Tristen brings candor and contradiction to folk

Old sound, modern means
By REYAN ALI  |  December 7, 2011

NEO-TRADITIONALIST “I want to be unique and modern — that’s my most important goal,” says Tristen Gaspadarek.

Ordinarily, the end of days isn't a very enticing prospect, but after hearing Tristen Gaspadarek chant "Doomsday" repeatedly, you might welcome horsemen on the horizon. Off her debut full-length Charlatans at the Garden Gate (American Myth), Gaspadarek recites the titular word like a lover's name. At the outset of her "Dooooms-dayyy/Dooooms-dayyy" chorus, she caresses those vowels, bringing out high, dulcet notes. By the time she repeats, "I know this fire's fading/Fire's fading," the song stirs up a strange catharsis, as if eradicating all human life will provide the same gratifying feeling as standing in a storm after a heavy drought. With Gaspadarek's touch, this frightening, destructive thing is rendered wondrous and happy.

This kind of unorthodox, paradoxical approach to subject matter — and the songwriting process — pops up a lot in Gaspadarek's world. The guitarist and vocalist, who performs alone as Tristen and with a backing band as Tristen and the Ringers, pays a devout allegiance to the music of bygone decades. At its core, Charlatans is a mélange of alt-country and folk that takes after artists associated with the '60s and '70s such as Neil Young and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The record's deep reverence for the past is clear, but at the same time, Gaspadarek says that she strives to be a product of the present. A friend of hers once called her work "neo-traditionalist pop," and Gaspadarek's held onto the tag. "I want to be unique and modern — that's my most important goal," she says in a call from her home in Nashville. "So I like neo-traditionalist pop because it really is classic songwriting with a not-necessarily classic production style." She's also quick to mention that she's been recording her work by herself on computers for ages.

Gaspadarek started singing at age three and was doing "little talent shows and things" by five. Piano was introduced at eight; guitar and home recording at 14. Her father, who was "sort of a failed musician," liked '70s art rock and progressive-rock acts Genesis and Steely Dan, but the younger Gaspadarek took cues from her mom, who turned her on to '50s and '60s music broadcasted on a Chicago oldies station. Tristen was particularly smitten with melodies — an enthusiasm evident in her own knack for persuasive hooks.

Her interest in music hasn't extended to contemporary bands (Deerhunter being the exception). "I don't tend to look to modern music for inspiration. When you listen to Chuck Berry or Elvis or the Beatles, you have to think of context. At that point in time, that was a fairly new genre, so there's something to me that seems purer about it."

She guesses that her lack of interest in new music is partly because she's still digesting older artists' discographies. A question about whether she uses vintage equipment or recording techniques leads to a rant on the disposability of contemporary goods — clothes from Target, instruments from Best Buy — and how she prefers sturdier items made a long time ago, "where there's more craftsmanship involved." Her guitar, by the way, is a 1966 Epiphone Casino.

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