the first time. She called me crying when my song was on HBO.