Aaron Espe made one of my favorite albums, Songs From A Small Town (listen below).
I was fortunate enough to do a Q&A with him several years ago.
One thing you should know about Espe is that his music is both simple and well thought out. He said his best critics are four-year-olds.
“When I want someone’s honest opinion about my music, I ask a four-year-old,” Espe told me via email. “My little cousin once told me that my music is boring. He kind of made my day. I’m not sure what he’d say about this new album [Three]. He’s too old now and polite.”
Here are some select questions from our convo:
Would you prefer not to be labeled by any particular genre or category?
I’m not that concerned about genres or whether I’m labeled. If it helps someone understand a little better, that’s fine.
But I think “genre” is really just the very top of a large funnel. You’d have to listen to the music to get further down, and it’s really difficult to summarize that in words — especially one or two.
What themes are most prevalent in your songs?
Family. Faith. Small-town life. Loneliness. Fear. Social class. I don’t know. A lot of things. But family is central to my life experience, so that naturally comes out.
And I was raised in the church, having to sit in the front seat with my three sisters every Sunday. My mom the pianist. My dad a singer. So, spirituality, Christianity — that stuff comes out by default, as well.
You seem to tell a lot of stories in your songs — do these stories come from personal experiences?
Yeah, for the most part. I start with some instance, but I try not to let that lead the song.
For me, the best part about writing is discovering something new about life. Even the most mundane event has layers to it that can teach something or help me appreciate life in a new way or cause me to have some new reaction.
I quote my dad in a song: “…Kids, listen to your mother. Treat her like you love her. Look out for each other. Someday soon, when you have a family, you will know what I mean.”
Now, my dad didn’t actually say that, but he did say it with his actions. And to me it’s much more interesting to invent those lines and put them in a song, rather than write songs like I’m a journalist, documenting events.
What is the most memorable experience you’ve had at a show? In the recording studio?
The most memorable experiences tend to be the worst.
I remember playing a pub in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was placed in a corner next to an old man playing a slot machine. And the bathroom was directly to my right. Between him pulling the slot bar, people using the bathroom, and a drunk guy requesting Coldplay songs — it was all I could do to not walk out angry or just burst into laughter.
When I recorded my first album with Chris Cunningham in Montana, it was all so new and exciting. I remember one night setting up the room with candles and turning off all the lights to record the song Grace live, just me and guitar. We were trying to create a good setting for me to “get into it.”
The room was so still and intense and after recording it we were both teary eyed. It was kind of powerful.
Probably Tiny Cities by Sun Kill Moon. That album tugs at my core every time I listen.
During the recording [of your album Three], how did your surroundings influence the recording process?
My wife and I turned our spare bedroom into a studio. In some ways it’s really nice to have access to recording within 10 steps of anywhere in our apartment. I think that helped speed the album’s process.
But in other ways it made the boundary between work and home very unclear. That can be toxic. She and I are still struggling to figure that stuff out.
What have you not done musically that you’re just dying to try?
I’d like to record something completely bizarre for me, like a hip-hop record or something. That sounds fun.